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Documenting classical music
Much of India’s rich classical traditions have been carried through generations orally, and classical music is no exception. The lack of documentation has left Hindustani classical music, which once had nearly 5,000 raags during its peak, with less than 600 raags, of which only around 100 are in practice today. Bay Area-based Hindustani classical violin maestra, Kala Ramnath, wants to reverse the trend by documenting the raags and making them accessible to music enthusiasts across the globe through her digital platform, Indianclassicalmusic.com.
Popularly known as the one with the ‘Singing Violin’, Kala Ramnath’s compositions have featured in Grammy-winning album In 27 Pieces, the Grammy-nominated Miles from India project, and the Kronos Quartet’s 50 For The Future. Her music has also featured in Hollywood soundtracks like the Oscar-nominated Blood Diamond. In 2017, she was awarded India’s Sangeet Natak Akademi Puraskar for her contribution to Hindustani instrumental music.
Ahead of her performance at Stanford University, Vidushi Kala Ramnath talks exclusively to India Currents about her roots, her singing violin, her collaborations with international artists, and her efforts to preserve classical music.
This interview has been edited for language, clarity, and brevity.
IC: You were born into a family of prodigious musical talent, who were exponents of Carnatic music. How did you decide to learn Hindustani music, given that the violin is rarely used in Hindustani classical?
Kala Ramnath: I was born in a family that produced several exponents of Carnatic music for six generations. However, my aunt, Dr. N. Rajam, took to Hindustani music. So I was the second generation in my family to follow suit.
During my aunt’s time, the violin was a relatively new entrant compared to the sitar or the tabla in the Hindustani firmament. It’s been only 200 years since the violin entered Hindustani music.
Each instrument has its strengths and drawbacks. The violin being a bowed instrument was played like the sitar, which was an instrument without much continuity. So the cut bow was used a lot to play the violin. When my aunt Rajam learnt from Pandit Omkarnath Thakur, she decided to play to the strengths of this instrument by playing vocal music on it.
When I learned vocals from Pandit Jasraj, I did not want to copy my aunt and wanted to bring in my originality to stay relevant. I played the vocal music in totality and combined it towards the end with the instrumental style to make it a complete experience.
IC: When did you move to the Bay Area, and how was the transition? How did you pursue your career here away from India, the headquarters of Hindustani and Carnatic music?
Kala Ramnath: I had been visiting the United States for performances since 1994. But in 1999, I decided to start a music school in my guru Pandit Jasraj-ji’s name in Tampa, Florida, followed by one in Atlanta and then Los Angeles. After that, I took up residence in the U.S. In 2003, I left all the schools and focussed only on performances. The transition was not difficult, as I had several performances in India and had to live there for about six months in a year.
IC: There are numerous artists in the Classical music space, but few have successfully collaborated with as many Western artists as you have. What inspired you to forge alliances with Western classical, jazz, and traditional African music, and what were the challenges in this journey?
Kala Ramnath: I think I was blessed and lucky enough to get the opportunity to collaborate with many musicians from different genres. I was inspired by Ustad Zakir Hussain who told me to keep my ears wide open for different sounds, and not be stuck to classical music. Of course, one needs to have a strong foundation in classical music to be able to collaborate with artists across different genres. I believe that if one hears a lot of music, anything that appeals to you stays in the mind and comes out through your music as your own. You suddenly realize that this was due to something you listened to earlier. I think that is also one of the reasons for the sound of my violin being unique.
IC: You recently launched a digital platform for Indian classical music. Could you tell us about the motivation behind it? What is its mission?
Kala Ramnath: I started indianclassicalmusic.com with the idea of having everything on Hindustani classical music at one place. Since our music is not documented, we have lost a lot of our raags with every generation. Also the real swaroop of the raag has changed with time. So I wanted to protect and preserve what is left.
From 4840 raags at one point, we have less than 500-600 raags left and only around 100 in circulation. I thought of creating an online library, which will help the masters, students, and even the curious who may have no idea about the oldest form of classical music in the world. Once I complete major work in Hindustani music, I plan to extend the portal to include Carnatic music. But everything costs money. So, if anybody would like to support us, please go to the website and donate so we may save and preserve this tradition.
IC: A while ago, you established the Kalashree Music Foundation. Could you tell us about its purpose?
Kala Ramnath: Kalashree, a 501(c)3 tax exempt foundation, was started to help economically backward and sick children learn and enjoy music. We aspire to create the next generation of music lovers among them, and even help some of the talented ones pursue it as a career. You can find more information at our website, kalashree.org.
IC: You have lived here in the California Bay Area for so long. How has the music landscape changed from the perspective of a performer who has advanced her career here, and from that of a teacher who has coached many students?
Kala Ramnath: Awareness of this art form has increased a lot in the community. I see pride among children here who learn this art and are willing to take it up as a career. There are lots of concerts held and several gurus here have helped generate interest among the next generation. I am extremely happy with this development.