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.

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!

Jazz Vocalist Kavita Shah draws Indian musicians into the mix

MJ15_p65_01New York based jazz singer, composer and arranger Kavita Shah traverses the boundaries between jazz and Indian music in her new has a new album Visions. With degrees from Harvard and Manhattan School of Music, Shah has traveled the world and imbibed each musical culture as she goes. Visions features a suite called Rag Desh, which “begins with a rhythm from the tabla and spoken vocals called tabla bols, used in Hindustani classical music to vocalize the different sounds of the instrument, then concludes with “Meltdown”: a bluesy, moody tune that deconstructs the traditional raga, or melody, introduced earlier.”

Shah hopes that, “by creating complex but accessible arrangements, she [will] expand her audience’s conception of what jazz can be, while connecting them to music from around the world.”

Read the full article from Harvard Magazine here.

Dikshitar meets Beethoven in Third Annual Melharmony Festival

Chitravina_N_Ravikiran_Photo_300_300_s_c1Indian/Western classical crossover icon, Chitravina N Ravikiran collaborated with the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra this weekend to honor two of the greatest composers of the early nineteenth century. German composer Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827) holds one of the most esteemed positions in the Western (european) classical music tradition. Carnatic composer Muthuswami Dikshitar (1775-1835) holds an equally esteemed place in the South Indian musical tradition. Depending on your musical background, one of these two composers might be very familiar to you, while the other might be relatively unknown — and yet they were both inconic in their own musical traditions. These composers, though contemporaries, have rarely (if ever) been performed side by side. But the Melharmony Festival aims to jusxtapose the works of these two masters.

Ravikiran has developed his own particular methodology for Indian/Western musical crossover, called Melharmony, which he teaches to pupils in the midwest and worldwide. Ravikiran explains it as “showcasing the similarities between various systems of music, which can enable their contrasts to be appreciated even more positively.” In past years, the festival included juxtapositions of Oottukkadu Venkata Kavi (1700-65) and Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750), as well as Tyagaraja (1767-1874) and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791).

The event, which took place at Mills College on November 8, 2015, included scholarly discussions by Prof. Robert Morris from the Eastman School of Music on Dikshitar & Beethoven, performances of works by professional ensembles, competitions and short recital opportunities for students, culminating in a performance by Maestro Chitravina N Ravikiran and the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra conducted by Maestro Andrew Sewell.

For the full article, please click here.

 

 

 

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.

**SUBMISSION DEADLINE EXTENDED TO MARCH 1, 2016!**

Old and New Indian/Western Opera meet in double bill

savriv_275On November 14 & 15, Festival Opera, in Oakland, CA will be staging a double bill of Gustav Holst’s chamber opera “Savitri” and Jack Perla’s new work “River of Light”.

The late British composer Gustav Holst (1874-1934) has been known, especially in his vocal work, to have a special fascination with India. His chamber opera is based on the story of Savitri and Satyavan from the Mahabharata. Both words and music are written by the composer.

Bay-Area composer Jack Perla‘s “River of Light” tells a more contemporary tale. “Having moved from India, Meera loves her new husband, her high-powered job, and the Houston lifestyle  until the birth of her daughter makes her long to recreate authentic Diwali traditions at home. The tale unfolds in about 30 minutes with a score that draws extensively on North Indian ragas and an orchestra that mixes Western instruments with sitar and the tabla.” The librettist is the acclaimed author Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni.

The two lead female roles will be sung by the outstanding young Indian-American coloratura soprano Maya Kherani, and male roles will be shared between three Festival Opera veterans, bass-baritone Philip Skinner, tenor Jorge Garza, and baritone Daniel Cilli.

To read the full article, and to purchase tickets click here, or call 1-800-838-3006.

xojane: My Indian parents love cultural appropriation, but I can’t stand it

In a beautiful article for xojane, Nikita Redkar contrasts attitudes towards cultural appropriation between her parents generation and hers.

For Indian Americans who have been born and raised in America by immigrant parents, Redkar says, “[W]e are upset when someone wakes up one day and decides to exploit our turbulent identities as a disposable fashion — and by doing so be rewarded as a paragon of globalization and cultural acceptance.”

However, for Indians who have immigrated to the West, this cultural appropriate hardly poses a problem: “They knew from the onset they weren’t going to be accepted. They grew up embedded in a deep sense of cultural identity — one that everyone around them shared. They always knew where they are from and they owned it, even when they arrived in America. Years later, our parents’ generation is bursting with pride at the thought of all the customs they accepted being embraced by the mainstream — whether it’s being exoticized or not. Our parents see the western infatuation with select parts of their otherwise deeply rich culture … as an acknowledgement; it is a cross-cultural equalization they could have never dreamed of.”

As Indian practices become more deeply embedded in American mainstream culture, these starkly contrasting viewpoints between generations are at the fore of the discussion about Indian/Western cultural collaborations. But what if there was a middle ground?

This is why we created Shastra. We seek out musicians whose work is authentic in both cultures, who go far beyond musical appropriation, and truly allow the music of one culture to exist alongside the other. Redkar’s parents are right: It is wonderful to see any semblance of Indian culture make it into the mainstream. And Redkar is right too: We can do more.

Read the full article here.