Shastra is a community of artists dedicated to creating meaningful, cross-cultural music that connects great musical traditions of India and the West. Through festivals, recordings, educational events, and commissioning initiatives, we are a nexus for musicians to share their artistry and bring this music to the world.

Welcome to Shastra!

shastra-annual-campaign-bannerShastra is an organization that connects musicians working in both the Indian and Western musical traditions, provides a forum for cross-pollination and support of one another’s work, and a creates a platform to showcase this beautiful and unique music to a global audience.

We invite you to peruse our site: Scroll down further on this page to peruse the Shastra Blog. We post interviews with musicians, release video footage from Shastra events, and bring you news from the Indian-Western crossover community. You can become acquainted with our diverse group of featured Artists through their individual pages, which include some information about their background, and an audio ‘snapshot’ of their work. Visit our Calendar page to learn about events in your area. Learn about our educational initiatives, including our recent collaboration with Face the Music on our Parampara page. And apply for the Shastra Symposium 2016, our first peer-reviewed conference. We are looking for musicians from all over the world for this unique event.

We would love to hear from you! Please get in touch with us with your questions, to be on our mailing list, or to see how you can get involved in the organization. Welcome to the Shastra community!


Payton MacDonald and Reena Esmail
Artistic Directors



Announcing Shastra Symposium 2016

shastra-festival-graphic-outside-logo copyWe are currently accepting proposals for presentations, performances and papers for the Shastra Symposium 2016. This is the first Shastra-hosted peer-reviewed conference that brings together scholars, performers, and composers to explore the topic of Indian/Western crossover music.

The Symposium will be held at William Paterson University in Wayne, NJ on September 22-25, 2016. Visit our Symposium 2016 page for more information and guidelines to submit a proposal.


The Courage of Collaboration: Middle School Students Expermient in Cross-Cultural Music Making

IMG_2643Over the years, there have been increasing instances where prominent professional musicians from Indian and Western traditions collaborate with one another. But this story is about a collaboration that took place at the very seminal stages of these musicians lives: A group of middle schoolers in New Jersey with a very forward-thinking music teacher forged a beautiful pathway to collaboration for his students this past fall.

Brian McGowan is a middle school orchestra teacher in Basking Ridge, NJ. He writes, “At the start of the school year, a young 8th grade student emailed me asking me if it would be possible for her to play Sitar with the Orchestra.  Other than a few tracks of Ravi Shankar on my iPod, I had no experience with Indian music. I was interested to see how this would work, and naively replied “sure” and told her to bring in the Sitar.”

Within that first meeting, McGowan knew he had jumped into the deep end. “The young student’s presentation confused me when she placed the sitar on her bare foot and played from the floor, but also captivated me with the interesting timbre.  I realized this was a larger project than I originally thought as I could see she was taught aurally and did not read any Western notation.”

At this point McGowan realized he had a very important choice to make. “I realize this would have been a good time to back away from this project, with these obvious complexities, but I couldn’t allow that to be the case.   Our orchestra program is certainly rooted in the classic repertoire of the great masters.  But in addition to that, I have always tried to give every class a musical experience that was completely different, and this was that opportunity.”


Hindustani and Western notation for Raag Malkauns, side by side

“I decided I would put my MA in composition to use and take one of the Sitar’s student’s Raags and write something around it for the orchestra to play.  The only problem was I still did not have enough knowledge about Indian Music to translate what she was doing to what we could do along with her.” It was at this point, McGowan reached out to Shastra Co-AD, Reena Esmail for a little help, and where we first became aware of this beautiful collaboration.

The young sitar player (who due to privacy reasons, we are unable to refer to by name here)  had never performed with Western instruments before. She says, ”At first I was nervous rehearing with the orchestra, because I knew it was so new for everyone and it took a little time to get used to it.” Already, she began to grasp some of the issues even professional musicians face in Indian/Western collaboration. She found it difficult to tune with the Western instruments, and challenging to start in the middle of a piece (in Western music, we often call out bar numbers and everyone begins to play, but in Hindustani music, because of the lack of notation, this rehearsal method is completely foreign). Ultimately, though, she found her way into the music: “When we performed, I was very excited and was happy we did it”.

Ultimately, McGowan’s orchestration of Raag Malkauns for Sitar and string orchestra was premiered at the school’s Winter Concert in December 2015. “There were plenty of challenges along the way for me writing the parts, and the students playing in a style unlike they have ever attempted.  But we all felt a great sense of achievement at the completion of this project!”

Collaboration takes courage. It took courage for a middle school sitar player to approach a Western orchestra teacher and ask to take part in a musical tradition she had never studied. It took courage for that teacher to say yes, and create a musical environment in which she could feel included and free to express herself. It took courage for the middle school students in the orchestra, many encountering Indian music for the first time, to approach this new challenge with curiosity and flexibility. And while they certainly learned volumes about each other’s musical cultures, the deeper lessons they took away from this experience – generosity, open-mindedness, inclusion, and the reward of cross-disciplinary collaboration – will stay with them for a lifetime.

Shastra Festival Call for Proposals EXTENDED!

The deadline to submit a proposal to the Shastra Symposium 2016 has been EXTENDED TO MARCH 1, 2016!

Due to some lag time with various postings of our call for proposals, we are receiving requests for late submissions. We have decided to extend our deadline to accommodate potential presenters who are just hearing about the Symposium. Thank you to everyone who has submitted so far, and we look forward to seeing the incoming proposals as well!

Please click here for more information on how to submit a proposal.

Thanks,The Shastra Team

Cross-Cultural Conversations at the Gen Y Raga Forum

2015-11-19-IndianRaga-CollageLast month the Gen Y Raga Forum took place at Lincoln Center, in New York City. It featured many incredible Indian-trained musicians whose life and work has been based in the US. Two concerts were followed by a panel discussion on, “the creative process and personal significance of playing Indian classical music as a young person in the U.S., how we can re-imagine the conversation of cultural appropriation and genuine collaboration, and the spaces and programs that are fueling the music’s preservation and growth.”

Musicians featured in this event included
Sriram Emani, Founder of IndianRaga;
Neel Murgai, Musician/Composer/Co-founder of Brooklyn Raga Massive
Roopa Mahadevan, Singer/IndianRaga Fellow
Rajna Swaminathan, Composer/Mrudangam player/Leader of RAJAS (Rajna was featured on the Shastra Festival last April)
Miles Okazaki, Guitarist/Member of RAJAS

These discussions are so important, and we are excited to see them happening with greater frequency in both the Indian and Western musical communities.

For the full article, click here.

An Interview with Maya Kherani, Indian-American Soprano

MayaWEBAt Shastra, we love to talk to musicians who have unique perspectives on Indian-Western crossover music. This week we caught up with Maya Kherani, Indian-American coloratura soprano, who just sang the leading roles in a historic double bill of Gustav Holst’s Savitri and Jack Perla’s River of Light. In this exclusive interview, Kherani shares a glimpse into her cultural and musical heritage, an inside look into the unique roles she sung in this production, and her thoughts on developing a multi-faceted identity through music.

Growing up, did you have experience with both Indian and Western music? What drew you to singing western classical opera?

Opera is something I fell into in college, but I always had a passion for western classical music growing up. I started singing in choir in elementary school, and started western voice lessons at the age of 11. I also studied Carnatic music at the same time, but since the techniques were pretty different, I found myself having to choose. My Carnatic teacher moved out of the country, so Voice Lessons became my main outlet. My mom used to drive me to my teacher 30 mins away, and both my parents were very supportive of what I was interested in. I also loved the acting/theatrical aspect of western classical vocal music; I could relate to the texts, and I really loved exploring different characters. I was heavily involved in my middle school and high school theatre departments, so opera, as the combination of music and theatre, immediately felt like home. I love the intellectual challenge of learning music and the emotional challenge of bringing a character to life.

I first heard opera in 7th grade choir, when my science teacher’s sister, who was a professional opera singer, came and sang an aria from La Boheme for my choir. At this point, I was already obsessed with musical theatre, and I thought to myself “Hey! That’s like the musical RENT, but with more orchestra!”. I admit, I wasn’t hooked right away, but I always loved hearing the un-amplified voice. It’s not something we hear every day!

In addition to traditional operatic roles, you have sung a number of roles of characters with Indian heritage. Did you seek these roles out, or did they find you?

I really have been lucky to be offered roles that I relate so fully to. In the standard canon, I can only think of a few soprano roles of Indian heritage off the top of my head: Lakmé, Leila in The Pearl Fishers, and Savitri. More recently, Philip Glass’ Satyagraha and John Adams’ A Flowering Tree include Indian characters as well. Meera in River of Light was created by Jack Perla and Chitra Divakaruni as part of Houston Grand Opera’s Song of Houston project to connect to the Indian community of Houston, and Jack is currently writing an opera based on Shalimar the Clown, which will also feature Indian characters. So perhaps the trend is increasing upward.

What is special to you about the experience of playing characters with Indian heritage?

I am very honored to play characters of an Indian heritage, and definitely feel an instant connection, given my background and roots. In Savitri, I was able to relate to the mythology instantly. As a child, I grew up visiting India over the summers, visiting temples, watching the mythology serials on TV, and reading the comic books. I knew the story of Savitri before I knew of the Holst opera, so it was interesting to see what I had learned in my childhood transform into an opera libretto. Though Meera was born in India, she takes to her environment in the US with aplomb and enthusiasm. However, she looks back on her roots and tries to reconnect when she learns she is pregnant. I think this is the true immigrant story, which many of us (of all ethnicities) face in today’s America. I relate to her completely – though I was born in the US, I still feel a strong connection with my roots in India, and I know I will face a similar crisis when looking to the next generation. How do we keep that connection alive while still being an American? How do we honor our past while still living in the present? These are questions that River of Light illuminates, quite literally!

In the two operas, Holst’s Savitri and Perla’s River of Light, how, if at all, were the composers influenced by Indian music? Did this effect your singing or your artistic choices?

Both pieces use raagas in their compositions, and Jack Perla uses raagas along with taals throughout his composition. For Savitri, I sang the piece rather operatically, and my vocal technique didn’t change too much. In River of Light, I tried to emulate some of the vocal soundworld of Hindustani music such as using straight tone in places and clearly articulated coloratura – especially on one page, which we nicknamed “raaga-tura”! However, I still needed to use the fundamentals of western operatic vocal technique since, like most opera, I was un-amplified, and my voice had to carry over a live orchestra.

Over the last decade, the number of people of Indian heritage looking to enter the field of Western classical music has been steadily increasing. Do you have any thoughts or advice for them, as they begin to navigate this career path?

My advice is to stay true to yourself as an artist. I don’t try to be less Indian than I am, nor do I limit myself to just Indian roles. Being an artist is about being human, so the more we can draw on in our lives, experiences, unique heritage, and deep roots, the more value we can bring to our audiences. I also think we have a responsibility to act as arts ambassadors to our communities. Many Indians aren’t as familiar with Western classical music, and most have never been to a live performance. The more we can invite and include our communities, the stronger our connection will be to them and to our art. This was probably the best thing about singing these roles – I love meeting people after the performances who have never seen an opera before who tell me how moved they were and that opera is something they’d love to learn more about. That is why we do what we do!