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From rap to raga

How do you get a punk who's into heavy metal swing to `Nimbuda'? Kiran Seth has the answers



Kiran Seth: `Our heritage is precious.'

HIS SPIRIT is infectious. And so, in the soft downpour on National Law School's lawns, hundreds of students join the man to dance to the authentic "Nimbuda, nimbuda" version of a Rajasthani folk singer. "Wasn't the troupe wonderful? Didn't the students look lovely?" asked Kiran Seth, the ebullient founder of SPIC MACAY, shaking off the raindrops from his kurta. That he's 64, and a no-nonsense professor of Applied Mathematics at IIT, Delhi, is something that doesn't show at all! But then, the good professor is not one to show off at all. In fact, it is difficult to get him to talk about himself. "You must talk to these lovely people," he said, pointing at some enthusiastic volunteers of SPIC MACAY. "They have some wonderful ideas to make this movement stronger."

It was Dr. Seth who had the original "wonderful" idea, of course — that of starting a movement to promote Indian classical art forms amongst the youth. The seed was sown while he was a doctoral student at Columbia University in the U.S.. "My American friend dragged me to a Hindustani recital by Aminuddin Dagar. While my friend talked easily about drupad, I didn't know a thing! This made me so ashamed of my lack of knowledge that I decided to start a movement when I returned to Delhi."

Thus was born the Society for Promotion of Indian Classical Music And Culture Amongst Youth in 1977 as a non-profit, voluntary, apolitical, and participatory student movement. "Its aims to promote awareness among the youth of the classical arts, rituals, mythology, and philosophy that make up the multi-hued cultural tapestry of India," reads its brochure.

Dr. Seth was in the city to participate in the South Zone Convention of SPIC MACAY. His laughter rang out loud and clear as he mixed freely with the school and college students who had come from all over the South. How could someone who comes across as fun-loving and easygoing head a 26-year-old movement that has 175 chapters in India and 50 abroad, and that has organised a whopping 1,365 performances this year? "Only because of volunteers who believe in the beauty of Indian culture and arts!" riposted Dr. Seth. "When you are close to a great performer and are shaken to the core, then you get fired with an enthusiasm that makes you work."

Said one such zealous volunteer: "We've gained so much confidence through SPIC MACAY that now we can even organise a national-level convention within a very short time!" Such is the fervour and loyalty Dr. Seth inspires amongst the youth. He gets his own fix by being in the proximity of titans. "Just sitting at the feet of a person like Gangubai or D.K. Pattamal is enough to inspire anyone." Inspiration must come too from his family — his 90-year-old mother, Bhagawathi, still puts brush to paper and his late father was the first professor in an IIT!

Dr. Seth himself learnt Hindustani classical music for 15 years. "I've learnt from all the seven Dagars!" he whoops, much like a gleeful schoolboy would show off his seven GI Joes. He is now all set to expand SPIC MACAY's scope by introducing new modules.

Sitting cross-legged on the dais, he spoke with passion. "I've learnt so many beautiful things from the people in the West, but we have to learn a lot from our own culture too," he said before leading the audience through a short session of pranayama. "Ours is not an organisation that believes in building archives of Indian traditions. Many of the world's greatest civilisations have been confined to museums. That is the last thing we want to happen to (ours). Ours are living arts and we need to bear the torch so that the future generations don't lose touch with roots."

At the convention, soaking in the beauty of the Kalbeliya performance, Yakshagana puppetry, and Hindustani ragas on Pandit Brijbhushan Kabra's guitar, one felt deep gratitude for a man who converted his ignorance into a dynamic movement of Indian culture and heritage, attracting a generation fast moving away from the traditional arts.

When I asked him if it isn't frustrating to see just two students out of a college of 2,000 come to a SPIC MACAY concert, pat came his reply: "That's why we need SPIC MACAY! Our heritage is so precious, so beautiful, so enjoyable, that we need to do everything to promote and protect it."

Young-at-heart who wish to know more about the movement may log on to www.spicmacayblr.org.

MALA KUMAR

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