A brief history of star-spangled swaras and raga music

Tiruvarur to Texas, Carnatic musicians have transcended global cultures, echoing the seven notes to the West. Trichy Sankaran,to be honoured with the Sangita Kalanidhi today, summarises Carnatic music's history in America in a chat with critic Veejay Sai

December 31, 2011 09:36 pm | Updated October 17, 2016 10:57 pm IST

Chennai:03-01-2009: For Friday Review: Special Lecture Demonstration on "The styla and Compositions of Sri Palani Subramania Pillai"  by Trichy Sankaran at Sri Krishna Gana Sabha on Saturday. Photo:R_Shivaji Rao

Chennai:03-01-2009: For Friday Review: Special Lecture Demonstration on "The styla and Compositions of Sri Palani Subramania Pillai" by Trichy Sankaran at Sri Krishna Gana Sabha on Saturday. Photo:R_Shivaji Rao

While everyone is aware of how Hindustani music became popular in the West, especially America, with maestros like Pandit Ravi Shankar and Ustad Ali Akbar Khan's early overseas concert tours, how and when was Carnatic music an active part of the American culture? “It was Tanjore Viswanathan, the brother of Bharatanatyam legend Balasaraswati, who went on a Fulbright fellowship in 1958 to study Ethnomusicology at the University of California, Los Angeles. Veena Balachander went in 1962 with Umayalpuram Sivaraman (mridangam) and Vellore Ramabhadran (kanjira, for this tour),” says mridangam maestro Trichy Sankaran. Balachander and flautist Ramani along with the aforementioned percussionists ideated a project called ‘Sangeetam Madras' and extensively toured North America. By 1963, mridangam vidwan Palghat Raghu travelled as a member of Ravi Shankar's ensemble. By then a slow process of institutional interest seeped in amongst the American academia. “It was ethnomusicologist Robert Brown of Wesleyan University who showed great interest in bringing Carnatic music to America. He was a student of T. Ranganathan, the other brother (and a senior student of my guru Palani Subramnia Pillai) of Balasaraswati They were invited as artistes in residence at Wesleyan University and that was the first ever such occasion for Carnatic musicians to go there,” adds Sankaran, in fond remembrance of his guru-bhai. Brown's interest in Indian music grew from strength to strength and he would think up newer methods of spreading it to American music lovers. “Bob, as we called Robert, started an experimental project called ‘Curry Concerts' which he would organise. These were a combination of a sumptuous Indian dinner followed by a concert and gained popularity in no time. He was one of the few ethnomusicologists who believed that the study of the art is important with its performing element. He put an emphasis on the performing artistes as well,” recollects Sankaran.

Brown later invited several other musicians like K.V. Narayanaswamy (KVN) and Palghat Raghu to Wesleyan. KVN, as an artiste in residency at the university, went on a coast-to-coast concert tour along with Ravi Shankar and Ali Akbar Khan and earned fame at the Hollywood Bowl music festival by 1967. Several vidwans left for American shores to take part in festivals like the Monterey pop festival and Woodstock festival. “Brown went ahead to invite Ramnad Krishnan and Ramnad Raghavan. But Krishnan didn't stay around for too long as he was very homesick and wanted to return to his family in India. But while in America, he was recorded by a music company with T. Thyagarajan (violin) and T. Ranganathan (mridangam),” says Sankaran, with a chuckle in his voice. “The Western students were also not acquainted with our Indian manners. I had an initial culture shock with students addressing me with a “Hey”, but I slowly got used to it and we taught them Indian manners! Here, we were used to people calling us ‘sir”, “vidwan”, and so on. Ramnad Krishnan was in disbelief when students would walk up to him asking, “Hey Krishna, when is my next lesson man?” and he wasn't used to being addressed in such a tone!” laughs Sankaran heartily, recollecting how many musicians took the effort to culture Western audiences to guru-shishya traditions.

Welcoming raga music

Wesleyan University was growing to be the fulcrum of many activities related to the nurturing of Carnatic music and musicians setting a standard in America like never before. Even Nageshwar Rao the vainika was invited later to Wesleyan as a part of the ‘visiting artistes' scheme. By the mid-1960, the American audiences were opening up to welcome more south Indian musicians. The ragas were as addictive as south Indian food to them. M.S. Subbulakshmi's remarkable concert at the Carnegie hall in New York was yet another unforgettable milestone. By then she had already performed at the United Nations and several other important European festivals like the Edinburgh International Festival of Arts. The fame she achieved in Europe earned MS a coast-to-coast 22-concert tour in America at important venues. This heralded a paradigm shift in what audiences preferred at a time when American mainstream culture was being lambasted with an over-dosage of Rock and Roll. Carnatic Ragas and African-American music gave much solace to those who sought it. The popular group ‘The Beatles' would stalk Indian musicians like Ravi Shankar later making significant collaborations. Taking a cue from America's interest was the York University in Canada. “I was invited to be a fellow at York University in Canada and with my prior experience, I set up an Indian music programme there along with Jon Higgins,” Sankaran adds about his own efforts in propagating music. It was at Wesleyan that a young Jon Brothwick Higgins was indoctrinated for life to become America's first professional Carnatic singer and grew to recognition as Higgins Bhagavatar by the south Indian establishment.

“Indian music attracted many composers as well in addition to audiences. People like John Coltrane took a keen interest in music, yoga and philosophy. In 1959, the famous Dave Brubeck quartet visited Madras and my guru Palani Subramania Pillai received a call from the All India Radio saying they wanted to listen to him. In his usual way, he said he could play if a concert was arranged because in those days the concept of a mridangam solo concert was unheard of. Without realising, my guru started jamming with Joe Morello in the studios. Joe on drums and my guru on his mridangam just seemed to hit it off. It turned out to be an interesting session and they named it ‘When the Mridangam played Jazz'. This was broadcast by the AIR and must still be available in the archives. I would say this was foremost collaboration between jazz and south Indian music,” says Sankaran, giving yet another interesting snippet into the history of classical music.

Organisations sprout

Slowly, fan clubs and organisations, run by migrant Indians, Sri Lankans and other south Asian communities sprouted across America in support of Indian classical music. “By early 1970's V.K. Vishwanathan along with his friends started what was called ‘East-West Cultural Exchange Inc.' in New York. This was one of the first organisations in America that actively organised Carnatic music concerts and invited artistes. In those days, their effort was highly appreciated. It was just the beginning and they couldn't really send artistes by plane to every place. With the help of friends and goodwill gestures of music lovers, most of the places were covered by road!” says an excited Sankaran, remembering his own early adventures as a young musician. “These days all artistes are globetrotters and it is amazing how much of Indian music happens in America”, he adds with astonishment in his eyes.

By the mid-1970's, Carnatic music had overwhelmed the psyche of North American music lovers. Countless musicians travelled coast-to-coast and ‘kutcheri' was no longer an uncommon term with reference to India and music. With philanthropic support from the Walt Disney Foundation, the California Institute of Arts was established in 1973 near Los Angeles, California, and T. Vishwanathan was selected the head of the Division of Carnatic music. Later, many vidwans like Vikku Vinayakaram popularised the ghatam as a band member of John Mclaughlin's ‘Shakti'. As the decades progressed, Carnatic musicians like L. Subramaniam made many more collaborations and recordings with musicians like Yehudi Menuhin, Stephane Grappelli, Jean-Pierre Rampal, Herbie Hancock, Jean Luc Ponty and others, giving them an ample dosage of ragas and keeping audiences interested in more. Carnatic music was taking on with unmentionable frenzy in America. Post-globalisation era and with the influence of internet technology, classical music scaled greater heights. Between 250 to 300 well-organised concerts of Carnatic and Hindustani music are presented each year by 90–120 local organisers. These include universities, colleges, music societies or associations, temples as well as a few individual sponsors. The very fact that dozens of youngsters from NRI families are presented year after year at various sabhas during the Margazhi season in Chennai is a witness to the steady of growth of Carnatic music in the West. “It is a wonderful sign and shows a great expansion of the art form. Yes, it has its pros and cons, but in the larger interest of the art form, we should all be proud and happy with the way Carnatic music has spread across the world with our musicians. I won't be wrong in saying that may be, the music happening in America is much more than what happens here in India!” signs off Sankaran on a positive note. Today, Carnatic musicians rub shoulders with world music greats and collaborate with music practitioners from every other genre. The seductive swaras have showed their triumph once again, reminding how great the power of Indian music is.

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