Carnatic music in America -then and now

Geetha and Frank Bennet. Photo: M. Moorthy  

In the early 1960s, an American musicologist Dr. Robert Brown, a connoisseur of Carnatic music, invited my father Dr. S. Ramanathan and Mr. T. Ranganathan to Wesleyan University, Middletown, Connecticut. We can say that this was one of the first introductions of our music to the West. My father taught both veena and vocal, and Mr. Ranganathan’s students learned the mridangam.

In the 1970s my father returned to Wesleyan University again, and before him a number of renowned musicians came as visiting professors - Ramanathanpuram Krihsnan, K.V. Narayanaswamy, Veenai Nageswara Rao, Palghat Raghu, Kalyanakrishna Bhagavathar, Ramnad Raghavan and so on. Even today Wesleyan University has Indian music courses and celebrates the nine-day Navaratri festival with the procession of the deities in the streets and concerts would be presented. This tradition was started by T. Viswanathan.

In the late 1970s, right after our marriage, Frank Bennett and I lived in New Haven, Connecticut. To listen to Carnatic concerts we had to drive a long way to New York. Those days Carnatic Music Association of North America (CMANA) was arranging them, and it would take us a whole day to make the trip. Even today CMANA is functioning successfully.

When high calibre musicians such as Chinna Moulana Sahib and T.V. Sankaranarayanan visited, there were several families hosting house concerts in many small towns in their living rooms. These musicians also agreed to travel either by car, bus, airplane, or train to perform every chance they got just for the sake of propagating our music and entertaining the music lovers. Hats off to these musicians. Carnatic music lovers living in the U.S. around that time cannot but thank individuals such as V.K. Viswanathan, Poughsipeee Nagarajan and Nagarajan of Long Island to name a few since they were the ones who carted the musicians all over.

For our part, Frank, who is a mridangam and ganjira player, would accompany me for my veena/vocal concerts in several American universities. We would do extensive workshops for a whole week followed by a full-fledged concert. I sometimes would teach a simple song like ‘Aru marundoru’ in Mohanam or ‘Sri Gananatham Bajare’ in Eesamanohari using the western notation.

Sometimes on the day of the concert, we would explain briefly the structure of songs and the instruments and complexities of the raga and tala and improvisations during these workshops. American audiences found it helpful to follow the music closely if we provided detailed programme notes.

As more Indian youngsters started immigrating to the West, there were many more rasikas wanting to listen to the hard core Carnatic concerts. Instead of bringing Moses to the mountain, mountains come to Moses. Big organisations from cities such as New Jersey, Chicago, Washington D.C., Toronto, and also several individuals started bringing popular musicians from India with their favorite accompanists. Using the ‘Visit USA’ ticket they could travel all over the country and perform for about four months.

Now there are several organisations in almost every single city and town, and musicians are even able to choose where to perform. These concerts are about three to four hours with no intermission and almost always have RTP.

In the Thodi kriti “Dasarathe” Tyagaraja says, “Rama, you are the one, who to your heart’s content, has made me shine in foreign lands.” I am not sure whether he was thinking of the U.S., Australia, and Singapore. Every American city nowadays celebrates Tyagaraja Utsavam. Every year many rasikas mark their calendars to attend The Cleveland Tyagaraja Aradhana during the Easter weekend.

Cleveland Sundaram, Cleveland Balu, Toronto Venkatraman and several others and their families have given their time, money, energy and enthusiasm in building this aradhana by having musicians coming from India and the U.S. to give concerts for more than a week. I am happy to say that my father Dr. S. Ramanathan was the first performer and since the violin accompanist got stranded by a snow storm, I had the fortunate opportunity to accompany appa on the veena.

Of course with so much exposure to our music, the youngsters born and brought up in the U.S. are bound to show interest. Several travelling Indian musicians stay a little longer and give concentrated lessons to many students, There are several youngsters from this country who are able to perform with the superior calibre which would be expected of on Chennai stages.

I can also very easily say that I hear more and longer concerts of our top notch musicians in Los Angeles than when I come to Chennai.

(The author, musician based in the U.S., is the daughter of the late S. Ramanathan)

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Printable version | Jun 14, 2021 7:52:12 PM |

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