Tag Archives: Music

How Ghazals Made Classical Music Popular With the Masses

Back in the early 1990s, Ghazals suddenly saw a resurgence among the masses with the likes of Pankaj Udhas, Lata Mangeshkar, Jagjit Singh, and Asha Bhosle. Who can forget such beautiful compositions as Aur Ahista, or Who Kagaz Ki Kashti? Suddenly there was a paradigm shift in the kind of music one liked to hear – not quite Bollywood, not quite classical – a new form of music craftily meandering its way, somewhere in between.

However, Ghazal has always been that – a connection between pure classical, usually reserved for puritans and the masses, for whom endless hours of droning ragas held little appeal.

According to singer, composer, and lyricist Sadasivan KM Nambisan, one way Ghazal popularised classical music is in its initiation as a way of singing poetry/shayari with classical instruments like tabla, harmonium, and sarangi. “It was sung by prominent classical singers of that time, thus the compositions had a classical edge,” he says, adding that the term light classical is associated with Ghazals because the composition of Ghazals were done in classical style by default. Moreover, the music instruments used were of the classical genre. But with time, the arrangements of Ghazals also changed its course, he reveals.

Singer, voice-training artist, writer, and filmmaker Rituraj Sen, on the other hand, opines that Ghazal is termed light classical because the subjects of its evolution play a major role in calling its public recitation or ‘Peshkash’ at performance a light classical performance.

Ghazal singer – Begum Akhtar

Naming Mehdi Hassan, Talat Mehmood, Noor Jehan, Begum Akhtar, Shamshad Begum, Ghulam Ali, and Jagjit Singh as some of his favorite Ghazal exponents, Sadasivan adds that fabulous lyrics, shayari, catchy compositions, and tailor-made arrangements are elements that give Ghazals an edge over pure classical music.

Rituraj, for whom Gauhar Jaan and Akhtari Bai Faizabadi (Begum Akhtar) are the best representatives of the genre, explains that through the 18th and 19th centuries, Ghazals used to be penned by not only renowned or celebrated shayars (poets), but also by many local popular courtesans and writers. They all practiced the poetic conventions of ‘matla’ (the opening couplet), radeef, and qafya. The subjects found perfect foils in vocal ornamentations, which, coupled with embellishments of musical expressions enhanced the poet’s original verse. Thus, a music form arose that was devoid of the perpetual attention that pure classical music warrants, and one which became an easy experience for many. 

Ghazal singer – Jagjit Singh

Ghazals have been a staple of Hindi cinemas in the 1950s thanks to the likes of Talat Mehmood, Noor Jehan and others. However, it was slowly edged out by the advent of western instrumentation, and unfortunately, could not find a secure place in high music culture, which considers the khayal the pinnacle of vocal accomplishment. It was finally Jagjit Singh, along with his wife Chitra, who finally were able to carve out a niche in the music industry with their rendition of Ghazals in albums titled ‘Ecstasies’, ‘Beyond Time’, ‘Hope’, etc.

As for whether Ghazal is continuing to evolve with changing musical aesthetics, Rituraj opines that in different countries it has developed in its own way. In India, a great number of people have presented Ghazals in jazz and blues and in different languages like Bengali and Gujrati.

Sadasivan concludes, “Any music genre will continue to grow if it can keep up with times and trends and styles of that particular era. In fact, adaptation and implementation of new arrangements is a genuine need to keep ghazals alive.”


Umang Sharma is a media professional, avid reader, and film buff. His interests lie in making the world a better place through the power of the written word.


 

Manika Kaur is the Culture Bearer of Kirtan Music

Manika Kaur is a singer, songwriter, and philanthropist, currently taking the world by storm as the leading contemporary performer of ‘Kirtan’ music. Kirtan is a Sanskrit word that means to narrate or recite. This genre of music involves a call and response style song, where singers usually sing about spiritual ideas, devotion to a deity, or a Legend’s story. This genre of music is set to uplift us spiritually and open our hearts and minds through its chanting and devotional language. Kirtan music has been accommodated into various guidances like meditation and yoga, to enhance such practices and combine them with the spiritual energy of the music.

Over the years, Manika Kaur has broken barriers of the music world and transcended language and genre, touching the hearts of many within and outside of the global Sikh community and bringing Kirtan music out to a global platform. Kaur is the first artist to place Kirtan music on the European World Music Charts and her music videos rack up millions of views. 

Manika Kaur's album cover for 'Ek'.
Manika Kaur’s album cover for ‘Ek’.

In her latest creation ‘Ek’ Manika Kaur sets out to expand her audience by further highlighting her unique sound and her charitable works. The album Ek (Oneness) brings out some of the rarest instruments in the world and bridges the barrier between eastern and western instruments. In her music, Kaur introduces traditional elements of Kirtan music combined with some of London’s best producers, to create a balance and unite audiences through her sound. As one of the only female artists of Kirtan music, Kaur continues to capture diverse audiences, and create something magical, expanding the world of Kirtan music. Ek features 11 tracks, each adding a rare musical instrument. As all her works do, Kaur brings beautiful energy through her hypnotizing vocals, highlighting the strength of her spirituality through her music. 

Tracks like ‘Hay Gobind Hay Dayal’, ‘Liberate Me’ and ‘Sant Paee’ offer a beautifully rhythmic sound filled with musical hope and positivity in devotion and faith. ‘Magic Mantra’, ‘Waheguru Nanak Guru’ and ‘Sri Harkrishan’ on the other hand offer a look into the depth of spirituality and the core of its strength in emotion. These tracks musically create a sense of yearning and strength, offering Kaur’s unwavering faith in her spirituality. Tracks like ‘Your Light Ignites’, ‘Liberate Me’ and ‘Ocean Of Virtue’ are a lot softer in their musicality, holding out a hand in comfort and giving a sense of belonging and home in them. Kaur explores each emotion with the same sincerity and honesty, bringing out her versatility and brilliance as an artist and person. Kaur ends the album with ‘Deh Shiva’, a track that brings together the expression of each track and gives more. Ek truly transcends every humanly made barrier for the sole purpose of bringing people together through music as even the title of the album suggests. Manika Kaur has again broken expectations and set her own path to Kirtan music capturing the world. 

All proceeds of Manika’s art are dedicated to her own organization Kirtan For Causes dedicated to providing good education to over 200 women in rural Punjab, India. Manika offers in her music, not only the strength of faith but also a strength for a better present and future to a lot of people. Her music is colored by her mesmerizing vocals, and her constant admiration and respect for the art of ‘Kirtan’ music. 

Listen to her album, ‘Ek’!


Swati Ramaswamy is a recent graduate from UC Davis and an aspiring creative writer.  


 

Neil Nayyar with the many instruments he can play.

Musical Desi Teen Is Awarded Volunteer Of The Year By The City Of Elk Grove

Fifteen-year-old Neil Nayyar is on a mission of helping others through music. Selected by the Assist Foundation as a World Record Holder for playing a whopping 107 unique instruments, Neil is an immensely gifted musician. 

Neil Nayyar’s musical journey started even before he was born. His father played CDs of music by Mozart when Neil was in his mother’s womb because his dad heard that listening to Mozart’s compositions would help “form the soul, heart, and mind of the baby.”  When Neil was five, he started playing the drums with talent and adeptness that is rare in children that young. His parents noticed this and immediately signed him up for music lessons. His passion for music has only continued to grow since then. Neil learned instrument after instrument with the same passion he had for the drums. He has learned traditionally South Asian instruments like the Sitar and Veena and western instruments like the Alto Saxophone and Piano.

Now, Neil uses his gifts to give back to the community and bring awareness to important topics. Neil regularly performs at the United Nations Association of Sacramento Chapter and has received a plaque from the Chapter’s president Eddie Trujillo for his many efforts. He has also performed at many Pride events and multicultural festivals. Neil was recently on Good Day Sacramento to promote an event held by the non-profit organization, My Sister’s House, an organization that brings awareness to domestic violence, sexual assault, and human trafficking of AAPI women.

In what has been a turbulent year, Neil has been honored by Mayor of the City of Elk Grove, Bobbie Singh-Allen, as the 2021 City of Elk Grove Arts, Culture, and Heritage Volunteer of the Year. Mayor Singh-Allen noted Neil’s many achievements and accomplishments and specifically drew attention to his performance of the Star-Spangled Banner and Amazing Grace at the City of Elk Grove Singh and Kaur Park, honoring the Indianapolis FedEx gun massacre of four Sikh victims. The Singh and Kaur Park was named to honor two grandfathers who, in 2011, were violently and senselessly murdered while walking. Neil was the first person to perform in the park, honoring those who were killed because of their race or religion.

Neil Nayyar performing the Star Spangled Banner at the Singh and Kaur Park.
Neil Nayyar performing the Star-Spangled Banner at the Singh and Kaur Park.

Mayor Singh-Allen praised Neil for his talent, generosity, and compassion.  “Neil is an inspiration to present and future generations,” said Singh-Allen further stating “He’s not only talented, but he does support local efforts.” 

In his acceptance speech, Neil thanked the City Council and the Mayor for honoring him with this award. He specifically thanked Mayor Singh-Allen for her continued support of volunteer efforts and her interest in the greater good.  He also reiterated that the youth should volunteer to help improve the community and make our world a better place through hard work and passion.  “My message to youth here and all over the world is to do volunteer work,” said Neil. “It is really working to make our community better.” 


Medha Sarkar is a student starting at Los Gatos High School in the Fall.  She enjoys writing, music, and having a good laugh.


 

Producer and Songwriter, Jeff Bhasker

Behind Pop Music: You Should Know Jeff Bhasker’s Name

Jeff Bhasker, A.K.A. Billy Kraven, is a music producer and songwriter. Born to an Indian father and Caucasian mother, he was raised in Socorro, New Mexico where his father is a doctor and the town’s mayor. Bhasker left Socorro to pursue music studies at Berklee School of Music, then moved to New York for three years before beginning his career in Los Angeles.

Famous artists he has worked with include Kanye West, Jay-Z, Kid Cudi, Bruno Mars, The Game, Rolling Stones, Beyonce, and Alicia Keys. He has won Grammy awards for the songs “Run This Town,” by Jay-Z (Best Rap Song), “All of the Lights” by Kanye West (Best Rap Song), “We Are Young” by FUN (Song of the Year), “Uptown Funk” by Mark Ronson (Record of the Year), and Bhasker, himself, won Producer of the Year.

In this exclusive interview with India Currents, Jeff Bhasker opens up about his music and experience in the industry.

IC: Did growing up in Socorro have any impact on your getting into music?

JF: Not in a typical way, because there were not many resources around. However, the lack of distractions and outside influences allowed me to do a lot of soul searching, during which I discovered my music passion.

I wanted to find a place where I belonged. My home life was not great due to my parents being divorced, and the challenge of having a blended family. I wanted to be around people who, like me, were into Jazz and enjoyed playing music together. I eventually found it at the Berklee School of Music

IC: We are all aware of the Indian stereotype of parents wanting their children to become doctors and engineers. How did your family feel about your pursuit of music?

JF: It definitely confused my family of doctors. No one in our family had become a musician. However, they were relieved once I became more successful. Now, of course, they are very proud of the work I have done.

IC: What was your focus at the Berklee College of Music?

JF: I, initially, wanted to be a jazz musician and composer, but I drifted into recording and production. Technology and computer recording began to take a bigger role, hence making recording more accessible. You could record music on a laptop instead of paying a big fee to use a studio. Eventually, songwriting and recording became my specialty.

IC: You produce music across all genres- rap/hip-hop, rock, pop, R&B, and Bhangra. What are your thoughts regarding the term “genre”?

JF: Genres are only marketing devices to appeal to a certain demographic. I try to be genre-less and, instead, utilize the best aspects of each genre. Ultimately, we are all humans that bleed, love, and hurt. In any genre, the best song appeals to people on a human rather than on a genre level.

IC: How did you initially connect with famous musicians?

JF: My first song was the title track on The Game’s Documentary album. After that, there was a lull until I worked with Kanye. My work with Kanye became my calling card. In 2009, my song with Alicia Keys, “Try Sleeping with a Broken Heart”, made me known for my sound. Once I had a hit song, I slowly built up my reputation and became connected with more people.

IC: I assume that each musician you work with has a unique style. How have these different musicians inspired you?

JF: I learn a lot from everyone I work with. However, I consider Kanye my biggest mentor. Kanye is a huge influence regarding how hard he works on his projects, whether in fashion, music, or whatever else.  He has largely helped shape my concept of being an artist, which is to create music on an intensely personal and honest level. In other words, he has taught me to be driven by the need to express instead of success.

IC: You have produced three songs on Jasbir Jassi’s “Back with a Bang” (2014) album. How did working with Jassi help you reconnect with Indian roots?

JF: Meeting Jasbir Jassi and his family has been such a great and organic part of my life. In 2017, I traveled with him to India to participate in MTV India.

Being in India was a culture shock and my head was spinning. I did not know where I fit in.  Navigating Indian society and the music business was like being on another planet. By the end, I had two harmoniums and was sitting on the plane in my kurta and I did not want to leave. I had a close connection with the people I met. The sights, smells of India really felt like home. It was a great experience.

IC: Many people dream of becoming successful musicians. However, very few actually make that dream a reality. What has been the key to your success in the industry?

JF: The best advertising and PR is making the best music. People, nowadays, over-focus on connections and social media. While these are important, you ultimately just need to deliver a great product. A song is a product. How meaningful and life-changing it is, is what matters. That is what I focus on: How to make what I am working on undeniable. 

IC: What are you currently working on?

JF: I have an independent record label called Kravenworks. We are currently releasing the latest material from a Swedish act called Vacation Forever. It’s been fun to curate content and develop marketing campaigns for amazing artists such as Angelique Kidjo and Cam, with whom we had a hit single!

IC: Any lessons to inspire young Indians?

JF: As we develop a more global perspective, it’s about being a human being. Whether you are Indian, American, British, or a Martian you need to find what is inside you that you need to express and tell your story.

My message is to believe in yourself. Find the people who believe in you and work hard. Knowing your place on the timeline of history and where you are going is important for helping you grow in the right direction. You should always be growing, challenging, changing, and trying to better yourself. That will lead you to the most impactful result. Staying true to yourself is what I mean.


Nikhil Misra-Bhambri is a freelance journalist in Los Angeles. He is a graduate from the University of Southern California (USC) with a degree in history and will begin his Masters in Social Work at USC in Fall 2021. 


 

Ramprasad Ki Tehrvi Film Poster

Ramprasad Ki Tehrvi: A Movie That Highlights Victim Mentality In the Indian Diaspora

Ramprasad Ki Tehrvi (2019), a Hindi-language family drama, was released on Netflix in April 2021. Written and Directed by Seema Pahwa, Produced by Manish Mundra of Jio Studios and Drishyam Film, the film features an ensemble cast of several talented actors including Naseeruddin Shah and Supriya Pathak.

In short, Ramprasad Ki Tehrvi embodies the quixotic extended family melodrama. 

The family members of Ramprasad are all alive and kicking but they all have their own ax to grind. His unexpected death forces them to come face to face with the age-old hurt they have been nursing against everyone else. The narrative is presented as a theatrical performance by the director, Pahwa, and is well edited.

Opening scene: Ramprasad dies while giving an informal piano lesson to a neighbor’s kid. His wife calls her kids to inform them of his demise.

Scene Two: Four brothers, their three wives, two daughters, and their husbands, Mamaji and Mamiji,  Tauji, buaji, assorted kids, and neighbors descend on the home. In less than a few minutes, their grief is vaporized by their selfishness. They are not evil, just wonderfully flawed like so many of us who think that someone else is responsible for our failures. 

Following scenes: There is a struggle for control between elder members of the family, namely mamaji, tauji and buaji about after-death religious rituals (reminded me of a similar movie following a death: Pagglait). They haggle over the cost of firewood after they successfully cremate their father. Tears are brushed away and they are back to their normal routine, requesting jaggery sweetened tea and complain about the bland food. Then they blame their parents for all their misfortunes. Finally, they all depart and take with them their own agendas, giving interesting glimpses of their true selves. They all weep when they leave but not for their departed father or their widowed mother.

Song: I loved the song Ek Adhoora Kaama lighthearted moment that plunges the brothers into their childhood, giving us beautiful insight into Ramprasad’s musicality as a father.

Humor: There are a few chatpate “nok-jhok” between the old buaji and tauji, reminding us that childhood rivalry continues to the grave. 

Climax: Ramprasad has a loan of 10 lakhs, which has to be repaid. They all have been borrowing money from him but still, it comes as a surprise to them and they blame each other with a vengeance.

Solution: Instead of shouldering any responsibility, they come with the solution of selling the shop or house without care for the financial security of their mother. “Kya karogi Amma akeli itne bade ghar mein?”  No one wants to think about the mother’s welfare. They all keep talking in circles:  “Kya karen amma ka?”  

Best performance: Vikrant Massey, Konkona Sen Sharma, Parambrata Chatterjee, Vinay Pathak, Manoj Pahwa, and Vineet Kumar have acted very naturally. There are certainly so many characters in our households who are masters of that trait that it may be easy to draw from personal experiences. We have all witnessed a comical Eeyore-persona older brother, a cry-baby middle child, an opportunistic mamaji, a self-righteous sister, an instigating sister-in-law, and an amoral nephew. Veteran actors Naseeruddin Shah (father) and Supriya Pathaak (mother) emote so effortlessly through their expressions without long-winded dialogues. They have a common ally, Ramprasad’s diary.

Subplot: There is marital disharmony between the youngest brother Nishant and his wife Seema. The family interferes with this even though they don’t fully comprehend the problem but jibes and subtle taunts continue uninvited.

Solution the family proposes: Do they complete Ramprasad’s tehrvi at the allotted time on the first of January or do they shorten it to ten days or select a mutually convenient time for the thirteenth-day ritual to bid their father’s soul adieu? For that, and to find out what solution the mother comes up with, I recommend you watch Ramprasad Ki Tehrvi. 

Last scene: A voiceover by Naseeruddin Shah’s soul dressed in a pure white kurta, pajama, and shawl delivers the important message. It’s not an obvious one, ie. that we must respect our parents and love our siblings. Rather, it is a more musical one and the piano lesson.  The first scene sets the stage.


Monita Soni grew up in Mumbai, India, and works as a pathologist in Alabama. She is well known for her creative nonfiction and poetry pieces inspired by family, faith, food, home, and art. She has written two books: My Light Reflections and Flow through my Heart. She is a regular contributor to NPR’s Sundial Writers Corner.


 

Left to Right: Artists in 'Rivers of India' video, Amrit Ramnath and Bombay Jayashri. (Image provided by Kanniks Kannikeswaran)

A Musical Tribute to the Rivers of India Features a Bay Area Chorus

Covid has hit India hard. What started in one part of the world last year, ended up in another part of the world this year. It is a challenging period in human history. Collective global health is on top of all our minds. This period in time has unleashed an invisible, yet, mighty virus that has brought our community to its knees. 

Let us do every bit that we can to help mitigate this suffering. Let us support organizations that are doing the work on the ground. And as we get back to ‘normal’ let us resolve to be mindful – and unite as a kinder, gentler planet.

Rivers of India is a song that evokes exactly this response – it carries a message about ‘water consciousness’ and the consequences of unfettered exploitation of natural resources.

The video tells the story of Indias regard and reverence towards rivers, the growing dependence of an increasing population on rivers, human exploitation of water resources, and its consequences. The video ends with a message of hope and a call to humanity to unite and to work towards protecting our precious water resources.  

Internationally renowned composer, Dr. Kanniks Kannikeswaran released the music video titled Rivers of India on Earthday 2021. Featured in the video are musical celebrities Padmashri Bombay Jayashri, Kaushiki Chakraborty, Amrit Ramnath, Rishith Desikan, and Sai Shravanam (Production) along with a supporting virtual chorus of committed singers from around the world. The video is released by the International Center for Clean Water, IIT Madras with the objective of creating awareness about our precious water bodies. 

The music was composed just prior to the pandemic and the production commenced in September 2020. It was a collaborative process, with the composer sharing ‘Logic Pro’ sessions on Dropbox, and the Chennai music production team compiling the artists’ recordings in the midst of the pandemic.

Kaushiki Chakraborty and her son recorded in Kolkata, while the 50 singers from all over the world including many from the Bay Area, CA, recorded in their respective cities. The tracks were assembled and the soundscape was created and mixed down by Sai Shravanam at Resound India Studios. Video captures from Chennai, Kolkata, and the United States were integrated into the final music video.  

Dr. Kanniks Kannikeswaran in a still from 'Rivers of India' video. (Image provided by Kanniks Kannikeswaran)
Dr. Kanniks Kannikeswaran in a still from ‘Rivers of India’ video. (Image provided by Kanniks Kannikeswaran)

Rivers of India is a tribute to the timeless spirit of India that literally accords a revered status to the life-sustaining water bodies. The music strings together the names of rivers across India and it also includes an iconic line from the Tamil classic, Silappathikaram.  

This music video is the brainchild of Dr. Kannikeswaran. He is a visionary music composer, educator based in the United States and is known for his pioneering work in raga-based choral, orchestral music. All of his productions are consistent with his vision of building bridges across communities, celebrating the message of the interconnectedness of all of life. Kannikeswaran has been described as a renaissance personality who effortlessly traverses diverse disciplines such as music, spirituality, and innovation.

“It is important to call out the rivers by name,” says the composer, “We are inheritors of a legacy that held water resources in the highest regard.”

“The Center for Clean Water hopes that the video will create the much-needed awareness and prompt global audiences to visit our website and figure out how they can be a part of the solution,” says E. Nandakumar, the CEO of the ICCW. The ICCW is an initiative of IIT Madras with a team of water professionals connecting industry with academia. 

 


Srishti Prabha is the Managing 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.


 

Swara in Hindustani Classical Music

The usage of the two words swara and raag in music are the symbols of delight. For the simplest of definitions, swara is the interaction of breath with musical notes and tone.

The correct swara is an infallible weapon that pares a path for emancipation. The concepts of swara are applied to the Indian khayal system. Deep like an ocean and omnipresent like a sky, swara plunges into the depth of imagination of the singer. 

According to Patanjali, “swayam rajante iti swarah” which means “swaras are those which embellish themselves.”

Sharngadeva while defining the swara states “swatah ranjayati shrotractittam sa swara uchyate” which translates to “that which spontaneously muses the minds of the listeners is called swara.”

When the soul wishes to express its thoughts, it prompts the mind. Subsequently, the mind ignites the fire of the body and this fire propels the air. This air situated in Brahamagranthi in ascends to the heart, throat, and head ultimately reaching into the mouth from where this air merges in the form of sound. This sound is none other than Swara.

Swara is very subtle. It contains a secret meaning hence its manifestation of sentiments can not be grasped by just anyone. Just as the sound of the mystical Om is heard only by a person having divine or superb knowledge so he only can relish the gravity of the swara.

Defining swara is beyond the expression of words.

The swara, as integrated with the feelings of high order sentiments, elevates the pleasure of the singer and the listener. Similarly, if these swaras are composed with inferior and graded words, they degenerate the singer and the listener, alike. The wise go beyond the expression of words, delve into the depth of swara and rejoice like a saint who in deep meditation (Samadhi).

 The swaras of a raag adopt a number of forms. In a bandish, there is gravitation, anti-gravitation, and contraction of one swara with the other.

For the creation of art, most important for a musician is the concentration of mind; s/he is visualizing the secrets of swaras and establishing a sequence and coordination.

In the art of music, raag is an embodiment. To compose a raag, the musician practices the swaras. S/he establishes a sequence among the swaras. With these salient features, the composition of a raag is the aesthetic beauty of music.


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. Contact him here: 91 -9510244455 .


 

Musician, Raja Kumari (Image provided by Raja Kumari)

‘I Was Told to Tone Down My Ethnicity to be Successful in America’ Notes Raja Kumari

Indian-American rapper, songwriter, and singer Raja Kumari is a force of nature. Hailing from Claremont, California, she is best known for her collaboration with notable artists including Gwen Stefani, Fifth Harmony, Knife Party, and Fall Out Boy. A fearless, charismatic personality and natural-born storyteller, her mission is to create art that blends her Indian roots with her American upbringing.

In this exclusive interview, she talks among other things about the challenges she had to face as an American of Indian origin, her latest tracks ‘I Am A Rebel’ and ‘Hello World’ which released on Women’s Day, and philanthropic activities that she participates in through her music.

Musician, Raja Kumari (Image provided by Raja Kumari)
Musician, Raja Kumari (Image provided by Raja Kumari)

Being of Indian American origin, tell us more about the challenges you had to face and the uniqueness you bring to your music. 

RK: One of the main issues I faced trying to get started in America was racism. I was always told to tone down my ethnicity, that I was “too Indian” to be successful in America. I struggled to find someone to look up to as a South Asian kid in America. I remember, on weekends I would travel for classical dancing and wouldn’t necessarily share that with my friends. I would come to school with the Alta (painting the palms and feet with a red dye) fading on my hands and they’d ask me, “What is that? Do you have a hand disease?” 

Things are evolving in the US now. I like to call it the ‘brown renaissance’ Indians are more relevant in so many fields, especially entertainment. On the other hand, some people in India called me a ‘culture vulture’. How can I be a ‘culture vulture’ in my own culture just because I’m born in America? I’m not just another South Asian. I still have put in my time to be Indian enough to talk about India without being an appropriator of culture. My family did a really great job of preserving the culture for us. We don’t fake it. We wear sarees for pujas, my mom does Vijayadashami and Navratri, I have studied Indian music and dance. As a result, my style is just a balance between the East and the West. 

I think learning to navigate both worlds with authenticity has helped me become the artist I am today. I have carved a place for myself in the male-dominated music circuit by staying authentic and rooted in my culture. I think there a lot of women in the industry who say a lot of things from the female perspective about relationships, broken hearts, love lost, pain, sadness, happiness, or sexiness; there are so many of those voices. I felt like we were missing my perspective. Of course, I could sing soft and beautiful songs but there are many people to do that.

You are also a trained dancer in Kuchipudi, Odissi, and Bharatanatyam. Tell us more about this passion of yours. 

RK: My passion for Indian dance started at a very young age. My mother had always wanted to be a classical dancer and it wasn’t feasible for her to pursue it growing up, so it was always in her heart to have a daughter who was a dancer so I came out dancing. My attachment to classical Indian dancing really gave me so much of my personality, so much the way I dress and the way I perceive the world, and also the stories that I relate to. Some kids grew up to Batman, Superman and I was really obsessed with the Mahabharata and the Ramayana and the stories of Hanuman. Those were my superheroes, and so I think classical dance really made that a part of my life. 

Tell us more about philanthropic activities you have participated in in the past through your performances. 

RK: I always believed art should be used for the greater good. Since I was a child, my parents always involved me in a lot of charity work and I was able to help build the meditational hall in Hyderabad and donate a wing for a hospital in Bengaluru. I consistently performed for so many temples to raise funds for building certain temples in Southern California. I think now I definitely use my art to open doors for others to create an opportunity to inspire. There are many philanthropic activities I am a part of but I mostly like to support the charities that support the girl child because I believe in India, we need more attention and more support to encourage young girls to be in art and not just sciences or leaving school as we usher in an era of more creative artists. I think we have enough of everything else and I would hate to lose our artistry as a culture with the idea of modernizing ourselves and lose everything we are, so anything that will help support the art, I am there.

Who are some of your inspirations? 

RK: Madhuri Dixit, Lauryn Hill, Kamala Harris, Missy Elliot, and Beyonce.

Tell our readers more about your latest tracks ‘I Am A Rebel’ (featuring Kiara Advani and Bani J in lead roles) as well as ‘Hello World’ (with Hollywood actor Rita Wilson and Brazilian singer Claudia Leitte), both of which released on Women’s Day. 

RK: Both these tracks were created from the inkling to motivate and inspire young girls. Teaming up with Rita Wilson and Claudia Leitte on ‘Hello World’ was amazing, as these are two women I have so much respect for and it was really cool to see how our styles complemented one another. When boAt approached me to write ‘I Am A Rebel’, I was so excited to collaborate with my longtime friend DJ SA on the music. I’ve always considered myself a rebel in my music choice, my career, and my unapologetic nature! I loved crafting the lyrics to depict that energy and I’m so happy to have been joined by so many strong women like Bani J and Kiara on the campaign.


Neha Kirpal is a freelance writer based in Delhi. She is the author of Wanderlust for the Soul, an e-book collection of short stories based on travel in different parts of the world. 


 

Artist, CoMo, recording music.

After Immigrating to Cupertino, I Found My Place Through Rap Music

6 schools in 5 years across 2 continents is no easy feat for any adolescent…

I was constantly trying to pick up on the likes and dislikes of my peers, trying to find a crowd that would remind me of home.

After coming back from India and starting 6th grade at Kennedy Middle School, I found myself in a position I had been in far too many times for my liking. I met a couple of friends and my mom was ecstatic! She wanted to know everything about their families and have dinner with them, as is in Indian tradition.

I stepped into my friend’s house and his parents direct me to his room where all the other kids are. I hear a heavy bassline, horns enunciating each downbeat, and a man’s voice riding the instrumental effortlessly. I was instantly enamored and wanted to know what this music was. That is the first time I listened to In Da Club by 50 cent – an introduction to rap music. 

From there, my journey into rap took me to artists like Eminem, Dr. Dre, Lupe Fiasco, Kanye West, and so much more. I felt like I finally belonged. I spent hours on end listening, I felt like I had a voice. I was obsessed.

Going Nowhere Fast Album Cover
‘Going Nowhere Fast’ Album Cover

It never occurred to me, until after college, that I could try and start making music. Now, it’s been four years and I have released over 100 songs. Most recently, I put out my debut album ‘Going Nowhere Fast’

My pursuit of Hip Hop stems from those feelings of wanting to find a home. I have written music about subjects like being a first-generation Indian American and cherishing a good time with friends on a Friday night. That’s the beautiful thing about music, songs truly just encapsulate moments in time.

We are all multi-faceted creatures making our way through life and what it presents. I have found my music helps me document these instances and provides me an outlet for self-expression and realization that I haven’t found anywhere else in my life. I can get completely lost in a chord progression because of the triggered emotion. My music is my scrapbook on display for the audience to take as their own and create their own world in. I hope everyone finds a place in it. 

 


Amogh Changavi, or CoMo, is a hip-hop musician based out of the Bay Area that’s been making music for the past 4 years. Rapping about everlasting topics on moments in time that are here to stay. Instagram| Twitter | Facebook


 

Author, Lakshmi Rao with her tanpura(Image by Jigna Desai)

The Enduring Poetry of the Gwalior Gayaki

Poetry As Sanctuary – A column where we explore poetry as a means of expression for voices of the South Asian Diaspora.

“Geetam Vaadyam Tatha Nrityam, Trayam Sangeeta Mucchyate.”

This quote from the ancient Sangeet Ratnakar by Pandit Sharangdev, defines ‘sangeeta’, or ‘collective music’, as singing, instrumental music, and dance. De rigeur for many Indian children, I have fond memories of training in Bharatanatyam and Carnatic vocal music myself. While my exposure to playing instruments was limited, I spent time listening to soulful Hindi film songs and singing in the school choir.

 I also ventured outside ‘sangeeta’. Over the summer holidays, I lost myself in brooding Dutch skies and the idyllic English countryside, while painstakingly recreating the paintings of the Old Masters on my own. My unexpected partner in artistic ventures was my mother. I still remember her reciting “For whom the bell tolls”, during our weekly Sunday oil-bath ritual. The oil was smelly and the bathroom floor was cold, but John Donne lit up my seven-year-old imagination. 

“No man is an island,

Entire of itself.

Each is a piece of the continent,

A part of the main.

If a clod be washed away by the sea,

Europe is the less.

As well as if a promontory were.

As well as if a manor of thine own

Or of thine friend’s were.

Each man’s death diminishes me,

For I am involved in mankind.

Therefore, send not to know

For whom the bell tolls,

It tolls for thee.”

Captivated by words, endless hours were spent in bookstores and libraries, train compartments, and dull classes secretly devouring Dickens and Austen and later, Sheldon and Nabokov. Fascinated by these cerebral and rather mysterious personalities, I wondered: was writing art? If a picture paints a thousand words, are words then less, or more? And do they not have a place in “sangeeta”?

Time passed and I “grew up”; focusing my energies on studying and working, traveling extensively while juggling the demands of career and family. In 2009, I decided to take a much-needed break when we moved to Mumbai and rekindled my interest in the arts, this time through Hindustani classical music. I found a compelling and motivated teacher in Vidushi Neela Bhagwat, the doyenne of the ancient Gwalior parampara. Neelaji, as she is affectionately known, traces her lineage through her guru, Sharathchandra Arolkar, to Krishnarao Shankar Pandit and in turn to Haddu and Hassu Khan. Of course, the millennia-old river that Indian music is, there have been many others that gently fed the rivulets and streams. I feel incredibly lucky to be connected to this lineage of artists, spanning space and time.

Gwalior Fort (Image by Pavel Suprun and under Creative Commons License)
Gwalior Fort (Image by Pavel Suprun and under Creative Commons License)

Famous for its “ashtanga gayaki” (or eight-fold ways of voice projection), the distinctive Gwalior aesthetic relies on the composition as the portal into the raaga. The gayaki employs  a number of musical forms to render emotion: “khatka”, “meend”, “gamak”,”aalaap”, “behlava”, “taan”, “kampan” and “murki”. The richly detailed, complex compositions typically contain many of these forms, both conveying the essence of the raaga and the unmistakable singing style. Gwalior singers typically favor the “siddha” raagas (principal raagas). Yet, what drew me most was the focus on the “bol” or words of the bandish, and the interplay of these words with the “layakari”, or play of rhythm. While many gharanas emphasize similar musical forms, the Gwalior gayaki melds them with the “bol” – and “bol aalaap” is a hallmark of this tradition. 

In my quest to convey the beauty of these verses, I stumbled upon an entire world of poetry and lyricism. One of my favorite bandishes, set to raaga Vrindavani Sarang:

“Bore jina Allah ko yoon na jaaniye. Karna tha so kar chuka, aur ji chaaha so kara.

Adarang sanchi kahat, as kaaman ko, rahim reejha reejha layi, kahu ki as kaaman kara, so hi det rab”. 

Translated:

“Oh simpleton, do your duty and once done with it, do what you desire.

Adarang says truly Allah will satisfy your sincere wishes.” 

Written by Adarang who was a poet in the Delhi court of Mughal Emperor Mohammed Shah Rangile (1702-1748), the soaring notes pay tribute to the Creator. Singing the composition day after day, I noticed how my mood gradually grew more positive – and I realized the power of poetry. Poets weave magic, and “geetham” would be closer to “vaadyam” without their precious words.

Another evocative piece set to raaga Bageshri, about the plight of a lovelorn woman pining for an indifferent partner and confiding in her friend strikes a different chord. The second stanza, especially, conjures vivid imagery:

“Kaun gat bhaili, mori sajani, yeri mayi, piya na pooche ek baat;

Ek ban dhoondhoon, sakala ban ban, gayi daar daar, karahi paat paat”

Translated:

“Where has he gone, dear friend, my love did not take leave of me;

I am searching for him in the forest, through all the woods, branches, leaves.”

I joined the “Poetry of Diaspora in Silicon Valley” circle in 2019, hoping to better understand poetic sentiments and bring more feeling into my singing. Surrounded by verse in languages ranging from Pali to Portuguese, and meeting online as a getaway from Covid-imposed isolation, I eventually summoned the courage to write, too. Here’s a bandish on my travels, to meet my teacher:

“Badhi kathinayi saha guru dwaar aayi,

Ghar baal chhod kar, gyan pane mayi.

Guru haske kahe, jaanat nahin baawri,

Main antar mein rahoon, tu kahaan jayi”

Translated:

“Braving great troubles, I came to my guru’s door,

Leaving my family, in order to gain knowledge,

The guru laughed, asked if I didn’t know,

That the guru resides inside, where are you headed?”

Listening to poetry has unexpectedly grown into a much-anticipated weekly ritual. I’m delighted in my discovery of an art form within an art form, expanding my horizons and making friends along the way. Many of the members in our circle share common interests and creative collaborations bubble up quite often. I look forward to the ventures and adventures that beckon in 2021!


Lakshmi Rao is a senior disciple of Vidushi Neela Bhagwat, training in the vocal style of the Gwalior parampara. She calls the Bay Area home, and remains ever curious about the world that was, that is and that will be! 


 

Agni Whips You Into the Environmental Crisis Overtaking Bay Area Landscapes

The world premiere of Bay Area Based Chitresh Das Institute’s (CDI) short Kathak film, “Agni” is on Earth Day, April 22, 2021, at 7:30 pm PDT. The video premiere will be followed by a Q&A panel discussion moderated by India Currents.

The short film is directed and voiced by Filmmaker – Alka Raghuram, choreographed by CDI’s Artistic Director – Charlotte Moraga, composed by musician – Alam Khan, and shot by cinematographer – Anjali Sundaram.

To purchase tickets for the event, head on over to ODC Dance website:

Tickets are $10 before the day of the event

https://t.co/Yw2IfPqjYH?amp=1

Be sure not to miss the event this Thursday!

Here are some sneak peeks about the film when we spoke to the director and producer, Alka Raghuram. 

What was the inspiration to make this film?

Before getting into that, I want to give some context of my association with Chitresh Das Institute. I had worked with Pandit Chitresh Das for his last performance for a live Kathak Flamenco production named “Yatra,” where I was doing the audiovisual element part of it. Initially, Charlotte wanted to create a live show called “Mantram” based on Panchabhoota, five basic elements of cosmic creation. Due to pandemics, live performances are not happening.

We tried to bring out a collaborative effort for “Agni,” the element that brings out the fire’s force or ferocity. Fire is a destructive force but also creates fertile ground for rejuvenation. This film was very much a response to the wildfire burning in California and the social and political wildfires of social injustice in the spring and summer of 2020. Earth’s perspective on fire and what our role is to play in it. It is a collaborative effort to tell the story through different mediums. Charlotte tells the story through dance, and me through film, poem, paintings, and Alam through music. It is the plant’s seed, i.e., the actual live show coming up in the near future. We are going to do a series of short films like this in each of the elements. 

How is watching this film different from a live dance show (watching from the front)?

Projecting a painting is usually static. Watching a show as an audience is a different experience altogether but watching a movie is dynamic. I filmed the dancers from various angles so that they are dancing in other ways. That helps viewers to witness as an insider. Even the side wings of the auditorium stage have the same three-dimensional visual effects. We took a creative decision to make this film distinct that way from watching a show from the front. 

Can you tell us about the poem used in the film?

I wrote the poem to highlight the environmental aspect of the story. The artistic process is iterative by nature. Your vision evolves and gets refined as the work progresses. The first cut of the film was eye-catching and beautiful but we were missing the allusion to the wildfires of the last couple of years. Which led us to experiment with text that would complement the visuals and bring out that dimension without sensationalizing it in any way. We wanted the whole piece to be cut from the same cloth

The poem in the film is complimenting what is already there rather than underlying it. The poem is also another culpable way here to ask whose fault it is. Dance and visuals say whose fault is this, and the verse is also saying that through words. It is giving a hint to the audience about what is going to come. I recited it as well. 

Music is one of the critical elements of this production. We noticed no particular raaga or taala associated with it, like traditional Indian Classical performances. Can you give some background about the creation of this unique music?

Alam Khan created the music piece, and Charlotte made the bols and rhythmic composition. The taal is a complex five and half-beat taal. Charlotte Moraga notes that it’s like fire, it is quick, exciting, and unpredictable! Alam adds that the music is not based on any particular raga. The music is a continuation of Alam’s contemporary approach in blending Indian classical instruments with other instrument types. He has been doing this for many years now and feels his style in this vein continues to grow. We wanted to do something musically out of the box for Kathak and push the limits of what we are accustomed to. 

Can you tell us about the artwork and paintings used in the film? it is an integral part of this film. Is it digital? Can you tell us a little more background of it?

Those are hand-painted, and I used ink. I am a painter too, and the idea was to use those paintings projected in the auditorium during the performance. In the film, the backdrop is not so much focused. I painted blue woods and redwoods and took pictures of tree barks and fire. I needed to rearrange, superimpose, and layered all of these during editing in such a three-dimensional way, telling a dynamic cinematic story altogether. Paintings are also done in a way to interpret it globally, not so region-specific. I used a blue color tone in paintings overall. Blue represents the hottest and the most intense part of the fire’s flames. Blue is also the calm part of it before the fire starts. 

What is the concluding message of this production from the environmental aspect? Can you tell our audience about it a little more? 

The film communicates from the perspective of the Earth and speaks about who is culpable for it. It asks the question and includes everyone. Towards the end, the dancers stare at viewers and say whose fault it is. Then there is smoke, and the Earth’s mouth is filled with ash. Earth speaks with grief. Then there is ash in the landscape, and birds are disappearing. It is like Earth’s lament through the poem, dancer’s expressions, and visuals – Why is this happening? Who is to blame? Our deeds are recorded in the time ledger how we acted so far caused us to come to this point. Agni is raging and destroying. It brought us to think brink for our deeds. This film visually takes us on the journey from sparks to the raging fire. 


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. 


 

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.