Discussion on “Expanse of Kalaripayattu in the Globe Today”

The Center for Soft Power hosted a discussion on the topic of ‘Expanse of Kalaripayattu in the globe today”, in association with Kalarigram - a traditional Kalaripayattu school established during the year of 1950, under the patronage of Guru Veerasree Sami Gurukkal.

The discussion featured students of Kalarigram from Finland, Croatia and France

The Discussion was led by Lakshman Gurukkal, the lead teacher at Kalarigram and an Ayurveda pracritioner. He is a a Guru of the Sri Vidya tradition. Lakshman Gurukkal has been awarded by the Ministry of Culture, Govt. of India, with the title of Senior Fellowship in Kalaripayattu and Natyashastra. He spoke about the origins of Kalari, saying that “you cannot see this kind of a martial arts anywhere else in the world.” He described how Kalaripayattu was refined in Kerala but has roots all over India. He also described the difference between Kalaripayattu and other forms of combat and marital arts, saying that the aim of it is not just to kill an opponent but also to ensure that no harm is done to one’s own body by ensuring that the movements are not interrupted.

Shri. Lakshman Gurukkal on the importance of Kalaripayattu

Steina Ohman, a student of Kalarigram from Finland, described how she first came to India as part of an exchange program to study physical theatre in India. She kept coming back to India following this program, so much so that she began to spend more time in India than in Finland. She even had a brief stint bringing other Finnish students to India. She now lives in Pondicherry with Kalarigram.

Steina Ohman explains how she was exposed to Kalaripayattu through an exchange program

Daniela Boban, a student of Kalarigram from Croatia, spoke of how she first came to India as part of a three week holiday and has ended up staying for the last 4 years. She was introduced to Kalaripayattu as Kalarigram was next to where she was staying on her visit to India, and upon starting the art form she began to notice the profound effects it had on her, both physically and mentally, and so she decided to stay. “Kalari helped me break the my preconceptions of myself” she says.

Daniela Boban speaks on the impact the art form has had on her physically and mentally

Laurence Morlon, a student of Kalarigram from France, first came to Auroville 7 years ago in order to study dance. During her dance classes she was introduced to Kalaripayattu. While initially she found it difficult to balance both dance and Kalari, she began to fall more and more in love with the art form and soon became a devout student of Kalarigram. “In Kalarigram I found a home, and a refuge for my soul” she notes.

Laurence Morlon on finding a sense of belonging through Kalaripayattu

The discussion ended with a brief demonstration by the students.

The music of the spheres

For astrophysicist Priyamavada Natarajan, both science and music help us reach out to the sublime, and music is as much about moods and emotions, as modes of thinking.

Music, mathematics, and science have always gone together, not just in the physics of sound and the mathematics of pitch and frequency, but in the lines of inquiry that open up to cognitive scientists, evolutionary biologists, and the like.

Take a top scientist tackling the most advanced problems in astrophysics -- like the mysteries of dark matter and the true nature of black holes -- and a deep passion for classical music, with its notes, sounds and rhythms resonating and echoing with the most elemental forces of light, mass and energy over the vast infinities of space and time, and you get Priyamvada Natarajan, professor of Astronomy and Physics at Yale University, Connecticut, one of America’s most prestigious, “Ivy League” institutions, and the very first woman to receive a Ph.D in astrophysics from Cambridge University, UK.

“Music is very much part of my life. I can’t really describe it,” says Priyamvada from the US.

“There isn’t any real time aside from when I am in my office, when I don’t listen to music. If I am meeting students, colleagues, or reading, I actually don’t like to listen to music as background. But music is something that I am involved with when I am actually working on problems, it is very powerful to me. And I listen to everything and anything. I am always living with music.”

Priyamvada has role models not just from her immediate genetic pool (both her parents are scientists) but also from the pool of music, past and present. She is inspired by the personal lives of musicians whose genius and accomplishment equal the best in science.

As a consequence, she has a dominant musical self which she believes is as integral to her as her love for science.

Music streams ideas into her all the time, segueing into science seamlessly. And she firmly believes that in the brain they are connected.

 “The kind of neural activity that you can see in the brain when you do mathematics and when you play an instrument are very similar. And I think there is some real connection beyond just the general patterns. There is a deep connection with the level of abstraction that you have with mathematics and music -- possibly more broadly with science, but definitely with Mathematics,” she says.

At the age of 17, after finishing schooling in New Delhi, Priyamvada went to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) – itself a rare accomplishment for a young girl in 80s India.

Priyamvada Natarajan is a professor of Astronomy and Physics at Yale University, Connecticut, one of America’s most prestigious, “Ivy League” institutions, and the very first woman to receive a Ph.D in astrophysics from Cambridge University, UK.

Before the move to MIT, at a time when “American global culture was not as prevalent in India as it is today,” Priyamvada, with her good singing voice had learnt not only Karnatic and Hindustani music, but also dance.

“When I was growing up I was very much rooted in Indian traditions. I loved MS Subbulakshmi, whom I worshipped. I listened to ghazals, I listened to Farida Kahnum, one of my favourite singers,” she says.

After landing at MIT, she made time for music, even as she gained rapid strides in the field of astrophysics.  If, even today, women are rare in science, they are even rarer in astrophysics -- her professors and peers recognised early her facility for large numbers and abstract problems, her succumbing to the “allure of the night sky,” and the unique yearning to enquire into the deep mysteries of outer space, far away from the conflicts and drudgeries of mundane existence.

She enrolled for a music appreciation class and also started to learn to play the piano. Life at MIT was also about adjusting to a very different culture. She coped with the transition by getting into Western classical music and opera.

“I landed in an extremely high-brow culture with these deeply intellectual people. So I had to find out -- what were the bones of this culture, what it was about. I believe music is a cameo of any culture. And so I dove into Western classical music.”

Modes and moods

Today, depending on the work she is doing, Priyamvada picks the music. She is comfortable in dealing with phenomena involving large time scales and distances that cannot be apprehended by the senses. Frequently, the calculations she is tackling are the mechanical kind, a series of never-ending steps, where she knows what the next step is but not the final answer.  In such cases she listens to music that is “very agitato, very brisk.”

Then there are the bigger challenges, where en route to discoveries and new answers, the problem has to be first set up.

“You don’t even know if you can solve this, and you don’t know how to pose it -- and that’s where, for a lot of the work that I do, there’s creativity.”  At such times, she gravitates to more measured, reflective, music.

“So for every mood when I work, or when I am thinking, there are particular kinds of music, I almost use music as a priming cue for myself not just in terms of mood but beyond that -- into a mode of thinking.”

Priyamvada is being noticed for her key contributions to two of the most challenging problems in cosmology -- mapping the distribution of dark matter and tracing the growth history of black holes. Dark matter and dark energy dominate the universe, but we know very little about it, beyond seeing its effects and influences. It has a lot to do with going beyond what we can deal with directly. Just like in music.

 “Music has the ability to transport one, to transcend your day to day life and to feel and live in a way that is beyond the mundane. I feel music of every kind is very sublime,” she declares.

And so is work, when one is deeply connected to it. “I have the same sensation when I do the work that I do. Part of the motivation for the things that I do… like working with these large numbers in the cosmos, is that I like to be transported away from the earth. I don’t like the world the way it is -- inequitable, unjust, messy. One of the attractions is that my work offers an escape from this sort of messy, conflict-ridden world, to this sublime place, with the numbers that I deal with. To me music does something very, very similar. It transports me to different realms and definitely affects my state of mind.”

She decided very early not to get confined by traditions, which abound even in science, and instead went on to be among the few women to “map the detailed distribution of dark matter in the universe, exploiting the bending of light en-route to us from distant galaxies”.

Musically she has tried to imbibe and learn from every form she has come into contact with. When she moved from MIT to Cambridge, UK for her PhD, she again went into a very traditional culture.

“That was when I got started in opera. Earlier, I had gone to Europe as an undergraduate and I went to all the opera houses, I went to La Scala and listened to Pavarotti. I went to every opera house in every city I went to as I had a Euro rail pass.”

After coming back to America, she got into jazz in a big way, because there were a “lot of things happening in jazz.” One of the fresh new voices in jazz, pianist Vijay Iyer, whose music she enjoys, is both a friend and fellow physicist.

Despite the moving around… all the flux, she says there are some pieces of music that will always stay with her. One is raga Hamsadhwani, “a ragam whose very meaning - sound of the swans- is as beautiful as its sound. It is the same ragam in both Hindustani and Karnatic traditions. That to me is part of the appeal. Plus it is one of the most sublime ragams I have ever heard. It sounds beautiful in the voice. It sounds beautiful in any instrument that you play.”

Then there is Bach’s Chello suite. “If I am ever really really down all I have to do is to really play that. It lifts my mood.”

Scientists need to question the status quo all the time …that makes for progress. In music, classical music, tradition is a sacrosanct.

“Science by its very nature is a very different beast. Science is provisional. Science isn’t fixed in the way sampradaya and traditions are for either musical traditions or dance. Our state of understanding of any phenomenon in science really depends on data and empirical observations. With more accurate data your current understanding is likely to shift. It can either refine your current understanding or it may completely upend a theory… show the need for a completely new theory.”

In some ways, she believes however, music is similar.

There are some things about sampradaya which are “worth continuing and keeping alive obviously and probably there should always be a set of proponents who are guarding traditions. But at the same time you need variations; you need room for improvisation, because in an art form, as we have seen with a lot of art forms, if there isn’t room for improvisation, the art starts to die out. It’s hard for the next generation to feel no room for creativity because every time you perform that is a creative act, even though the notes are enshrined, the ragam is specified and all of that. Your rendition is a creative act, but to not have room beyond that, to improvise, I think is restrictive. “

Allowing for improvisation will also change audiences. “One of the things that I find, when I come for concerts to India in the winters, is that a lot of the younger people are not there in the audience. I think we need to reclaim them, get them back.”

Pete Lockett’s Indian rhythm features in 5 Bond movies

British multi-percussionist Pete Lockett was introduced to Indian rhythm when he heard Zakir Hussain play at a concert in the UK when he was 21 years old.  Constantly thinking about his music, he has invested a lot of time working in traditional Carnatic and Hindustani music as well as traditional Japanese taiko drumming. He believes cultures are healthy only when they cross-fertilise, learning from one another.

His ethnic percussion has been heard in the last five Bond movies. He has also recorded with AR Rahman on the 2007 blockbuster, Sivaji. In this interview, he shares his love for Indian music and percussion.

At the international level is it artistes like you who are showcasing Indian percussion to the largest and most discerning audiences as compared to Indian percussionists who on many occasions, especially in the South, are mainly accompanists to singers?

Many great Indian percussionists are, and have been for a very long time, touring worldwide and spreading the exposure of classical Indian percussion to a wider audience.  In the North and the South of India there are so many percussionists playing solo and developing their own projects.  Maybe fifty years ago what you say may have been true but nowadays percussionists worldwide are making their own projects, playing solo and leading performances with their excellence. The future is bright and I feel blessed to be able to go out there and share some of these amazing traditions with an audience that otherwise might not get exposed to it.  

Do you see an increase in interest and an openness towards Indian rhythms and is there an increase in the number of students wishing to learn Indian percussion?

With the advent of the internet and YouTube, exposure for everything is on the increase.  For me when I learnt 30 years ago, information was very hard to come by.  The best resource was the local library which was an hour away by bike.  Just to look up ‘Ghatam’ or ‘Kanjira’ would be a whole afternoon endeavour. Now, people can find out on their phone in three seconds.  However, one of the extremely attractive things about Indian music is that you then need to spend years and years, even to understand the very basics. This remains an obstacle to the adult enthusiast who looks into the subject for the first time.  However, all that said, the interest and enthusiasm around Indian percussion is growing year on year.  My book, Indian Rhythms for the Drum Set, on Hudson music does very well and I get a lot of letters and reactions to that worldwide.  The great thing about it is that these responses come from every avenue of the musical world, from composers to heavy metal drummers and from jazz players to pure percussionists.

Do you incorporate a lot of Indian sounds in your playing and vice versa do you find Indian musicians learning from you?

It’s not just about sounds.  It is about the whole musical system.  Once you learn the Indian way of developing the rhythmic timeline then your approach to rhythm is expanded exponentially. There is so much to help expand your musical horizons.  Of course, this works both ways.  Composing and improvisation have very different approaches as you travel across the world.  Sharing in each other’s musical systems is one of the most magical things you can imagine.  There are so many treasure troves uncovered when you explore each other’s musical worlds.  Most of the Indian musicians I have worked with are as excited to explore this as me.

Is there a greater audience pleasure in hearing sounds from different streams coming together?

There are audiences for everything.  Many people are comfortable with a specific idea, Be-Bop, Rock, Karnatic, Taiko, Orchestral etc.  There are also people who tire easily of hearing similar approaches over and over again.  They are more into the musical explorers and the creators of new musical horizons.  These are the people that want to hear Zakir with an Irish group or a heavy metal drummer with a group of Taiko drummers.  This type of audience is getting more and more as far as I can tell.  It is great to have all these people with minds wide open, waiting for the next amazing collaboration where they can witness musicians from different cultures speaking with one voice. 

How would you compare a completely percussion ensemble vis-a-vis a typical Indian concert.

There are so many ways of percussion groups playing together.  Indian classical music has a very thoughtful intellectual approach.  Western classical music does so similarly, albeit is a very different way. Neither of these musics are for dancing, in the sense of folk dances or community gatherings. (Classical Indian dance and Ballet are of course dance but, also on the intellectual path). Dance musics have a necessity to create pulse and rhythm for groups of people to dance to.  Therefore, these musical styles are incredibly far apart in their basic function and starting place. That said, it is obvious that they have very different formalities in the structure of their ensembles.

The next thing to consider is that Indian music and rhythm is very linear, in that only one voice is focused on.  Even with groups of string players or groups of percussionists, they often tend to play in unison, or one after another.  Other percussion from around the world, such as Cuban or African, has many drummers playing different interlocking parts which make up one whole voice, or rhythmic melody.  This creates such a different approach that the structure of the music is completely different.

From this follows, in all your collaborations and journeys around the world do you see a rhythmic pattern or are cultures too varied to be bridged?

There is no gap that cannot be bridged.  As I mentioned earlier, we can clearly see how some traditions differ. The task is to be able to meet with another tradition in the middle.  For both parties to explore and come to some understanding of the musical intent of the other.  Once you understand what they are doing and why, then you can find a common ground for exploration and creativity together.  Keeping the integrity of your own music and musical voice is incredibly important as well in this process.  The question is, how do you explore each other’s cultures and musics to the point where you can create together and all parties keep their integrity intact.  This is my life quest.

What inspires you most about the playing of Zakir Hussain?

After that last question, this is the perfect follow up.  Zakir is one of very few Tabla players who plays completely comfortably outside of his own idiom but, retains 100% of his dignity and integrity.  He is a master of the Tabla but he knows how to work within a Jazz setting or a Western Pop setting or within the structures of a classical orchestra or traditional Irish group. A total genius, I am certain was beamed down from a planet a lot more advanced than ours!

Is Indian music enhanced or is it distorted if one were to use modern apps? Is your DrumJam app a possible future for Indian music too?

Indian classical music is Indian classical music.  The instrumentation and musical formalities are absolutely set.  Centuries ago they might have been changed very slowly and minutely over the decades but now, with the digital age I think it will stay set.  Any music that classical musicians play outside of the idiom of course can involve electronics, apps, technology, other musical styles and different instrumentation. I have seen many performers do this.

Do you think Indian recording studios have the technology and the expertise to produce music for Western films?

They already do.  AR Rahman has a studio in Chennai.  Bollywood is the biggest creator of music for films anywhere in the world.  The technology at the top end in India is, if anything, superior to many places in the west.

Harikathas – the story of the Divine

Dance, music and story come alive in India’s unique story telling traditions, writes Asha Malatkar of Story Walks

Harikatha is a very demanding art form in that it borrows from dance, storytelling, music and has different flavours emanating from a variety of genres. Harikatha performers have a deep understanding of Indian mythology and their evocative performances are immensely popular with international audiences too because of their style and creative expression.

A three day Harikatha festival in Bangalore recently, curated by Shrivatsa Shandilaya saw six women showcasing their craft.

The Harikatha culture has been known to be in existence for hundreds of years and it is difficult to say if the various dance forms had their own origins or had their genesis in Harikatha or vice –versa. This question led dancer Rajeshri Shirke, a Kathak dancer to research the origins of Kathak which she found was in the Harikatha tradition.

Shrimati Rajeshri Shirke from Maharashtra

Hailing from Maharashtra, she has amalgamated the art of Harikatha, and Kathak with the energy of lavani to infuse meaning and emotion into her perception. Rajeshri and her expressive team members had excellent percussion and vocal accompaniment and the audience was on their feet with tears of joy and appreciation for the beautiful story of Kanopatra, a beautiful courtesan who gave up her life to Lord Vithoba rather than submitting herself to the ruler of Bidar.

In contrast Parvati Baul’s bucolic version of man seeking the meaning of life, was quiet and very stirring. In pursuit of the meaning of life the poetic presentations were touching in their appeal. The simplicity of the ektara providing both drone and rhythm was a rare treat for urban music lovers.

Parvathy Baul from Bengal

Parvathy Baul’s long matted hair touched the ground and her saffron clothes are complimentary to her deep and emotional voice, accompanied by the ektara and the duggi drum tied to her waist. Her dance movements are enhanced by the sound of the ancient anklets that adorn her feet and her face wore a faraway look, transcending her from the here and now. The never ending exploration for the divine is a blissful preoccupation taking her away from the mundane world.

Parvathy’s expression is based on poetry about deep philosophical questions in simple words, phrases and metaphors and songs of the baul singers who seek to spread the message of love of music. Lalon Fakir, one of the Baul traditions best known poets in the late 1700’s, is credited with hundreds of compositions. The single-minded pursuit and devotion to the divine is a blend of Hinduism, Sufism and Buddhism’s – syncretic approach. As a result, the Bauls find everything in this journey of life commonplace and their lives are most unconventional because of their singular pursuit.

The Harikatha tradition from Tamil Nadu by Suchithra Balasubramanian evoked great interest and her musical abilities along with the sense of timing were fitting. A great performer and a keen student of Carnatic music and tala, her talent of putting across the characters of the Vatsala Kalyanam were apt, witty and focused at once. The audience heard her eagerly and she engaged them fully throughout the katha. In the Harikatha tradition in Tamil Nadu, there is the pundalikam or an introduction, panchapadi where the praise of Ganesha, Vishnu, Sarasvati, Guru and Anjaneya are sung, and the prathamapadam which gives the description of the protagonist and the last part where the storyteller has to prove the heroic descriptions given earlier.

Shrimati Suchithra Balasubramanian from Tamil Nadu

Further north in India, in Mahararashtra, the word kirtan was used for devotional songs earlier and then came to be used for a new format of devotional musical recitation in Maharashtra and the first kirtankar was Sant Namdev in (1268-1350). The Marathas then went to Tamil Nadu in 1675 and Varahur Bhagavatar who gave discourses standing was the first person who started this tradition there. The main body of the kirtan was the Nirupana which detailed the story and used songs set to different metres such as the Dindi, Ovee, Abhang, Lavani and others. Normally the Jalra or cymbals and chipla or castanets were used as accompaniment and the anklets on the feet had bells used as rhythm. The beat of 7,5 and usi, common in dance is used in the Harikatha performances.

The Marathi kirtan is of two types, the erudite Naradiya and Varkari style. The first is divided into two types, the Purvaranga and Uttararanga in which stories are told. The Varkari has compositions mainly by saints, with Padas and the Abhangas, and are sung in groups and referred to as Namasankeertanas but there is no story telling.

A celebrated Harikatha artiste, Uma Maheswari from Telangana also brought her talent and vast experience to the stage. She is the only woman who can perform Harikatha in Telugu and in Sanskrit. With a garland around her neck and the chipla in her hand she related stories around Rukmani Kalyanam. Her voice modulation interpreting the characters in mythology was superb. She is steeped in Carnatic music learnt from her father and has a beautiful rich voice. Swaying with the lilt of the music and tapping her feet to the rhythm provided more focus to her dynamic storytelling instilling the importance of dhyanam, chintanam and smaranam like Swamini Swathmabodananda Saraswati, the chief guest, held.

Shrimati Uma Maheshwari from Telangana

V Malini, a Harikatha artist from Karnataka has the unique distinction of reciting the Ramayana in 1minute and the Mahabharatha in 1minute and 30 seconds. With nearly 30 years of experience she has developed a good rapport with local audiences and had an energetic style of presentation. Her explanation of the various characters made them come alive and the witty asides were appreciated by the audience. Saraswati Bai, she said was the first woman harikatha artiste in India and that in earlier times women artistes were discouraged from taking up this art form but are now accepted by audiences.  Nearly 30 years ago two women artists - Shrimati Bhagirathi and Shrimati Vasanthi, trained by Shri Upadhya Krisnamurthy a veteran Harikatha vidhwan of yesteryears, from the temple town of Belur enchanted audiences with their talent, ensuring continuity and a future for this art form.

Shrimati  V. Malini  from Karnataka

The Pandavani performance by Ritu Verma from Chattisgarh, was conveyed with great emotions and her voice brought the various characters out alive. The craft of Pandavani uses no props at all and the artiste has only the ektara adorned with peacock feathers and small lilting bells. The ektara functions as Bhima’s gadha, the flute of Krishna or Arjuna’s bow depending on the character depiction. The accompanying music is provided by the harmonium, kartaal, dholak, manjira and the tabla.

Shrimati Ritu Verma from Chattisgargh

The episode she presented was the dice game and the sequence of events that led to the vastraharanam of Draupadi. The story is taken forward with a song or prasang, with descriptions of the various characters of Duryodhana, Shakuni, the Pandavas and Draupadi which were very expressive. Draupadi’s hurt conveyed to the Pandavas was touching and her questioning of Shakuni’s support and berating of the Kauravas brought out her amazing histrionic talents. Her pleas to Lord Krishna to come to her aid, was heart-rending and peppered sometimes with light-heartedness bringing the audience into the present.

Pandavani presentations are in two styles or shaili. The vedamati style where the performance is done kneeling and the story is in the doha-chaupal metre, like in the case of Ritu Verma. However Teejan Bai’s shaili is Kapalik where the performer is free to improvise on the basic content in both the songs and the storytelling methodology.

India’s vast story telling traditions are alive and thriving thanks to these artistes who bring together several musical and dance forms to tell a story.

Lithuania discovers Hinduism

This article first appeared in The Sunday Guardian on April 13th, 2019 - written by Mamta Chitnis Sen

It is summer in Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania and I am seated in one of the classrooms of the historic old building of Vilnius University listening to Professor Nijole Laurinkiene’s presentation on the Sun in traditional context. Mid-way through her lecture, I hear distinct chants of “Hare Rama Hare Krishna” filtering in through the large windows behind me. A group of young boys are singing praises of Lord Krishna outside the campus grounds.  Looking at my surprised reaction, a musician who is also attending the lecture and is seated next to me says with a smile in his broken English laced with heavy Lithuanian accent, “That is Indian no? We have lot of Hindus here who follow Krishna and even Shiva.”

Baltic and Vedic traditions merged in the festival Goloka Rasos. Photo: V. Tumenas

Intrigued, over the next few days of my stay in Vilnius while I did come across several Lithuanians confessing to be fans of India and its culture, I also had opportunities to interact with a select few who have immersed themselves completely into becoming followers of Hindu traditions.  While some enrolled themselves with Hindu organisations like International Society of Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON), Shri Sathya Sai Baba and Brahma Kumari, there were others who were seeking the internet to seek information on what it takes to become a good Hindu. Students of Indology in Lithuania appeared to be at an advantage over others as their curriculum enabled them to undertake trips to India to understand and explore the country and its religions.

Located in Eastern Europe, Lithuania is called a gem of the Baltics as it shares borders with the Baltic Sea on one side and countries like Latvia, Belarus, Poland and Russia on the other. That Hinduism should have reached its shores seems to be an interesting thought in itself.

Indologist and social anthropologist Samanta Galinaityt, a first year Master’s student at the Institute of Asian and Transcultural Studies at Vilnius University, who has travelled to India twice believes that though there are a lot of similarities between Lithuanian traditional Gods and Hindu Gods but it is hard to say that Hinduism as a concept exists in Lithuanian culture.

“In my strong opinion, different concepts of Hinduism are getting popular nowadays, but they are just concepts. For instance, we have a lot of different Yoga schools in Lithuania as well as a lot of houses related with Ayurveda. Of course, there are some individuals who practise or follow Hindu traditions but usually in small groups, communities or in private.”  Samanta continues that she has met quite a lot of Lithuanians following the religion too. “I have seen a lot of Lithuanian devotees from ISKCON community, but there are also some individuals who follow the Hindu Gods as well. There are people who follow Hindu religion, but there is no data based on this,” she points out.

I meet one such follower a 50-year-old art collector, (he wishes to remain anonymous) who claims he makes it a point to visit his favourite temple in southern India twice every year, and has also given up meat to become a full time vegetarian.

In her paper “Strangers Among Ours: Contemporary Hinduism in Lithuania” written by Dr Milda Alisauskiene, Professor with the Vytautas Magnus University as part of a special volume on Hinduism in Europe, she analyses the phenomenon of contemporary Hinduism in Lithuania from historical and sociological perspectives and discusses diverse forms of its expressions and public attitudes towards it. Her paper points out that Hinduism in Lithuania might be considered a new religious tradition.

Dr Alisauskiene writes that groups representing contemporary Hinduism are active in large cities and smaller towns of Lithuania. “The adherents of these groups are citizens, majority of them have higher education, usually within natural or technical sciences and have cosmopolitan worldviews. Majority of contemporary Hinduism communities in Lithuania have affiliates in smaller towns, they also organise meetings in the rural areas but these are allocated for mainly citizens. Women prevail among the followers of contemporary Hinduism and men make up around one third of the followers. With this aspect contemporary Hinduism does not distinguish among other religious phenomena as women religiosity and their active participation in religious activities is well known and widely discussed phenomenon among researchers of religion in Western and post-communist societies.”

The age of the members of contemporary Hinduism groups, she continues, varies; though around 35-50 year-old individuals prevail.

She further writes, “Two public surveys conducted in 2007 and 2014 showed the dynamics of Lithuanian population knowledge about religious groups existing in the country. Among groups of contemporary Hinduism best known was ISKCON (34% in 2007 and 48% in 2014). Public knowledge about other groups of contemporary Hinduism differed. In some cases like Osho community knowledge remained the same, in other cases like Sathya Sai Baba community, Sahadza Yoga and Brahma Kumaris public knowledge slightly increased.”

Dr Alisauskiene further states in the paper that historical analysis showed that interest in Orientalism and Hinduism might be traced to the sixteenth century, however the institutionalization of this interest took place in the nineteenth century with the establishment of study programmes in Vilnius and later other universities.

“During the Soviet times, religion was removed from public life, however private religious practices continued. ISKCON started its activities in the late 1970s and its adherents experienced persecutions from Soviet authorities. Since the 1990s, with new conditions for freedom of religion possibilities, groups of contemporary Hinduism became even more active. ISKCON and Osho were two organisations whose activities were mostly visible in the 1990s. Art of Living and other so called spirituality groups of Hindu origins were more active in Lithuania.”

She continues that groups of contemporary Hinduism in Lithuania are mainly global organisations with centred management and controlled content of teaching, even more if the leader is still alive. “Despite global aspect these religious organisations in Lithuania have localised their activities in a new social context. The manifestation of such localisation is emphasis on the spirituality essence of these groups instead of going into the competitive field of religion with mainstream Roman Catholicism. An important feature of contemporary Hinduism in Lithuania is the ethnicity of members who are Lithuanians and not Hindus.  Contemporary Hinduism in Lithuania is a social phenomenon indicating and manifesting social and religious transformations from homogeneous field of religion to religious diversity and reflecting the trends of religious individualisation,” she states.

But Dr Audrius Beinorius,  Professor of Indian and Buddhist Studies, Institute of Asian and Transcultural Studies Vilnius University thinks otherwise.

“Dealing academically with India for more than 30 years I don’t believe there has been a rise in people following the Hindu religion in Lithuania, because many people are becoming more and more secular and not intended to replace one religion (local Catholic Christianity) with another (Hindu). They are searching mainly for practical spirituality, that would conduct a healthy way of life, help control stress and emotions, increase self-conscious attitude and so on,” he says.

Gaura Purnima celebrations at the Dvarka Temple in Vilnius, Lithuania.Photo: ISKCON

ISKCON, he continues, is among the older Hindu religious organisations that was perhaps not most popular at the end of Soviet occupation period and was one of the spiritual alternatives of atheistic communist ideology.

“During last 10 years this movement is evidently decreasing in number of followers, perhaps it contradicts the local habits of social life.”

He points out that indigenous Baltic religion has many common elements with ancient Vedic religious culture and less with contemporary Hinduism.

“Lithuania was the last European country to accept Christianity. Baltic people have been fighting for almost 300 years against united European crusaders to project their own ancestral religion, language and culture. Thus similarities between Sanskrit and Lithuanian languages are tremendous, as the names of Gods namely Viešpatis (Višpati), Dievas (Devas), Vejas (Vayu), Ašvieniai (Ašvins), some mythological elements, fire rituals, polyphonic religious chanting etc.” He states that it’s a pity, not much is left during last 400 years of brutal Christianisation.

“The indigenous Baltic religion movement nowadays is mostly reconstructions. And thus these people are deeply interested in Vedic tradition and Hinduism, not because having intention to become Hindus, but because living examples of Hindu practices could help in reconstructing ancient Baltic religion.  To my knowledge except ISKCON movement members there are almost no cases of Lithunians consciously and formally converting into Hinduism. Even followers of numerous yoga schools, among which Shivananda Yoga Center is the most popular, never consider themselves as a Hindu. Because chanting of mantras is considered to be auspicious and purifying your mind and soul, but that does not imply becoming a Hindu.”

Dr Beinorius believes that he does not see any sudden interest in Hinduism among Lithuanians. “Yes many people are visiting India, travelling to historical and archaeological sites, relaxing in beaches, claiming Himalayas. People are interested in the cultural heritage of India: Indian classical dances, classical music, Ayurvedic treatment, Jyotish predictions, meditations or even Bollywood cinema, but as I said before cultural interest has nothing to do with intentions for religious conversion.  Lithuanians, like other Westerners are not entirely able to connect Indian gurus seriously and properly as Indians do, because too strong sense of individuality, pride and non-obeying that hinders their devotion. They are more interested in following a kind of ‘scientific raja yoga’ created by Swami Vivekanda, Advaitic perspective of Sri Ramana Maharishi and Nisargadatta Maharaj, or Intellectual Integral Yoga of Sri Aurobindo, than purely devotional bhakti of Sai Baba, Art of Living of Sri Sri Ravi Shankar and similar. Perhaps our people trust themselves and their own efforts instead of waiting for blessings from gurus of divine anugraha,” he says.

Responding to the queries on whether ISKCON has seen a rise in Lithuanians seeking to follow the Hindu religion, Shatakula Das, of ISKCON Communications, Vilnius, Lithuania, said, “Yes, ISKCON has seen a rise in Lithuania for many years. ISKCON is part of the Gaudiya, or Chaitanya Vaishnava, tradition, which hails from the eastern regions of India. While we don’t have the exact number, an estimated 2,000 people are connected with ISKCON in Lithuanian through the Summer Vaishnava festival (which is hosted by the temple) and other program and events which are held regularly at the local centre. ISKCON Lithuanian’s  facebook group Lietuvos Vaishnavai has 2,166 members. There is no exact statistics on the number of followers we have every year but approximately 10 new people appear yearly at the temple or festival,” he states continuing that ISKCON in Lithuania started in 1979.

“In December 1989, the first community of Krishna Consciousness was registered in Vilnius and after a few months in Kaunas. Now we have 5 communities registered and many legal public entities such as Vedic Centers, or Vaishnava Culture Centres around Lithuania.”

A journalist for over 15 years, Mamta Chitnis Sen has worked with several reputed publications.

Another prize for the Tabla

Indian tabla player Sandeep Das wins prestigious Guggenheim Foundation Fellowship for Music Composition for 2019

SANDEEP DAS considered one of the leading Tabla exponents in the world today, has been awarded the prestigious Guggenheim Foundation fellowships in the category of Music Composition for 2019.

The Guggenheim Foundation was founded in 1925 in honour of John Simon Guggenheim to support the projects of artists and scholars in any field or discipline who have "demonstrated exceptional capacity for productive scholarship or exceptional creative ability in the arts".

Roughly 3,000 candidates were in the running this year and of those 168 were selected to receive fellowships across disciplines, with 11 awards being granted in the field of music composition. Amongst the other awardees are Nobel Prize Winners, Poet Laureates, members of the National Academy of Sciences, and many more distinguished individuals! You can view more on the Guggenheim Foundation website via this link. 

Sandeep’s collaboration with the Silk Road Ensemble for “Sing me Home” won the Grammy Award for the Best World Music Album. Prior to this win, he was nominated for the Grammy Award in 2005 and 2009. A professional career spanning 23 years has seen him composing and playing with the Legendary Cellist Yo-Yo Ma and The Silk Road Ensemble, String quartets and Orchestra’s such as The New York Philharmonic, The Chicago Symphony Orchestra, and the The Boston Symphony Orchestra to name a few.

International Cellist Yo Yo Ma says about Sandeep:

 “Sandeep transcends his instrument- when he plays the Tabla he is a creator of myths, a master communicator and an orchestra, all in one. In my decades of collaboration around the world, he is easily one of the greatest artists I have ever met. Not only is he one of the best artists I have met but he is also once one of the best teachers I have met. I believe there is no one he cannot engage!” 

It all started with a complaint that Sandeep’s father got from Sandeep’s school teacher.  “Sandeep has been disturbing the class…asked to stop tapping the desk with his hands, he starts tapping with his feet. Please take him to a doctor!” On reaching home that day, instead of being taken to a doctor Sandeep was gifted his first set of Tabla and taken to his first guru Shiv Kumar Singh where he spent one year in training.

Being a big fan of Pt. Kishan Maharaj of the Benaras Gharana, his father K.N.Das, sought and requested the legendary tabla maestro to teach his son. The Maestro proceeded to test his skills in various ways. At the end He was very happy and said –‘He has tabla in his blood and I will teach him.’

Sandeep learnt tabla under his Guru for 11 years in the Guru-Shishya parampara. Sandeep proudly mentions how everything he learnt was taught to him orally and thus all those years of learning live with him every second of his life and he doesn’t have to flip through any written diary of any sort.

For the first few years, he would travel from Patna to Benaras every Friday evening, stay overnight at his guru’s home and then return on Sunday. He would never spend a single vacation at home. Later his father took a transfer to Varanasi, so that his musical education could continue unhindered.

Under Pt. Kishanji Maharaj, Sandeep not only learnt tabla but also valuable lessons in life.

“When I was 9 or 10 years old, we were practicing in a room and Guru ji got very mad at us. He said why don’t you people clean the room before you sit down to practice and he asked me to clean the room. I had never done it at home so I couldn’t sweep the floor nicely. He took the broom from my hand and taught me how to sweep the floor and mentioned to me that if you sweep the floor nicely you can also be a good tabla player. Words which at that time didn’t make sense to me. How did sweeping the floor relate to tabla but as I grew up I realized that the other things he was teaching us to do, even doing the smallest jobs perfectly, taught us discipline, focus, attention to details and made the toughest jobs seem easy and that would also spill over in our playing.”

Pt. Kishanji Maharaj always discouraged his students from copying him. He would say, “As long as you are a Xerox you’ll never have any value. The moment you start playing, everybody should know which gharana you come from, but you must always have your own personality, your own thoughts imbibed in what you are playing.” Unlike many others, he advised his students to listen to every tabla player, but said, “Even if you like something, don’t try to play like them. Make it your own. It should sound that its Sandeep Das playing and not Sandeep Das copying or mimicking somebody else.”

Under his Guru’s guidance, Sandeep debuted on stage with legendary Sitar maestro, Pt. Ravi Shankar. He also won the national drumming championship thrice and became the youngest drummer ever to be graded by All-India radio.

One of the biggest turning points in his career came with his meeting the world famous cellist Yo-Yo Ma who invited him to play with the Silk Road Ensemble.

Interview with Sandeep Das:

Indian percussion is so well appreciated abroad, how can it be supported in India?

The major factor is that the percussion players have to understand that they are a very needed aspect of Indian classical music and stand up against exploitation. They have to believe in their hard work and realise that it is the quality of the playing that gets them concerts and not just by being subservient to someone, who in return will exploit them. They themselves have to stand up.

Is the domination of one or two great maestros distracting attention from a whole lot of young talented percussionists? Why do we always talk of only one or two great musicians for every instrument?

As you must have noticed, where are the art and culture pages or focus on anything of our own heritage and culture in today’s media, be it print or television. Whereas you pick up any media from the west and you will see dedicated critics and pages for the same. That is a very unfortunate situation in our country now that the media will only cover people who are already well known or people who can pay for PR.

What is the most important change happening in Indian percussion today?

There is no dearth of great individual talent in our country so we have talented younger players but the majority in a rush to get popular are ending up mimicking the west. That is where we are going wrong. I would say learn one this well enough and deeply first and be proud of your own music and culture.

What is it about the Indian tabla that makes it so universally popular?

When I think about it I am amazed at how smart and intelligent our predecessors were. Even one instrument like Tabla has such a vast repertoire that is unmatched with any percussion from anywhere in the world. It is an instrument that with the right training and application can be played with almost any kind of music. Thus I am playing with the biggest western classical orchestras of the world to String quartets and Jazz musicians.

Intrinsic Soft Power Manifest in the Art and Culture of India

Though art and culture may outwardly seem to be independent, they are intimately interlinked and always go hand in hand. Common elements like cuisine, ornaments, dress, language, behaviour, music, dance, literature etc underlie the customs of every culture, each having its own uniqueness.Culture is reflective of the ethos of a particular society and determines its character.

Art is a product of culture, a defined creative approach to interpreting ideas, drawing images on canvas or in space, and creating concepts. It is a creative expression of deep thoughts and situations that trigger transcendent experiences presented orally, visually or interactively.Art can re-enchant the way humanity sees the world, especially in times of challenges and struggles. For instance, it can rekindle a sense of patriotism, stir people into right action, uplift their spirit and aspirations.

This intrinsic power of art and culture has a universal value that infuses all relations and relationships both at national and international level. When districts in states, states in a country, and countries in the globe come together, art and culture provide a vital fabric of expression and cooperation. It provides a beautiful medium to educate and enlighten the significance of the cultural ethics and ethos of different regions.

Influence of Cultural Linkages

Cultural linkages develop mutual respect and honour in international relations and a certain peace and joy in human relations. Beyond theboundaries and differences, theypromote a common ground to unite. For instance, India and Russia recently celebrated the 70th anniversary of their diplomatic relations with the President of Russia, Vladimir Putin blogging a special message in the Times of India on May 30, 2017 and Prime Minister Narendra Modi visiting Russia to mark the historic occasion.[i]

Influence of Indian culture on Russia predates economic and trade relations between India and the then USSR, to the 15th century, when AfanasiyNikitin, a merchant from the land of Tver in Russia, in his three-year stay (CE 1466 – CE 1472), documented every aspect of the Indian society in his book, A Journey Beyond the Three Seas.[ii] Since then, cultural exchanges between the two countries have followed a consistent trajectory. Nikitin’s book became a major motion picture in Russia in CE 1950, with the Russian actor Oleg Strizhenov playing Nikitin and co-featuring the Hindi actress, Nargis Dutt.[iii] In my international travels, I am yet to meet a Russian who has not hummed “Awara hoo” or “MerajoothahaiJapani...sar pe laal topirussi…” with such pride to display his love of Indian culture.

The setting up of the Mayuri Dance Company in the Russian Republic of Karelia stands as a testament to this influence. Vera Evgrafova, who has always had a love of Indian dance was deeply moved by the 1985 movie “Mayuri”, which featured the story of an Indian Bharatanatyam dancer named Sudha Chandran. With aspirations of being a Bharatanatyam dancer, Sudha Chandran begins her training in the dance as a young girl, but as a teenager, loses a leg in a car accident.  Sudha fights her struggles to regain her dignity and identity as a dancer.  Vera Evgrafova, was so inspired by this feature film, that she appropriated the name of the character (Mayuri) for her dance group that she formed with dancers who shared the love for Indian dances in 1987 Railway Workers Cultural Center in Petrozavodsk, the capital of the Republic of Karelia. Winning the “Narodiny” award in 1995 by the Karelian Ministry of Culture, Vera secured a spot at the state-wide level.[iv]

There are many such inspiring stories of countries coming together for peace and cooperation where culture has been a major factor promoting the respective national interest and contributing to a more peaceful world order.

International Recognition to Indian Cities for its Art and Culture

Three cities in India - Chennai,Varanasi and Jaipur - have joined the prestigious UNESCO Creative Cities Network for its rich music and cultural tradition. This world organization has identified culture and creativity as integral and strategic factors for development at the local level and strengthen mutual respect and cooperation at the international level.

During the December - January “Margazhi” month of the Tamil Calendar, Chennai celebrates its rich Carnatic music and classical dance,predominantly Bharatanatyam, attracting host of artistes and art lovers from all over the globe. It is a beautiful coincidence that it is held in the Tamil month of Margazhi - a month traditionally dedicated to religious activities and spiritual disciplines. People wake up early morning, sing hymns and devotional songs on the deities, participate in processions and cook delicious delicacies!“Among the 12 months, I am Margazhi,” says Lord Krishna in the Bhagavad Gita (verse 35, chapter 10).

For many in Chennai, “December season” as it has come to be known as, is like a pilgrimage. Around 3000 programs and performances take place in established and upcoming Sabhasor organisationsat over 300 venues in Chennai. Every Sabha reverberates with melody and rhythm in praise of the divine, through the composition of saints, sages and many great composers. In recent times, temples and ancient traditional houses also serve as venues for lectures, demonstrations and concerts.

I am a proud and happy Chennaite. Being a performer and a participant of this grand Dance-Music season, I have been enjoying this wondrous festival for decades now.The festival was launched  in 1927 as an adjunct to INC, and has now completed 92 glorious years!The schedule of at least the top 10 Sabhas, are published in The Hindu on December 1st supplement. There are apps now that track the schedule of sabhasandkutcheris(concerts) like MargazhiSangeetam, SaRiGaMa, Zeek and collection of favorite songs from Twang. Online websites like KutcheriBuzz are a great source of the season schedule too!

Performers save their best repertoire to showcase for the season, and the audience - their best ethnic attires! The ladies already plan a display of collection of their Kanchipuram silk sarees and jasmine flowers. The men join the show with their shawls,  Kurtas and veshtis!Margazhi is to Chennai as Ganges is to Varanasi. Perhaps no other city in the world has such a kind of festival.

“Varanasi was advocated as an ideal example of India's intangible Cultural heritage as a combination of a temple city with its rich tradition in music. The Varanasi school of music or the Benaras gharana named after the city along with the semi classical genres like Hori, Chaiti, Tappa, Daadra are rich in musical heritage.The ghats, havelis and temples have housed the Benaras gharana and nurtured it backed with the Banaras Hindu University with its Music and Dance departments.The Government of Rajasthan nominated the Jaipur City under the Creative CitiesNetwork for its art & craft. 36 varieties of crafts were identified including the ones related to sculpture, pottery, textiles and jewellery making. Right from King Sawai Jai Singh II of Jaipur in 18th Century to his successors, the city has been nurtured as a centre of artistic excellence.”[v]As designated  members of UCCN (UNESCO’s Creative Cities Network), they reflect a hub for creativity and integrate culture into sustainable development plans.

Significance of Art and Culture in India

Indian culture is spiritual. It elevates and celebrates mankind, uplifts one to assimilate the four fundamental pursuits of mankind –(i) Dharma (righteous actions), (ii) Artha (securities like wealth, family, power and position), (iii) Kama (sensory, intellectual or emotional pleasures), and (iv) Moksha (enlightenment - gaining freedom from all limitations and sorrow). None of these pursuits are simple, because even though universal, the variety of human choices and the multiple layers of psychological complexities involved, give them a range of interpretations, perceptions and decisions.

The Vedic culture of India unfolds a universal vision that brings harmony in all these pursuits of mankind,with the environment. This harmony is easily attainable with the understanding that when the means or process of accomplishment of any pursuit is undertaken with commitment to right and ethical ways, harmony and fulfillment can be well orchestrated.

Art and Culture of India is Immortal

Do the expression of culture nurture and address all the needs of individuals? If they do not, that culture will not stand the test of time and would be outdated. The Puranas, Itihasaas, temple architecture, the folk lore, food, language, music, dance all seem to have an intrinsic strength to sustain, modify and adapt to the changing times without comprising on its integrity.Vedic culture seems to be relevant to all ages and at all times. Hence,in spite of many years of oppression, the culture today is still alive and celebrated!

For economic growth, technological, medical, industrial, and academic advancement is necessary but it cannot be used as a measure for inner growth or emotional maturity of a person.The struggling human heart always seeks fulfillment, wholeness, to be free from conflicts and pain. Vedic vision helps the individual resolve this fundamental struggle. Art and culture of India facilitates this resolution.



[iii] Ibid

[iv]http://www.thediskcoordinator.com/mayuri.htm Also see, https://www.facebook.com/dancemayuri/


India spearheads global music-ecology project

‘prthivim dharmana dhrtam’ signifies Dharma as sustainer of the earth

As the World celebrates World Earth Day on April 22, Indian musician Chitravina N Ravikiran is galvanising artistic support for the planet. His brainchild, the Planet Symphony Orchestra (PSO) has brought together celebrated performers, orchestras and students (of diverse countries and systems of music) to record music aimed to highlight the pressing issue of global warming and climatic change. 

A number of celebrity artists from every part of the world as well as select orchestras have been involved in the PSO's historic global audio recording project of the Climatrix Symphony, a 8-minute, 12-part, 72-scale piece that symbolizes the dissonant rapid changes in the earth's climate everywhere.  While a number of them have sent their recordings, many are in the process of doing so, as a sign of solidarity with the international music community. 

Artists can participate by download score and a rough audio of the Climatrix Symphony from:  http://melharmonymusic.com/planetsymphony (Parts will be shared upon request.) Then they need to record 10-20 seconds (orchestras 15-30 seconds) of the music in any noise-free location including home/normal rehearsal spaces and email a Wav (16-bit, 44100 Hz) or high-quality MP3s to melharmonymusic@gmail.com.

Chitravina N Ravikiran, the founder of Melharmony, which is co-ordinating the effort, says that many eminent Indian artistes have already sent their recordings including danseuse Dr Vyjayantimala Bali, Bansuri player Pandit Ronu Majumdar, Mridangam Vidwan Karaikkudi Mani, Bickram Ghosh, Sitar Maestro Purybayan Chatterjee, Mandolin U Rajesh, Violinist M Chandrashekaran and noted film violinist V S Narasimhan.

Several other musicians including violinists A Kanyakumari, Embar Kannan, Akarai sisters, mridangam vidwan T V Gopalakrishnan are also participating in this project.

As the project gains momentum, it is interesting to see the various links between India’s music and her unique Dharmic view of ecology. It is imperative that the world is aware of India’s unique position on Sustenance and Sustainability, Dr Pankaj Jain, Associate Professor Department of Philosophy and Religion University of North Texas, has written in his book Dharma and Ecology of Indian Communities.

As “the dharmic Indic traditions have [inspired] Indians to limit their needs” (pg 120), dharma could “be developed as an alternative anthropological category to study Indic traditions [and] successfully applied as an overarching term for the sustainability of the ecology, environmental ethics, and the religious lives of Indian villagers” (pg 3), writes Dr Jain. Etymologically, Dharma is derived from Sanskrit dhr meaning to sustain, support, or hold. In the Vedas prthivim dharmana dhrtam signifies Dharma as sustainer of the earth.

N Ravikiran says the sukshmas of Dharma as a concept has been brought out by several of India’s great composers many of them describing God as embodiment of Dharma. “Our culture is very close to the nature. The Saptha Svaras are derived, even if they are not exactly, from the sounds of animal calls. Sa is peacock, Ri Rishabham is the bull, Ga is the Goat, Ma is the Heron bird, Pa is nightingale, Dha is Horse and Ni is elephant. This symbolising ways also helped as a pneumonic for children to visualise sounds with some animal or bird. More than that, the learning of music used to be very close to nature, mostly outdoors.”

His composition the Climatrix Symphony, which forms the basis of this project, is an 8 minute, 12 part, 72 scale composition. It was composed for a full orchestra of 100 members and was performed by an orchestra in Wisconsin. Says Ravikiran, “From the Indian classical perspective it covers all the 72 parent scales of Indian music. The twelve chakras or twelve movements in this composition could be symbolising the twelve months of the year. Within these 12, there are certain consonants parts and certain dissonant parts. So the symbolism here is that weather patterns are getting random and dissonant. The idea is to get everyone to start taking note of the changes in our planet so that there is a dialogue happening. They aim to send this to decision makers in different countries. If we are able to inspire the common man to take small steps to help ward off global warming,” its aim will be fulfilled.

Prof Pankaj S Joshi, an astrophysicist who specializes in compact objects such as black holes and currently a vice chancellor and founding director of the International Center for Cosmology at the Charusat University in Anand, India, supporting the project, spoke of the Butterfly effect in modern environmental sciences. “This means that if a butterfly flaps its wings here, there could be a storm created thousands of miles away. The effect can multiply, that is the idea. The problem is that the common man all over the world is not aware of the magnitude of the problem and so as a result we keep on doing what we are doing. But the problem is that suddenly we hear that the disease is in the third stage, the cancer is in the fourth stage and there is no going back. That is why I think this project is important. The art can sensitise the masses, while science provides the core facts. Their coming together can create a magical effect.”

Many of the Indian artistes spoken in support of the cause

Tabla Virtuoso Bickram Ghosh - https://www.facebook.com/Taalacharya/videos/2264740576898725/

Trilok Gurtu - https://www.facebook.com/emilija.kercan/videos/10157208556271031/

Ghatam Karthik - https://www.facebook.com/1046103862/videos/10217293495343172/

Karaikudi R Mani - https://www.facebook.com/bhargavi.balasubramanian/videos/10215495377189818/

Sitar player Purbayan Chatterjee - https://www.facebook.com/apoorva.ravindran/videos/2167050300040844/

Bansuri player Ronu Manjumdar - https://www.facebook.com/melharmonyfoundation/videos/2368870759813621/

Vaijayanti Mala Bali - https://www.facebook.com/ravikiranmusic/videos/10156903637390155/

Russian designs a cool Veena

(This article first appeared in the Times of India on 13th April, 2019)

Russian pianist, mandolin player and guitarist Denis Petrov is a DIY musician who has the curiosity of an engineer but the heart of a musician. When he met his wife vainika Vijaya Kris, he was first introduced to the soulful sound of the Veena, but also observed at close quarters its limitations.

Denis wanted to gift his wife a beautiful, durable and handy Veena which would overcome the problems of limited portability, sensitivity to humidity and temperature changes, and tuning issues. It took six years of research and 100 hours of actual execution, using the craftsmanship he learnt from his grandfather in Moscow, to design the Shiva Veena, a Veena which fits into a guitar bag. The fretboard has regular guitar frets.

Denis’s initiation into Indian culture and fascination with Shiva began with his colleague in the US who was from Mumbai. “My friend introduced me to Indian culture, food, music and Hinduism. We have a large Ganesh temple in New York City which has Ganesha, Shiva, Subramanya and other deities. We go there every Saturday morning and watch the Shiva abhishekam. I cannot claim that I am a disciple of Shiva in a traditional sense. Someone told me that everyone is a Hindu and it’s just that not everyone knows about it. So that’s how I approach it.”

Denis began creating his version of the Veena as a gift to his wife

Denis says that while the initial inspiration was to gift Vijaya a Veena, as he started researching it became something deeper. “I realised that many people feel that playing the Veena is not a cool thing to do. Cool kids don’t play the veena, they play the electric guitar. Now, I can say that the instrument that I have created can be seen as a cool instrument for young kids.”

Most Veena instrument makers as well as Veena players tend to be conservative, but there have been a few innovators. Bangalore based Radel has one version of a modern Veena, and vainika Dr Suma Sudhindra has designed the Tarangini Veena.

Dr Suma Sudhindra says her intention of making the Tarangini Veena was to address the issues that Veena players face mainly while travelling. “It took me several years of research and experimentation to come up with a concert worthy (the sound has to be pleasing and as close to the sound of the Saraswati Veena as possible) and yet durable version. The Shiva Veena added the stand which made the Veena playing comfortable and it was also fitted with a magnetic pick up made exclusively for the Veena. Ofcourse all of these innovations will help in keeping Veena traditions alive.”

His aim in designing the Veena was also to make it more attractive to younger people by making it cool

There have been criticisms of bending tradition but Denis quotes a 2014 study of violins conducted by Claudia Fritz, a musical acoustician in Paris, and Joseph Curtin, a leading violin maker from Michigan, who reported that in a double-blind test with modern instruments and Old Italian violins, elite violinists preferred the new violins to the old.

Says Denis, “To me this is the favourite story that indicates that knowledge of the non-musical aspects of musical instruments biases the listener. So if you know that the veena was made from the jackfruit tree in a temple, it will sound good to you if you are from that tradition. It may be a cynical way of looking at things, but this is the way a western scholar thinks, where one has to prove things rather than accepting everything as given.”

It is a known fact that that the Western audience for pure Carnatic music is very small, as it requires prior ground work. This can be changed, says Denis who is a self-taught tabla player. “I am sure anyone who has studied music would be very interested in Carnatic music if it was explained to a Western musician in a way that made it accessible. Western musicians are very technique oriented. Based on my own experience I would rather have a plain explanation on the practical aspects, whereas most of the descriptions throw a lot of words at you which have no frame of reference.”

Roundtable on “Education and Soft Power”

India Foundation’s Center for Soft Power, in collaboration with DAV group of schools, hosted a roundtable discussion on the topic of “Education and Soft Power.” The discussion featured two esteemed scholars – Prof. Gulab Mir Rahmany, Associate Professor of Political Sociology from Afghanistan and Prof. Dilafruz Nasirkhodjaeva, Senior Researcher of Economics and Market Economics from Uzbekistan. The roundtable was attended by a number of respected academicians and researchers.

Prof. Rahmany spoke of the historical relationship between Afghanistan an India, which extended beyond a millennium. He spoke of how India has played an integral role in promoting higher education in the country, so much so that there are now even ministers within the Afghan government who completed their PHDs in India. He even noted that India’s current Minister of Textile, Smriti Irani, was a household name in Afghanistan due to her role Tulsi, in the soap opera   

“In the period between 2014 to 2019, over 1400 Afghan students have graduated from Indian universities.” said Prof. Rahmany

Prof. Nasirkhodjaeva spoke on how India was the first country to establish an embassy in Uzbekistan, and how Bollywood played an integral part in making Indian culture something that is known in every household in Uzbekistan. She described how there even existed a channel dedicated to showing nothing other than episodes of the Mahbharata on a loop. She spoke of the impact that the Sikh population in Uzbekistan has had, noting that they have been as essential element in bringing Indian culture, and also trade, to Uzbekistan.

“There are even children today who are being named Shah Rukh and Salman because of Bollywood.” noted Prof. Nasirkhodjaeva