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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

On a chilly day in May 2004 at the San Jose Convention Center, Sudha Raghunathan’s 9 a.m. concert crescendos into the four-hour stretch with a Ragam Thanam Pallavi in a three raga pattern of Hemavathi, Mohanam, and Hindolam. Few in the 1500-person crowd are aware of the time, effort, and logistics involved in the elaborate plan by the South India Fine Arts (SIFA) committee to present this renowned artiste from South India for its 25th anniversary.


A complex music eco-system exists in the United States today with organizations like the Carnatic Music Association of North America (CMANA), Indo American Cultural and Religious Foundation (IACRF), and Kalalaya vying with one another to name, sponsor, market, receive, host, feed, ferry, and pamper the musical glitterati from Chennai. Concerts by eminent visiting artistes are hosted year-round except in summer.

“Today, one sponsor offers to support an artiste for a concert; the word then goes out to all organizers and the artiste has innumerable offers around every corner of the country. This would have been impossible 40 years ago,” observes V.K. Viswanathan, a 74-year-old scientist from New Mexico, who, literally, bore the burden of escorting artistes to and from airports and concert venues when he was a struggling post-graduate student (at a stipend of $125 a month) in the early ’60s in New York.

“In 1962, unable to locate a taxi, I walked through the streets of Manhattan with Umayalpuram Sivaraman’s mridangam on my head while Vellore Ramabadhran walked by my side with his ghatam. The main artiste, Veena Balachandar, and his host had left the concert venue in the only car that was available to us.” Viswanathan chuckles as he recalls the plight of a live orchestra negotiating the beat and pace of New York city: “Oh, and by the way, walking with us was also another artiste with his tampura.”

Getting its Notes Heard Over Hindustani

Karnatik music is an endemic art, mostly patronized by a South Indian audience, both in the Bay Area and around the world. “A more diverse audience is getting exposure to Karnatik music through San Francisco’s Sangati Center, which targets an audience that appreciates music as an art,” says Jerry Barr, a tabla professional who is a regular patron of SIFA performances. Barr believes Hindustani music gets mainstream attention because famous artists like Ravi Shankar and Zakir Hussain branched out into the realms of world music and jazz.b16848ede82d39971f72a7a3fd3c4a97-3

Ravi Shankar became well known in the U.S. in the late ’50s, following his stint at the Eastman School of Music at the University of Rochester, when George Harrison (of The Beatles) became his student. In a hippie era that feted the bohemian, the classicism of Ravi Shankar catapulted him to instant glory, following his fusion performances at the Woodstock and Monterey festivals.

Unlike Hindustani musicians, practitioners of the Karnatik tradition tend to keep within their boundaries. “Karnatik musicians mostly just focus on classical music,” Barr says. Mridangam expert Trichy Sankaran, a professor of music at Toronto’s York University, says he has tried to be a messiah for Karnatik music by collaborating with other systems of music in his three decades as a teacher and performer. “In the old days, wherever I went, people talked about the North Indian tabla. Nobody knew about the South Indian mridangam,” he says.

A decade before Sankaran landed in Toronto, there were groups pushing to propagate South Indian classical music. In the early ’60s in upstate New York, after every curd-rice and lemon-pickle jam session by music lovers made up of university kids from South India, a heated debate would arise as to why Karnatik musicians couldn’t be heard live in the U.S. just like Hindustani performers.

At about the same time, at the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA), an energetic young Caucasian majoring in ethnomusicology—Robert (Bob) Brown—found himself inexplicably drawn to Karnatik music and, especially, to the mridangam. He went to Chennai in search of a teacher.

“In those days, no Brahmin musician would entertain Brown as a student, let alone allow him in his house,” reflects Viswanathan. One musician strayed from the norm. Tanjore Ranganathan, a mridangam specialist, agreed to take him on as a student. Brown convinced his teacher to follow him to the United States, and Brown’s research on the art of the mridangam would result in his dissertation: The Mrdanga: A Study of Drumming in South India.

At the California Institute of the Arts and at Wesleyan University, Ranganathan taught many non-Indians Karnatik music, including drummer John Bergamo, the late musician Jon B. Higgins, Glenn “Rusty” Gillette, and Craig Woodson. In 1963, Ranganathan became Wesleyan’s first Artist in Residence in Music.

It was at Wesleyan that Brown first coined the term “world music” to describe its ethnomusicology program. “To me, the late Bob Brown is the father of Karnatik music in the United States,” states Viswanathan. “Brown had the initiative, the energy and the knowledge to persuade Wesleyan to start a department on Karnatik music.”

Thus Karnatik music was introduced in a charged academic setting where all formal concerts were presented at concert halls inside university buildings and were typically accompanied by lecture demonstrations. “In the academic situation, people now realize that Karnatik rhythm offers a lot more than Hindustani, and that it’s probably the world’s most elaborate system,” Sankaran says.

M. S. Subbalakshmi Comes to World Stage

The concert by doyen M.S. Subbalakshmi at the United Nations in 1966 was a momentous occasion for South Indian music. “Historically it was a very high point for our culture that M.S. was invited to perform in front of international delegates. I don’t remember any other event of such magnitude,” says Viswanathan, who was fortunate enough to hear her along with the privileged audience of 700 delegates.

In those days, hosting a famous figure wasn’t easy for unmarried graduate students who got by on a mishmash of rice, lentil, and vegetables squish-cooked in a Rukmini pressure cooker. Consider a host’s predicament: would anyone dare feed the Queen of England canned beans? “There was one Indian restaurant in New York City at the time, and it could only be described as Cholera Café. For a while, M.S. and her spouse Sadasivam had to make do with mutter paneer from that restaurant until we located a generous host called Esso Doraiswamy whose 4,000 square-foot penthouse overlooked Central Park.”

At a time when email, IMs, and cell phones were non-existent, Viswanathan would go to the library at the University of Rochester to get his hands on the telephone books for every University around the country. Such calls ran up huge telephone bills, he recalls. “I would pore over the pages looking for South Indian names. That’s how I made one graduate student across the country, one S. Ramadorai—today he’s the CEO of Tata Consultancy Services—host the artists at UCLA.”

Meanwhile, at Wesleyan, Bob Brown had convinced mridangam stalwart Palghat Raghu and vocalist K. V. Narayanaswamy to teach at the ethnomusicology department. On Fridays, Raghu and Narayanaswamy held “curry concerts” which South Indians from as far as 100 miles away would attend. A tree by the World Music Hall at Wesleyan is dedicated to T. Ranganathan, who continued to teach at Wesleyan until his death in 1987. A plaque commemorates him as “an extraordinary teacher, brilliant musician, and friend.”

Making Artists Feel at Home

The first formal Karnatik music organization was born out of a challenge between students at the University of Rochester. “We’re nine of us in our group. If every one of you gives me $500, I can get any artiste you want from South India,” wagered Viswanathan to his friends. It led to the launch of East-West Exchange, the first venture to promote Karnatik music in the United States.


In 1971, violin maestro Lalgudi G. Jayaraman and flute expert N. Ramani, accompanied by Ramnad Raghavan on the mridangam, were the inaugural performers under the formal East-West Exchange banner. “Money was not important to them. They wanted to serve the cause of music, so my dad and Ramani sir decided to go on their first U.S. tour,” says Lalgudi G. J. R. Krishnan, son of Lalgudi G. Jayaraman. This largesse on the part of two acclaimed musicians set the stage for others to consider performing in the United States during the ’70s.
Touring the country for three months at a time took a toll on families left behind in India. “My dad would only be able to write letters to us. No one used the telephone to call. It was too expensive in those days,” says Krishnan. Expenses plagued sponsoring organizations, too. Trichy Sankaran says flying was not even an option unless it was from coast to coast. “So we would cover eight and ten hour distances by car with our hosts.”

Host families around the country often went to extraordinary lengths to support visiting artistes, the cause of music, and the community. “I remember staying for over a month at the home of V. V. Sundaram in Cleveland in 1984 when I accompanied T. R. Subramaniam on his U.S. tour,” says Anuradha Sridhar, director of Trinity Center for Music in Saratoga, Calif. No traveling artiste ever forgets to mention the dedication of the families of Balasubramaniam (Cleveland Balu) and V. V. Sundaram (Cleveland Sundaram) and K. Venkatraman of Toronto.
“I believe Cleveland Balu’s home was never locked,” recalls Vasanthi Jayaraman, of Saratoga, who remembers visiting their home in the early ’80s. “At any time, homesick college graduates from local universities would be eating a meal in their home.” Artiste Ramnad Raghavan lived and worked out of Cleveland Balu’s home for several years during the ’70s.

Out of such a relationship between benevolent hosts and distinguished guests blossomed one organization that has nurtured a sister city for Karnatik music 10,000 miles away from the Karnatik capital of Chennai: Cleveland, Ohio. The famous Cleveland Orchestra is one of the “Big Five” orchestras of America and the Cleveland Institute of Music is a leading conservatory on the international stage. So it is ironic and yet meaningful that Karnatik music’s most prolific composer, Saint Thyagaraja, should root himself in a town where, daily, the strains of Mozart, Bach, and Stravinsky float over the waters of the Eerie.

Thyagaraja Aradhana on the Shores of the Eerie

The Cleveland Thyagaraja Aradhana, which began in 1978 under the suggestion of Ramnad Raghavan, is the largest Indian classical music festival in North America. What limped along as a two-hour meeting on a Saturday morning now runs as a 10-day festival with 60 artistes flying in from Chennai, 40 concerts by senior and upcoming musicians, and at least 8,000 attendees from the U.S. and Canada.

Until 2001, feeding the floating population at the Aradhana was the responsibility of two dedicated women, the spouses of Cleveland Balu and Sundaram. Now, the Aradhana engages the chef at the Pittsburgh temple to cook for the festival. Even today, free lunch is a guarantee for the over 2,000 attendees, thanks to an army of volunteers, some of whom drive from as far away as Pittsburgh and New Jersey to help at the festival. By noon, a dozen assistants donning blue caps, aprons, and gloves hum around the main cafeteria serving and keeping the crowds moving fast. The lunch menu is delicious: bisibela, beans sabji, carrot salad, vermicelli payasam, vadai, lemon pickle, and curd rice.

Inside Waetjen hall on the first Saturday of the 2008 Aradhana, the Indian gene kicks in hours before 7 p.m. for a duo performance by Lalgudi Krishnan and Lalgudi Vijayalakshmi. Every seat in the vast theater has been conquered by shawls, coats, caps, dupattas, and handbags. The territorial owners of these bits of clothing and accessories are outside the theater gossiping in the lobby.

The mood at the lobby is always upbeat around the booths selling dance and music CDs, the latest in Karnatik music teaching software, and the low-down on hot real-estate deals in South India. In this foyer, fans get their only-in-Cleveland opportunity to mingle with artistes.

An invitation to perform at Cleveland now has cachet in the rosters at Chennai. Sundaram believes that artistes love to perform at Cleveland because they know that the audience will love them unconditionally, without regard to style, name, or title. Musicians know that performing in Chennai is much like the real estate business: it’s all about “location, location, location.” Which sabha (venue) and which time slot an artiste performs in often has more heft than how the artiste performs.

One aging artiste asked Sundaram why he even bothered to invite her, flying her all the way into the cold. “In Chennai,” she admitted, “they don’t ever invite me to perform.” In Cleveland, however, she got three standing ovations. “You will see that, on the Cleveland stage, we appreciate the art more than the [name of the] artiste,” adds Balu.

On the first Sunday of this year’s festival, while 88-year-old R.K. Srikantan’s impassioned singing holds the audience captive, Sundaram and Balu sit in the wings worrying: how they will continue running the Aradhana year after year in grand fashion? 2008 has proven to be challenging: costs have skyrocketed for travel, lodging, and food. And a visa scam in Chennai has cost them thousands of dollars in cancellations and re-bookings.
Pondering loans and losses, Sundaram and his team are desperate to get the Aradhana on the radar of affluent Indian Americans. Still, they are optimistic. Somewhat miraculously, while running dangerously low on fuel, the Aradhana has kept finding its wings, year after year. “Like the bumblebee, the Aradhana cannot technically fly. Yet, somehow, it does!” he grins.

Grooming the ABKD (American Born Karnatik Desi)


Since 1987, Cleveland has promoted its competitions in vocal, instrumental, and percussion categories with its stress on the different aspects of Karnatik music, including improvisation. Sundaram finds that senior musicians from India are happy to judge young talent here because they believe that the process is transparent and fair. “Many vidwans who won’t judge competitions at Chennai’s prestigious Music Academy are willing to be judges in Cleveland.”

Lalgudi Krishnan, one of this year’s judges, says he has been listening to local talent since his first U.S. tour in 1983. “The quality has improved. Some students have reached professional standards and the winners are really top-notch.”

Krishnan recalls how his father used to worry about the future of Karnatik music abroad. “The first generation that left South India in the ’60s and ’70s supported our music. But will the trend sustain?” he wondered. Today, his father’s questions have been answered. Krishnan is hopeful for the future of Karnatik musicians raised on U.S. soil during the Chennai December music season: “They can fit into an artiste slot without the NRI tag anymore. They are equally competent as the Indian-born artiste.”

Some artistes, however, still feel that it’s impossible to replicate the smear, the smog, the sounds, and the swarams of Chennai. U.S.-based artistes will be handicapped, they say. 25-year-old Sikkil Gurucharan from Chennai believes that even the best Indian American Karnatik musicians will be hurt by not living in Chennai. “The environment here still lacks the ambience of Chennai,” he says. In the entertainment business, it’s not always about how good you are, but often about who you know and who, in turn, knows you. Performing musicians realize how important it is to be visible.

“But I don’t care about being known. I just want to sing,” says 15-year-old Varun Ganesan of Ocean Township, New Jersey, who learns vocal music from D.B. Ashwin. Ganesan competed at Cleveland for the sixth time this year (and won prizes), but he will return next year. “Seeing all those kids who are better than I am, I tell myself that that’s how I want to be. I want to get to that level.” Ganesan returns home from Cleveland and begins practicing the very next day after reflecting on how much he can improve.

Equally passionate is 17-year-old Rajna Swaminathan of Burtonsville, Maryland, a percussionist trying to makes waves in the male dominated field of the mridangam. A student of maestro Umayalpuram Sivaraman, Swaminathan hopes to make an impact on global music. “I never saw myself differently being a woman in a man’s field,” she says,

“because my relationship with the mridangam developed without the consideration of such external factors.”
Sruti Sarathy, 14, of Palo Alto, Calif., who took home a first prize this year in the concert competition, says she feels blessed to be learning Karnatik music from her guru, Anuradha Sridhar. “I love Karnatik music for its spirituality.”

Students like Ganesan, Swaminathan, and Sarathy are the poster children for the rising quality of Karnatik music education in the United States.

Engineering Musicians in the Cradle of Technology

Serious students of Karnatik music in the U.S. are finding learning easier: 21st century gadgetry has overhauled the way they learn music. Audio and video recorders, mp3 players, the internet, and VoIP have brought countless teachers “into” students’ homes. But it’s also a dangerous time for students of the art who are swayed by video kits and internet lessons. “Theoretically you can learn a lot from such classes but having a teacher in front of you is the only thing that can put you on the right path,” says Sridhar.

Even now, Srikanth Chary, a Fremont, Calif.-based veena artiste and director of Nadha Nidhi School, has not come to terms with remote learning: “It goes away from the personal relationship with the teacher which, I believe, is at the heart of our music. I’m concerned that it’s becoming more of a science than an art.”

Despite the issues presented by new-age methods of learning ancient art forms, technology is offering positive experiences. “People are now sharing their music collections with everyone else. There’s a whole database of old classic material that’s proving to be an excellent learning tool. It’s just like a school having a library,” observes Sridhar. While copyright is often in violation, artistes and listeners have been brought closer together by the ethos of openness spawned by the internet. It has built a savvier audience.

Chary looks back at Karnatik music education as it used to be in the San Francisco Bay Area three decades ago. There were a lot of allowances made for children growing up here by both parents and teachers. “You excused the children because they were growing up in a culture where they didn’t speak their mother tongue. You excused the lack of voice flexibility. You excused the depth of knowledge.” Today, he notes, “I see groups emerging where there’s no difference between the kids being taught here and those in India.”

The San Francisco Bay Area is lucky, says one east-coast clique of Cleveland regulars, who swear that competitors from California shall remain unvanquished: “I tell you, no one can beat those California kids!”
Is there something, perhaps, in the water in the valley? Chary doesn’t think so. But he will grant that the Silicon Valley breeds aggression and perfectionism. “Californians have high goals. We’re pretty pushy parents. The kid comes home with a 99 and you wonder where that one point went?” Chary laughs.

In a valley carved out by educated professionals from India, the competition among their children for the best college admissions, the prized scholarships, and the best (concert) slots will be fierce. But Lalgudi Krishnan looks at the emigration by Indian professionals from South India in a positive light.

He believes we are seeing a “revival of Karnatik music” resulting from the feverish community spirit of the diaspora. Had these professionals stayed back in India, he notes, they would not have had the incentive to seek out and cherish the music. Among the audiences he plays for abroad, at least 50 percent belong to a younger generation and pursue Karnatik music at a very serious level.

“The healthy trend is that, as a result, gurus have also come down and settled here and, of course, that musicians visit year-round. It’s a cultural value-add for life in the United States. And it’s a great thing for Karnatik music.”

Kalpana Mohan is a freelance writer in Saratoga, Calif. 

Kalpana Mohan writes from California's Silicon valley. To read more about her, go to