Share Your Thoughts

India Currents gave me a voice in days I was very lost. Having my articles selected for publishing was very validating – Shailaja Dixit, Executive Director, Narika, Fremont

The Art of Building Bridges with Art

On April 23rd, 2023, in Palo Alto, EnActe Arts presented a film titled Colonial Interlude: The Nottusvara Sahityas of Muthuswami Dikshitar. Muthuswami Dikshitar (1775–1835) was the youngest of the trinity of Carnatic music maestros, the other two being Tyagaraja and Syama Sastri.

YouTube video

A Sanskrit ode in a colonial tune

At the end of the screening, following the Q&A with the filmmaker, Dr. Kanniks Kanikeswaran, six children sang a couple of songs written by Dikshitar. One of the songs was a Sanskrit ode ‘santatam pahimam’, set to the tune recognized in the United Kingdom and its former colonies as the anthem ‘God save the King’ (or Queen).

In the days before electricity or trains were invented, how and why did Dikshitar create Sanskrit songs set to the music of India’s future colonial powers? And why are the children of Indian immigrant families in Silicon Valley singing us 17th-century songs in the 21st century, when no one speaks Sanskrit? Who cares about this? And why should you?

The answer unfolded before my eyes.

Filmmaker Dr. Kanniks Kanikeswaran answers questions

After we had watched the film, Vinita Sud Belani, the founder and executive director of EnActe Arts, invited Dr. Kanniks to take questions from the audience. As an engaged audience asked questions, Dr. Kanniks took the questions by calling out the names of scores of people in the audience, as they raised their hands to ask them.

The picture shows a man with a goatee
Dr. Kanniks Kannikeswaran (image courtesy:

As it continued, I recalled that Dr. Kanniks has taught many music lovers locally as they were part of the choir in the shows. He would assign them individual lessons remotely and fly from Cincinnati on some weekends for group rehearsals. Usually, the audience knows the artist on stage.

A first-name basis with the audience

The incredible experience for me was that Dr. Kanniks knew the audience in the auditorium on first name basis. Their interactions turned Cubberly Auditorium into a space of shared curiosity. As Dr. Kanniks answered their questions, he would demonstrate what he explained by humming a tune or contrasting two tunes. The musically astute audience could hear the finer points of what he meant. The values and energy in that shared presence had even a musically inadept person like me enthralled, so we all lingered almost as long as the 37-minute film.

When we finally left the auditorium, just outside, I witnessed a spontaneous flash mob of many who surrounded Dr. Kanniks and burst into a song from their choir. The talented, creative, caring, and intelligent audience was satisfied and inspired.

Journey of a Colonial Interlude

The film journeys to places and times where music, dance, photographs, history, aesthetics and meticulous research combine into engaging story-telling by Dr. Kanniks. He grew up near the Kalikambal temple in Madras, attended the prayer services, and listened to the music played by the temple bands. His grandmother played the veena at home.

The film takes us to the ancient temples that pre-date Dikshitar, in the towns like Tiruvarur, Thanjavur, and Kanchipuram. For generations, millions of Hindus have visited these holy places where worship rituals continued with the same reverence for centuries. From footage of these temples, we learn their history, festivals, music, and travelers from the life and times of Dikshitar.

Legendary composer Muthuswami Dikshitar

The picture shows an Indian classical musician
Muthuswami Dikshitar

Dikshitar traveled to a cluster of temples throughout India, going all the way to Banaras/Kashi. He created about 440 compositions. They were based on Indian ragas, except for a subset of 39 set to tunes he might have heard played by the marching bands of the East India Company after they arrived in India.

The tune composed to “God Save the King’ has Sanskrit lyrics that say,

“O Devi! Protect me Always.
You are the grantor of what I desire
, you are the form of knowledge, you are Parvati, the dark.
One, the form of Music, the basis of all existence, the one who is worshipped by Skanda, and the one who delights Shiva.”

In the U.S. the tune forms the basis for the popular “My Country ’tis of Thee.” In the movie, Sarah Johnson and Nancy Bick-Clark play their instruments, the hammered dulcimer and the Celtic harp, as they tell us about the original context of these tunes, in Irish music.

Dikshitar’s compositions were sung at popular festivals and passed on for generations, before publishing in books long after the invention of the printing press. The patronage of kings and the performances of Devdasis played a role in the preservation of this knowledge.

Now, with the film and children singing it from the stage, a new generation carries the music and story forward, reaching even those who, like me, know nothing of the Carnatic and Irish musical traditions.

Hauntingly beautiful voices

YouTube video

The film credits include a thank you to Dr. Kanniks’ grandmother and great-grandfather. The songs feature the hauntingly beautiful voice of his daughter, Vidita Kanniks. The influence of four generations of a family in creating the film, with artists from U.S., India, and elsewhere makes this art form a global village.

Often, many English words are needed to describe and capture this experience. So, I wondered out loud what Sanskrit or other language word might be suitable for this. The audience applauded my question and several shouted out suggestions. Two of those were ‘sarva-gun-sampooran’ ‘all-talents-endowed or ‘sakala-kala-vallavan’ ‘one endowed with all forms of talent’.

Stories from South Asia

EnActe Arts’s mission is to tell stories from South Asia to a global audience. Dikshitar’s story, from centuries ago, showcases the power of arts to bridge the world. As the bard said – all the world is a stage and we are all actors playing our parts. May grandmothers hum their songs in their everyday rituals and may the kids soak it up from them.

Trailer of Colonial Interlude

Two videos of children singing after the screening.

YouTube video

Dr. Jyoti Bachani is an Associate Professor of Strategy and Innovation at Saint Mary’s College of California. She is a former Fulbright Senior Research Scholar, with degrees from London Business School,...