When “Anatomy of a Concert”, an invitation to watch a classical Indian music concert at Navatman, crossed my inbox in November 2011 I inquisitively looked over my shoulder wondering how the email found me. At the time I was a college sophomore pursuing a degree in music education while devoting most of my time to learning about South Asian culture. I was already learning Hindi from friends and obsessively hoarding facts about everything from the Mughal Empire, to how many films SRK has starred in.
Despite my musical background and passion for Indian culture, one thing still eluded me: finding an “in” to Indian classical music.
I remember spending months investigating the difference between a raga, raag, and ragam, and everything I read led me to believe one had to drop everything and move to India for at least two decades to find the answer. So when that seemingly random yet targeted e-mail appeared in my inbox, prompting me to attend a concert-lecture featuring North and South Indian classical music with the subheading, “Within this showing, you'll find the answer,” going felt compulsory. The artists that performed that evening were not only fantastic musicians but also brilliant educators and in those few hours, I learned more than I had in all my previous years of self-guided study.
From that first concert, I have been a proud member of Navatman in every role from student to student/volunteer, intern, and now Performing Arts Education and Management Scholar. Along the way, I have seen first hand how Navatman has grown as an organization while continuing to innovate and take risks in an increasingly difficult market.
Throughout this time I also witnessed how failure to support such an organization will ultimately lead to the disappearance of these important cultural spheres.
Although I have no familial ties to the Indian subcontinent, I grew up surrounded by South Asian culture. This comes as no surprise to those familiar with northern New Jersey, which has one of the largest desi communities outside of the Indian subcontinent. As such, Bollywood films, samosas, and bhangra dance teams have been accessible throughout my upbringing, but the classical arts posed some challenges as a cultural outsider. In high school, I had friends who were learning Bharatanatyam or classical music, but they always did so with a family friend or through a mandir, neither of which were available to me. This is true for many Navatman students who are not of South Asian background and many Indians who are more removed from immigrant culture.
While there are very skilled artists who provide valuable services independently (often from home or through a temple), one of the strengths of an organization is that there is a single uniting force that can bring people together regardless of their background, an inherent part of Navatman since they formally stepped into the New York City art scene in 2011.
The tri-state area certainly had Indian arts organizations prior to 2011, but they all followed a similar model. In regards to music, most taught a combination of Hindustani voice, sitar, and/or tabla; others focused on Carnatic voice and maybe mridangam or veena. On the dance front, it was almost exclusively Bharatanatyam and Kathak. Performances usually featured teachers and higher-level students, and the occasional touring artist would offer some diversity. Navatman set themselves apart early on by focusing on frequent performances, and by representing a diverse range of classical arts. Yes, there were the staples of Bharatanatyam and sitar, but also Odissi workshops, Mohiniattam, Indo-Persian music, jugalbandhis, bansuri concerts, and more.
They did not stop there. From day one, Navatman has been on a mission to bring these arts to a new audience. That is to say, Navatman has offered the most diverse programming to the most diverse audience, which is how I assume that initial e-mail found me.
As Navatman continued to offer varied programming into 2012, the student body grew dramatically and we never just showed up to class and left as scheduled. We had chai together, talked about films, went to classical concerts, and fought over which dance style is best (for those of you wondering, it’s Odissi) These moments became the essence of how the Indian performing arts became my biggest passion. For the first time, I had a community with whom I could relate to artistically, and even culturally. The feeling of community is not just one I feel, it’s one that many of us who attend this school does, in large part due to the atmosphere that Navatman actively works to maintain.
2013 brought us Drive East for the first time, and it encapsulated everything that is Navatman within a seven-day classical arts festival. Diversity rang through the curation: they brought together an incredibly varied range of classical arts and the artists, too, ranged from undiscovered gems to great maestros. The grass roots marketing aimed to bring in new, diverse audiences and as the annual festival continues to grow, we include more local vendors adding to the communal atmosphere. To this day I have not found an Indian arts festival as diverse as Drive East, and the experiences continue to be offered for a reasonable price while giving as much back to the artists as fiscally possible. Such an undertaking would be a big risk for any organization, but even more so for a non-profit. Navatman’s willingness to take risks is they are able to take bold steps that bring new aspects of tradition to New York City.
I myself would go on to learn from experience just how difficult such an undertaking is.
After a year of the Navatman experience in 2012 I already knew my life had to be dedicated to promoting Indian classical arts and by 2013 I was too inspired not to start. At the time I was president of my undergraduate institution’s Indian culture organization. The organization was popular with a strong history of successful events, but nothing that regularly highlighted the classical performing arts. I assumed that such a lacuna in programming meant that the community would be eager for traditional dance and music. But despite having the funds to both organize and promote quality classical performances and workshops, all such pursuits failed to draw an audience. As a result, we decided to stick to the traditional programming that exclusively featured Indian sweets, Bollywood dance, and popular music.
After interning with Navatman in 2014, I moved to Florida to pursue a graduate degree focusing on Indian classical music culture. For the first time, I was moving to an area without a significant South Asian community and I felt compelled to bring an awareness of the Indian performing arts. The first event I organized, a sitar lecture performance, was a condensed homage to “Anatomy of a Concert,” and it was extremely successful. The hall was completely packed and people were even standing in the aisles all for just one hour of the solo sitar. This was within two months of moving to Florida, and I imagined how big the turnout would be for a full ensemble in a concert proper. I thought about how much Navatman grew in just three years and how I had five before I finished my Ph.D. The next two years were spent trying to organize Indian music events, but after that first successful concert nothing else worked out.
The above two scenarios highlight important facts about performing arts organizations. From the undergraduate situation, I learned that having great artists is not enough on its own to generate success. As supporters of the arts we are constantly competing in a growing market for a shrinking crowd; thus, we are also tasked with cultivating an audience. It requires multiple years, support from a community, and a structure through which said support can become manifest. In my case, though both the structure and financial support were in place, a lack of time and communal support caused the plans to fail. When I moved to Florida I faced different challenges: there was excitement for Indian arts, but no financial support and no willingness to take risks. The result was the same, absolutely no traditional programming.
After two years in Florida, I opted for a Master’s degree and returned to NYC to finish my Ph.D. Though I enjoyed the educational experience as a whole, I simply could not rationalize pursuing a doctoral degree in Indian music in an area where I did not have access to it. When I returned to Navatman in 2016, just in time to help out with Drive East, I was shocked to see just how much growth had taken place. I had a thoroughly planned out proposition of how I could contribute to Navatman but as soon as I saw Sahi (co-founder of Navatman) she beat me to the punch and explained the Performing Arts Education and Management Scholarship.
The above parables only represent a small portion of how Navatman shaped me as an artist and scholar. When I organized events at both my undergraduate and graduate institutions, the artists were provided by Navatman and we still provide such services for schools, often free of charge. When I started my first anthropological study, the books were not only suggested by Sahi but also available through Navatman’s library. And the artists that I saw at my first Navatman concert in 2011 are the artists I still study with to this day.
As a student and scholar of Indian classical music, it’s no secret that I have a vested interest in supporting Indian performing arts but I have also seen how the lack of support will quickly lead to there being no cultural outlet for our community. Navatman’s initial initiatives of bringing diverse Indian classical arts to diverse audiences ring true to this day and if we value that pursuit, everyone’s contribution should be compulsory. For the latter goal, we have to push a step beyond protection to expansion, which is the only way we can ensure the continued success of this unique organization and the rich tradition it represents.
The light of my musical world, Dr. M. Balamurali Krishna, has been extinguished. He passed away earlier today at the age of 86.
He played a huge role in my teenage and young adult years - not just musically, but in opening my mind to a way of thinking and living. To not do something just because it has always been done that way. To question assumptions, to push boundaries, to see and seek beauty and truth in fresh and unusual ways. To stand up for your beliefs and vision and not take refuge in what the majority thought or did. To realize that respect - for "tradition", for music, for anything, really - is not shown by blindly following a much-trodden path, but in breaking free the shackles that imprisoned the full beauty of whatever it is that is being respected. And so much more. Beethoven did it for western classical music; Picasso, for art; and Balamurali, for Carnatic music.
All this may not seem like a big deal today when ideas and ideals blow through the world through the far-reaching, interconnected webs of the Internet. I grew up in a time and place that was conservative and tradition-bound. If you thought, said and did what everybody else thought, said and did, you were fine, you fitted in. Luckily for me, the environment in my home encouraged me to think about and question everything I saw around me. And then spending time with somebody like Balamurali only served to reinforce that very strongly. The impact made on my teenage mind shaped who and what I have become and strive to be.
As we roll into Thanksgiving and the end of the year, the Navatman staff sets its eyes on 2017. Between an exceptional batch of artists at Drive East; the graduation of our fourth arangetram student, the Navatman Music Collective dropping an incredible album, and Navatman Dance collaborating with major artists; our year has been full of wonderful achievements and exciting steps forward.
Sridhar and I, galvanized by the work of this year’s team and excitement of all our branches, have been deep in the midst of planning for 2017. While we worked and planned, the election went on around us. We didn’t give a second thought as to how the results might affect our work here. However, as 2016 comes to a close, we’ve seen how vast the varying American opinion is and can be.
We have always assumed support for the arts included the Indian arts in America. Recent events have made us wonder where we stand in all of this, for as an organization that is clearly American and yet also so specifically “other”, and “exotic”, there seems to be an added intensity: one where Navatman seems to have a duty as a space of cultural diversity to help maintain safe spaces and contribute to the overwhelming communication barriers that seem to be in place while also acknowledging and battling the increasing difficulty we will have to continue to create within such spaces.
The importance of this looms above the everyday beauty of class and practice, especially as Navatman begins to delineate itself as more than the music and dance that is the root from which it comes: it is now a bonded group of people and voices. To honor this incredible community and their perspectives, we have been rolling out video biographies of our artists; and are creating an end of the year newsletter - one filled with experiences of Navatman staff, outside artists, professors and teachers we have worked with, and more: each giving their story of how classical Indian arts is beginning to mold and change and impact the lives of many. You’ll see sides of Navatman that perhaps you didn’t realize existed - Navatman at schools in NYC, as an arts management program, as an audience builder and opportunity provider.
Whatever may have happened in 2016, 2017 still looks bright from this side. We’ve had offers to expand, tour, and build, but we continue to need the monetary and volunteer resources alongside your goodwill and excitement to make it happen.
We hope that you’ll take the time to hear the different perspectives we reach out to, and see the many ways we are trying to make an impact, and even maybe take a second to contribute to our future in 2017 and years to come.
Sahasra Sambamoorthi and Sridhar Shanmugam