How two young musicians of Indian origin have packaged Carnatic music in a landmark Greenwich village café and reached out to a diverse urban audience in the Big Apple.
“It's improvisational, complicated and challenging.” Packaged the right way, Arun Ramamurthy was convinced that jazz audiences in New York City would ‘dig' Carnatic music. Determined to give them a taste, Arun, a Carnatic violinist from Brooklyn, curates a series — Carnatic Sundays — at the Cornelia Street Café, an iconic Manhattan haunt. With this series, Arun has launched a rich addition to the urban soundscape and created the opportunity to listen to traditional vocal and instrumental Carnatic music at the centre of the Greenwich Village artistic scene in downtown New York City.
Tucked away in a side street off bustling Sixth Avenue, Cornelia Street Café is a small, unpretentious locale where musicians and poets have been presenting their work for over 30 years. Once a month on a Sunday night, a small crowd gathers outside the Café waiting to experience Carnatic music in a narrow and intimate performance space. It is mostly a young urban audience to whom this music is a new experience.
One Sunday night in June, Kunnakudi Balamurali Krishna was in full form at Cornelia Street Café, accompanied by Arun Ramamurthy on the violin and Akshay Anantapadmanabhan on the mridangam. Once the concert was underway, there was no familiar tapping of the taala from the audience. Yet, this very diverse group was clearly riveted by the music — some swaying in their seats, others moving their bodies to the rhythm. There was pin-drop silence. The audience was engaging intently with the music; they were there, as Arun observed, to experience the music for what it is. “Being in a place with a room full of people who are connecting to the music and dying to listen to something they have not heard before, makes musicians want to try out different things.” To the New York City listeners, Arun's curatorial coup provides an opportunity to listen, in his words, “to traditional music in a contemporary venue with a New York curiosity.”
With the growing numbers and high visibility of the South Asian diaspora, Carnatic music has been flourishing in the United States. In New Jersey, Texas, and the Bay Area in particular, and many other places in the country, it is possible to both learn and listen to classical Carnatic music. However, they are mainly diasporic gatherings in suburban or religious venues like temples or community centres. This is the rich scene that nurtured and shaped the musical careers of Arun Ramamurthy and Akshay Anantapadmanabhan, the mridangist who has also been involved with Carnatic Sundays from the start. The challenge now is to get a wider, diverse audience excited by the esoteric strains of Carnatic music.
New York City is synonymous with being on the cosmopolitan edge with an urban state of readiness for the new and experimental. In fact, it is a New York narrative that frames the launch of the series. Carnatic music piqued the interest of Tom Chang, a jazz guitarist whose vision guides the overall programming line-up at Cornelia Street Café. Having studied South Indian percussion with Sri T.H. Subash Chandran and listened to great Carnatic performers, Chang felt a visceral and intellectual connection with the music. Wishing to expand the palate of offerings and introduce new musical vocabularies to the Cornelia street audiences, Chang asked Arun to curate a series devoted to Carnatic music. Arun took the challenge: “Let's give them our best and show them what our music is all about.”
The New York audiences are responding. For the first few concerts, Arun, Akshay and their friends were sending emails and getting the word out on social networking sites. Now with the buzz afloat, each month there are newer faces coming to listen to the music. Given the size of the Indian diaspora and the number of people from south India in the New York/New Jersey area, getting an audience base for Indian classical music is not really an issue. For many years, community-based organisations like the Carnatic Music Association of North America or the Indian Academy for Performing Arts and others have been sponsoring musicians from India and more recently, even promoting local artists. But the series, Carnatic Sundays, is trying to cast a wider net and go beyond the diasporic audience. As Akshay explained, “We want to bring a footprint of Carnatic music into the New York City music scene. After all, New York is a cultural hub with its diversity and eclectic music. It's a perfect place to start something innovative and get people involved.”
The series is attracting a different crowd from places, as Arun noted, “outside the Carnatic purview”. Some of them are young Indian-Americans who work in the city; some are musicians attracted by the freshness of the sound; some just listeners who frequent the Café to experience various types of music. Indian-Americans, many of whom had not been exposed to classical music growing up, are learning to enjoy the Carnatic idiom. They come to connect with the music, as Arun says, “from their perspective, their history and location”.
Audiences come to the Café, pay a cover charge and settle down at the tables and listen to some serious music. Akshay notes that there is a responsibility that comes with defining the music for these first-time audiences. They are not the people he typically sees when he performs in strictly diasporic settings. Of course, the reason is the appeal of Cornelia Street Café, a cultural landmark that is a magnet for New York City jazz lovers. As Arun, the curator, was quick to note “its history here as a music venue is what makes this place works.”
The connection between place and culture is being reconfigured in the context of global migration, as cultural practices are increasingly delinked from specific geographies. While performing Carnatic music in a jazz venue might change the performative dynamics with the audience, for these musicians, it does not mean compromising the seriousness or rigor of the art.
Kunnakudi Balamurali Krishna was the first musician from India to give a spellbinding performance at the Café, accompanied masterfully by Arun on violin and Akshay on mridangam. As Balamurali Krishna stated, “the idea of me performing at this venue might seem like a discrepancy. But it is not, as the music I presented was traditional and as pure as one I would present at a temple. I gave my best in that ambience, for that audience.” To Balamurali Krishna, widening an audience base is an important step for the circulation of the music and Carnatic Sundays is all about taking a step forward in this direction.
Preserving the Carnatic spirit in New York City involves a great deal of thought and planning about the presentation. Concerts are presented in the format of two consecutive sets. Roopa Mahadevan, a vocalist from California, recalls that before her performance at the Café, she and Arun strategised about the best ragas to present. Roopa remarked, “There are certain aesthetic decisions I had to take. For example, I was reluctant to sing a heavy composition where the vocabulary is meaningful only to someone who understands the grammar. I would sing a Todi to an Indian audience in New Jersey but chose Hindolam for my performance at Cornelia Street. So definitely some tweaking of the elements of the concert was involved. You have to reconsider some of the elements without compromising the authenticity of the framework.”
Committed to maintaining a fidelity to the musical traditions that they have mastered through their training both in India and the United States, these Indian-American artists are grappling with the task of creating new spaces for Carnatic music to flourish in the West. Hindustani instrumental music has a much longer history in the popular imaginary of the West than south Indian music. Now Carnatic Sundays has succeeded in creating a new home for Carnatic music and its possibilities in a Greenwich Village context.
The series has also featured, among others, Prasant Radhakrishnan, Trina Basu, Ashvin Bhogendra, Shrinidhi Hemmige, Raman Kalyan and a three-day Sangeet Utsav in the summer. When asked if they were radicalising the music, Akshay was clear, “No, we are propagating it in a different light.” As curator of the series, Arun Ramamurthy is ambitious: “Let's get people to listen to Carnatic music, and once they do, they are going to like it. But we have to get them through that door.” And it has happened. Carnatic Sundays have arrived with a New York City edge.
The author is on the faculty of New York University’s Department of Media, Culture and Communication.