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Southern California based Carnatic musician Vani Ramamurthi will be visiting the Bay Area this weekend to conduct a unique workshop with her brother Shiva Ramamurthi. Anuj Chakrapani caught up with the talented singer to discuss her musical journey for India Currents. The interview has been edited for clarity.
Anuj Chakrapani: Thank you for speaking with India Currents. It’s a pleasure to have you as part of our “Beats and Strings” series. You were born and raised in the US. At what age did you learn vocal music? Could you tell us about learning the art during your formative years?
Vani Ramamurthi: I grew up in Orange County, California. My Carnatic vocal music journey started at 5, under the guidance of Smt. Padma Kutty, based in Irvine. A loving, sincere Guru yet a strict disciplinarian, her teaching style emphasized firm adherence towards the fundamentals: Shruti and Layam, which inevitably brought out the best in each student.
At home, practice was required every day. However, it was never forceful. My parents created a positive environment for my 2 brothers and me, where practicing became a natural inclusion in our daily routines. They say it takes a village to raise a child, and I would say my musical childhood reflected that proverb accurately.
The SoCal community (“our village”) played an essential role in cultivating interest and growth by hosting concerts by eminent artists, providing frequent opportunities to perform in local Aradhanas, and fostering healthy musical interactions amongst peers which led to cherished lifelong friendships.
AC: And then you became a disciple of renowned sisters Ranjani-Gayatri. Could you tell us how that happened? How was the experience?
VR: I met my Gurus Smt. Ranjani and Smt. Gayatri when I was 12. They were in the U.S. on a violin tour and we had the opportunity to meet them personally. They played a Mishra Nadai RTP in Keeravani. I didn’t know much about the technicalities at that point, but the aesthetics and bhavam simply touched my heart.
Later that year we met them in Chennai, and I was blessed to become their disciple. It has been a beautiful journey learning from my biggest musical inspirations.
AC: At what point did you decide to pursue Carnatic music as a profession? What inspired or caused you to choose that as a career?
VR: One thing I value most about my family’s approach to music is that we never had any pressure to take music up as a profession. Rather, the focus was primarily on learning sincerely and delving deep into the art. We always had a healthy learning atmosphere and to this day we hold only positive associations with the art form. After I graduated from college, I decided to spend 6 months in India to gain more performing experience. Once I got there, I felt a strong sense of purpose and stayed on. I’ve called Chennai home for more than 8 years.
AC: You moved base from India to Chennai for a few years during the last decade. Could you tell us more about it and how that helped you as a professional singer and how the experience was?
VR: They say your 20s are meant for adventures and that’s exactly what I had in Chennai. Musically speaking, it was exhilarating living in the hub of Carnatic music. I had priceless and fulfilling experiences of performing at various Sabhas, understanding how to prepare for concerts, how to take care of my voice, traveling cross-country by train, attending countless concerts, meeting several musicians, and spending hours with my Gurus in class, observing their practice sessions and playing the tanpura at their concerts.
AC: After a two-year break due to the pandemic, the Carnatic music season (the “Kutchery” season ) was back in full swing recently during Dec. ‘22. You traveled and performed at the prestigious Madras Music Academy. How it was to be back at the Sabhas (concert halls)?
VR: It felt very nostalgic going back to India for the season last December, especially after the long pandemic break. I had the opportunity to listen to several inspiring concerts throughout the short 2-week trip and it left me with a renewed boost of energy and motivation. It was a great honor to perform at the prestigious Music Academy in the presence of my Gurus, esteemed musicians, friends, and rasikas.
AC: There are several youngsters in North America who are prolific learners of the art and are probably thinking of pursuing it full-time. However, being far away from the headquarters of Carnatic music (Chennai) is a challenge. How does one overcome that?
VR: Though Chennai will always be known as the headquarters for Carnatic music, over recent years we have seen a similar robust spirit for the art form in various cities globally. Bangalore and the Bay Area are a few examples of cities buzzing with activity year round. For aspiring students, focusing on the fundamentals and quality of learning is of utmost importance, regardless of location. Moving to Chennai may be the right choice for some depending on their specific goals. However, this art form thrives on passion and immersion, and that is found within you!
AC: You are conducting a workshop on practicing Manodharma in the Bay Area with your brother on March 25. Can you tell us why you chose this topic, and what we can expect from this unique workshop?
VR: We chose this topic because Manodharma (improvisation) is such a pivotal aspect of this classical music system. Starting manodharma can be challenging as we are used to Kalpitham Sangeetham (composed music) for the initial years of training, which is basically replicating what our teachers sing. We can create a more seamless transition to manodharma by learning compositions with a clear grasp over the notes and gamakams, listening to music generally while internalizing iconic phrases for each ragam, and absorbing the subtle nuances of timing, gamakams, and much more! In this workshop we look forward to an interactive session where we can explore effective ways to practice manodharma and observe how we can take inspiration from varnams and krithis for ragam development.
The details of the workshop are available here