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Gautam Ganeshan was born and raised in Texas, and for many years English was the only language he spoke fluently. Nevertheless, his connections with his Indian heritage have always been extremely strong, for he was surrounded by a large and active Indian arts community. His father is an engineer by profession, but he is also an accomplished Karnatik vocalist who frequently tours India. Ganeshan started playing mridangam when he was 5, although he had relatively little formal instruction. “I had constant exposure to Karnatik music from a variety of sources,” he says. “There was always somebody knowledgeable around who could teach me.”

When Ganeshan was about 11, he started studying European classical music, both violin and piano, and getting a deeper understanding of Hindustani music by studying tabla. With a range of choices as diverse as this, he was naturally inclined to multi-disciplinary studies. Ganeshan’s official major at the University of Texas at Austin was a cross-disciplinary program called plan II, combined with philosophy and a minor in French. He was also awarded an undergraduate internship, which entrusted him with organizing the manuscripts of Indian author R.K. Narayan. He spent his junior year in Tamil Nadu, learning the language, doing research for his thesis, and studying Karnatik violin with All India Radio artist Sachidanandan.

During his senior year at Austin, Ganeshan was awarded the Jacob Javits and Andrew Mellon fellowships, and was accepted to the graduate ethnomusicology program at UCLA. “But I decided in the eleventh hour that I didn’t want to write about music, I wanted to play it. I finally admitted to myself that I like making music more than analyzing it.” So he left academia with nothing but his bachelor’s degree, determined to make a life for himself that would be devoted to classical Indian music. He knew that although he had learned a great deal about Indian music, he still wanted to learn more. So he began to envision a place where other people who were devoted to Indian classical music could come together and share their mutual enthusiasm.

The obvious location was the San Francisco Bay Area. Ganeshan had taken a tabla workshop there with Swapan Chaudhuri, and knew the scene well. “There are many excellent Indian classical musicians here, but almost no venues for them to perform. Jazz musicians certainly don’t have it easy, but at least they can gig at jazz clubs and hotels. For Indian music, there is only the Ali Akbar College Concert Series, a few yoga studios, and occasionally an opening spot for Indian Techno Dance parties like Dhamaal or Electric Vardo. I knew that there were enough good players here to fill a weekly schedule with mostly local artists.”

Last April, when the Sangati Center officially opened its doors, this dream became a reality, and the central focus for Ganeshan’s life. Although he works part time for the San Francisco Jazz Festival, he lives at the Sangati Center, books the artists, maintains the website, and even makes chai and Indian food for each of the events. (“The leftovers are my lunch the next day.”)

“These are literally house concerts,” says Ganeshan, “because this space is my home, with the kitchen directly facing the performance space. But although things are informal socially, they are very formal musically. When we have dance performances, the dancers must use live music accompaniment. And the musicians and vocalists never use microphones. The room is designed to be highly reverberant so that the music can be, as I say on the website, ‘intimate, improvised, unamplified.’ I don’t think anyone ever has a situation in which the mikes are perfect, and everyone practices without a mike. So it seems to me that a performance with mikes never gets to why anyone does this music in the first place.”

With its unique ambiance the Sangati Center has already earned a reputation amongst internationally known artists, having hosted such great musicians as Anindo Chatterjee and Vijay Ghate on tabla and Rakesh Chaurasia on bansuri. The center will also be hosting a residency for the great sitar virtuoso Shahid Parvez.

The Sangati Center is far more than just a concert space, however. Ganeshan usually hosts two or three events a week, all designed to increase the listening skills of audiences and the playing skills of local musicians. There are listening sessions in which musicians bring in their favorite recordings and explain their intricacies. Some of these recordings are extremely rare, such as a recording of Salamat Ali Khan with his uncles when he was 11, or Vilayat Khan in a private performance for the king of Afghanistan.

“For this kind of music, it’s not enough for the musicians to prepare themselves,” says Ganeshan. “The audiences have to prepare themselves also. So when an artist is coming to the Bay Area, even if they’re not performing here, we’ll have a special listening session on their work.” There are also themed discussions, like the one on women in Indian music after a weekend featuring performances by women vocalists in Karnatik, Hindustani, and Pakistani folk music.

Perhaps the most deeply appreciated events, however, are the practice sessions for local musicians, which combine the intimacy of the traditional guru-shishya method with a more democratic approach. “We started with the tabla players trading kaidas while the melody musicians prepared food. Then melodic players did an alap together, followed by a gat in Yaman. Various tabla players and melody instruments dropped in and out regularly, building up the energy as the raga unfolded. We didn’t break tal, so it worked just like a concert performance. But it was also interactive community building. There was no teacher as such, but we all learned from each other.”

The Sangati Center is located at 1232 19th St. (Studio 8), Oakland.

Teed Rockwell has studied Indian classical music with Ali Akbar Khan and other great Indian musicians. He is the first person to play Hindustani music on the Touchstyle Fretboard.