Indian classical music has been appreciated in the western lands since eons. It was due to artists like Pandit Ravi Shankar and their collaborations with western musicians that helped the genre attain popularity. The huge Indian diaspora have remained true to their roots. It was in the Indian neighbourhoods that classical music ‘baithaks’ were conducted. These attracted the other communities to the genre. The west took an immediate liking to this music. The ‘baithaks’ moved to the stages and eventually to large scale concerts. Under the tutelage of Indian music Gurus, people from varied nationalities started learning the art. This resulted in a plethora of non-resident Indians and the foreign natives creating a stage for themselves. They have been performing the art to a spectrum of audience globally.
In this new segment, Indian Music from Foreign Lands, we speak to some of the non-resident Indians and even foreign natives who are exponents of Indian classical music.
London-born vocalist and composer Deepa Nair Rasiya has been recognised as an innovative artist with a soul-stirring vocal style. She was initiated into Carnatic music at just five years of age in Kerala. Though her learning came to a halt when her family moved to London, her passion for the genre remained intact. Recalling this part of her life, Deepa said,
“I had no access to pure Indian classical music during those teenage years. There were no Gurus I could go to and my Indian music learning sadly did not advance much,”
This changed when she moved back to India as a young adult. Deepa undertook further studies in classical music and went on to become an All India Radio and Doordarshan graded artiste.
“After four years in India, I returned to London permanently in 1989. I set about establishing myself as a professional vocalist and recording artist,” said Deepa.
Being Versatile in Indian Classical Music
Building on her foundation training in Carnatic classical, Deepa has also pursued training in Hindustani music from eminent vocalist Smt Veena Sahasrabuddhe, of the Gwalior gharana. She is currently receiving further guidance from Dhrupad maestro Pandit Uday Bhawalkar. Deepa performs Indian classical, semi-classical and even Sikh Shabads and Bhajans. A Keralite singing in fluent Punjabi is rare.
“Yes, indeed…many an eyebrow have I raised! In fact there have been people who have refused to believe that I am not Punjabi,” chuckled Deepa.
Being married into a traditional Sikh family, she developed a fair degree of fluency in spoken Punjabi. In time, this also contributed to her interest in and understanding of the poetry of the Punjabi Sufi poets.
“I came to love the works of Baba Bulleh Shah and Hazrat Shah Hussain and others. My album ‘Destination’ is a compilation of such material,” quipped Deepa.
Exposure to multiple genres of music only expands and enhances one’s dimensions as a musician. Identifying and understanding the common denomination from within the different musical traditions enables you to make meaningful collaborations. This ultimately serves to reach a broader spectrum of the audience. Deepa is one such artist. Apart from Indian classical music, she has also pursued Western classical.
“I do not feel that the Western classical side of my training has influenced my music making directly. But subconscious influences are hard to pinpoint. I think all music that I have studied formally have subconsciously influenced my own musicianship positively,” asserted Deepa.
Chants of India
This versatility helped Deepa land an unforgettable opportunity. An invite by the greats Pandit Ravi Shankar and George Harrison to sing a track on their ‘Chants of India’ album.
“I was standing in the studio facing Pandit ji. He went through the song with me and gave me specific instructions on the style he wanted. I am not sure how I managed to sing because I have ever been that nervous in my life! That recording became the track ‘Prabhujee’, which Pandit ji also sang on, became a worldwide hit,” gleamed Deepa.
From the studios to the stages worldwide
From being a session artist in the 1990’s to setting the Indian live music scene alight recently, Deepa’s music has witnessed a transformation. Her early music was far more technically intricate. The melodic lines were much more complex than her present day compositions.
“I guess that was the energy and spirit of youth. What happened as I matured as a woman and as an artiste was that my compositions became ‘reined back’. They became demonstrative of the idea that ‘less is more’,” said Deepa.
“By the time I had written the music for the Sikh Shabad ‘Nanak Naam’, my music writing had transformed considerably. The success of that piece convinces me more than ever that simplicity can create magic.”
The ‘Uninhibited’ artist, as Deepa labels herself, has been performing regularly for the Indian diaspora in the UK. She has been developing deeper collaborative connections with the extraordinary British choir, The London Contemporary Voices.
She also has an EP, with her vocal trio KauRas which features her daughters Nimrita and Meera Kaur, up for release. A regular performer at the Indian High Commission, UK, Deepa feels the future of Indian classical is bright outside India. Festivals such as the iconic Darbar Festival in London have done wonders for this genre. Along with the festivals, the local Indian art organisations have aided in terms of music appreciation and also education.
“My personal observation and opinion is that Indian classical music has developed a robust following and status outside India. Certainly in the UK, there are ever increasing numbers of people wanting to study it and audience development has been phenomenal,” said Deepa.