Tag Archives: #carnaticmusic

My Grandmother’s Gold Bangles & Vegetable Pulao

A Lasting Legacy

During the pandemic my daughters and I have been spending a lot of time in the kitchen cooking up a storm. One day we set out to cook a family favorite dish, vegetable pulao. I tell them we’ll be making it from my grandmother’s recipe. 

“How come you don’t talk more about her?” my daughters ask. That began my journey to piece together the story of a remarkable woman. 

As with most things I began with my mom. 

“Tell me about patti (grandmother).” 

My mother says, “Amma could whip up the most delicious pulao and raita. The badi elaichi left a lingering taste.” 

It’s not easy to get my octogenarian mother to talk about her childhood years. “I was eleven when my mother died,” she says. 

“She must have been 40?” I ask. My mother nods silently. Losing a mother at such a young age must have been a crippling blow. On one of the few occasions she’s spoken of it, my mother rued, “…at least I have some memories of my mother but your aunt was just a baby.”

I learned that patti was married at 13 to a 20-year-old law student studying in Madras. My grandfather went on to become an accountant general in the British India government. This meant they moved every few years. My grandmother had to set up households in cities across north India such as Delhi, Jaipur, Jodhpur and Simla. Many of my grandfather’s colleagues were Englishmen and patti was expected to interact with their wives. 

How did a shy thirteen-year old girl from Thanjavur hold her own in an unfamiliar world? It wasn’t just a matter of stepping into a new environment but getting comfortable, and even being adept at playing hostess in social events that my grandfather’s job required them to host. This even while she had seven children of her own to raise. 

The family album shows patti as a doe-eyed woman with a gentle expression. Understandably my mother’s memories of her mom are somewhat fragmented. Yet several incidents from her mother’s life have stayed with her, such as her explaining “how to make murukkus in her broken English to the wives of my father’s colleagues.” 

My grandmother got comfortable enough to play tennis in her six-yards saree with these women, even while conforming to the conservative practices of her in-laws. 

“She would change into a nine yards sari in the train before disembarking in Chennai!” my mother chuckles.

It wasn’t just her recipes that got handed down. “Amma would shoo us children out of the living room when the announcement for the music program came on the radio,” says my mother. “She’d ask us to come back once the music began so that we could guess the name of the raga being played!”  My grandmother was a die-hard fan of Carnatic music, a love she passed on to her children and leading to my own career as a classical musician. 

Even as my mother recounts her memories, I can sense some of what’s unsaid – the challenges of being a woman raising multiple children, even while juggling conservative in-laws in a patriarchal and colonial society. So taking a break or falling ill was not an option. Which is why when she caught tuberculosis, it affected the entire family. Long periods of staying at a sanatorium ensued as she recuperated. Despite seeming improvement, patti never fully recovered. 

“Streptomycin became available a few months after her death,” my mother’s voice breaks. “It was too late for her.” 

I sense it’s her 11-year old self speaking. We are both silent. I reflect on a young girl’s journey from a southern city of India and the legacy she left behind for future generations of women. While we celebrate women across the world as role models, I wonder if we look hard enough in our own backyards for inspiration?

“Ma, what do I do now?” my daughter’s voice draws me to the present. “Give the rice and veggies one last swirl and let it cook covered.” 

As my daughter turns the pulao with a wooden ladle, I notice the thin gold bangles on her hand. It’s a gift from my mother.

‘Were they my grandmother’s?’ I wonder. Tracing the rim of those bangles, I find myself whispering, “This is like the armor of a warrior.”  

My patti’s name was Meenakshi.


Chitra Srikrishna is a Carnatic musician based in Boston
images: paintings by S. Elayaraja

 

The Cowboy and the Yogi: Ever-changing Traditions

“India, like America, feeds and nourishes creative individuality. Just as Americans have been inspired by the archetype of the Cowboy, who wanders the open spaces in search of a dream, so Indians are inspired by the Yogi, who wanders inner spaces in search of realization,” claims The Cowboy and The Yogi, by Teed Rockwell. For those of you who don’t know, Rockwell wrote the India Current music column for decades and I carried on for a few years after him. Thus, it was an absolute honor and delight when we had a delightful conversation about his journey into India and Indianness.  

The Cowboy and The Yogi is a glimpse into the Indian music scene over a span of roughly two decades, largely in the US, as documented by Rockwell. It is an intelligently curated collection of his own research, study, writings for his India Currents music columns, and blogs. Thus, it is a passionate, loving, intimate, insider view into Indian music combined with a sense of adventure. Sprinkled with anecdotal tidbits such as “first article commissioned by India Currents,” the book traces a path between classical music and its many representations, note-worthy performances, as well as its practitioners. Thus, the book, as Rockwell himself describes, talks about Indians and non-Indians performing Indian music, along with Indians performing non-Indian music. Chapter 9, “Indians Doing Cool Stuff” is about Roc Zonte, Gautam Tejas Ganeshan, Nitin Sawhney, Vijay Iyer, and Tony Kanal, who was one of the first people of Indian ancestry to become a Western rock star and to let the world know it.” 

Rockwell is a musician himself (enjoy his fascinating introduction to his jugalbandi-friendly “Touchstyle Veena” here) and therefore it is all the more believable when he claims that “In the area of rhythm, Indian music is totally without peer.” The Cowboy and The Yogi acts as a guide to how to listen and appreciate Indian music, deliberately, through chapters such as “Listening to Indian music,” and also through his own discoveries. Such as “In Memoriam” where he rues the fact that he got to know much about the Masters and their genius when he was asked to write their obituaries. “Yogis all, but with more than a little cowboy in each of them,” he states, of Vilayat Khan, Bhimsen Joshi, and Bismillah Khan. 

The book is also a portrait of the gurukul that existed within the campus of the AACM (Ali Akbar College of Music). Rockwell writes, “Classes included people from Germany, Argentina, …as well as Bengalis, Punjabis,…I remember a blond two-year-old who regularly came to class with her mother, and whose baby talk combined so many different languages…There was an atmosphere very like an Ashram…spiritually devoted to profound and enigmatic music.” 

Rockwell, a Buddhist now, then does a CowBoy-Yogi-combined on you, as he dons his scholar lens and delves into Islam. This is poignant since many of the Masters of Indian music are of the Muslim faith. “I read the entire Koran in different translations, studied histories of both Muhammad’s life and the Islamic political empires, and read commentaries on the Koran and Hadith [the sayings attributed to Mohammed]. As a result of these studies, I have concluded that although many horrible things have been done in the name of Islam, a careful reading of Islamic sacred texts reveals that these behaviors are contrary to the teachings of Muhammad and to the most intelligent people who follow his spiritual path.” 

The book is a must-read for those who seek soul-food, an intellectual-nudge, a musical historical journey, and an emotion-drenched read.  

Here is an excerpt from our interview, the video can be found below:

IC: Tell us about how you got started with India and Indian music. 

TR: In the West, there is a lot of interest in Orientalism. I grew up as a hippie in the sixties interested in an alternative to Christianity, western culture in general. But what I began to find out is that any generalization that includes both Punjabis and Koreans isn’t going to be worth much…There are tremendous differences between South Asians and East Asians, for example, and I spent a lot more time with South Asians…The thing that really got me interested in Indian Music, rather than feeling that it was some sort of meditation tool, was the band, Shakti – (John McLaughlin (guitar), L. Shankar (violin), percussionists Zakir Hussain (tabla) and T. H. “Vikku” Vinayakram (Ghatam) – live at Kennedy Center Washington D.C. I went out and bought my first set of tablas. Then I got the feeling, I got to study this! 

IC: America is “free”, but you’ve said that Indians are also free to follow their own intuition… 

TR: When I wrote my articles, people always said, oh you know the traditions never change, and people would say that’s the problem with India, that they need to be able to change their traditions. But every time I actually studied somebody who supposedly was preserving the tradition, they were always changing it! There was nobody who was just doing it the same way. You do go through this kind of training but then you always have to go through a period of throwing it off. I interviewed and did research on dozens maybe hundreds of artists when I was with India Currents; there was never anybody who wasn’t changing the tradition. They would preserve it but they would change it at the same time! Trying to operate without rules, I think it’s a real problem but having rules, recognizing that sometimes rules can be broken is a really important characteristic. Letting your intuition be more important than rules – I see that in Indians time and time again.  


Priya Das is a writer, dancer, and co-founder of Mosaic Silicon Valley. She is fascinated by the intersections between history, culture, convention, traditions, and time.

Khayal in Hindustani Music

Based on the Dhrupad Gayan, the contemporary style of Khayal Gayan emerged and the music lovers welcomed it! Let me walk you through what Khayal Gayan has to offer. 

Khayal word is a Persian word which means imagination, thought, logic. In modern times Khayal Gayan is very popular. As everyone knows, change is a universal law and customs, costumes, language, and lifestyle change with time too. In line with this change, Khayal was originated after Dhrupad. Khayal Gayan has shorter compositions with two parts only, Sthayi and Antara versus the Dhrupad style which has four parts, Sthayi, Antara, Sanchari, Abhoga.

The tendency of an artist is to explore something new. Our culture has been influenced by external cultures and so has our music. During this transition period, from Prabandh originated Dhrupad and from Dhrupad came into existence the Khayal. Thus we can say that Khayal is the modified version of its previous two counterparts.

In today’s prevailing singing genre of Hindustani music, Khayal Gayan is most popular. It has been so much identified with modern classical music that without it a Raagdari Sangeet can never be thought of. Its popularity is such that even on playing instruments Raagas are being played with Khayal in mind.

Khayal is Mainly of Two types: Bada Khayal and Chota Khayal.

Bada Khayal is sung in Vilambit Laya (slow tempo) and the second is Chota Khayal which is composed in Madhya and Drut Laya (medium and fast tempo). In Khayal, the importance is on swaras (notes) rather than words. Normally composition of Khayal is made up of fewer words, which means poetry is limited.

The rhythm tempo of Bada Khayal is Slow (Vilambit Laya) so its one cycle takes more time to complete than the Chota (small) Khayal, therefore it is called Bada (big) Khayal.

Vilambit Laya is composed in Ek Taal, Tilwada, Jhumara, and Ada Chautal.

Madya and Drut Laya is composed in Ek Taal, Teen Taal, Jhaptaal, and Rupak. Chota Khayals are mainly in Teen Taal, a favorite of most artists.

Two Methods of Initial Alaap in Khayal Gayan

The first happens before singing the composition (bandish) of a Khayal. The form of a Raag is to be established by taking Alaap in Aakar.

The second method is the form of a Raag established by Nom – Tom Alaap as in Dhrupad. 

In Gwalior, Kirana, Jaipur Gharana (School of Music) the first method of Khayal is prevalent while in Agra Gharana second method is prevalent. Initial Alaap is often sung in short in which Raag is fully explicit. Before beginning Raag Gayan one should take care to expand the Raag according to the Khayal.

In Khayal, Khatka, Murki, Kan, Meend are profusely used. As compared to Dhrupad, Khayal is of fickle nature and devoid of seriousness. Though Vilambit Laya of Bada Khayal enhances solemnity to a certain extent. 

The gradual growth of Khayal from Dhrupad can be easily understood by Bada Khayal. It is also bound with certain codes but provides a space to express feelings through improvisation. 


Dr. Abhay Dubey is an Assistant Professor of Indian Classical Vocal Music for 10 years at The M.S. University of Baroda in Gujarat, and previously as a Lecturer at Indira Kala Sangeet Vishwavidhyalaya. He has performed for many years and published 4 books on the topic of Indian Classical Music.

Revolutionary Carnatic Musician: The Saint Thyagaraja

Indian history is full of exceptional devotees who proved the significance of love and spirituality. One such divine and gifted soul was the great “Saint Thyagaraja”. He descended on the land of Tiruvarur, Tamil Nadu in India on May 14, 1767. He was born in a Telugu Vaidiki Mulakanadu Brahmin family.

Saint Thyagaraja revolutionized the dormant Carnatic Music during the 18th and 19th centuries. This form of Music is based on unique “Ragas and Talas” (musical notes) like all other forms of Indian classical music. It beautifully expresses Bhakti (devotion) and Sringara (love). Earlier, it was performed for the praise of God. Later, it included singing the glory of great kingdoms.

Thyagaraja was inclined towards music from an early age. Ramayana and Lord Ram also influenced the musical legend. He sang many kritis (a devotional form of composition in Carnatic music) of Lord Ram. He predominantly created the kritis in the Telugu language. Still, Saint Thyagaraja is a global icon. Two of his contemporaries also gained equal fame along with him in that era. They were Shyama Shastri and Muthuswami Dikshitar. Together, these three were known as the Trinity of Carnatic Music.

Carnatic Music has survived the ever-changing modernization of the music. Its several concerts are being held not only in India but all over the world. Compositions of Saint Thyagaraja are part of almost every show. Isn’t it phenomenal that they are popular and relevant even after 250 years of their creation!

Body of Work

Saint Thyagaraja created over 22,000 compositions during his lifetime. Out of them, only around 729 survived. They lived through the generations of his disciples. One of the most celebrated creations is “Pancharatna Kriti”. It is a combination of five Kritis of Lord Ram. Each one in a different Raga depicting different moods. One of them is in the Sanskrit language. The rest of them are in Telugu.

The great Saint Thyagaraja was not inclined towards the technicalities of classical music. His devotional music flowed like a free waterfall soothing the heart of his listeners. His fans ranged from common Men to the Kings of that era.

Like a Lotus Leaf!

He was detached from worldly pleasures. He was a perfect example of the lotus leaf provided in “Bhagvat Geeta” (a prominent Hindu scripture). A lotus leaf is untouched by water even while floating in it. All the drops of water fall off from its surface, and it remains clean. Saint Thyagaraja experienced everyday family life. He had a home where he lived with his wife and daughter but he always longed for the spiritual connection with Lord Ram. He regarded him as his friend and guide in his compositions. The musical legend never ran after wealth and fame. He used to make his living by “Daan” (Alms) given by villagers and his admirers. He denied an invitation from the King to live a lavish lifestyle. He believed he was born to serve God only.

Spiritual Height!

There are many stories of him witnessing miracles where he reached out to Lord Ram. Eventually, he gave the most significant proof that he was close to God. It is said that his day of demise, January 6, 1847, was announced by himself beforehand. He declared that Lord Ram has appeared in his dreams and promised to take him to salvation. He remained a mystic both in life and death.

Thyagaraja Aradhana – Homage to the Legend

His legacy continues even today through the Thyagaraja Aradhana music festival. It’s an annual event held between January to February on his death anniversary. It’s a week-long musical extravaganza organized at his resting place at Thiruvaiyaru. It has flourished to become an international marvel. Carnatic musicians gather from all over the world to celebrate the heritage of his compositions. It’s a mesmerizing sight when thousands of people together sing “Pancharatna Kriti” in his honor.


Reema Krishnan is a content creator at Acharyanet, a platform for Carnatic music learners where they can learn music from gurus through 400+ video lessons. Being a music enthusiast and a history buff herself, she is able to provide value for her readers and her content is well-received by musicians, music lovers, and music learners of all ages and at all stages. 

Will My Culture Survive the Pandemic?

Trying to create a space in the United States, Indian Americans rely heavily on the Arts to remain connected to their roots. Instead of soccer practice and baseball lessons, the minivan drives kids to Kathak (Indian Classical Dance) class or Tabla (Indian percussion/drums) lessons. What our parents understood, that took me till my adult years to grasp, was that culture was identity. And we would only be comfortable in our skin, in alien territory, if we could see the beauty of who we inherently were. 

As a young brown girl, I found a sense of camaraderie and belonging with my peers through the Classical Arts. Some learned Bharatanatyam dance and some took Kathak. Some learned to play the Tabla and some, the Sitar. Some took Carnatic Classical Music and some took Hindustani Classical Music. But all of these Arts drove one point home – no matter the geographic location or style of the Art, we were deeply connected to our culture. At times when I was ostracized for that same thing – being too Indian – I took solace in what I knew to be true. I am who I am and there was no reason to resent something so pure- so unifying. I continue to cherish it. 

A lifelong Kathak dancer and student, I saw the strain the Arts went through when my classes at the Chitresh Das Institute went online due to the shelter in place orders. Many students dropped off, our teachers struggled to teach online, and our performances were canceled. I felt myself become uninspired. 

But Art cannot be stopped. Art keeps pushing along like the little engine that could, to give meaning to that which is inexplicable. One Bharatanatyam teacher found purpose in embracing the messiness of online teaching and musicians like Sunny Jain began putting their music on Youtube. IndianRaga and Kalanidhi Dance collaborated during the pandemic to rejuvenate classical arts through their Why I Dance campaign. However, an artist’s career comes to a halt when spaces to perform are limited and they are faced with the reality of a declining income.

The artistic community, many working as freelancers and independent contractors, requires life support. At the Ethnic Media Services briefing on September 11, 2020, LA Based Actor, Kristina Wong told us of the moment that her livelihood came into question. Her one-woman satire, Kristina Wong for Public Office, that she had spent three years researching and running a real election in preparation for, was running on the college/university circuit when the pandemic hit. Colleges and university campuses made the decision to go fully online, as to mitigate the pandemic, and Wong was stuck scrambling to find alternatives to cancelation. 

I’m witnessing a lot of artists just leave Los Angeles. Some are working for the census. Some are just scrambling,
” she noted, emphasizing that her ability to adapt to the online format was a unique luxury and that she still wouldn’t be able to recoup the losses of canceled performances. 

Kristin Sakoda, Actor and Executive Director of the LA Arts Commission witnessed the impact of COVID on the Arts. It was one of the first sectors to close and will be one of the last to reopen. 2.7 million jobs have been lost resulting in a $150 billion impact on the creative industry. As a grant distributor, Sakoda mentioned $20 million in losses for the nonprofits sustaining local arts.

Appreciation of the arts is crucial in inconsistent, unclear times. Art gives context, an escape, a safe space to feel uncertain, and to empathize with others.

Minority arts are quickly disappearing. Jose Luis Valenzuela, a UCLA and community college theater professor, met with artistic directors who cater to communities of color and were worried about the survival of their companies. They are the few sources for access to the arts for minority populations. Representation matters and when that diminishes, so do the voices. Graphic designer and Muralist, Roberto Pozos of Imperial Valley resonates with this message. Living in a space that has been a hotspot for COVID related death, Pozos wants to commemorate the suffering and lift the spirits of those around him. None of this can happen without funding. 

We must push for federal grant funding! Email, call, snail mail your Congresspeople. The last time federal tax dollars were put towards the arts was during the Great Depression and the time has come again to make our mark on democracy and preserve culture. 

I think about what I would do without Kathak. Kathak is not just a form of Indian Classical Dance. Kathak is the best parts of me. Kathak accepts me and grounds me to the reality I am in. Kathak reminds me to forgive myself and others. Kathak is a guiding force, teaching morality and mythology. Kathak is music. Kathak is discipline and learned knowledge. Kathak is Indian history. Kathak is me. 


Srishti Prabha is the Assistant Editor at India Currents and has worked in low income/affordable housing as an advocate for children, women, and people of color. She is passionate about diversifying spaces, preserving culture, and removing barriers to equity.

This post has been updated.

Vinod Krishnan Mixes R&B with Carnatic Music

Minnesota-based artist, Vinod Krishnan, is well known for his creative work and collaborations with IndianRaga, an arts education startup founded at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). This Chennai rooted artist’s dream has always been to take Carnatic music to the world and to bring world music together. Krishnan describes his work to be inspiring, refreshing, disruptive, and culturally relevant.

Krishnan collaborated with a wide range of artists from IndianRaga fellow, Mahesh Raghavan to India’s leading musicians Vijay Prakash and Shankar Mahadevan in recent years. He enjoys experimentation in music – from connecting Carnatic elements to a famous pop cover like Shape of You, to composing breezy Tamil melodies such as his original Kaalai Pozhudil

Krishnan’s Recent Release: Kandapadi Kaadhali 

Inspired by Krishnan’s love for A.R Rahman’s melodies like Rehna Tu and Nenje Ezhu, his new release Kandapadi Kaadhali talks to those in love and encourages to cherish love in its raw, non-judgemental form. “I adore the seamless chord progressions and a refreshing choice of sounds in most ARR hits, which inspired the approach to this song,” says Krishnan, who has a strong passion for connecting with the sound, arrangement, and emotion in all his productions.

“This song lets me step out of my comfort zone and play with R&B,” adds Krishnan. “It’s liberating how you can be rooted in timeless cultural values, and yet be globally relevant, and to be all of this needn’t be conflicting. Growing up with ARR’s music, genres no longer seemed mutually exclusive. I believe one needn’t have to pick just one particular genre all the time.”  

 

Krishnan’s Background in Carnatic Music 

Trained in Carnatic music, he spent most of his life as an ardent learner. In 2011, Krishnan started singing for local concerts and Bharatanatyam productions in the US. He also showed a keen eye towards composing, arranging, and producing music – the skills he put to use when he first joined the IndianRaga fellowship in 2016. From then, he made 35 videos both with IndianRaga and independently and garnered a collective viewership of more than 10 million views for his digital music content.

Influence of Chennai Roots on his Music 

“Chennai is like an electron – held back strongly by a nucleus that is culture,” says Krishnan, when asked how he describes his traditional roots. The culture and the traditional embrace of external influences that he was brought up with, help him understand the identity of his origin, that’s a mix of sincerity, modernization, pride, and vibrant culture. 

His culture and background made him realize that one can be rooted in timeless cultural values, and yet be globally relevant and enterprising, and to be all of this needn’t be conflicting. “Another aspect is I’ve always felt Chennai would only be personified to be a culturally-rooted and elegant human being. At some level, that has been the kind of person I’ve sought to be,” says Krishnan. 

Sruthi Dhulipala is a San Francisco-based Communications professional and writer,  She has been priorly published in an International Anthology “Lakdikapul II,” through an Indian poet’s association. She is passionate about music and her goal in life to promote music to the benefit of the people, through music therapy. A passionate dreamer and a self-professed book dragon, she is also a philosophical person who believes that everything happens for a reason in life.

Heart to Heart: A Symphony of Music and Advocacy 

Have you considered that music can be a means to spread awareness on important public health issues? Three musicians hailing from three distinct cultures are crossing borders to transform hearts.They are using spiritual consciousness and healing energy, while drawing attention to  an alarming—but woefully under-reported—rise of congenital heart defects killing hundreds of thousands of children annually around the world. 

This trio of acclaimed multi-talented musicians are pioneering an adventurous blend of western jazz and Carnatic-style Indian music. The musicians in this diverse super group include India-born U. Rajesh, hailed by many as the world’s foremost Carnatic-style mandolin player; Greece-born Dimitris Lambrianos, a keyboard prodigy who is now a world-class composer and performer proficient on dozens of instruments; and American composer, recording artist, and music educator George Brooks, on the saxophone.

The concert sponsor, the U.S.-based Heart to Heart Foundation, supports low-cost pediatric heart surgeries that have saved the lives of thousands of children in numerous low-income countries. The concert will include a brief video presentation about the Foundation’s work.  

Saturday July 20, 7:30pm. Cemex Auditorium, Stanford University. For free tickets to this event, please register at:  https://tinyurl.com/H2H-Music . For additional information, please visit:  www.h2h.foundation