Manam is a 5-track Carnatic music album by San Jose-based mother-son duo Rohith Jayaraman, and his mother and guru, Asha Ramesh. This classical music album is spawned from many family discussions following the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Jeyaraj, Bennicks, and the Cisco discrimination lawsuit. Manam translates to ‘from the heart’ in Tamil as “heart speaks” from Asha Ji and Rohith.
Usually, Carnatic Indian classical music immediately takes us to mythology or poems written by some maestros from Indian history. Manam is very different in that aspect; it talks about what is happening in the current world. It is high time to address global problems through Indian Classical heritage more. Our Classical music has so much depth and intriguing effects on the human mind, thus sparking more awareness and discussions when it questions social issues. The album also explores Hindi conversational words and jazz music expanding to a broader audience.
Rohith suggests listening to the album in chronological order. When I followed the same, it felt like a journey from classical root to global music, gradually addressing more complex social issues. Usually, we expect Thillana towards the end of the sequence; here, we get to listen to a compact and straightforward Thillana with Nattai ragam in the middle, which has a universal meaning. It sends a message to the audience to do good, practices good, and believe in good. Thillana is a short breather before moving to the heavier song Saloni, which uses a Hindi poem thoughtfully penned by Asha Ji. It questions how the skin color of a girl is considered a social stigma. The album concludes with a deep, thoughtful concluding track, Vidhudhalai (Freedom) —Pirakkumbodhu niram, jaadhi, madham thervu seivadhaar? (When we are born, who decides our color, caste, and religion?)” This track shows Rohit’s global influences and features some of his musician friends from Berklee College of Music. India Currents met this mom-son duo over a video conference call to discover some exciting and fun facts behind this unique creation.
In the lockdown period, creating an album by the collaboration of so many artists is incredible! Can you talk more about the collaboration?
Ramesh immediately looked at her son Rohith with both love and pride, when I asked this question. Rohith replied that lockdown encouraged him to think outside the box. The entire art world is exploring alternative mediums like Zoom to connect. Generally, for a music album like this, all musicians are gathering in a studio. Collaboration may be happening within a 50 mile of radius and with limited rental studio time. However, Rohith could actualize his dream of having Praveen, a mridangam artist from Chennai, be part of his production. They could pick veena, mridangam, ghatam artists from Chennai. Even a percussionist from Norway, a violinist from Spain, a guitar player in Malaysia, and an artist from Israel could join to make this a total global production.
Why do you think the new generation of artists isn’t working more on these global issues in the Carnatic music world?
Rohith: I think it is a combination of many factors. On the personal side, I am not a lyricist. I wrote many verses in English, and amma translated them sometimes. So I cannot speak about everyone, but I observe that we are trained to sing in classical music as divine for someone who can never be accessed. Most of the composers wrote the lyrics centuries back in traditional music. In Classical vocal music, one is not very often encouraged to compose something new, though most of the other genres of music work non-stop with others to create new music. The new generation sometimes feels challenged to relate.
Popular music is doing more in that sense, talking about the current world and our lives. T. M Krishna is writing about a statue, bird, or tree that I can connect with my life. Being not so religious, I also struggled to understand mythological stories at one point as well. Once amma wrote a Thillana on nature, I felt so connected to it. Hopefully, more classical musicians will try to work on creation to reflect our lives in composing.
Asha: It is also the teachers’ responsibility to encourage students to create or compose. I always tell my students not to vomit the song I teach. I always encourage them to internalize it. Always encourage children to come up with something new on their own.
Any fun facts you want to highlight to the audience in this process?
Rohith: Classical vocal recording was fun for amma and me. We went inside a closet full of clothes, blankets, sweaters as noise absorbers. Thillana and Vidhudhalai were done in the closet. Vetri Nadai is actually in this room where we are standing, mattresses all around us. We constantly needed to come to look at the screen to see lyrics and sync together.
Can you think of a challenging moment in this production?
Something challenging was the recording orchestra section. Violin, cello, viola, upright bass player, all recorded in their houses. They had to record multiple times to sound like an orchestra. For example, one individual violinist is recording five times to sound like five violin players playing together. Sometimes one person records and sends the file to the next person, and he listens to the speed and records his part. It sounds like fun, but it is very challenging to get the output we were envisioning. Luckily we are very fortunate to get a great set of artists collaborating for this alum.
Piyali Biswas De is an accomplished Bharatnatyam and Non-classical dance exponent, guru, and well-known choreographer in the Greater Seattle region. When she is not dancing, Piyali works as an IT professional in Seattle and spends time with two beautiful daughters who seem eager to follow in her footsteps.