NASA People

Center Snapshot: Kamala Krishnamurthy
Kamala Krishnamurthy. Image above: Kamala Krishnamurthy has been living in the U.S. for 22 years. She keeps pieces of Indian culture in her daily life through music and traditions. Credit: Rick Ross/NASA

Denise Lineberry

"I could provide an ocean of carnatic music," said Kamala Krishnamurthy at the first "Food 4 Thought" series of 2010, which had every available seat filled. "But in 30 minutes, all I can give you is a drop."

That drop of classical music from her homeland of India came from one of the most ancient and revered of South Indian instruments, the veena. Carnatic music and the veena have been documented in the Vedas, the oldest layer of Sanskrit literature and believed to be between 3,000 to 5,000 years old.

She sat on the floor with the veena across her lap. The oversized instrument carved out of a single piece of wood appeared heavy and complicated. Her fingers flew up and down the fret board and across four major strings and three side strings as she played a typical carnatic invocation song, “Vathapi Ganapathim.”

Krishnamurthy has been learning carnatic music since childhood. "My mother is a vocalist and she taught me the basics. My parents would take me to all the carnatic music concerts in the city, and it was only this music on the radio at home," she said. "When I was 10, I attended a veena concert by another 10-year old, a famous child prodigy. She inspired me and I started learning from a veena teacher."

According to Krishnamurthy, carnatic music is a complex system of music that requires thought, both artistically and technically. The basis of carnatic music is the system of ragas (melodic scales) and talas (rhythmic cycles).

"Each line in a lyric has a cycle of beats," she explained. "Then you fill in the cycles, each time adding more and more notes to the same lyric before moving to the next line."

It's highly complicated and mathematical, according to Krishnamurthy. "The marriage of this mathematics with physics (the sound produced by each note) produces the lovely music," she said. "A marriage made in heaven, literally."

Literal, because spirituality has always been the prominent content of carnatic music. "The beautiful blending of the beauty and devotional element has made it extraordinary and divine," Krishnamurthy said. "The basic idea behind Indian music compositions has been to see and seek the ultimate Brahman or God."

Krishnamurthy practices the veena and vocal music every day. It helps to strengthen techniques, such as "shaking the note," or giving the note a vibrating quality and "ornamentation," which flows the notes together.

"I have grown to love this branch of music and am currently taking vocal lessons," she said.

She is also a part of the Carnatic Music Group of Hampton that meets weekly. They perform at the annual celebration of carnatic music composers, Sri Thyagaraja Aradhana, at Old Dominion University. Other NASA Langley employees are also a part of this group.

The main difference between Western music and carnatic music is that Western music is usually based on harmony, with two or more notes played against each other. Carnatic music is melody-driven.

Although the music differs, according to Krishnamurthy, they share an equal quality. She shared a quote by Longfellow with the "Food 4 Thought" group: "Music is the universal language of mankind."

It’s a language and appreciation that she has passed on to her two sons. Both play the veena and reached the intermediate level before focusing their attention on academics. “I am confident that they will resume,” she said. "Just this past holiday my elder son, who is doing his Ph.D. at Harvard, mentioned that he wants to take classes from one of the faculty at his university who is teaching veena."

Krishnamurthy enjoys sharing a love of carnatic music with her family for many reasons. "To name a few - the authentic grace and beauty of the instrument, the lovely sound and the fact that it one of the oldest instruments," she said.

Her working environment at Langley is not unlike where she worked in India. "Before coming to the U.S., I was working at the Indian Institute of Science, a famous research and technology institution, where my husband was in his Ph.D. program," she said. "It is the same the research and technology culture here at Langley with which I am very familiar and comfortable. I consider it my privilege to work here amidst all the wonderful scientists and in the only organization in the world that sent man to the moon!"

Kamala and her husband, Thiagaraja, or at Langley, better known as "Krish," moved to the United States 22 years ago when he was offered a position at NASA Langley. He is a research aerospace engineer at the Durability, Damage Tolerance and Reliability Branch (DDTRB).

She started at NASA Langley within the secretarial co-op program and now works for Tessada and Associates as a resource analyst for National Institute of Aerospace contracts. "I enjoy the challenge, the opportunity to help, working with numbers (while preparing financial analysis reports), and the friends at the Strategic Relationships Office … the list goes on," she said.

When Krishnamurthy moved to the U.S., she was a few exams short of her master's degree in English literature. When her youngest son leaves for college in the fall, she plans to return to school and soak up that added knowledge one drop at a time until earning her master's.