Most serious musicians, including amateurs, spend a lot of time – learning from the right teacher, repeated practicing and perfecting – through sadhana. A lot of the effort goes into the technique and contents – the right diction, the raga or tune, the voice modulation, etc., not dissimilar to what any sportsperson has to do to achieve technical excellence in his or her sport. This is extremely important, but, just the foundation.

How does one make singing more meaningful? For that one has to understand the lyrics. Often, especially in Carnatic music or in works such as Tirupukazh, the lyrics tend to be short-hand for profound puranic stories or deep vedic wisdom – so, one has to understand not just the surface meaning of the words used but the underlying philosophy. This is equally valid for recitation of slokas.

It is for this reason Balaperiaval (Kanchi Kamakoti Peetathipathi Sri Vijayendra Saraswathy Swamigal) has highlighted on many occasions the need to understand the meaning and underlying ‘thathparyam’ of slokas like Vishnu Sahasranamam. Even as one sings a song, or, recites a sloka, at the subconscious level one must fully reflect on and in fact experience the contents. One should practice so much that the technical aspects come naturally, in fact with no conscious effort, so, the focus is on the meaning.

How do you make it a divine experience? One way to do it is to perform in a temple or similar surroundings, especially when the singing is part of a much bigger religious event. The ambience and lack of a commercial motive clearly elevates the experience.

But, how does one make it a really divine experience? For that, one has to sing in front of and for the Guru.

Importance of Guru

Why in front of a Guru? The first reason is simple: Guru is more important than even God. Mahaperiaval (Jagatguru Sri Chandrasekarendra Saraswathi Swamigal of Kanchi Kamakoti Peetam) reminds us that the Upanishads say – treat the father and mother as gods - ‘matru devo bhava’ and ‘pitru devo bhava’ – but even more importantly, treat the Guru as a god. Why?

In reply he quotes, Adi Sankara:

Saranam na bhavathi janani na pitha na sodaraschat(a)nye
Saranam Desika Charanam

Refuge unto father, mother, brothers or sisters, or friends, none of it will really help us transcend maya: for that, we have to fall at the feet of a guru, or desika charanam.

Mahaperiaval adds ‘we cannot see the God, but, a Guru, we can see’ and quotes Svesthasvathara Upanishad: ‘yasya dheve parabhakthir, yatha deve, thatha Gurau’. The highest level of bhakti, parabhakthir, show it to a Guru, much as you would show it to the God. Then, and only then, the inner meanings and philosophical truths will be clear.

After all, what do we seek when we pray to any God? In Subramanya Bhujangam, we say, ‘You have 12 long eyes: can you throw a little glance from one of them in my direction? ‘mayeeshat katakshaha’. While reciting Adi Sankara’s Kanakadara strotram, we beg much the same way: ‘yatkataksha samupasanavidhihi sevakasya sakalarthasampathaha’ – through your glance, may the devotee have all the prosperity.

Far easier it is, and more straightforward it will be, though, to seek a Guru Kataksham.

There is a second reason. A guru not only sees and hears us, but, we can see that he sees us and hears us. And, we can get a feedback. A guru cannot only bestow on us his benign kataksham, but also interpret for us what we think we know, explain the meaning of what we sing or recite, and, most importantly, guide and enlighten us. In Thavopadesam, Adi Sankara is blunt. ‘Sri Guroh karunam vina’, or, without the compassion of a Guru, there cannot be His grace.

No wonder, nearly 60 years back, when the great Ariyakudi Ramanuja Iyengar, considered the inventor of the modern carnatic concert framework, had the opportunity to sing in front of Mahaperiaval, he grabbed it. The moment he was told that Mahaperiaval asked for him, he rushed to meet him. When the Acharya asked him to sing, ‘Subrmanyaya Namaste’, he promptly did so; that he had to sit on uncomfortable rough outdoors, that he had no accompanying artists, that there was no sruthi box, all that notwithstanding. What he received in return was not just appreciation of Mahaperiaval but a masterly explanation of the profound meaning of the kriti. The genius of Adi Sankara was needed for extracting the meaning of Upanishads and Brahma Sutra and Bhagavad Gita. Even the great Ariyakkudi needed the genius of Paramacharya to fully understand Dikshitar’s kriti.

What was more: Mahaperival, who was observing a mauna vratham, and who broke the vratham only to experience Ariyakudi’s singing and explaining its meaning, said ‘trupthosmi’ and promptly went back to his vratham! No wonder Ariyakudi mumbled – this has been the best day in my life? What greater divine experience Ariyakudi could have had?