Tag Archives: Suchithra Pillai

Neel Murgai Ensemble’s New Album Will Reorient You on Love and Loss

With a unique amalgamation of traditional Indian Raga with chamber Jazz sound, the well known Brooklyn based music band, Neel Murgai Ensemble has come up with its new creation, ‘Reorientation’. A magical combination of ethereal overtone singing, slow-moving psychedelic-soundscapes with alluringly irregular time signatures and resonant scales, the new album boasts of an exotic musical experience for all music lovers across the world.

Recorded at Eastside Sound in Manhattan, Engineered by Sam Crawford and Lily Wang with mastering by Kane Mathis, the album is partially funded by the American Composer’s Forum, with additional funding provided by the Spark Plug Foundation. More than a new album, the musical compilation signifies a reorientation of both self and music that describes a story of loss and eventual recovery with a newfound love for the composer, overtone singer, sitarist and teacher Neel Murgai.

“The album is very close to my heart as it incorporates my journey of self-healing after I lost my old partner. Most of the compositions, especially the ensemble ones, were created in the past when I was with her and recorded them nearly 5-6 years ago. Music helped me to self rejuvenate myself, overcome the loss of someone special and move on from the tragic past. This album is dedicated to all those who are struggling from a personal loss and it is to convey to them that we can definitely move on from these tragic experiences. If I can do it, then it is a medium to inspire others too,” said Neel Murgai, the ensemble leader. “For some reason, I sat on these recordings for a long time. But just recently, my new partner and I had a baby. So it felt like it was time, like I needed to really just finish this up and move on from it in a way.”

Though the older ensemble pieces rooted in Indian classical instrumentation make up the backbone of the album, the nine tracks of Reorientation also includes recent work of solo overtone singing and looping pieces, resulting in elaborate aural explorations. The entire album is an artistic dialogue with Murgai’s older music and newer creations, providing realignment for heart and mind after devastating loss. 

“Reorientation is a combination of older ensemble tracks and newer tracks of solo overtone singing like the Mongolian throat singing using looping technology. Though they are divergent and so different in many ways, it’s like they’re talking to each other like my new self and my old selves are having this existential conversation,” the composer added, who had been working on this newer project of overtone singing and looping to concoct sublime sonic landscapes for over the last four years. 

One of the older tracks in particular, “Sunflower” was written for and dedicated to Murgai’s previous partner. This second track of the album is based on Raga Yaman. Raga, the form of Indian classical music, literally means “that which colors the mind”. The name for the final track on the album “16251”, actually represents the chords played. 

In contrast to the tradition-steeped in virtuosity that characterizes the foundation of the ensemble pieces, the more recent contributions are improvisational, self-reflexive, and inherently psychedelic.  “Music can always be used for healing,” opined Murgai, “but especially this overtone singing has been great for my own self-healing and for helping others because it is spontaneous and allows practitioners to facilitate a sound meditation experience.”

Many of the compositional ideas for Murgai’s overtone singing on tracks like the lead “He’s Got a Pulse,” came out in the spontaneity of improvisation. He developed a kind of improvisatory language, singing random vowels, syllables, and consonants while at once examining how they shaped the overtones. 

For another track, “Moom Moom Gong Bong,” Murgai utilized this language, along with Mongolian vocal techniques, as well as techniques pioneered by Timothy Hill of the Harmonic Choir, a seminal group in modern overtone singing who systematized the use of vowel sounds to elicit overtones.  Yet, sometimes real words emerged out of that process too, like in the track “Speak True,” a song in which words just kind of emerged spontaneously, partially because of the way that the vowel sounds elicit certain overtones that he was going for. 

Though Neel Murgai entered the world of music by playing tambourine in school in New York City and then learned Jazz music, it was his acquaintance with Indian classical music in Varanasi as an adult that helped him gain a new direction in music. Combining Raga with jazz sound, incorporating different talas and creating own versions of different talas, it paved the way to create a signature style for the Indian American musician internationally. After the worldwide release of his new album, he is also looking at exploring new opportunities, presenters and promoters in India for next year. Reorientation’s live emanation, performances will also feature ensemble members who are also connected with the Brooklyn Raga Massive, including Trina Basu on violin, Arun Ramamurthy on violin, Marika Hughes on cello, and Sameer Gupta on tabla.

Murgai is also the co-founder and co-artistic director of the Brooklyn Raga Massive (BRM), a NYC-based artist collective dedicated to creating cross-cultural understanding through the lens of Indian classical and Raga inspired music. The collective, which has a dedicated following community who love Indian classical music, not only organizes weekly concerts but performs at bigger venues like Kennedy center and has an annual 24 hours music festival as well. 

“I want to continue experimenting with Indian classical music through our collective. We were one of the first bands to bring Indian classical influence to western minimal pieces and now we have performed nearly 80 concerts in a year. Right now Indian music just involves 3-4 musicians playing at a time and I want to experiment it with having a repertoire with over 20 people performing together, expanding and exploring the loneliness of Indian classical music,” said Murgai. Further adding on his future plans he concluded, “I have already started planning for my next record that would be completely focused on solo performance based on overtone singing. I have a new idea of presenting raga as a kind of abstract expressionist, using raga phrases with minimal music. My direction is currently headed in that way, which is also known as yamanism.”

Suchithra Pillai comes with over a decade’s experience in the field of journalism, exploring and writing about people, issues, and community stories for many leading publications in India and the United States. In her spare time, you would either find her scribbling down some thoughts in the paper trying to find a rhyme or story out of small things or expressing her love for dance on stage.

Entrepreneurial Mother Unlocks Kulture

Who else can know a child’s needs better than a mom. And it takes a strong woman to go beyond and fulfill the gaps, irrespective of the circumstances.

Putting aside the pandemic we are facing, it is still International Women’s Month! India Currents would like to tell the story of one such strong Indian American mother, Akruti Babaria, who recognized the importance of conveying Indian traditions and culture to her child and she knew she had to be the one to start a venture to accomplish the feat.

Kulture Khazana is an online portal that unlocks Indian cultural treasures for children using different interactive mediums. From online content, workshops, newsletters, seminars to children’s books – the portal is a one stop destination for every Indian mother who seeks to impart her culture to her kids.

Established in February 2018, the journey was not a cakewalk for the mom-entrepreneur, who had to travel halfway across the globe to find the right sources for her endeavour.

“It was when I started to speak to my 3 year old son about Indian culture, did I realize the lack of resources around us in the US. I wanted him to learn about our values and traditions and could not find any authentic source here. I had to travel all the way to India to purchase nearly 400 books, back then for the purpose. The journey and the realization paved the way to curate something that can be beneficial not just for my son but for every kid in the US,” said Akruti Babaria, who left her full-time job to pursue this venture.

Right after its establishment, the portal was well received by all Indian American parents who were eagerly in search for a repository that offers them the right resources, especially books that do not highlight any violence but convey the needed context in an appropriate way based on the aptitude of a kid. Surprisingly, even the local libraries welcomed the cultural materials and were more than happy to display the collection. 

Akruti storytelling at her local library

Though the initial acceptance helped Akruti to establish her endeavor across the community, finding feasible partners for the business was a challenging task.

“It required lots of research, meetings and effort to find genuine partners to do business with. We needed people who share the same passion for children’s literature. Though at first I used to work with distributors, now over the years I have been able to establish direct contacts with publishers and authors, which has helped the process to be more smooth and effective.” 

Not just limiting the scope to online content, Akruti understood the need to be innovative and went on to explore new avenues to spread awareness on Indian culture. A unique approach of mixing storytelling with activities and movements, she was able to find new ways to engage the kids in learning about their culture.

“I wanted to do something which is not monotonous and kids should find it interesting rather than preachy. The interactive workshops and seminars gives an all-rounded experience for kids with lots of activities and fun learning exercises. It’s been well received and many schools and organizations like children’s museums, libraries, literary communities, temples, and grocery chain stores have come forward to organize such events. Surprisingly, even the non-Indian communities have shown interest and attend these workshops in large numbers to learn more about Indian culture and global diversity,” 

Akruti using different mediums to teach culture

Currently, she has also been approached by the school district of Texas to create a cultural kit as part of the curriculum for 2020 with special focus on spreading awareness about culture and diversity for students and on how teachers should plan to include the framework within the curriculum.

Akruti also conducts professional development seminars for educators on how to interpret culture in a classroom. She feels that if the kids are knowledgeable about diversity and inclusion at such a young age, then they grow up to become open-minded individuals. Most of the organizations have workshops on inclusion as part of team building exercises and Akruti asserts that if these cultural values are taught to them right from childhood then there is no need to retrain them in future. 

The dancer cum MBA graduate is all set to enter a new phase as she plans to author a book for kids about spices. Writing poems and collating learning exercises for the weekly newsletters of her portal, she is already on the move creating new experiences for children through a mother’s lens. 

Akruti call outs to the wonderful women out there for International Women’s month, “Come what may, always follow your passion. Regain your confidence and find your girl gang, who is always there to give an hi-five, to support, advise and even criticize. You just have to step out and you will realize that there is a whole community of women out there who are always ready to support each other.”

Suchithra Pillai comes with over a decade’s experience in the field of journalism, exploring and writing about people, issues, and community stories for many leading publications in India and the United States. In her spare time, you would either find her scribbling down some thoughts in the paper trying to find a rhyme or story out of small things or expressing her love for dance on stage.

Edited by Assistant Editor, Srishti Prabha.

Vision in Focus: 40 Years of Seva Foundation

Photographs that speak of compassion and love, and each photograph conveys more than a thousand words. An amazing showcase of breathtaking photography as the Seva Foundation commemorates its 40th anniversary by organizing a wonderful exhibition of photographs that capture the essence of this relentless fight against preventable blindness around the world. Started off on September 7th, the “Vision in Focus: 40 years of Restoring Sight, A Retrospective” exhibition is open to the public till September 30th at Warehouse 416, Oakland, California.

Photography has been one of the main tools of the organization in raising awareness of communities who struggle with sight. “It was one of the ideas of our staff members to curate a photography exhibition that collectively showcases our 40 years of journey and efforts to prevent blindness and restoring sight around the globe. We have been fortunate enough to have really talented photographers who have donated their work for our cause. They have understood the need and worked along with Seva in raising awareness on vision care and improving lives on a global scale,” said Julie Nestingen, Director of Development, Seva Foundation and also one of the photographers who is participating at the exhibition.

The retrospective gallery displays a beautiful collection of photographs that highlights stories of different communities, who have gained a new perspective on life through the works of Seva. The exhibition features photography from talented photographers like Ellen Crystal, Rebecca Gaal, Jon Kaplan, Julie Nestingen and Joe Raffanti.

“It’s a special kind of gratifying experience to be associated with such a wonderful cause and the Seva foundation. You get to see a different perspective of humanity and being able to capture their moments of happiness is really heartening. Photographs have a better way to convey emotions than words, they tell a story in itself. The before and after photographs of people from the communities who struggle with sight, rightfully defines the impact others can bring on the lives of needy people through their compassionate efforts,” stated Jon Kaplan, one of the photographers who traveled along with the Seva Foundation to different countries in Asia, Africa and South America to capture their admirable service to humanity.

Photography is also considered as an effective method of communication that brushes away the boundaries of language and culture. According to another participating photographer, Rebecca Gaal, “Photography is a way to connect with people especially with those who do not speak the same language. There is a story behind every photograph and it directly conveys and makes people understand the gravity of change one can bring to the lives of other people.” She was the one who curated the photography exhibition by selecting thirty photographs from the entire collection of 40 years of Seva.

“Seva is an incredible organization that works towards this never-ending struggle and I love to capture their amazing moments. Understanding the lives of people who are struggling with sight and photographing them is a different experience. I really hope that more people get a chance to interact with such communities, create experiences and work towards making a difference in the global world for a greater need,” she added.

Founded in 1978, the Seva Foundation has been working towards restoring sight and eradicating preventable blindness across the globe over the years. Supporting eye care initiatives in more than 20 countries, the Berkeley-based organization offers universal access to healthy vision care through affordable medical treatments and low-cost surgeries. It also partners with local hospitals by empowering them with efficient resources and mentoring them to improve the infrastructure and quality of eye-care services.

“Our aim is to eradicate treatable and preventable blindness across the world. Restoring sight not just helps an individual in leading a better life and achieving more from it, but also benefits the entire family, caretakers or community in having a new outlook towards life. According to the global aging population, the population of blind people is expected to triple in 2050 and we really need to work towards such an important cause,” opined Julie Nestingen.

“Photographs are so compelling and are a great way to tell a story. We expect people to understand the sentiments of different communities across the globe and the vital need through our exhibition as we continue to work towards our relentless fight against preventable blindness around the world,” added the Director.

With an aim of ‘Vision in Focus’, the exhibition not just conveys the remarkable journey of an organization but also gives insights into the lives of people, who are struggling to have at the least a clear image of the world around them. The exhibition is open to public for the whole month of September, showcasing 30 photographs in total from five great photographers.

Suchithra Pillai comes with nearly a decade’s experience in the field of journalism, exploring and writing about people, issues, and community stories for many leading publications in India and United States. In her spare time, you can find her scribbling down some thoughts on paper, trying to find a rhyme or story out of small things, or expressing her love for dance on stage.

This article was curated by Culture and Media Editor, Geetika Pathania Jain.

Cover photo credit: Joe Raffanti

Documentary About Spelling Bee Champs Creates Buzz

A dynasty unnoticed yet really intriguing and amazing! It’s been 19 years in a row that Indian American kids have been emerging as winners at the Scripps National Spelling Bee competition. 19 out of the last 23 winners of the spelling bee competition have been Indian Americans, creating an incredible trend since 1999. Capturing this astounding trend, well known director Sam Rega in his award-winning documentary ‘Breaking the Bee’ brings out the essence of the competition and reveals interesting facts about this amazing tradition of the Indian Americans succeeding at the contests.

“I was really amazed by the statistics on the spelling bee competitions. It was all happening right in front of us, aired on ESPN but hardly anyone reported or noticed such an intriguing trend. The idea was brought to me by Chris Weller, who did research and detailed analysis on this trend for several years and is also the producer of the movie,” said Sam Rega, Director, Editor and Co-Producer of the documentary.

“Sports has always fascinated me. I love competitions and people pushing themselves to their limits. It can be either physical or mental limits, or even both. This was the perfect film that had everything in it, right from sports, family, team efforts to meticulous planning,” added Rega.

The feature-length documentary has already gained international acclaim since its world premiere at the 2018 Cleveland International Film Festival and also got premiered at New York Indian Film Festival. Speaking about the tremendous response received so far, the director stated that people were incredibly engaged throughout, with tickets sold out in both film festivals. The gasps, groans and cheering during the entire screening of the movie was the best ever feedback received. 

Held at the US national level, the Scripps National spelling bee competition has a golden history of 90 years, helping students improve their spelling, vocabulary and correct English usage. This documentary explores and celebrates this new dynasty of Indian American winners by taking the audience through the journeys of four students: Akash, Ashrita, Shourav, and Tejas, aged between 7-14, as they vie for the title of spelling bee champion.

More than just a competition, it is the love for the language that has been depicted as the key point in the documentary. The film portrays a complete picture of the competition and the entire process behind it. We get a behind-the scenes look at family discussions on word formations and patterns, personal database of words, learning phases and even lucky charms. The film includes informative interviews with current competing spellers, their parents, former spelling bee champions and experts, drawing you into this world, even if you have never watched a single episode of spelling bee competition

Brushing aside the perception of Indian parents as tiger parents, Sam Rega stated, “For Indian American parents, the competition is more like a family sport. Parents are seen getting really involved in each step of the preparation and enjoy playing spelling bee with the kids. This is the reason why the competition sees more siblings joining as they see their brother or sister enjoy the process. Most of the Indian American parents are multilingual themselves and hence they train their kids also to learn different languages and understand the nuances of it. There was a universal support from the families when they heard about the making of this film. It was like everyone was living the trend but even they didn’t know why it was happening.”

Rega added: “I think it was the perfect storm of events that came together to build the trend. The 1965 Immigration Act laid the foundation for the wave of influx of highly educated immigrants from South Asia, especially India. These families have a strong focus on education and raised their kids to value education. In 1985, when they first saw a South Asian kid emerge as winner on screen, it was: ‘If he can do it, then we can do it too.’” It was a key moment, with front page newspaper headlines, and every kid wanted to participate and showcase their talent on a larger platform.”

On the dark side of fame, the director opined, “It’s unfortunate that a few of the winners had to face racist comments. They earned the prize with their hard work and you cannot bash the kids with nasty comments. It’s terrible as they are just kids and hence we have included those elements as well in the film to show on how it was a rollercoaster ride for these families. People should consider that even they are Americans and part of the same community. I hope the movie as a whole can change the perceptions of many and people would open their arms for a global community.”

With future plans to screen the movie at various other film festivals, the makers are also seeking options to distribute the movie to a wider audience by streaming on TV to reach a global audience..

Breaking the Bee (2018). Director and Editor: Sam Rega. Writers and Producers: Sam Rega and Chris Weller.

Suchithra Pillai comes with nearly a decade’s experience in the field of journalism, exploring and writing about people, issues, and community stories for many leading publications in India and United States. In her spare time, you can find her scribbling down some thoughts on paper, trying to find a rhyme or story out of small things, or expressing her love for dance on stage.

This article was written by Suchithra Pillai and edited by Culture and Media Editor, Geetika Pathania Jain.

Fall: International Acclaim for Indian American Film

Proving their mettle and showcasing the vibrant talent across boundaries, Indian American filmmakers are now creating a space of their own, gaining acclaim and recognition from different international film festivals across the world. Fall (2018), a short film by Vigil Bose, is one such attempt. The film has received seventeen awards and fourteen nominations so far from various International film festivals held in India, Italy, and US, for best experimental film and superb performances.

Trying to deliver a unique perspective of psychological trauma faced by undercover operatives on their return from high-risk America’s anti-insurgent operations, Fall is an experimental short film that conveys a myriad of emotions through images and the power of silence. “It is a humble attempt to explore the lives of veterans, whom I admire a lot in my life,” says Vigil Bose, who is the writer, director and cinematographer for the film. “The story and characters are built around the traumatic occurrences, internal conflicts and stressful experiences that an undercover agent encounters in life. I have tried to experiment and convey the intensity of emotions through different shots rather than heavy exchange of dialogues” .  Produced by Three Eye Visuals, the cast of the short film includes Jiju Nair, Praveen Kumar, Sindhu Nair and Jon Feidl.

Describing the wonderful journey and hard work that went into the making of the film, the lead actor, Jiju Nair stated, “I was always on the lookout of a character that is really challenging and socially inclined and when Vigil approached me, I was more than happy to take up this project. The role not just required me to train physically but also to emotionally understand a character that is very complex and mysterious, and for which I had no model to study or look upon.” Jiju also added that the movie is an attempt to establish the presence of Indian American actors on the global stage.

Indian actors and filmmakers have been trying to create an imprint of their own in Hollywood for years. Still, the impact and representation is very small though changes are booming in the recent past. “Our movie-making is an attempt to change the representation and participation of Indian actors and filmmakers in the Hollywood industry. It is the main reason why I chose an Indian actor to portray a lead role in my film that focused on US undercover agents. The creative talent of Asians, especially Indians need to be explored and given more opportunities to flourish. Actors like Priyanka Chopra in Quantico are slowly paving the way for the change but more augmenting measures are required,” opined Vigil. He and Jiju Nair share a strong background in theatre, having acted together on numerous stages in Kochi, Kerala. Even though both of them are IT professionals, it is this same passion for art that brought them together to pursue their dream after so many years.

Their debut short film, Fall, has won awards at Oniros Film Awards, Italy for best cinematography, supporting actor, supporting actress; best experimental film and jury award at LakeView International Film Festival; gold award for best supporting actor, silver award for best actor, silver award for best editor, bronze award for best short film at Virgin Spring Cinefest; best short film-bronze award, best cinematography-silver award, best actor-bronze award, best actress-bronze award and best supporting actor-platinum award at Mindfield Film Festival, Albuquerque, NM, as well as several nominations and official selections at various prestigious film festivals across the globe.

The duo plan to take the short film to a next level of a motion picture in the future and are looking out for local investors. They are also working together to set out different business plans to host and distribute the movie, with a special focus on streaming media like Youtube Red and Amazon

“We have received tremendous feedback so far and hence would surely be working towards taking the movie to the next level,” added Vigil, who is currently also working on another forthcoming project, Chained, facing the camera as an actor after a long gap of 16 years. To relish the pure joy of creativity and attainment in life, both Vigil and Jiju now aim to continue and invest more time in exploring future opportunities in the movie industry.

Fall (2018). Director: Vigil Bose. Writers: Vigil Bose, Sujil Chandra Bose. Cast: Jiju Nair, Praveen Kumar, Sindhu Nair and Jon Feidl. Produced by: Three Eye Visuals.

Suchithra Pillai comes with nearly a decade’s experience in the field of journalism, exploring and writing about people, issues, and community for many leading publications in India and Denver, Colorado. In her spare time, you can find her scribbling down some thoughts in paper trying to find a rhyme or story out of small things, or expressing her love for dance on stage.