New Carnatic music project in USA: Kiranavali's idea

kiranavali-2USA-based Kiranavali Vidyasankar has charted out a unique identity for herself in Carnatic music; she hails from a family of musicians who are well-known in this music world and beyond.

She is a performer, teacher and writer. Introduced to the music world as a child prodigy at two, Kiranavali embarked on her vocal career at the age of five, and has since established herself firmly as musician with a distinct voice and scholarship. 

Her career as a performer has taken her to many renowned centers across India, USA, Canada and Europe. A gifted teacher with a rich experience, Kiranavali is said to have made a significant difference to the musical and cultural landscape across the United States.

She also writes on the music - she is the editor of, and the book, Ragas at a Glance. She is now piloting a Carnatic music project in the USA, funded by The Pew Center for Arts & Heritage. In this short Q and A piece, Kiranavalli talks about this project.

So when did this project idea germinate?

It is hard to say exactly when the project germinated, but the idea has been in my mind for a while, slowly building up over time. Carnatic music and musicians are thriving very well in this country, and a full-time musician like me has a lot of exciting work on my plate at any given point. Yet, I notice the labeling we face - "local" here and "NRI" in India! Although I know they are just terms of convenience referring to our geographical location, it also sometimes translates into inequities in opportunities, slotting or payment. I have invariably seen Carnatic musicians here working harder not just for themselves but also for the communities they live in, which in turn, have uplifted the art and cultural environment in many different cities in the US, truly signs of a healthy global platform for our Indian heritage.

With the world being what it is today and patronage for arts getting tougher, such diversity in geographical location is desirable. Many different centers across the world must indeed support the arts - the burden should not fall on organizations in Chennai (India) alone. Nor should artists be bracketed as being serious or otherwise based on where they live!

Artists within each community should get the right support and opportunities to further their art. In the United States, luckily there is still some wonderful support for the arts through the government and other private funding agencies, and in Philadelphia, one of the biggest funders is The Pew Center for Arts & Heritage. As someone who believes in being responsible about the change one wants to see, I took up the idea of bringing together top-class and experienced Carnatic professionals that have made their homes in the United States in my very first funded project.

How did it crystalize?

I had a fairly good idea of what I should do in my project - I wanted to bring together experienced professionals in the United States whose careers started many years ago in India and has continued here.

My idea is to have an annual conference to highlight and discuss different dimensions of our music, and have solo and collaborative concerts. During my discussions with The Pew Center for Arts & Heritage, some of these ideas got refined, and I ventured into the idea of forming a new vocal-instrumental ensemble comprising Carnatic musicians from the United States and also composing for it.

This ensemble will have artists representing various instruments that are part of mainstream Carnatic performance today. While instrumental ensembles are not new to our music, the emphasis in this particular one is that it will not only be classically oriented but will also not sacrifice any of the important features of vocal music.

I am also not sure if any major vocal-instrumental ensembles have been spearheaded by a vocalist before. As the discussions for this project continued with Pew, we decided to document the evolution of the different instruments featured in this project through video interviews which have better reach and shelf life instead of doing it in the panel discussion format.

Even in the proposal stages, the very skilled and astute staff at Pew asked fine-tuned questions that helped me sharpen my focus and ideas, and hone in on the essentials. This was a very big learning process in itself because it makes you think harder about your own art form and all that you take for granted in a performance.

What is its goal and who is it for?

The goal is to create a platform for healthy artistic dialogue between artists from different communities within the United States, which in turn will help us take our own artistry further.

I would also like to establish a more solid platform for Indian arts in this country, particularly Carnatic music, and bring it to mainstream notice because it is still largely patronized only by the Indian diaspora. It was indeed a proud moment when my application, among many other competing applications from different art streams, was considered seriously and awarded the funding.

I would ideally like the project to reach audiences of different kinds but that is a slow process, and a lot of groundwork has to be done in the form of outreach activities. We have attempted reaching out to newer audiences in a small way at this point and the results will start becoming visible with continued efforts.

What is its format and how has that been put together?

"This project is titled Tradition - An Evolving Continuum. And to showcase both sides of the same coin, I have come up with the idea of a two-part performance, which will take place at The Painted Bride Art Center in Philadelphia on November 7, 2015, presented by Sruti, The India Music and Dance Society, a premier arts organization in the Delaware valley.

The first part will feature the traditional side of our music through a conventional concert. In this, I plan to highlight how Carnatic music performance today draws from many different Indian traditions - devotional, folk, classical and so on - and has over time, acquired its own identity.

The second part of the performance will feature the continuing evolution of our music, which in this particular instance, is through the new vocal-instrumental ensemble for which I have composed new music using well-established ragas and talas in our genre.

The ensemble will feature voice (me), Konnakkol (vocal percussion, Akshay Anantapadmanabhan), South Indian instruments like Chitravina (me), Vina (Nirmala Rajasekar), Mrdangam (Vinod Seetharaman), Ghatam (Ravi Balasubramanian) and Kanjira (Akshay Anantapadmanabhan) as well as western origin instruments such as the Violin (V V S Murari), Saxophone (Prasant Radhakrishnan) and the Electronic Keyboard (N Muralikrishnan). Our project website,, has more details about the project and the musicians. A sample video of our ensemble can be seen at"

What happens beyond that?

I am seeing a lot of interest in this project, but let us wait and see how it is received. The key difference I am hoping for is that it translates into some sustainable changes such as annual conferences like I mentioned earlier, better platforms for Carnatic musicians in this country, or exploration of other similar/parallel ideas, I think we would have made a good beginning here.