Thursday, 21 June 2012

Swarnabhoomi Academy of Music

The school's main sign 

Last week, Nipsi, Alfonso and I decided to take a mini road trip down to Mahabalipuram to see the Swarnabhoomi Academy of Music's end of the year concert. Nipsi is friends with some of the instructors there through her work in Chennai's music scene and so they had invited her down. The school is a self contained campus a bit past Mahabalipuram where students study in the main building and live in the nearby apartment blocks.

Artwork outside the school's main doors

More artwork inside the building

While driving down, I was uncertain of what to expect. When she mentioned the school's concert, I was envisioning a school recital like the ones I used to have in elementary, middle and high school. Needless to say, I wasn't super thrilled about the idea of watching one of those! However, I was pleasantly surprised to find that the "school" is actually more like a university with all the students having completed high school. The average age was still fairly young with most students being around nineteen or twenty but there were also 'mature' students who came for just the semester to improve their technique or learn a new music style.

Opening act

The school focuses on music (obviously) and has classes on different instruments, composition, vocal training, and other elements of performance. The students are placed into "ensembles" that form their performing groups. The concert we watched was allowing each ensemble to demonstrate their newly learned skills and hard work for the year. The school has a really lovely and homey atmosphere that I'm sure the students appreciate. The class sizes are relatively small and as a result, all the students seemed to know each other pretty well. In addition, there were lots of campus animals that helped to make the whole place seem much more laid back and relaxed than other universities. We were particularly partial to "puppy number three" and "kitten number two" as we named them...

Nipsi, Puppy Number Three, and Alfonso

Kitten Number Two

The music was not at all what I was expecting to hear. I had thought, because it is a music school here in India, that the students would be demonstrating their skills in Indian music styles such as Carnatic and Hindustani. However, while the music did have elements of these forms, it also incorporated western beats and instruments. For example, one ensemble performed Baul singing, a form of music from Kerala, while rocking out to a western rock beat. It was incredible and so surprising. Baul singing is usually performed by mystic minstrels who wander the countryside, searching for their "ideal being". It's a very religious experience and therefore I was really impressed that this particular ensemble was able to incorporate such a traditional style into a modern score.

Staff members closing the concert

A little audience participation 

The concert itself was an excellent example of how plans tend to go here in India. We had been told that it would start at 7 pm and were therefore a bit sheepish when we finally arrived closer to 9 after getting lost along the way. However, we joined the audience just as the introductory speeches were concluding and therefore found we hadn't missed any of the performances. This perhaps should have been a warning sign as the concert then went until 2 am. I was very surprised since a school concert in either the US or UK would never go so late but it was such a pleasant evening that I barely noticed the time. While the concert was outdoors, the strong breeze from the ocean made the temperature much more comfortable than we're used to in baking Chennai!

Nipsi and I demonstrating our excellent taste in bling 

Closing number

After the concert, we headed over to one of the staff member's apartments in the nearby building with the expectation that we'd hang out for a bit before heading to bed in his spare rooms. However, it turned out that  his apartment was also the location for the after-party and we were quickly joined by several of the students and the other staff members.

Alfonso channelling his inner karate kid

Nipsi's impromptu jam session 

The party was set up with a karaoke machine in the living room and a terrace which quickly became the location for impromptu jam sessions. It was really interesting to be around so many musically inclined individuals at once. And, actually, quite inspiring. I've already put in a request for my mom to bring my flute back to Rome with her (from Virginia). Being around Nipsi and her music friends has made me really crave that form of creativity. I think it will be a nice break from writing up if I can use the flute as a distraction technique.

The scene on the terrace at sunrise 

Somewhat predictably, the after-party continued into the early morning hours. I was exhausted when I looked at the clock and realized it was 6 am. But, the time had really flown by and I was surprised to find that I wasn't as tired as I probably should have been. Given that the party showed no signs of stopping, we decided to head back to Chennai (about an hour away).

Pretty palm trees at sunrise 

It was 7 am by the time we started back and it was actually a great time to be on the road as everyone else were just waking up and the traffic hadn't accumulated yet. We stopped for tea at a roadside stall with this young gentleman... who was very confused about what on earth we three could possibly be doing on the road so early...

Roadside tea stall 

We were so excited to be driving home so early... 

Along the way, we were shocked by the number of bullock carts we saw. This must be the time of day they prefer to get their deliveries made as there are fewer cars to spook the oxen. Unfortunately I was struggling to get a good photo of them as I wanted to demonstrate the detailed painting of their horns. You can kind of see what I mean in the following picture.

Bullock carts on the road

Overall, we had a blast but I was certainly glad to get back to my bed when we finally arrived home around 930 (having caught the beginning of the Chennai morning traffic). I'm so glad that Nipsi and I ended up as roommates since otherwise I wouldn't hear about these sorts of events. I found the whole experience really eye opening and was so impressed by these individuals who are clearly so passionate about music. Although, having said that, I think it's safe to say my days of pulling all-nighters are definitely over as it took me about three days to recover from the missing sleep! 

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