Jon Higgins, Cultural Ambassador:Guru's Tribute To A Sishya
It was a grey, chilly morning around 9 o'clock, Friday 7 December 1984. Jon Higgins rushed into my house carrying his cassette recorder, folders containing sheets of svara-notated music, and his electronic sruti box. We sat together cross-legged on the rug to begin our music lesson. Before starting, however, our attention turned to a discussion of our forthcoming trip to South Africa (sponsored by the Indian Academy of South Africa, Durban) and the political problems there that warranted some concern.
Jon expressed his feelings as to why he thought we should take the opportunity to perform in South Africa. He said that the concerts should be conditional in mat they should only be performed in nonsegregated auditoriums — but he particularly felt he wanted to show the South African government that his ensemble was a multi-racial one and therefore a protest against the racist policy of apartheid. After half an hour of bantering back and forth, we came to a tentative agreement about the trip and began work on a Tamil kriti. Adinadeppadiyo in Kalyani raga, Adi tala, composed by Muttuttandavar. Jon liked the song because he felt it had "the depth and majesty of a Muthuswami Dikshitar kriti".
Since it wasn't a Dikshitar kriti, he wondered what elements were responsible for giving it that effect. One factor, I replied, was that although the lyrics (sahitya) were composed by Muttuttandavar, the tune (the original having been lost) was set by my teacher the late Sri T.N. Swaminatha Pillai, who belonged to the Dikshitar school. Jon said that he wished to learn more Tamil pieces of this type for the South African tour. We finished the lesson at 10.30 a.m., after which he said he would meet me again on Monday. The next morning (Saturday 8 December) around the same time, I had a phone call from his wife Rhea saying that Jon had been killed on Friday night by a drunken hit-and-run motorist while walking his dog on the road across from his house. It is not traditional for an Indian teacher to speak in praise of his student or sishya. Jon Higgins was an unusual individual. As a Westerner, he committed himself to the long and serious study of music foreign to his own culture. Even more striking was the fact that he became an accomplished performer in that culture. Because of the unique circumstance of our relationship, then, I do not feel hesitant to break tradition and write my feelings about Jon. Jon was born on 18 September 1939, in Andover, Massachusetts, a small town in New England.
He had his high school education at Phillips Andover Academy where his father taught English for three or four decades and his mother taught piano and performed as an accompanist. He attended college at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut, where he received his B.A. (double major) in Music and History in 19(32. He completed an M.A. in Music in 1964 and a PhD in Ethnomusicology in 1973. both from Wesleyan University. I first met Jon in 1962 when he was a Master's candidate under Dr Robert E. Brown, who was responsible for initiating the Indian music programme at Wesleyan. It was because of Brown's fine taste in music and gift of generating interest and enthusiasm in his students, that Jon was first exposed to and captured by the music of South India. Only a few months before our acquaintance, Jon had been deeply touched by a performance of my sister Balasaraswati's when she had sung and danced at Ted Shawn's famous Jacobs Pillow music and dance festival in Lee, Massachusetts. In an interview for Capitol Records, Rory Guy quotes from Jon that the role of music in. the performance of Balasaraswati's impressed him "forcefully", that it "was not a mere accompaniment to a dancer, but rather the living source of the dance itself."
Jacobs Pillow and selected tapes of Robert Brown's convinced Jon to locus on Brown's study group in South Indian music where between 1962 and 1964, Jon participated in survey courses and seminars in ethnomusicology and in the music of India. He studied solkattu with my brother Ranganathan (the result of which was a Master's thesis), and was for the first time involved in vocal classes where he learned sarali-s, gitam-s, varna-s and kriti-s from lesson tapes I had made for Brown in 1960. In a 1971 interview for the Times Weekly Jon said that " ... although the Carnatic idiom was totally new and different, I felt I could, with perseverance and dedication, understand its language." Committing himself to the idea of full-time study of Carnatic vocals, Jon approached me with the request that I accept him as a student, and when I agreed he applied for and received a Fulbright scholarship to come to India in 1964. When Jon arrived in Madras he came to see me at Madras University where at that time I was head of the Department of Indian Music.
I was a little apprehensive as to how I was going to help a young 'Connecticut Yankee' with his projected nine month course of South Indian music study. Disguising my apprehension, we drew up a rough schedule where Jon would learn an assortment of compositions covering song forms of important composers, basic improvisation, basic work in general theory, and language study in Telugu and Tamil. We fixed a date and I asked him to come for his first vocal lesson in my office at 11.00 a.m. Jon came on the appointed day at 11.05 a.m. Having lived in the United States for a couple of years and have often heard the comment that Indians are never punctual, I was carrying a chip on my shoulder big enough to cancel the lesson and demand that he come on the next scheduled day, and on time. Over the years we often laughed at that incident. Until his death, however, he would always call me if he was going to be late for a lesson...just to make sure. I, on the other hand, had long since slipped back to my old Indian habit of being relaxed about the time. Over the months that followed, Jon learned a number of compositions with the sensitivity of a good Indian student. The Madras December music season had come and gone, and the Tyagaraja aradhana festival was imminently approaching.
I felt that Jon, at this stage of his progress, should sing Ranga, Jon and Viswa whatever he had learned at the Tyagarajaswamy's samadhi and receive the saint's blessings. Alatbur Subbayyar, the festival secretary at that time, was in support of the idea. When we went to Tiruvaiyaru, Jon was very much frightened and nervous at the thought of facing thousands of rasikas. He suffered, even more, when he was told that his short performance would be broadcast nationally on All India Radio. The day he was to go on stage, he was a physical and mental wreck. But the audience was delighted, and they listened to his performance with amazement. They were even more astounded that a foreigner could take such interest in the art music of South India and that he could sing so well and with such bhava and sincere bhakti.
What they did not know was even with his great talent, how hard and with how much commitment he had worked for over two years. When people said that he must have been born on the banks of the Kaveri river in his previous birth, Jon took it as a compliment but knew the truth lay in his long hours of devoted practice. Jon continued to work hard learning progressively more complicated compositions, and slowly I introduced him to manodharma sangita. In 1966 the United States Information Service recognized his role as a cultural ambassador and a concert tour of South India was arranged for him with V. Thyagarajan (violin), T. Ranganathan (mridangam), and V. Nagarajan (kanjira). Jon also received invitations from sabhas in Bombay, and New Delhi. Calcutta, and other big cities, and wherever he performed he was appreciated with warmth and acceptance. Jon's Fulbright scholarship was extended for an unprecedented third year when that organization realized the contribution he was making to promoting cross-cultural understanding, and Jon's need to continue his music studies in order to improve. Towards the end of 1966, when I had to leave India for my PhD course work at Wesley an. I wanted to leave Jon with someone who could provide continuity in our family (Dhanammal) style. My choice was the late Ramnad Krishnan under whom Jon studied for the remaining number of months before returning to the United States in June 1967. I frequently and fondly recall how, after Jon's return to the United States, we would attend classes and study for our PhD qualifying exams together.
We would spend long hours exchanging notes and information where he would help me with Western music theory and history and I would help him with Indian culture and music theory, (to Jon I'm greatly thankful for his loving assistance in finally helping me edit and revise my PhD dissertation in 1974). We felt a family toward one another and when Jon decided to get married in October of 1967, he requested his in-laws-to-be and his parents that there be Indian music the night before his wedding. Ramnad Krishnan, V. Thyagarajan, T. Ranganathan, V. Nagarajan (all of whom had just arrived in the States), N ages war a Rao (veena). and I performed, and I couldn't help but be reminded of a janavasam in South India. Two years after his marriage, Jon returned to India with his wife Rhea, to begin work on his doctoral dissertation, The Music of Bharatanatyam. Under Balasarasvati's guidance hejearned dance music (pada-s and javali-s), a practical approach to the theory of rasa, aspects of nayaki-nayaka bhava, and other performance related topics. With the help of Bala's nattuvanar, K. Ganesan (son of Bala's guru Sri Kandappa), ]ohn made a comprehensive study of the rhythmic compositions that are part of pada-varna-s, jatisvara-s, svarajati-s, tillana-s, and alarippu-s
These rhythmic compositions involved tirmanam-s according to jati-s (rhythmic groupingss) and the adavu jati-s that are abstracted from tirmanam-s. A year later Balasaraswati gave him the honour of accompanying her dance performance in New Delhi. John made a great impression on thousands of music lovers throughout India. He concertized extensively, mostly accompanied by V. Thyagarajan, T. Ranganathan and V. Nagarajan. He was also honoured by the accompaniment of great artists such as the late Palghat Mani Ayyar, Palghat Raghu, Ufriayalpuram. Sivaraman, Tiruchi Sankaran, and Karaikkudi Mani, to name a few. Jon drew a devoted following of Indian rasikas in the United States as well, where T. Ranganathan and I usually provided accompaniment. For American audiences, he was always particular to present well-crafted lecture demonstrations so that those hearing Carnatic music for the first time could listen to his concerts with some understanding and appreciation. But like all of us, Jon felt that, despite his popularity and success, he had much more to learn and he was constantly working towards that goal in spite of his limited time and energy. Jon visited India for the third time as a Senior Research Fellow of the American Institute of Indian Studies between December 1981 and June 1982. Part of his project was to perform before critical •Indian rasikas and esteemed Carnatic musicians so that he might receive an honest appraisal of his progress.
He worked very hard for several months learning new compositions. He also spent a great deal of time developing fresh ideas for his improvisation. Unfortunately, in the midst of his visit, he fell ill with bronchial pneumonia followed by pleurisy and a gall bladder infection and was forced to cancel many of his concerts. Only because he was so disappointed and frustrated about not performing, was he able to summon the energy to do a few concerts in Madras, Bangalore and Bombay, and to make a cassette tape for the Jon, 6 December 1984 AVM company (previously he had made three long-playing commercial records). On the whole, the trip was a very depressing one for Jon and he was looking forward to returning and performing under better circumstances. Most rasikas in India knew Jon as 'Bhagavatar', but few knew of the responsibilities he shouldered in his professional life as a teacher and administrator, and in his personal life — qualities that, in addition to his music, I feel made Jon an extraordinary human being. Between 1971 and 1978 he was a Professor of Music and Associate Dean of Fine Arts at York University in Toronto, Canada.
During his tenure at York, he was responsible for inviting Tiruchi Sankaran, who joined him on the faculty as a professor to teach mridangam. With the help of Sankaran, Jon propagated Carnatic music throughout Canada. Jon joined Wesleyan University as the Director of the Center for the Arts and Professor of Music in 1978. He was constantly striving to broaden the range of cultural presentations in and outside of the University community. His university work involved him in cultural activities within the local township. His work days were officially from 9.00 a.m. to 5.00 p.m., but commitments related to his administrative work required many more additional hours in the week. In the midst of such a pressured schedule, he maintained a very deep relationship with his family, always putting aside time to nurture his role as husband and father.
His generosity and warmth touched many people. Recently, Jon decided to devote all his time to teaching, performing and writing about Western and Carnatic music. In order to accomplish this he was planning to resign from his job as the Director of the Center for the Arts so that he could be full-time in the Music Department. That such a dynamic and sensitive person who had so much more to give should be deprived of life strikes one as cruelty beyond comprehension. We can be thankful for his contribution to the world of music, but most important is the legacy he left of promoting cultural understanding through the arts. For a man with a conscience in a troubled world, Jon gave something great. It is my hope that Jon will be remembered in his role as 'cultural ambassador' — that perhaps interest will be generated between the United States and the Governments of India and Tamilnadu to establish a scholarship fund in his name that would encourage students (Indian and non-Indian) to pursue the kind of serious study of Carnatic music that Jon undertook.