Song of Surrender

Tuesday, 13 January 2015

Ragas in Symphony

By Dr. Priya Srinivasan

I felt the notes of the raga Kalyan NRGMP - PMGRS moving over my skin making my hairs stand on end. The sound filled my pores and entered the spine as energy spiralled within. Many of us have experienced this when we hear great music but to feel it so rapidly as a response to the sound of the first few notes was truly remarkable. I realised quickly that this was no ordinary performance and that this music was composed by a globally savvy vaggeyakara of the 21st century. Kanniks Kannikeswaran from Chennai, India and now based in Cincinnati, Ohio. Thus Ragas in Symphony – The Shanti Experience composed and directed by Kannikeswaran opened the ‘India Festival’ in Den Haag, Netherlands on Wednesday the 15th of October to an enthralled international audience.

This was a remarkable performance on many levels and the sheer number of people on stage was in itself a feat. The many voices of the choral groups (Western and Indian) and orchestral harmony of the Western orchestra and Indian instruments blended seamlessly with slokas from the Sangeeta Sampradaya Pradarsini in the opening. This led to the guruvandana tarana where there was a play on the syllables sa, dha and soham with swaraksharas. The words Sri guruguha dasoham, (I am a dasa of Dikshitar) were sung, established for the audience the absolute mastery of vision that connected the lyrics and music. At once we knew this was a composer skilled in the arts, someone the great Muthuswami Dikshitar himself might have approved of. Kannikeswaran was openly declaring his knowledge and insight to the music visionary of 19th century India. The lyrics that followed in the form of the gopuchha (a structure used by Dikshitar) took the audience to new heights with the interplay between the vocal elements (Indian and western choir) and the western orchestra and Indian instruments. The words, lyrics, and sound cascaded with an incredible synergy: Soham, dasoham, sada soham, dasa dasoham, meaning I am that reality, I have surrendered to that absolute reality, I am always that reality and I have surrendered to those who have surrendered to that absolute reality. 

Ragas in Symphony is the first of its kind in many ways. It features the first Surinamese Indian choir – founded in 2013 under the guidance of Kannikeswaran. Surinamese Indians who call themselves Hindustani are twice removed migrants originally displaced by British and Dutch colonial endeavors in India and transplanted to Surinam (a country in the northern part of South America near the Caribbean) in 1873. Gaining independence from the Dutch, many of them moved to the Netherlands after 1975 and established lives in The Hague and other parts of the Netherlands. Through the vision of Kannikeswaran and Leo Spreksel (the Artistic Director of the Korzo Theatre) the latter who sponsored the India Dance Festival at Korzo for the past six years (bringing together both contemporary and traditional artists) featuring various Indian diasporic communities (Surinamese and Indian) were brought together with young Chennai singers from The University of Delft, the famous Dutch Dario Fo choir and the prestigious western orchestra: Residentie Orkest. This remarkable group produced a performance event that was eclectic in sound, visuals and reflecting racial harmony in the heart of a decentred Europe grappling with immigration reform and austerity measures, making the event extremely important on many levels. 

The music was visualized through dance by classical Bharatanatyam dancers: Revanta Sarabhai, Pooja Purohit, Kathak dancers: Hari and Chetana, and contemporary dancers from the Netherlands Dance Theatre. Ragas in Symphony marked the inauguration of the India Festival which includes the Korzo India dans festival, the India music festival and the India film festival. It is one of the largest India festivals in Europe running over three weeks and hosted other renowned choreographers and performers from India such as Aditi Mangaldas, Meenakshi Srinivasan, Hari and Chetana as well as the famous Dutch born Indian choreographer Kalpana Raghuraman and Shailesh Bahoran amongst a range of local artists. 

At the opening of this remarkable festival, it was the soundscape of Kannikeswaran that truly dominated. Kannikeswaran is considered to be a pioneer of the Indian American choral movement and has founded Indian community choirs in several cities across North America. His work has also toured internationally in Singapore and Netherlands. He is credited with creating a ‘new sound’ – that of choral expression of Indian ragas in conjunction with a traditional western choral sound. Kannikeswaran who has a Ph.D in music has extensively researched the hybridity of Muthuswami Dikshitar’s compositions. He showed his mettle as a 21st century composer who can bring the Vedic ritual elements of Hindustani, Western, and Carnatic music together in a seamless manner, extending Dikshitar’s vision in allowing us to consider the importance of tradition as innovation. In his compositions, he uses varied tools and techniques to express this global vision of peace and harmony (both literally and metaphorically) through text, swaras, chords, compositional forms, languages, instruments, harmony, counterpoint, orchestration (frequency ranges), tempi, silence, and more to create a juxtaposition of sounds reflecting the moods that ragas themselves can bring with changing seasons. 

To evoke spring the scene is set with a Hindustani tarana that flowers into the Carnatic mela scale of Vagadeeswari with text sourced from the “Tevaram” (which evokes various creatures at play during the spring season) framed under a transition between the C sharp major and B flat major chords with a brisk rhythm set by the drums thus allowing both Indian and western musicians to enter the notes seamlessly. An oboe mimicking the shehnai plays a jod in raga Brindavani Sarang, with a harp and a string pulse for support, ending in a tihai to herald the summer. A lone verse from the Sangeeta Ratnakara (dhantum dhantum dhigi dhigi dhigi dhigi) brings the summer season to life with the timpani and the splash cymbals portraying the intense heat of summer. The prayer for rain is answered with ‘miyan ki malhaar’ which is a concerto for sitar and orchestra in 4 movements. The orchestra goes up the raga M,P nDnD N, SNSN S, and brings it slowly back to the lower registar with cellos and basses – the real range of the life of the raga Malhaar. The first piece of the season autumn is in raga Bhairava, the raga of the season; it brings to life the phrases ‘pashyema sharad shatam, jeevema sharad shatam’ (may we live to see a 100 autumns, may we rejoice through a 100 autumns). There is an air of wonderment created as the scale of Mayamalava Gaula is echoed in the chords C major and E minor. The 2nd movement is brisk and has a simple tabla accompaniment and it concludes with an aalap overlay by one of the lead voices. The night of the year is winter. Darbari Kanada is the raga of the midnight and is hence chosen as a witner raga.

The first movement features a Jod sung entirely by the western choir to orchestral accompaniment (there is a solo Indian line in the midst). This piece shows the quietness of winter – in the pauses between lines and also shows the latent energy of the season. The Dario Fo choir has done full justice to this rendition. The 2nd movement starts with a teaser line from the ‘carol of bells’ – and transforms the line G,RGS, to D,NRS – characteristic of Darbari Kanada – and then launches off into a trisragati tarana ‘tanom dhim dhim tana’ – all sung by the Dario Fo. The rendition is almost Celtic, yet is Indian at the same time. It is in Darbari Kanada and yet, it is in the D minor scale all representing snowflakes, skiing on snow slopes and powerful avalanches. There is an invocation of peace. The shanti path from the Yajur veda in raga Megh where the Indian choir invokes peace on every aspect of creation; the western choir provides the choral polyphony at the end of each piece. The show ends explosively with a Tarana in Charukesi in seamless interaction between the Indian, western choirs, orchestra and all the dancers.

Audiences from diverse backgrounds were truly thrilled by the performance and gave rousing standing ovations. Kanniks Kannikeswaran as an artist whose work who must be watched and heard by lovers of classical Indian music, global music, and Western classical music alike. His work bears the hallmark of an artist who is at once deeply intellectual while simultaneously committed to creating an experience in sound and vibration of pleasure, peace, and harmony for audiences. In other words he is committed to creating rasa for diverse audiences while maintaining strict standards that would also appeal to the classicists sitting in Chennai sabhas. A visionary, he retains the depth and traditions of Indian culture while allowing Indians to simultaneously embrace the global. 

(Dr. Priya Srinivasan is an artist, writer, Bharatanatyam dancer and choreographer based in the Netherlands)

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