I was introduced to Indian classical music (IC) in a rather memorable way. An Indian gentleman I had the pleasure of dating a while back opened up this beautiful musical realm to me over wine and YouTube videos of Zakir Hussain and Ravi Shankar, one bitterly cold January. He explained to me a few of the basics; among other things, pointing out how the instruments "speak" to each other back and forth, as though they were having a conversation. He described how the tabla had its own rich and extensive vocabulary: different sounds and rhythms that meant specific and unique things.
Over the time we dated, he showed me clips of Hussain playing the tabla in ways that alternately made my heart race and stop; live bits of the Remember Shakti album that blew my musical mind; and IC vocalists who sang as I had never experienced or learned to in almost three decades of choir and voice lessons. His eyes lit up excitedly as he talked about the music and saw my growing interest. It was love at first...listen. I was immediately captivated.
I had the great honor on May 3 of photographing and attending my first live IC concert: Nagai Muralidharan and Nagai Sriram, a Carnatic violin duet, were accompanied by Mannargudi A. Easwaran on the mridangam at St. Catherine's Recital Hall, a show in IMSOM's spring concert series. IMSOM is the Indian Music Society of Minnesota, an arts and culture organization now in its 35th year. Partially funded by a yearly grant through the Metropolitan Regional Arts Council, IMSOM is committed to fostering the IC music community and acting as a cultural bridge among communities here in Minnesota, consistently bringing in world-class musicians from India.
It was a well-attended show. Ameeta Kelekar, president of IMSOM since 2005, greeted me as I was ushered to my front-row seat, directly in front of the four performers who sat cross-legged on the carpeted stage floor. The four musicians wore beautiful traditional wraps made of rich cloth, with intricate, embroidered edging. The two mridangams were covered in gorgeous, vibrantly-colored fabrics.
The music viscerally grabbed me and pulled me in. I have never seen or heard a violin played like these were played. It was magical, it brought tears to my eyes. Unlike most Western musical performances, the musicians sat facing one another, in a U shape, to facilitate the communication that occurred via eye contact, hand gestures, tapping, and other subtle cues I probably missed in what I quickly understood was a key, fundamental aspect of what they were playing. Leadership on-stage seemed to pass seamlessly back and forth.
Kelekar told me that "one of the differences [between Western classical and IC is that in IC we have a modal kind of melody — there's no harmonizing. Although the basic scales are similar, we have 10 'microtones' — shrutis in addition to the 12 semitones in a complete scale. IC is raga-based, and the way a raga is elaborated in a performance is highly individualized — it differs from performer to performer and is a reflection of [each] artist's training and creativity." Not surprisingly, this is not a fast process; during intermission, Easwaran told me that he has been playing music for 59 years, since he was four years old. He began performing publicly when he was 11.
The audience response was closer to what I was accustomed to at jazz shows. Unlike Western classical music performances, where speaking or making any noise is generally frowned upon, the audience for the IMSOM show was vocally interactive, with audience members (and the other performers) showing their appreciation for the musicians with audible sounds and words, letting the performers know when some part of the piece was especially lovely. "If you don't respond visibly in an Indian classical concert, it sometimes gives the impression that you don't appreciate the artist and the music. And the artist is often looking for that feedback," noted Kelekar.
Partway into the show, two other professional IC musicians arrived, having just finished another show in Edina, and were waved up to the front row by the performers on stage. Though they had no instruments, the performance then seemed to expand out to include these two additions to the front row; two more people, welcomed into a conversation circle. They joined in easily with the hand gesturing and rhythm-tracking that was happening in front of them on stage, and soon all six of them were winking and smiling and nodding to each other in camaraderie.
One of the latecomers, KN Shashikiran, a vocalist from Chennai, told me later, "IMSOM connects the best of Indian classical music, striking a perfect balance of Hindustani and Carnatic, vocal and instrumental, and has, in the last 35 years, been a perfect cultural ambassador for ICM — and now has emerged as one of the premiere organizations in North America."
Earlier last week I met Kelekar at a coffee shop outside her office at the University of Minnesota, where she is a professor of molecular biology. Telling me kindly to "Please, call me Ameeta," she sat down across from me, with twinkling eyes and a gracious presence. She talked to me about IMSOM, her own experiences with IC music, and the challenges of keeping an all-volunteer nonprofit in the black while regularly bringing in the most accomplished musicians in this genre to perform in Minnesota.
Coming from a family of musicians in India, Kelekar became a member of IMSOM a year after moving to Minneapolis, and became president soon after. Ten years later, "I haven't resigned because nobody lets me!" she tells me, laughing. "I wanted to be a part of [IMSOM], because I am addicted to listening to performances of top quality, and we have learned over the years how to get some of the best artists from India. So it's important to be part of an organization that will allow you to do that."
This fall, IMSOM celebrates its 35th anniversary. Normally, the performance seasons are divided evenly between Carnatic (South Indian) and Hindustani (North Indian) concerts. "We're doing something special for the 35th anniversary," said Kelekar. "We're going to showcase exclusively instrumental concerts this fall and the season will include a duet (jugalbandi) of Hindustani and Carnatic styles."
The next IMSOM concert will take place on May 31 at Normandale Community College in Bloomington: Abhishek Lahiri will perform on the Hindustani Sarod. For more information about this and other programs, see imsom.org.
Corina Bernstein has been looking at the world through a lens ever since she received a Brownie Camera at the tender age of six and began her journey as a storyteller. Corina has photographed and written extensively, nationally and internationally, documenting intimate, inspiring, and compelling moments of the people and places she encounters. She currently resides in Minneapolis, Minnesota.
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A gifted voice that can traverse with ease in chosen octave, fine tone and timber, sound grounding in the syntax of classicism and thorough knowledge of nitty-gritty of concert template… with all these prerequisites present in full measure, a classy vocal concert of Modumudi Sudhakar delighted sangeeta rasikas in no small scale at Kalabharati, Visakhapatnam.
A disciple of renowned Annavarapu Ramaswamy, his rendition bears the stamp of Parupalli School in its entire finesse. His command over the idiom of Carnatic classical music apart, his good sense for sahithya bhava and his artistic ability in its articulation and delivery in rhythmic cadence makes his rendition distinct in its own way. It, in a way, propels the feel of the composition straight into audience’s heart. This clear articulation makes the audience enjoy each composition in its entire range of emotive shades.
He opened the concert with Arabhi varnam. With rendition of purvangam in tisram and urrangam in chaturasram, it set the tone for the rest and then he picked up Siddhivinayakam in raga Shanmukhapriya. This was presented with a brief aalapana and swarakalpana. He seems to have penchant for swara sorties that reflect his mastery over matrix of swaras making it noteworthy in every pattern that he seeks to rende . His raga essay for Sankarabharanam was exhaustive and extensive. The krithi for this was Manasu swadheenamaina of Thyagaraja. Fluent neraval at the line ‘Rajarajesa niranjana’ and adroit swarakalpana in two tempos made it quite enchanting.
The highpoint of the session was RTP that he did in three ragas Mohana, Hindola and Darbar. He chose the pallavi lines of well-known compositions Nanupalimpaga nadachi vachitivo, Samajavaragamana and Ramabhirama of Thyagaraja in those ragas respectively. Having opted for elaborate exposition of those ragas, he picked up those pallavis in the same order making a pallavi in three ragas. The way he switched from one raga to another with fluid ease in quick succession and in pallavi maintaining the quintessential shade of lyrical import those lines intact bore an eloquent testimony to his artistic talent.
Violinst Mavuduri Satyanaryana Sarma’s bow sparkled in its share for this number making it a memorable experience in musical ecstasy.
Terateeyagaraada in raga Goulipanthu, Sangeetha Samrajyaa Sancharini in Mohanakalyani and Ramaramayanarada in Sindhubhairavi were the other notables in the session. On the whole, the entire concert was an aural treat for the span of three hours for rasikas.
S. Subrahmanyam on mridangam and G. Venkatesh on morsing lent competent support.
Visakha Music Academy hosted the concert as part of its monthly schedule.