Simmi Bhatia talks about her erratic musical life and why she organises Indian classical music concerts in Manhattan.
The charmingly unpretentious Simmi Bhatia — scientist, wife, mother and music-lover-turned-impresario — has been presenting Indian classical music in Manhattan’s stylish concert halls in recent years. She’s funding her ambitious projects from her personal account and earmarking profits for Indian charities.
Her latest concerts have included popular jugalbandis between top musicians — violinist L. Subramaniam and his playback-singer wife Kavita Krishnamurti, flautist Hariprasad Chaurasia and vocalist Pandit Jasraj — with their numerous accompanists, in elegant 900-seat auditoriums.
Bhatia, 42, recently discussed the joys and trials of her musical life.
What challenge did the last programme pose?
I’d planned a Carnatic-Hindustani duet, but Dr. Balamuralikrishna didn’t come through. Then, Hariprasad Chaurasia and Pandit Jasraj, who are friends, wouldn’t agree to a programme devoted solely to jugalbandi — they preceded it with solos.
What made you found SAMAA (South Asian Music and Arts Association)?
It’s a non-profit organisation that I formed in 2009 because I wanted to hold a small concert for my teacher, Hidayat Khan, as a tribute to him and his father Ustad Vilayat Khan. Hidayat sang Sufi music and played the sitar, accompanied by bansuri and tabla in a 300-seat sold-out event at Carnegie Hall for a tri-state-area (New York, New Jersey, Connecticut) audience.
What’s unique about SAMAA?
I present artists in prestigious spaces in Manhattan. I don’t do smaller concerts at home, or in New Jersey where the venues are cheaper.
What’s special about Manhattan?
Despite the many hurdles it poses, that’s where world-class musicians perform because there’s recognition from mainstream Western audiences and critics. In the suburbs, concerts make local news; Manhattan offers the possibility of national recognition.
Talk about that first concert.
I did a pre-concert cocktail for the top ticket-holders who’d paid $75. Selling tickets was no problem but I didn’t break even: Carnegie’s catering is super-expensive, they don’t allow outside vendors. I’d still like to offer cocktails but I’ve learned that that gets chaotic.
At Hema Malini’s dance performance, so many people — who’d paid $200! — became so aggressive at the reception that Hema left. They accosted her physically, touched her, surrounded her, demanded autographs, mauled her! Many complained because they expected dal-chawal instead of appetisers!
You held a festival at the famed Symphony Space?
That was on the theme of the legacy of great musicians being transferred from father to son. Shivkumar Sharma’s son Rahul and Hariprasad Chaurasia’s nephew Rakesh played a santoor-flute jugalbandi, Hidayat played the sitar with Sultan Khan’s son Sabir on the sarangi. I planned a “legacy” series for next generation musicians, but it didn’t sell easily. Younger artists aren’t in demand.
How do you fund these programmes?
I take a loan from our personal account. If I break even, I return the money. When I don’t, the small donations — $500 to $1000 — I’ve raised from supportive businessmen, help. I have no big sponsorships.
Are you a musician?
I started sitar lessons in 2001 at the Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan when my husband was posted in London. When we returned to the States, I approached Vilayat Khan. But being eight months pregnant, I was embarrassed to study from an elderly person so I opted for lessons from Hidayat. Their styles are very different from what I’d been studying. I had to start from scratch.
Describe your relationship with the Khans.
It was a lovely experience. I commuted weekly to Princeton taking along my newborn baby in her car seat. The Khans babysat her; years later, she and my son Dhruv studied under Hidayat, too. While I had my lesson,Abba watched cartoons with Ilina; Amma would cook with one hand, holding her with the other. My musical journey has been erratic because in 2005 we moved back to London. By the time I found a teacher there, we moved back again and I returned to Hidayat. Then we moved from New Jersey to Manhattan; that was the end of my musical training.
Your life’s been determined by your husband’s career moves. Is he supportive of your interests?
His thinking’s not constricted; he’s fine with me doing what I want. I took evening classes for a second Masters (in Biostatistics) at Rutgers University, held research jobs in London and New York.
What does he do professionally?
He’s an IIT engineer with a Ph.D. in Bio-medical Engineering from a joint Harvard-MIT medical programme. He was recruited by JP Morgan, moved to Deutsche Bank and is now with Citibank. I wish he’d stayed in academia, then I could have continued in academics; our children would have benefited, too.
What’s your academic background?
I have a degree from Lucknow, a Masters from Delhi’s JNU, and was enrolled in a Ph.D. in molecular biology before we married. Afterwards, I was overwhelmed by life in a new country with a baby. I worked as a researcher for a professor (she’s my age!) while remaining stuck at the same level I’d was when in India. I was so frustrated, I quit. I’d love to return to genetic epidemiology.
How do you visualise SAMAA’s future?
I’d like to do bigger concerts and a two-day festival with the best artists: pure classical interspersed with Bollywood-style semi-classical music to attract bigger audiences. My main challenge is small concerts across the tri-state area. Artists who perform in five-six places over two-three weekends charge less so people get to hear them cheaper in private homes.
Small organisations lure away audiences and artists. The competition in Manhattan is intense, too, because there are many well-established mainstream organisations —the World Music Institute, the Philharmonic, and international dance companies.