Tag Archives: Carnatic Music

A Conversation with Ram Sampath

Ram Sampath enthralled the audience with his unique music compositions synchronized to a live dance troupe in San Jose, an event hosted by the Mona Khan Company, on March 10 and 11, 2018.  Held in the intimate Mexican Heritage Theater, the concert was accompanied by Mona Khan’s own dance troupe.

The multi-talented Sampath – musician, producer, vocalist, composes for Bollywood movies, MTV India, Coke Studio musical series, and popular TV shows such as “Satyamev Jayate” in India. His background in Carnatic music infuses his compositions with a meld of Indian classical music, jazz, western and pop.

After having started his career composing jingles for advertisements, Sampath moved into the realm of pop music and later started composing for Bollywood films. Sampath’s musical score for the movie “Delhi Belly”, which was acclaimed by music critics, earned him a Filmfare Award.

He now has his own music production house “OmGrown Music”, in collaboration with his wife, Sona Mohapatra, who is a singer in her own right.

The concert in San Jose was a rich experience for the audience, featuring a medley of hit songs by Ram Sampath, who was accompanied by vocalists, Pawni Pandey and Siddhanth Bhosle, as well as a live band. The dance choreography synchronized perfectly with the music, and the dancers in vibrant Bollywood outfits were eye candy. The tight synchronization between the music and dance was the obvious result of an incredible effort and practice by the team.

Sampath exhibited the range of his musical and vocal prowess, in the short span of the two-hour concert, with compositions that were mostly his own.

He also introduced new singers Rithisha Padmanabh and Nishant Bordia, winners of a singing contest that he had hosted in the Bay Area along with Radio Bollywood 92.3 FM

I had a glimpse of the man behind the musical mask in a post-event interview:

I.C.:  Who is your muse or your inspiration for your music?

Sampath:  Life is my inspiration and the experiences that have shaped my life. Even when I started out as a young lad, I had privy to life experience content to express in my musical composition. I have had an eventful life, right from my childhood (smile).

I.C.:  You were trained for 8 years in South Indian Carnatic music. Does that training permeate your music style?

Sampath:  Yes, of course. I still love Carnatic music and often use it in my compositions. There are many modern day Carnatic music composers who I consider giants in the industry that I listen to regularly.

I was exposed to many genres of music growing up. Learning music at a young age is a blessing as it becomes a part of who you are – your roots, so to speak.

My dad loves Western music – the Beatles, for example. My mom is a fan of Bollywood music. I also have a rock and jazz component in my music. When I compose, I am influenced by all the above and more. The move into Bollywood was organic, the result of my eclectic music background.

I.C.:  What is your favorite musical composition or song?

Sampath:  That’s easy. Definitely “Abhi Na Jao Chhod Kar” composed by Jaidev from the movie “Hum Dono” and sung by Asha Bhosle and Mohammad Rafi. It is a masterpiece in musical composition. It has so many elements that are perfect in the song – emotions (longing), lyrics, melody, and overall composition. It’s timeless.

I.C.:  What is your biggest challenge?

Sampath:  My taste in music needs to be agreeable to Bollywood. There is a lot of junk music out there that is being consumed. My desire is to create amazing, high-quality music for the audience. Consistently.

I.C.:  What is the future of your musical journey?

Sampath:  I am getting more collaborative in nature. For example, this live show with Mona Khan Company is a new beginning for me. I want to do more live stage shows and collaborate with other artists in the years ahead of me.

Thanks for the show Ram Sampath and the heart-to-heart interview. It was good to get a feel of the man behind the excellent music.


A Life of Melodies and Memories.

Every so often, you come across individuals who leave a lasting impact on you. They hold within them the wisdom of life experience – which cannot compare with academic laurels or material worth. Their stories can be likened to a well aged wine of a full-bodied flavor, enriched by many layers of emotions and experiences. But one common trait they share is a spirit of gratitude and humility.

If you met Seetha Ramakrishnan on the street, you’d see at first glance, an Indian woman of mature years, walking along briskly with her two ‘grandkids’, Zook and Miki – her daughter Radhika’s pets. She will greet you with a smile and walk on.

It is only when you spend time with her, that you realize her remarkable attributes. She has the ability to understand the subtleties and nuances of people across age groups. And she possesses a sense of humor that belies the hardships she has faced along her life’s journey. Of course, she will make light of these revelations saying “that was then… this is NOW”. A person could spend their entire lifetime learning this ability to live in the moment.

The youngest of 10 children, born into a family of modest means, Seetha learned to ‘make do’ from an early age. Her story reads like a movie script, when she speaks of long walks to the bus stop to get to school in Kuruvayur, a small Kerala village of her birth. She remembers those times, with a matter-of-fact attitude. Her sisters married early, as was the norm, but Seetha managed to complete her SSLC – 10th grade. When the family moved to Mumbai, Seetha lived with her brother’s family. Learning to live with people of varying personalities and dispositions were part of her early learning experience, and has served her well throughout her life.

Music was a familiar backdrop in her early years. Her sisters could sing, but did not receive formal training. At her brother’s home in Mumbai, Seetha began learning music formally after completing her 10th grade education. Her brother was a respected dance teacher. And in that environment, Seetha received initial training on the violin by Shri. A. Narayana Iyer and his daughter, N.Rajam – who is one of the most renowned violinists of our time. She relates how difficult it was to start training at the age of 17. But she persisted. And so began a musical journey that zigzagged its path from Mumbai, to Coimbatore, and back again.  Her teachers – Smt. Meenakshi Vishwanathan, and the famous Kovai Kannan brothers – helped further her musical growth.

Along the way, music transformed into a teaching career, quite by chance, when a neighbor requested that she teach her kids. And then came the dawning awareness of wanting to be financially independent in order to be able to continue her own musical education. Completing a Stenographers course which led to a paying job, aided the process. Teaching music also enhanced her own learning. Whether it was necessity that created opportunity, or passion that gave shape to it, she found herself beginning to enjoy teaching.

Marriage at the age of 26, brought with it another change of role. And with it came limitations of a different sort. A joint family meant more adjustments, and a need to find her place within its framework. But her passion for music and teaching never waned. They shaped her identity. Later in life came hardships in the form of her husband’s ill heath. Seetha found herself in the position of being the sole earner, providing for the family both emotionally and financially. The forward-facing attitude inculcated through her early life, and a deep abiding faith in her music, got her through those trying times.

Balancing family life and teaching, Seetha managed to accompany many eminent vocalists on stage. And she was also an ‘AIR’, All India Radio artist for 25 years. Despite the recognition and growing fame, she considers her influence on her children as the greatest feather in her cap. Her children grew up around music, learning by listening while she taught. And then beginning their training under her care. Her son, Kumar, preferred the Mridangam. While her daughters, Radhika and Ranjani took up the violin and went on to win accolades, perform and teach – a testament to their mother’s passion, resonating with their own.

Radhika Iyer, is a prolific California based musician. She balances her job as a Finance Strategist, with her musical journey, which has taken her down interesting roads. Radhika plays Western and Indian Classical music on a seven-string fretted violin called the ‘viper’. She is also an author, songwriter, session musician and record producer.

Ranjani Ramakrishnan divides her time between Chennai and the U.S, playing on the Carnatic concert circuit, and teaching the violin. She has performed extensively including the most revered World Festival of Sacred Music at the James Armstrong theatre and the Cleveland festival. The musician visits the US in March-April before the Cleveland Aradhana Festival, to train kids who participate in the events. The sisters have collaborated on albums and play duets occasionally.

As for Seetha, at age 78, the enduring love affair with her violin continues. She now considers her music as a service to humanity. While it brought with it financial help and support when the need arose, she firmly believes that it is a form of the Divine  – enriching her life, and those of many she has managed to touch through the ages. She is known by many labels – Daughter, Sister, Wife, Amma, Aunty, Musician, Teacher and Thaati (grandmother). She gives of herself without hesitation, with loving kindness.

Her parting comment to me was profound – “My learning never ends. It has taken a different route – inwards”. Hers is a life, shaped by circumstance, as much as by her passion for her violin.

A full life – a synergetic union between the bow and the string.

This is a tribute in words during Women’s History Month for a woman I am proud to know.

South India Fine Arts: Spring 2018 Season

South India Fine Arts (SIFA), is the premier organization in San Francisco Bay Area dedicated to the promotion, preservation, and presentation of South Indian fine arts. SIFA is proud to present its Spring 2018 Season artists.

We started off the Spring 2018 Seasion in February by celebrating Saint Thyagaraja’s Aradhana. A lot of talented local Bay Area artists and Bay Area Music/Dance Schools presented their tribute by presenting various Kritis of Saint Thyagaraja. Check out our Facebook page: http://www.facebook.com/carnaticmusicbayarea/ for photos/videos from this program.

We kick off April with a concert by the dynamic duo – Dr. Krishnakumar and Smt. Binni Krishnakumar, followed by amellifluous Flute concert by Shri. Shashank Subramanyam.

In May, we have a blockbuster Vocal concert by one of the giants in Carnatic Music — the great Shri T. V. Sankaranarayan, followed by a scintillating performance by the dynamic duo – Shri Ganesh and Shri Kumaresh on the Violin.

In June, we present a grand Vocal concert by Shri Palghat Ramprasad, the grandson of the legendary Mridangam player Palghat Mani Iyer.

In July, we have a divine Harikatha / Music Discourse by Harikatha exponent, Shri. Dushyanth Sridhar. We have also planned for an enchanting evening with a Vocal concert by Kum. Pragathi Guruprasad, who was the runner-up in the third season of the reality-based singing competition Airtel Super Singer Junior.

SIFA is super excited to present the above line up of artists and hopes that all rasikas would attend and enjoy the above concerts. We also would like to remind that SIFA sponsors get FREE admission to most concerts.

Please signup for Sponsorship here: https://care.way.com/#/public/13492

For the latest Concert information, including artists information, venue, timing and other details, please check our website http://www.southindiafinearts.org. 

The Rasa of Belonging

music1few days ago, the editor got me thinking about the concept of Rasa. “Entertainment is a desired effect of performance arts but not the primary goal. The primary goal is to transport the individual in the audience into another parallel reality, full of wonder, where he experiences the essence of his own consciousness, and reflects on spiritual and moral questions.” Per Wikipedia, that is how Natya Shastra—the ancient Indian text, explains the concept of Rasa.

2016 has been an interesting year, from a rasa and rasika (appreciator of rasa) point of view. The Grammy awards, with which I begin my research into music columns for the year, are a recognition of musical creativity and artistry. However, I like to believe that the most popular award, Record and Producer of the Year is in recognition of the hold a specific record has on the masses, it’s ability to transport listeners. This year there was a desi connection to the Record and Producer of the Year, for Uptown Funk, the Bruno Mars song that everybody was tapping their feet to! It was so popular that my ten year old and his friends danced to it at their school’s talent show.

It being this-kind-of-election year, I could not help give Jeff Bhasker, who did win the Grammys for both Record and Producer of the Year, more thought than perhaps I might have otherwise. He was born to an Indian-born father. Did he learn Indian music? Had his parents argued about which after-school classes he would go to when he was a boy? Did his ex-mayor father want him to be politically active? Does he now acknowledge that his son has more power over more people than his Mayoral office ever did? Growing up and now, did/ does Bhasker accept his Indianness as a “so-what” or did it bother him and people around him?

The next month I discovered Ryan (aka Narayan) Sijan, who came from the outside to immerse in Indianness. “When I was in India I learned quite a few traditional songs from gypsies in Rajasthan,” Sijan recalls. “I spent two weeks with them at a festival in the Thar desert. A few years later when I was in Turkey I heard someone singing a piece with almost the same melody, it had just been changed a little by the culture. That was a real inspiration to me, I realized how music can bridge time and distance.” Sijan had been wonder struck by the common weave in music around the world and created an album harnessing those sounds.

May was even more impactful, the story of a Pakistani group from Sachal Studios making music underground, in the face of Taliban oppression. What gives these musicians the courage to do this? What is it in the human spirit that makes us communicate to and seek Oneness in the many worlds we inhabit? The Sachal Studios music had, in effect, elevated moral consciousness and eliminated boundaries.

I interviewed Mahesh Vinayakram, a Carnatic trained artist touring currently with Cirque du Soleil; not just rendering his music, but also learning techniques such as “head voice” used mainly by Western vocalists.

It struck me that artists in general, are never satisfied with the status quo, theirs is not the world that needs mere upkeep and maintenance, for they constantly break built-up associations and create afresh to seek a different kind of communion, appeal to a different audience each time.

However, a thought-provoking perspective on Oneness was brought to light during my research on the column When a Song Becomes an Anthem,” Nation-building. Music and musicians have been harnessed to elect Governments, rally support, or just keep the political machine going, true. But when and how is a Nation built, what keeps its people together?

My research led me to conclude that at various times, national symbols, candidates, and leaders become representative of a collective spirit; but that the “collective spirit” gets re-configured periodically. Oneness is mistakenly defined by skin color and/ or beliefs, but that these buckets appear necessary when incumbents feel an ethnic/ economic loss, new-comers or some communities don’t feel included: Nobody knows how to belong, because there is apparently no common weave that can hold the community fabric together.

Serendipitously, I heard Bruce Springsteen interviewed on radio late one night. He said that while he was out one day during a politically/ economically uncertain time in our country, somebody while driving by, shouted out “We need you, Bruce!”

As to why somebody called out to him, that’s not important. What is poignant is that somebody called out to Springsteen as a musician. This year of writing has driven home the fact to me that the only pursuit and profession whose established goal is to create Oneness, is the Arts. Music is a powerful tool not just to elevate the individual but also to raise collective consciousness all over the world. I am hoping to explore further and produce examples of how the Arts shape(d) a community’s consciousness through my 2017 columns.

This much is a surety: The Arts imparts its creators with power, literally and by association. If more people appreciate your art, the more influential you are. The more your art is in tune with your audience, the more they feel they belong.

The end of 2016 has brought us face to face with a rather grim reflection of our fractured nation. Today, I find myself believing—utterly—that artists are singularly equipped with the power to tear down negative associations and infuse their communities with the rasa of Belonging, one audience at a time.

Priya Das is an enthusiastic follower of world music, and avidly tracks intersecting points between folk, classical, jazz and other genres.

Punjabi Dhol, Cuban-Carnatic, All That Jazz

Plaza de César Chavez Park in downtown San Jose saw the Jazz Summer Fest return for its 27th festival season last month. The quintessential Punjabi dhol was in the line-up, front and center of the eight-member Red Baraat band. Baraat is the Hindi word for wedding procession; and as such, it evokes a feeling of celebration and kinship.ic_music_ganavya

Red Baraat’s claim to being the first baraat band in the United States is unchallenged. In 2005, they played at no less than 40 weddings. Sunny Jain, leader of the band and the dhol player, believes Red Baraat could only have happened in New York City, asserting, “Sure, the concept is rooted in Indian Brass Band history, but there’s a rhythmic sensibility that comes from living and playing in NYC. There’s a certain edge, grit and urgency traversing the environment of this city, and this is reflected in the music that gets made here. Another important distinction of living in this city is that you can hear all types of music by walking down a single block. You can hear a cabby playing Punjabi music, a jazz trumpeter practicing in his apartment, and a delivery biker playing merengue on his boombox. It’s this city and the wonderful artists that inhabit this place that brought about Red Baraat’s sound.”

Between 2006 and 2013, he occasionally played the dhol and dholak (a smaller folksy drum) for Junoon, a popular group recognized for their Sufi rock sound. For Red Baraat, he mostly plays the dhol. When asked what it was like to play among these two very different acoustic scenes he says, “While both bands are very different in sound, my goal is to always support and create music with everyone on stage.” He shares the Red Baraat stage with Rohin Khemani (percussion), Chris Eddleton (drum set), Jonathan Goldberger(guitar), Jonathon Haffner (soprano sax), Sonny Singh (trumpet), Ernest Stuart (trombone), and John Altieri (sousaphone). Their latest album LiveWire was actually not recorded as an album; it is a collection of tracks they played during an in-studio interview for KEXP in Seattle.

The music Jain grew up with, as a first-generation desi (jazz, rock, hip-hop) seems to have asserted itself in LiveWire: it has significant electric guitaring by Goldgerger, which is atypical of the baraat sound. For example, the track, “Horizon Line” starts off unusually with strings. Jain expands, “What you’re hearing at the beginning of “Horizon Line” is the guitar, dhol and sousaphone being processed with various effects that we are manipulating. Then, comes the powerful horn melodies.”

Incidentally, their previous album Gaadi of Truth also had some departures, in that it had a Spanish number written by the trumpeter, Singh: “Se Hace Camino” was a call for action; todo el mundo puede cambiar, se hace camino al andar (the whole world can change, we (will) make the road by walking). LiveWire also includes a bonus remix by The Police’s Stewart Copeland of the track “Gaadi of Truth.”

Another desi artist in this year’s Jazz Summerfest was Ganavya Doraiswamy, whose voice was a strong, dulcet and husky combination of richness. She was featured with Alfredo Rodriguez, a classically trained Cuban pianist in Tocororo. Rodriguez has been mentored and produced by Quincy Jones, the legendary Rock and Roll Hall of Famer, best known for being the producer of Michael Jackson’s mega hit, Thriller.

NPR had this to say: “Tocororo is equal parts sophistication and sincerity. It’s the sound of a prodigiously talented Cuban embracing the wider world of music. Best of all, the album resonates with the possibility of all the other new music we’ll discover as Cuba itself opens up to the world.”

With the inclusion of Doraiswamy, Tocororo opens itself to the South Indian classical world, every poly-rhythm in step with the complex tonal trajectories. It is one of the most stylish and more importantly, Jazz-y interpretations; matching, perhaps for the first time so elegantly, each Carnatic vocal musical note to the Western piano tone. On visiting her website, one is welcomed by an open throated soundscape “Aa ri ra ra ro” in Tamil followed by the classic “Summertime” originally by Louis Armstrong, where she forays seamlessly in and out of classic Americana and Indian classical sounds. Thus, the word “high” starts in rural America but ends in the high notes of a raga; you can’t tell if “Summertime” is Western or Indian any more if not for the English lyrics.

The vocalist Doraiswamy is multi-talented. She plays the jalatharangam, an almost extinct Indian instrument, and is trained as a Bharatanatyam dancer. Doraiswamy has catalogued the hundreds of mudras or hand gestures, found in bharatanatyam and published the document for Florida International University’s SRAI Conference under the title “Rasam for the Dancer’s Soul.”

Lately, Jazz has been a catch-all for all kinds of experimental music. True, what constitutes Jazz is not well-defined; each musician has a personal definition of it. Above all though, Jazz is a sound that is born out of an improvisational or organized coming together of individual expression. Red Baraat and Doraiswamy are certainly on the path of adding unique dimensions to the world of Jazz.

Priya Das is an enthusiastic follower of worldmusic and avidly tracks intersecting points between folk, classical, jazz and other genres.

Check out redbaraat.com and ganavya.com.