I came to Cincinnati, OH as a graduate student in 1984. Born in Chennai, I had a natural love for Carnatic music, trained in it and even given a concert as a 13 year old.
In the US, I attended my first symphony and was blown away by the sense of ‘order’ and the concept of ‘orchestral arrangement’ – something totally absent in Indian Art Music. I listened to more and soon wanted to write music combining the organic nature of ragas with orchestral arrangements. I taught myself midi, took courses in music theory and started writing music.
A friend of mine suggested I start a choir; soon enough, 20 friends of mine started visiting our apartment regularly and in 1994 we formed the first ever Indian American choir in the US. It was an absolute joy to experiment with parts – and bring ragas to life in a choral setting.
This joy increased manifold as our newly formed Indian choir collaborated with western choirs to create a ‘new sound’ – with layers of multi-textured choral polyphony conforming to rules of ragas such as ‘Yaman’, ‘Nasikabhushani’ and more.
The birth of Shanti
‘You need to write a major work on Universal Peace’, decreed my friend and collaborator Catherine Roma just a few months after the devastating 911 attacks. I thus wrote an oratorio in Sanskrit ‘Shanti – A Journey of Peace’ in 2004 for mixed choruses, orchestra, dances and multimedia. Shanti tells the story of India’s cultural history and spells out the age-old vision of Universal peace.
We knocked on several doors in Cincinnati to recruit 90 Indian voices; when these voices rehearsed my arrangement of ‘Ganga Stotra’ along with several western choruses, it seemed like a dam had opened. The choirs washed us all in a sense of peace, belonging and community. Shanti premiered in 2004 to packed houses.
The power of community
It became clear it was not music alone that was driving my work. It was the awe inspiring power of community driven music that loomed bigger than each of the 200 individuals who brought ‘Shanti’ to life. There was diversity in every imaginable way. Collaboration such as this, between the Indian diaspora and local singers, was the first of its kind. Western singers belted out ragas from a score; Indian singers memorized western parts; we broke bread together. There were singers from all kinds of professions and ethnic groups; there were professional musicians along with amateur singers willing to be coached; there was a sense of belonging that none of us had ever realized before.
And when we re-created this experience at the prestigious Aronoff center to a ‘surreal’ standing ovation from 2600 people in the audience, time just seemed to stop for all of us 250 performers on stage. The energy on stage was unbelievable; so many hugs; there was a complete sense of the disappearance of ‘the other’. We were all connected in an indescribable way. Many of us became friends and collaborators for life.
It then occurred to me this was what I wanted to keep doing over and over. Opportunities just presented themselves.
Taking the music to the diaspora
When my alma mater from IIT Madras Raju Venkataraman invited me to Lehigh valley to recreate the Shanti experience, we were all skeptical. But the Indian diaspora came together to make it happen. It was not about me anymore. The Lehigh singers owned the production. Singers drove 3 hours to attend rehearsals. The experience of the curtain call was every bit as rich as that at the Aronoff center – but with a completely new set of people with the same contagious energy all over again.
We built Indian diaspora choirs in several cities. Houston in 2010 delivered a Texas sized ‘Shanti’ in collaboration with the United Nations choir. The journey went on to Tampa, Fort Lauderdale, Minneapolis, Toronto, Chicago, Washington DC and other places. The story was the same everywhere. Each time we started singing together it was exactly like our first choir in 1994. Each time the concert reached its finale – the energy on stage was the same as what we experienced on stage at the Aronoff center; the cast and crew were different; but the fellowship and excitement were the same. Each community choir experience was like a family wedding – complete with its own photo album. And the family kept growing. I have had the fortune of working directly with hundreds of performers. Thousands have seen our work. Our interviews on NPR’s Morning Edition and Public Television resulted in a reach-out to a wider audience and the potential of more community choirs.
One of the most moving experiences was singing with the Surinamese Indian choir in Holland. These are people whose ancestors migrated to the Caribbean back in the 1800s. The choir sang with expat Indian singers and an awesome Dutch choir and the Residentie Orchestra in The Hague bringing my score, based on ancient ragas and ancient chants for Universal peace, to life.
Looking back at the past 20 years, two things become apparent. First, all this work is about community; Second, it is all about rising above and beyond our self-imposed limitations to create miracles.
What do I want to do with this work in future? I am clear I want to keep working with communities around the world, experiencing empowerment through music over and over again. The work of the past 20 years has made it clear magic is possible when diverse communities work together with a common sense of purpose. I am convinced the world will be a different place if the focus of 6 billion of us shifted to a shared sense of purpose as expressed in this ancient Sanskrit hymn. ‘May all be blessed with boundless joy, may all be free from needless fear and in this world of harmony, may peace and joy prevail’.