From Basant to Shanti, Indo- American musician Kanniks Kannikeswaran’s choral Carnatic music productions attract a large pool of audience in the US.
With the exception of, perhaps, the Carnatic fraternity’s annual renditions of Thyagaraja’s pancharatnams, group singing is rare in Indian Classical Music. Dr. Kanniks Kannikeswaran has taken this to a different level pioneering music for groups of 40-250 using Indian lyrics set to Indian ragas, inspired by world musical ensembles and arrangements. That he could seamlessly integrate Eastern and Western performers on traditional Indian repertoire (set in Indian languages, circumscribed around vocals and entrenched in Hindu devotion) and make it comprehensible, enjoyable and reachable to large cosmopolitan audiences abroad, as early as the mid-1990s, makes Kanniks’ achievements particularly noteworthy. His programs provide immersive and multi-sensory experiences, with choreographed dances from around the world and additional visual components.
His vision, from inception, was to make productions understandable to audiences unfamiliar with India and Indian culture. The thought process put in to achieve this goal is admirable, reflecting his detailed research into many ancient texts commingled with awareness of current events underscored by empathy and a clear celebration of the commonalities across world peoples.
During childhood, Kanniks had learned Carnatic vocal and some violin too, and avidly listened to movie songs on the radio, particularly Ilaiyaraaja. His academic trajectory was conventional – after a B.Tech from IIT Madras, he moved to the USA. At the University of Cincinnati, alongside a graduate school in Engineering, he took non-degree courses at the School of Music and attended recitals. Along with the many different styles, the disciplined and synchronous performances of large groups fascinated him. He began wondering what Indian raga-based harmony in such arrangements might sound like.
Buying himself a sequencer, he made chords beat by beat with software. Adding vocals, he released an album in India, Thiruvarangam. Fellow graduate student, Virendra Sethi (now faculty at IIT Bombay), urged him to put his people skills to use and start a choir in Cincinnati. Purely by word of mouth, some 10 people, soon became 20, all of Indian origin and with only basic exposure to music, assembled. That group performed Basant – a Celebration of Spring on April 8th, 1994. But for a few instrumentalists, Kanniks programmed and recorded all other accompaniments.
Beyond polyphonic audio, he added multiple visual layers too – for example, when ragams (and seasons) changed, lighting and dancers too changed. The Basant repertoire began with raga Kalyani, an invocation to Ganesha that Kanniks composed himself. Then came a piece in Maya Malava Gowlai that transitioned to Simhendramadhyamam and Rasikapriya using Sruti bedham. This was choreographed to a Korean martial art dance and Bharatanatyam. Madhurashtakam in Baroque style followed, portrayed in ballet. Then followed a folk piece in Tamil using ragams Brindavani, Ananda Bhairavi and Arabhi) portrayed in Karagam, Bhangra and Garba, and then a depiction of the Keralite Spring festival of Onam. The finale began with a thillana on the violin in ragam Desh, followed by a medley of tunes invoking various parts of the world. Several more ragams figured along with Middle Eastern music, a Japanese folk song, a traditional Chinese tune, and an Irish tune played on a lap dulcimer. Kanniks composed the concluding hymn in English.
Basant’s two shows were packed – each with over 500 attendees, visibly amazed and moved. “That is when we realised there was power in this format,” says Kanniks. The cost of $2,500 came mostly from University sources and covered the auditorium, sound and light technicians and dance choreographers. Kanniks was touched when Rangasami Parthasarathi of Oriental Records, a complete stranger to him then, personally donated $500 and also came in person to attend the program.
Publicity involved hand designing posters, getting photocopies, painstakingly typesetting, and physically sticking posters (with tear-off pieces with contact information, akin to garage sale notices), street by street all over town. The program was free but required reservations to assess necessary seating. All the thought and the effort bore fruit.
Opening a new note
Kanniks’ introduction to Dr. Catherine Roma, a professor at a nearby university and also the minister for music at a local Unitarian church, was a seminal moment. Dr. Roma was astounded at seeing the recorded production and invited Kanniks to speak to her church’s choir members, tell them about the program and see if the two groups could work together. Thus began a very fruitful and educative collaboration. “We were more interested in working together, and the collaboration itself, than exactly what would come out of it,” says Kanniks. They decided on musical influences from all over the world and the theme of the earth, something everyone could relate to, calling it The Blue Jewel.
It was a melting pot of world cultures with a focus on each understanding the other’s contexts, with the music rooted in classical Indian ragas. Kalyani, Mohanam, Nagaswaravali, Maand, Katanakutuhalam, Amritavarshini, Hemavati, Kedaragowlai, Madyamavati etc. were featured. Kanniks used verses from the Sangita Ratnakara, the Yajur Veda, some Malayalam/Tamil coined lines, a word salad using the word Life in multiple languages etc. Garba, Bharatanatyam, Filipino, Korean, Irish and modern dance sequences and creative elements were woven in. Kanniks ensured that an articulate narration, pre-recorded by him and Virendra Sethi, was an integral part of it. Sethi, a Professor of Design joined in, adding visuals to portray destruction through images shown on slide projectors. Of the 70 performers, only half of them were of Indian origin. In the aftermath of COVID, Kanniks almost finds it eerie – the imagery in the production used pictures of people in masks (to show the effects of pollution) and war in Eastern Europe.
This production received excellent press coverage in the Cincinnati area, a bonus being the attendance of Lakshmi Shankar, a reputed Hindustani vocalist, and sister-in-law of sitar virtuoso Ravi Shankar. She later waxed eloquent about the program and agreed to sing in Shanti (what was to become Kanniks’ flagship production).
Blue Jewel was the first time Kanniks wrote out the entire vocal score – partly by hand and partly using software (still rudimentary at the time), with the words underneath and diacritical marks as needed It was a case of mutual admiration and fascination for both the music and the styles of learning. While the Indian group found it fascinating that the church choir could use the written score to instantly sing what had taken them time to learn, the choir singers were amazed at the Indian singers belting out swara sequences effortlessly, by rote.
At Dr. Roma’s instigation post-September 11th, 2000, Kanniks began working on a grand production on the theme of peace. Before putting this into action, Surya, a program on the winter solstice, was another milestone because it was the first time he was presenting a program with all Indian performers (35 singers, a veena and a tabla to a full house of 250) and Indian lyrics to a completely non-Indian audience. As always, Kanniks chose lyrics from Hindu scriptures with explanatory narratives that were universally relatable.
For the grand production, christened Shanti, Kanniks visualised a 10- member combined Indian and Western orchestra singing together side by side with live dancers and images projected all around on screens. This time, Roma insisted on written scores for every performer, vocal and instrumental. Kanniks got a grant from the Ohio Arts Council and increased community support too, which allowed him more creative leeway with the program.
Shanti showcased the 5,000-year cultural history of India and how it went about its quest for peace, presented again through choral music, dance and visuals, Kanniks envisioned several parts to it – an Invocation, Civilisation and Realisation, Faiths, The Boundless Human Spirit, Ashanti, Reflection and Human Tolerance. While he composed some lyrics himself, the majority were from, or inspired by, Hindu texts including Adi Sankara’s Gangashtakam, the Yajur Vedam, the Naasadiyasuktam, and the Naalaaiyara Divya Prabhandam. The lines he chose were far-reaching thoughts rooted in Hindu tradition but not restricted to Hinduism in any way including, very appropriately, those that conveyed how Indian culture gave room for other cultures as well. He set them in ragams Yaman, Durga, Saraswati, Vagadishwari, Gambhiranattai, Desh etc.
In January 2004, they had their first full rehearsal. When a church choir member conveyed to Kanniks that she could feel the Ganga flowing around her, it was vindication that his portrayal of that piece was understandable – Gange, the concept of rivers as cradles of civilisations, in four levels of harmony.
Working with several unionised, professional musicians, his group was exposed to a work ethic and rigor they had not encountered earlier. These musicians would set their stopwatch at the exact time they were called in for, and stop exactly 2.5 hours later, even if in the middle of the program. While initially disconcerting, the others quickly noticed the thorough professionalism of the group, such as the sacrosanct adherence to start time, including arriving 15 minutes ahead to set up. Another revelation was their finding the drone of the tambura disturbing and asked for it to be switched off. The group, thus, took to using the tanpura only periodically as a result.
Shanti was a huge success – with over 700 attending, and they’re receiving extensive media coverage. After doing a few more shows in Ohio itself, Kanniks had requests to do it in other cities, beginning with Allentown PA, which had an audience of 2,600 of which 40 per cent were not of Indian origin. The movement quickly spread to several other cities and countries, Kanniks travelling regularly to Florida, Texas, Georgia, Minnesota, California, Washington DC, The Netherlands, India etc. to make it happen. At every destination, the program was presented to packed audiences. Besides deafening applause and standing ovations, he received comments from audience members that while they had not been able to relate to Indian music earlier, the music in Shanti actually touched them.
Kanniks Kannikeswaran’s productions have educated many on the rich philosophical and scriptural treasures of India in an easily digestible, multi-sensory form, well beyond the clichéd tandoori chicken and Slumdog Millionaire. To orchestrate this for hundreds of performers with sound and light effects, successfully weave lyrics in a multitude of Indian languages to tunes inspired from the world, choreographed to a variety of world dances and visual arts and build in an integral narrative to make it understandable to any listener is no mean feat at all. It showcases a rare vision and an inherent trust in humanity. During the pandemic, he conceptualised socially-inspired music videos, featuring star Hindustani and Carnatic musicians to highlight critical issues like water conservation, for example. The need of the hour.