Sri Karunamayee (March 24th, 1930 – January 26th, 2017)
Born into a family of artists and educators, Sri Karunamayee was a lifelong resident of New Delhi, India. Music saturated her life from her childhood and throughout her professional career as a performer, educator and spiritual singer. She offered her music for over fifty years as a member of the Sri Aurobindo Ashram – Delhi Branch, a spiritual community dedicated to the teachings of the great Indian mystic, Sri Aurobindo, and his spiritual collaborator respectfully known as The Mother. In this inspired setting, she pursued her daily sadhana (spiritual practice) through sound and offered her music as an integral support for the ashram’s daily meditations and special programs.
In 1943, at the age of thirteen, Sri Karunamayee began her formal music study with her deeply cherished teacher, Pandit Vinay Chandra Maudgalya. She trained in Hindustani classical singing at Gandharva Mahavidyalaya and completed her undergraduate and her M.A. in only three years. It was later, after completing her M.A. degree in music and another M.A. in philosophy, and while she held prominent positions as an educator, composer, performer and broadcasting artist for All India Radio, that she intensified her search for music which would give deeper expression to her inner spiritual experiences. In 1953 she encountered Pandit Pran Nath, master vocalist of the Kirana style, who embodied the music she was seeking. With great fortune, she had the privilege to receive his direct guidance. Under his revered tutelage from 1953 to 1965, she refined her understanding of music in its classical forms, experienced further expansion of its spiritual dimensions, and her singing was raised to new heights.
Eventually her spiritual journey in music led her on international excursions to the Netherlands, France, Germany, Belgium, Switzerland, Austria, the U.K., Singapore, South Korea, Trinidad and the U.S. For twenty-six consecutive years her bi-annual visits to the U.S. touched the lives of spiritual seekers from many faith traditions. She co-founded Sur Laya Sangam Study Center for Indian Devotional Music, through which she guided aspiring students in the art, science and spiritual depths of Indian music. Wherever she traveled she offered her music as a bridge to interfaith understanding and world peace.
Over the years, Sri Karunamayee was renowned as an innovative educator of Indian vocal music. The legendary maestro, Pandit Ravi Shankar, wrote her letter of recommendation promoting her talents for any post in Indian music education and performance. Her extensive teaching experience throughout her life included students of all ages from pre-school to post-graduate level. From 1961 to 1964, she was the vice-principal and head of the music department at V.M. College of Ghaziabad of Agra University. After her university tenure and after joining the ashram, she established Matri Kala Mandir (Mother’s Temple of Fine Arts) on February 21, 1967 as a center for the study of the arts. In conjunction with the Ashram’s extensive education endeavor for youth and blessed by The Mother from its inception, Matri Kala Mandir celebrated fifty years of excellence in fostering Indian instrumental, dance and vocal arts classes with its Golden Jubilee in February 2017. Its guiding principle is Harmony.
Sri Karunamayee’s singing consummately joined spirit and sound in its most profound expression. Whether she rendered her own compositions or drew from her vast repertoire of traditional Indian music, her singing represented the finest synthesis of India’s highly specialized and demanding vocal genres. Her music included North Indian classical forms including Khayal, Dhrupad, Dhamar, Thumri, Ghazal and Dadra, as well as the devotional forms of Mantra, Sloka, and Bhajan. The depth and spontaneity of her singing were firmly rooted in a journey of spirit. She believed that music is a Divine gift given to all creation. Thus, it is to be kept in service of the Divine only, so that it becomes a “sacred mirror capable of reflecting the Divine and the Soul with its varied expressions in life.” From this fulcrum, her musical mastery transformed both artist and listener.
As a performing artist, Sri Karunamayee was highly recognized throughout the years. She won the prestigious Tansen-Vishnu Digambar Award, in Calcutta in 1960. In 1963, she performed in the famed music festival, organized by Sur-Singar Samsad, Bombay and received high acclaim from master musicians including Pandit Kumar Gandharva, Begum Akhtar and Baba Gyani. She won All India (Radio) competitions and she received the highest rating in her time for an artist, ‘Class A’, awarded by the All India Jury in All India Radio (A.I.R.), for her rendering of light classical music. She was a regular performer on A.I.R. for over fifty-eight years where her music continues to be broadcast.
Sri Karunamayee’s life-long contribution to India’s devotional music genre was immeasurable. Not only did she compose numerous devotional songs for the ashram, but she also composed settings of prayers and texts of various faith traditions. Her unique contributions were formally recognized in 1988, when she was awarded an honorary Doctorate of Meditational Music from the World Development Parliament (Vishwa Unnayan Samsad) of West Bengal. In 1996 she composed original music and recorded the ‘Geet Govind,’ a sacred text written by the 13th century poet and musician, Jai Dev. It was included in the archives of the Indira Gandhi National Center of Art and Culture, India’s foremost and most respected institution for the preservation of the arts. In 1999, she was invited to compose and perform original music based on the Sikh scriptures, in conjunction with Asian Art Museum of San Francisco’s exhibition, ‘Arts of The Sikh Kingdoms’, which celebrated the tercentenary of the founding of the Sikh tradition. In May of 2000, she was a participant in the World Festival of Sacred Music in Delhi, which was inaugurated worldwide by H.H. The Dalai Lama, to foster global peace and understanding through the interface of sacred music traditions. For that occasion, she composed music and sang the original Pali text, Pupphavaggo (The Flowers), a section of the Buddhist sacred scriptures, the Dhammapad. In 2004 she created a musical rendering of the seminal peace prayer of St. Francis of Assisi to present at the Newman Center in Berkeley, California. In 2015 at the Parliament of the World’s Religions, she presented a program of interfaith music highlighting the devotional songs sung in Mahatma Gandhi’s ashrams and prayer meetings and which cultivated the spirit of peace and non-violence during India’s freedom struggle.
Guide and Mentor
Until her departure from life on January 26, 2017, Sri Karunamayee remained a dedicated member of the Sri Aurobindo Ashram where she was an active trustee of the Ashram community. In addition, she remained the director of Matri Kala Mandir, as sanctioned by The Mother so many decades ago. She unfailingly supported the daily meditations and special celebrations with her music even during the days just before her passing. She was also a spiritual friend to many who visited the ashram, and continually received those who freely appeared at her door. She was a music guide and mentor to many students, not only to residents of India and the ashram, but also to international students who sought her out for her sublime spiritual understanding of music and its deep connection to each individual life. Her presence in the Ashram served many and is deeply missed by those who knew her.
Sri Karunamayee’s spiritual journey through Music was her steadfast pathway. From the moment when as a young child she heard an inner voice say to her, “I must have self-realization through music,” she began a journey that permeated her entire lifetime. For her, singing remained a continuous discovery of the Divine nature invested in each person and, what she did realize, she generously imparted to each individual she met. If she could have ordained it in this life, Sri Karunamayee would have had each and every individual in the whole world singing out to the One Divine Source. She often said, “Nothing like one’s own sound!” Her legacy resides in the lives of so many who were transformed and harmonized through her music – countless souls who continue to be nourished by the spiritual love embodied in her deep, Divine voice and drawn towards the discovery of their very own Divine sound.
On January 26th, 2017, Sri Karunamayee made her exit from this world from her home in the Sri Aurobindo Ashram in New Delhi, where she had lived and served for over 50 years. Our heartfelt prayers in song are with her in gratitude and blessing as she continues her journey. Her music was always connected with the higher spheres during her earthly sojourn. May she rest in the bliss of that Eternal Harmony. Aum Shantih, Shantih, Shantih…
With our heartfelt prayers and condolences to all who will miss her,
Joan Allekotte, Zia Shapiro, Sangeeta Tabor and Sur Laya Sangam friends