Wednesday, 28 June 2017


Building community through music

Kanniks Kannikeswaran in conversation with Shanthi Murali

Dr. Kanniks Kannikeswaran holds a Ph.D in Indian music and has been teaching Indian Music Theory and History as adjunct faculty at the University of Cincinnati since 1994. He has made his research presentations on Dikshitar and Swati Tirunal at the Music Academy of Chennai. He composed the music score for Mahotsav choreographed by Mrinalini Sarabhai and her daughter Mallika. At the finale at INK Talks Mumbai, he presented a spectacular performance with a newly assembled choir comprising children from underprivileged backgrounds and with the group Dharavi Rocks. Kannikeswaran is known most for his pioneering work in composing and producing  large-scale symphonic work based on ragas and for his efforts in building communities around music. From his base in Cincinnati, he has taken this work to several cities around the US, working with more than 2500 performers. The boundless enthusiasm and energy he brings to his productions pervade this conversation with Shanthi Murali for Sruti.

Shanti A Journey of Peace has completed its 12th year of performance.

Shanti is an oratorio 85 minutes long, and featuring sacred text in Sanskrit (with some verses in Tamil, English and Pali), that I wrote for a large mixed chorus, a string orchestra.  I wrote it in 2004. Shanti powerfully presents the 5000-year-old cultural history of India on a very large canvas and is centered on the message of universal peace and interconnectedness. It uses text from the Upanishads, the Bhagavad Gita, as well as some lines from the Tevaram and the Nalayira Divya Prabandham. 

The score traverses several ragas such as Yaman, Sree, Durga, Vagadeeswari, Gambheera Nata, Bhoopali, Bhatiyar and more. About 90 Indian voices, trained and untrained, sing the melody while the Western choruses add layers of choral polyphony. An orchestra of strings and winds  adds more layers. Yet another layer of multi-genre dance (Bharatanatyam, Odissi, Kathak, folk, yoga movement) and multimedia visuals support the score, while a powerful narrative ties the entire score together.

Where has Shanti been performed and what is unique about the performances?

Shanti  premiered in Cincinnati OH in 2004, was performed again in 2006 and 2014, each time with a different cast. It has been performed in several cities including  Houston, Atlanta and most recently in the Bay Area. Each staging features a cast of about 250 performers. The tenth anniversary performance in Cincinnati drew an audience of 2000. The last two performances in the Bay Area had similar audiences, usually a mix of Indian and non-Indian connoisseurs of  music and dance.

Shanti is always performed by a local cast and the cast of singers and dancers is different each time. I make several trips to the area to work with the cast, collaborate remotely  and pull the production together.

How did your foray into choral music start?

I started composing in 1991; a friend of mine suggested the idea of working with choruses. I started a choir in 1993 and we debuted with a performance in 1994 featuring ragas like Yaman, Rasikapriya and Simhendramadhyamam. Word spread and we got invited to collaborate with a local Western choir in Cincinnati. It is then that the ‘goosebump’ moment happened as the SATB (soprano/alto/tenor/bass) Western choir, that sang the parts that I wrote, suddenly brought six different layers of sound together, even while the Indian choir was belting out melodies in ragas like Mand and Amritavarshini.

Why did you even write Shanti? What was your inspiration?

My friend and collaborator Dr. Catherine Roma suggested that I write an elaborate work themed on peace, soon after 9/11 happened, when we realised that the world we knew had changed forever. 

I visualised this new piece being sung by 100 singers with a Western orchestra and an ensemble of Indian instruments with various dance forms supporting it. The very idea of Sanskrit musical chants being powered with 100+ voices tugged at me and powered the creative process as the project came to life.

I knocked on several doors to get 100 Indian singers together—some were trained singers, many were not. The rehearsal scene was like the proverbial Tower of Babel with people speaking languages ranging from Malayalam to Assamese. Sanskrit somehow formed the glue that bound the singers together. Most of them had never sung on stage before. And when the Western singers joined us, the exhilaration was just unbelievable. All the participants were touched, moved and inspired. Those few months in 2004 when Shanti came together were some of the best in my life.

I have spoken to many of your singers and they are all nostalgic about their participation.

It takes months to make a production happen. There is the effort to recruit and nourish a choir. We as a community work together for a sustained period of time. There is a lot of camaraderie  during rehearsals. Western singers sing from the score. Indian singers learn by rote and reproduce. There is mutual admiration. Bread is broken together. Cultural differences dissipate. There is much bonding.  Most often, these are experiences to cherish for life.

You have been doing this work for over 20 years. What are your reflections on choral music?

Choral music provides a safe space for people to express themselves musically.  All choirs I have assembled have a mix of trained and untrained singers. The trained singers play the role of mentors; everyone rises to her fullest potential and in the process there is so much of positive energy generated. At the end of a three-month period you see a group of people, that did not know each other before, get together and create raga-spaces like Vagadeeswari or Kedar. Everyone is enriched and uplifted in the process. Every one of the Shanti experiences has been a source of empowerment to all. Every project is a collaborative one where every voice and every instrument matters. Everyone grows in the process.

What are some of the challenges you have faced?

When I started doing this work in the 1990s and in the early 2000s, I was the only one that had the complete picture of what the production would look like. It was hard to get singers together in the project, or sponsors who would stand behind the project. Even audiences had no clue as to what to expect. This problem is resolved now—given the way word has got around thanks to social media. We also have plenty of recordings that can explain what the productions are about. 

We went through very interesting rehearsal experiences. We had Indian singers who were singing on stage for the first time, and also professional players from the symphony. In some of the preliminary rehearsals, the Western players could not stand the sound of the tambura and insisted that it be turned off!  In such a cross-cultural lab, we learned to not perceive this as an affront to tradition—and used it as an opportunity to see how they were trained to relate to music.

You surely must be playing multiple roles in bringing these productions to life.

Yes, I do have to don the hats of a composer, arranger, lyricist, script-writer and arranger on the creative side. It is a thrilling experience when the sounds you imagine in your head and write in staff notation on a piece of paper come to life in an orchestral setting. I also enjoy teaching the music to choruses with varying levels of musical proficiency, coordination with the choreographers and the bigger role of directing the production and seeing it through. Apart from all this is the whole role of  managing the project and working with local coordinators across time zones. Performing with a different cast, it is almost like creating a new production each time! Needless to say, the joy of seeing it come alive is fresh every single time.

What would you regard as your unique contribution to music?

Over the past 20+ years, I have created a new-sound; that of Indian voices singing in raga based melodies in conjunction with a traditional Western choir (and orchestra) with different voice parts. The Western voice techniques are different from ours. When the two come together, the effect is magical. I have been fortunate enough to work with diverse groups and create this experience over and over again. The music is grounded completely in ragas; the core is all about ragas; it is just that the superstructure around it changes with every new composition, especially with the addition of layers and layers of polyphony, all within the bounds of the raga. I have taken Indian art music to a wider range of people; have built new audiences for this work.

How was your experience working with a Surinamese diaspora choir?

We NRIs cling on to our memories of India that we left behind in the 1980s. There are people that left India in the 1800s as indentured labourers, even back during the time of Tyagaraja to distant places like Trinidad and Surinam, and they cling on to the India that their ancestors left behind in the 1840s. Holland has a huge population of Surinamese Indians. We formed the first ever Caribbean Indian choir with them. This choir discovered the joy of singing  in Sanskrit; there were many emotional moments when we rehearsed Sant Tulsidas’ verses; it was through Ramcharitmanas that the entire Caribbean Indian population had tenaciously held on to their Hindu past over the past 170 years. 

Who are your sources of inspiration?

Muthuswami Dikshitar’s open mindedness in writing Sanskrit lyrics to European tunes is a constant source of inspiration. The very fact that an 18th century composer steeped in the orthodox Venkatamakhi tradition could step out of his shoes to listen to alien tunes played by the colonisers and even write lyrics to them, not just to a handful of tunes but to more than 30, is something that never ceases to amaze me. Nottuswaras apart, the entire opus of Dikshitar’s work that shows a syncretism not seen elsewhere, and allows you to discover something new all the time, is a constant source of inspiration.

The works of Rabindranath Tagore and Subramania Bharati never cease to amaze me. I am an unabashed admirer of the late Pandit Ravi Shankar who constantly expressed himself in so many different ways. The list doesn’t end!

Have you released any recordings?  

Just last year, I released Sri Sharadambam Bhaje for the Sringeri Vidya Bharati Foundation. This album features compositions by the Sringeri Acharyas as well as compositions of Dikshitar on Saraswati. I have set the Sharadamba Stotram written by the Acharya as a ragamalika in eight ragas based on the context of the lyrics. I also released the first ever compilation of all of the 39 nottuswara sahityas of Dikshitar recorded with my then 12-year old daughter with Celtic and other accompaniment back in 2008.  I also set 25 verses from the Divya Prabandham to music and released this compilation as Tiruvarangam in 1992.

What was your childhood like and how has it influenced your work?

I was raised in Kachalisvara Agraharam near Parrys Corner and there was always some temple festival or other going on. Given our proximity to the temple, I must have heard so much of Gambheera Nata on the nagaswaram and marching tunes played by bands to which deities danced, to the late night sounds of the ashtottara namavalis sung by the late Ganesa Gurukkal in his sonorous voice in various ragas. Our proximity to the temple ensured that I listened to Needamangalam Krishnamurthy Bhagavatar, Pulavar Keeran and so many others. Even Chembai Vaidyanatha Bhagavatar sang there each year.

Who are your mentors?

I grew up listening to my aunts learn music from my teacher Saraswati Ammal of the Dikshitar sishya parampara surrounded by legends from Dikshitar’s life. I was privileged to learn from Guru TVG during my days at IIT Madras and then take lessons in Hindustani music from Lakshmi Shankar in the US. I am grateful to Prof. Prameela Gurumurthy for her mentorship. I have also had the good fortune to work with several progressive people to help spread ideas of interconnectedness, multiculturalism and pluralism. 

Who are some of the people you have collaborated with?

The Cincinnati Chamber Orchestra, the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, the Dario Fo Dutch Choir and the Hague Residentie Orkest have performed my work. I have collaborated with the renowned Gundecha Brothers on Guruguha Dhruvapada. We were honoured to have Lakshmi Shankar sing as a guest artist in the first three  performances of Shanti. Revanta Sarabhai and sitarist Anupama Bhagwat have performed several times with us.

What is your vision for Shanti?

We had never thought that the work we started in Cincinnati would spread to so many cities. I am hoping that the choral work of ours of so many years would spread to many more cities. What we started was something totally new; there was no audience then for such crossover work. Starting from ground zero we have built and sustained audiences through all these years and are continuing to build new audiences. We are training teachers and are currently working on a Shanti Youth choir, to create a number of children’s choirs thereby taking this work to the next generation.

(Shanthi Murali is a television host, emcee, dancer, singer, and a resident of Cincinnati, Ohio, U.S.A.)

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