Subcontinental Drift 

Indian music puts down roots in Nashville

When the Nashville Symphony announced that Ravi Shankar would play in the opening season of the Schermerhorn Symphony Center, it was proof the center is pulling out all the stops.
When the Nashville Symphony announced that Ravi Shankar would play in the opening season of the Schermerhorn Symphony Center, it was proof the center is pulling out all the stops. Shankar simply is Indian music to most people in the West—George Harrison’s buddy, a star of Woodstock and Monterey Pops and still one of the most highly regarded musicians in India. He’s also well on in years and, at 86 his ability to endure touring and the athletic rigors of string playing (by comparison, the 79-year-old Ralph Stanley doesn’t play much banjo these days) is admirable. So it wasn’t entirely a shock when he suffered a shoulder injury and had to cancel his U.S. concerts. While the Shankar concert was a once-in-a-lifetime chance to see a history-making musician, it’s not the only chance to hear top-flight Indian music in Nashville. In addition to Shankar’s daughter Anoushka’s concert at Vanderbilt in March, Purbayan Chatterjee from Calcutta will appear at Temple Sri Ganesha in Bellevue Oct. 14. His performance is part of the temple’s music and dance series, which is forging a regular place for classical Indian music in Nashville’s musical life. And these concerts by touring artists—such as the recent visit from vocalist Kaushiki Chakraborty, duo Rajeeb Chakraborty and Jesse Bannister on sarod and saxophone and an upcoming December show with singer Salem Shiriam—are only part of a larger picture that encompasses locals performing Indian music and dance, and students at all levels and ages exploring the classical forms. Indian musicians are often presented in terms of their place in a lineage of teachers and students. Chatterjee studied with his father, who was a student of Nikhil Banerjee and Ali Akbar Khan, two of the most prominent students of Ustad Allauddin Khan, who was a central figure in North Indian music and also Ravi Shankar’s teacher. More recently, the younger Chatterjee has studied directly with his father’s teacher, A.A. Khan, who among other things was Ravi Shankar’s duet partner on recordings and concerts. All of which places Chatterjee, at 29, snugly within the central lineage of Hindustani instrumental performance. Sankaran Mahadevan, who organizes the concerts at Sri Ganesha, says the temple’s programming strategy seeks “artists who are on the rise, who we know are going to hit the top, and we bring them just before they become unaffordable for us.” Mahadevan and his wife Monica Cooley are critical figures in Nashville’s Indian music and dance community. Mahadevan, a professor of engineering at Vanderbilt, is an accomplished vocalist, while Cooley is a dancer in the South Indian style of Bharatanatyam. As her name suggests, she is not of Indian heritage, but an American who traveled to India as a college student and went beyond the academic study of dance, culture and religion to committing her life to it. Cooley and Mahadevan run the school Kala Nivedanam for the study of music and dance, and she also teaches through Vanderbilt’s dance program. The Chatterjee concert will take place in the temple’s auditorium, an all-purpose room like a church’s fellowship hall. If past concerts are a guide, the audience will be primarily drawn from Nashville’s Indian community, but with a healthy sprinkling of others. The room’s details include religious symbols and incense and, in some cases, temple priests will bless the performance—a much different setting than a secular concert hall. Cooley recalls cases in which the musicians go upstairs to the temple’s shrines, say a prayer and come back unusually inspired to deliver a passionate performance. This is critical because Indian art of all sorts is governed by the concept of rasa. “That ultimate spiritual experience, where you feel oneness with the divine,” Mahadevan says of the term. “The objective of any art is to take both the performer and the audience to that state.” Some concerts feature local musicians and dancers, such as Mahadevan, Cooley and their most advanced students. About 90 percent of the Kala Nivedanam students are Indian and Indian American. “The motivation for most of the Indian parents is to introduce their child to a religious and cultural art form that connects to their Indian heritage,” Cooley says. The students who stick with it do so because they “get hooked on the art form”—much like a kid initially hauled off to ballet lessons who later aspires to dance at Lincoln Center. Oddly, Indian children in America often develop a stronger connection to traditional art forms than they might in India. When Kala Nivedanam’s students visit India, Cooley says it is common to find that their cousins are not as exposed to the classical art of the country. In the U.S., where they must work harder to maintain the connection to Indian culture, classical music and dance may become a more direct part of a young person’s identity, even while they grow up as American kids. Shankar’s concert would have offered a rare opportunity to hear a musician of truly historical stature, but with Chatterjee, Nashville will hear what a new generation is up to. 

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