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Tradition - An Evolving Continuum
28 October, 2015

An interview with Kiranavali Vidyasankar 

Sri. Chitravina Narasimhan, a living legend, has given this world four geniuses - Chitravina Ravikiran, K N Shashikiran, Kiranavali Vidyasankar and his nephew, Chitravina Ganesh. It must have given him immense joy to note that Kiranavali became the proud recipient of a prestigious project grant from The Pew Center of Arts and Heritage, in Philadelphia, USA. Kiranavali herself is a performer and guru. 

Her present project, Tradition - An Evolving Continuum, is a pioneering effort to bring together Carnatic musicians residing in the United States. Musicians from traditional lineages as well as the second generation of Indians come together in a unique Vocal-instrumental ensemble featuring voice (Kiranavali), Chitravina (Kiranavali), Vina (Nirmala Rajasekar), Mridangam (Vinod Seetharaman), Ghatam (Ravi Balasubramaniam), Kanjira& Konnakkol (Akshay Anantapadmanabhan) and Tambura, besides those adapted from the west, such as Violin (V V S Murari), Saxophone (Prasant Radhakrishnan) and Electronic Keyboard (N Muralikrishnan). You can see a sample video here.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SJL1fN5wnhM&list=PLKVxv5zSbqZ-3yGBAMFijTEDZeGgh7vUO 

The project will culminate in a two-part performance scheduled for Nov 7, 2015 at The Painted Bride Art Center in Philadelphia, and will be presented by Sruti. The first part will feature a traditional Carnatic vocal concert of Kiranavali and the second, the newly-formed ensemble. Besides conceptualizing this project and composing music for the new ensemble, Kiranavali will lead it as the Vocalist and Chitravina artist. Accomplished Mridangam player Vinod Seetharaman has collaborated with Kiranavali for the percussion section of the new compositions. 

Shaaranya Pillai, a talented music student and enthusiast, talked to Kiranavali in detail about the different aspects of her program.

1. There seems to be always some confusion about what to take from Tradition and what to leave behind. Now that you have chosen a subject like Tradition: An Evolving Continuum can you explain further…...

As a practitioner of an old art form like Indian classical music, I am deeply connected to many different traditions of India - musical, religious and artistic - and they resonate with me at a core level. However, I see with greater clarity over time that tradition is not static, but an ever-changing thing, affected by various factors. Between my childhood and now, for example, I see that ragas are continuing to evolve, the sound of our music is changing and so are our performance practices and instruments. My own perception of the art and my abilities are also changing. Through this project, I am hoping to put the spotlight on the two sides of this coin - what are the things that we retain and take forward as tradition, and what are the things that naturally and necessarily evolve. 

Coming to your question about what to take from tradition, well it is both easy and tough. I think conditioning is the first basis on which you identify with tradition - what you are exposed to from your culture. Then it is your interpretation and choice that influences what you end up taking. However I would add that there is something called a collective knowledge of music, which we probably as identify as ‘tradition’. For example, a Bhairavi’s basic identity has probably been forged over many centuries. Certain phrases have probably gotten reiterated so much that they have become central to the raga’s identity. Today we cannot convey the full feel of the raga without those phrases. I would say that these are the things we must carry forward. Of course, ideas of how a note should be rendered, whether to use a certain note less and such other things change gradually over time that one doesn’t even notice it, but that is the very nature of evolution itself, I guess! 

2.What was the thought-process that ran into the choice of this particular topic? 

The Carnatic jargon comprises words like pathantaram (versions of songs), classicism, tradition, bani, parampara and so on. As a teenager, learning songs from authentic sources and singing them without tampering was a big goal, and I automatically got into the habit of tracing the sources of the knowledge I acquired. This has eventually led me to think about what constitutes tradition, individual artistry, what artistic expression,  style, freedom and license are, how much one should exercise it, and such other things. In other words, I realize we are all part of the tradition and evolution cycle, and the idea for such a project has existed within me for quite a while.

But there is another side to this. Since my move to the United States a dozen years ago, I have been seeing many high-caliber Carnatic musicians contributing immensely to the communities they live in. However the opportunities and recognition often do not match their capacities and contribution. I want to change this and create a platform, perhaps annual conferences and festivals, that will help us work together and do more meaningful things. This project is the beginning of my effort in that direction. 

At quite another level, hailing from the musical lineage that I do, I have been a constant witness to the resurrection and evolution of the beautiful slide instrument, Chitravina, within my own family. This also gives me a natural interest in our instrumental tradition, and I have been following the entry, adaptation and evolution of both Indian and western-origin instruments. In general, I see how much the western world values traditional cultures, the acoustic sounds of instruments, perhaps things that we either take for granted or are slowly ceasing to care about. We need to wake up to some of these things, re-examine where we are going, and chart out the right course for the future of our instruments. 

This project bundles all these different ideas into one central theme, and I am very happy that it got picked by The Pew Center for Arts & Heritage. 

3.A few words about your collaborator(s) and your discretion in picking up instruments…… 

I have chosen an array of performers from different parts of the United States, representing different Carnatic instruments of both Indian and western origin, that are continuing to evolve. We will work together in a new vocal-instrumental ensemble that I feel will allow us to get to know each other better and allow us to take our artistic ideas forward. The ensemble features voice, chitravina (both me), vina (Nirmala Rajasekar), violin (V V S Murari), electronic keyboard (N Muralikrishnan), saxophone (Prasant Radhakrishnan), mrdangam (Vinod Seetharaman), ghatam (Ravi Balasubramanian), konnakkol and kanjira (Akshay Anantapadmanabhan). 

All the artists in this ensemble are experienced and have done great work in their respective areas, taking our music through their instruments to various platforms, collaborating with different teams. This would naturally mean that they have worked very hard to understand and adapt their instruments to different situations, perhaps playing at pitches outside their comfort zones or working on their sound production. Some of these ideas may stay with them and they may adopt it for themselves in the long run, thereby contributing to a better overall understanding and evolution of these instruments. 

4.Carnatic music is an example of continuity and change. Do you agree? 

This is a huge topic! In a nutshell, I would say that Carnatic music has seen many changes in every dimension - the core aspects of the music itself, its performance, practitioners, instruments, settings and so on. Everything has contributed to what it is today, and we are certainly going to witness a lot more changes in our own lifetimes. It is like the flow of a river - many new barriers will be broken, some gently and some not so gently, and many changes will continue to happen. Its practitioners must however use their finest discretion, and take care to retain with honesty and sincerity the best of the art form, and carry them forward. 

5.Your presentation….Will this be a kind of experiment in fusion? 

Let me first clarify that the new ensemble I am creating is a fully Carnatic ensemble - there is going to be no western music in it, but only instruments of western origin. Having said that, I would say that Carnatic musicians and composers have always strived taken the best from other systems, which is a sign of an open and healthy approach to the art. For example, Tyagaraja and Dikshitar have fashioned some compositions along western tunes, with Samskrit or Telugu lyrics. Similarly a lot of our top-class instrumentalists have worked with great musicians from other genres and gotten much out of it. My own brother, Chitravina Ravikiran, has come up with the unique concept of Melharmony, weaving in the melodic aspects of our music with the harmonic aspects of western classical music. While this may sound obvious or trivial to us today, I know that he and his collaborator have put in thousands of hours of their time and are bending their minds to understand the other system better so that the enmeshing will adhere to the core values of both systems. The most important thing for any cross-genre collaborations, however, is a deep and thorough understanding of one’s own art form and objective pride in it. 

6.What if any, were the challenges you faced while carrying this forward? 

Actually, I have been enjoying working on all aspects of this project, even though there were a few initial challenges with logistics and putting together the right team. But I suppose one has to expect it in a project of this kind. The staff at The Pew Center have been extremely supportive through them, and that has made things easier. 

7. What will make this program different from anything anyone has seen before? 

Well, the fact that we’re exploring these two aspects of tradition and evolution as two sides of the same coin may be a first. This may also be the first time Carnatic professionals in the United States are coming together, that too in a vocal-instrumental ensemble of this kind, with this mix of artists and instruments, led by a vocalist-instrumentalist. Additionally, I have attempted to take up classical ragas, and bring in some new ideas into each of the four compositions, which I hope is ultimately a worthy contribution. I will wait for the audience response before I say anything more! 

8. Anything else in particular or special you wish to add about your present project ? 

Well, all I can say is irrespective of the final outcome, this journey has been full of revelations for me. I have learnt a lot of valuable things about my art form, different instruments, artists, and their efforts, composing, thinking through a multi-dimensional project idea such as this, communicating briefly and effectively about our art to people who may not have any prior understanding, and even about myself! All these have been very rewarding. Now at the last leg of this particular journey, I have to put in my final efforts, and hope that the program will be well-received.

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