New Carnatic Music Brings a Reinterpreted South Indian Musical Tradition to DOSA

New Carnatic Music Brings a Reinterpreted South Indian Musical Tradition to DOSA
Image Source: Sankar Raman

The following is a guest post by musician Gautam Tejas Ganeshan. Ganeshan has performed widely since 2004, especially in the SF Bay Area, including at the SFMOMA, SFJAZZ, Asian Art Museum (SF), Hertz Hall at UC Berkeley, and more. His work has been commissioned by the Creative Work Fund, supporting “Story of This Place” at the BAM/PFA and elsewhere, and by the San Francisco Foundation, supporting the performance of “New Directions in Indian Classical Music.” He has given workshops at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music and Stanford Jazz Workshop, and guest-lectures for music courses at UC Berkeley and UC Santa Cruz. He is the founder and director of the Sangati Center, a non-profit chamber music concert series that has hosted more than 400 public chamber concerts in San Francisco, Oakland, and Berkeley since 2006, and has earned support from the National Endowment for the Arts, Alliance for California Traditional Arts, and more.

Gautam T Ganeshan will be performing at DOSA on Fillmore on February 28th, 2017 as part of the dinner and performance series called Discover @ DOSA.  You can purchase tickets online for a memorable evening.

I love Carnatic music. I love its world of ornate, old-school vocal melodies—delivered with an unmistakeable South Indian flourish, and yet, in their studied subtlety, somehow also reaching beyond their origins towards the timeless. This music was the soundtrack to my early life, sung by my father, an inveterate burster into song. Later, I came to love recordings from Carnatic music’s “golden age”—the mid-20th-century. Documented on reel-to-reel tape recorders and at All-India-Radio stations across India, the Carnatic concert culture of that era represents an apex of cultivation. Energetic, spontaneous, devoted, with room for personality, humor, and heights of skill—the stuff is a credit to humanity. I’ve listened to concert after concert and thought, “If this happened, it’s a good universe.”

What is Carnatic Music?


Image Source: Kaushik Lakshminarayanan.

Primarily a tradition of elaborate songs, Carnatic music is just as well known for its rhythmic sophistication and its culture of extensive improvisation. The instruments range from the tambura stringed lute responsible for providing a lush backdrop drone, to the mridangam barrel drum made of jackwood and played with a powerful and versatile technique, to the unassuming bamboo flute, kanjira lizard-skin frame drum, ghatam clay pot percussion, and more. Each of these has a centuries-old presence in the music—even the violin, which was adopted from the Portuguese in the late 1700’s and is now ubiquitously found as an accompaniment to the voice.

And it’s unquestionably the voice that’s at the heart of Carnatic music. Perhaps more so than India’s other classical music traditions, Carnatic music focuses on the singer and the song. And that’s where I come in, of course…

The Vocal Tradition


Image Source: Christian Dicky Davies.

I once sang for a barn raising in California, which means I began before dawn, properly in starlight, and sang the many workers awake. My stage—built for the purpose—was a simple platform built into a hillside overlooking a valley of mostly oak chaparral, a few modest vineyards, and a small lake. The first audience members to arrive were a fawn and some swallows, followed by a few early-risers in wool hats. I’ve performed there more than once, and that stage has become known as the “Morning Raga Platform.”

In such a situation, it would be odd to sing an old Carnatic chestnut like “Nidhi Chala Sukhama,” written two hundred years ago under very different circumstances. (It was given as a message declining a lucrative court position offered to its composer and says “Which is contentment? Wealth? Or proximity to God?”). The song survives, but its context has vanished from the face of the earth. Meanwhile, here I am, still aware of its beauty—and that awareness is undoubtedly my most precious inheritance.

This is my artistic situation. To me, the “tradition” is relevance. As a singer, I am not a representative or a relic. I rarely put on any significant costume. I am much more concerned about being authentic with myself and sincere with my audience. All the ornate details of Carnatic vocal technique only matter if they adorn a song you feel like singing and somebody else feels like listening to.

To learn more about this exciting musical tradition, listen to Geneshan’s music online or visit his website. If you would like to experience the unique musical tradition that is Carnatic music in-person, come to DOSA’s Fillmore location on February 28th, 2017. In addition to a performance by Gautam Tejas Ganeshan, the event will feature the work of other local musicians and artist, plus a full menu of DOSA’s unique South Indian cuisine and drinks. You can purchase tickets online here.  

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