The members of the Navatman Music Collective (NMC) are practicing hard and looking forward to performing at NYC's Drive East Festival on August 24th. Read on to learn more about this group, its members and what makes its music so special.
We are New Yorkers. We are busy. We don’t like to waste time on something that doesn’t excite, engage, or enrich us in some significant way. And so, two and a half years ago in early 2014 when a few of us were told that Navatman was starting a “Carnatic Choir”, we weren’t overly excited. We’d heard Carnatic Choirs before and our opinions of them were, well, unflattering. But we showed up anyway, around eight of us, one cold winter’s night, at a studio in midtown Manhattan for our first session. We went for one simple, but powerful reason: we were interested in Carnatic music. No, that doesn’t even come close to expressing it adequately. We were passionately in love with this music, this glorious classical form from southern India that is timeless and touches and captivates anybody who engages with it.
Some of us knew each other well, some were nodding acquaintances, some complete strangers. And so we were on our best behavior, eager to impress, a bit nervous. I know that a few of us were not ready to commit to anything and were prepared with excuses to not dedicate time to this venture. After all, who in New York is not “crazy busy”?!
We were told that the artistic director of the Carnatic Choir would be Roopa Mahadevan. For those of us - including myself - who knew her or knew of her, that was another compelling reason to join. I had first heard Roopa sing a few years earlier and I was blown away by her talent, her voice, the dizzyingly difficult musical challenges she set for herself that she conquered with such aplomb. She had star quality, that was very evident then. To work with her would surely be a wonderful experience!
And what an experience it has been! As I reflect on these two and a half years I cannot but marvel at how brilliantly that fledgling Carnatic Choir has evolved into the Navatman Music Collective (NMC), at how our music has bloomed and matured, at how we have grown, as people and musicians, and at how, in New York, this crazy, chaotic, impersonal, maddening place we call home, we found each other, bonded and are now family. Any misgivings we might have had were quickly dispelled as we had - and continue to have - the time of our lives singing, laughing, and eating together.
From meeting once every two weeks, we began meeting once a week and it has become the highpoint of our week, something we look forward to with eager anticipation. We spend a good 10-15 minutes at the start of each practice session exchanging news and gossip, laughing uproariously, teasing each other, exchanging war stories, family complaints, anything at all. Nothing is too trivial, and we all know instinctively that this is a safe space where we will not be judged, where we will find love, acceptance and comfort, or just where we can get away from it all for a couple of hours and sing with people who love us and whom we love.
None of this happened overnight. The Carnatic Choir effloresced into the NMC family in a way and at a pace that was natural, organic - and inevitable. In the early months we finished our practice and went back to our lives. There was Carnatic Choir, and there was the rest of our lives. We were wildly different in what we did - we had in the group a Sanskrit scholar, an architect, a designer, engineers, a public health policy professional, a coffee entrepreneur, several scientist-researchers, students, teachers. We were married, single, gay, introverts, extroverts, parents, daughters, sons, book lovers, TV serial addicts, along every point of the Ilayaraja-A.R. Rehman spectrum, wannabe spouses, expectant mothers. We had grown up in India, the United States, the United Kingdom, the Far East, the Middle East.
Slowly, those boundaries dissolved. NMC became part of our everyday lives. We started hanging out out once we were done with practice. We opened up to each other about our lives. We welcomed one another into our homes. We lent a shoulder when a heart was broken, we rejoiced when first one pregnancy, and a year later, a second, was announced. The two babies, 1 year old Vishak and 2 month old Sadhana, are NMC babies, through and through. After all, the soundtrack of their first nine months of life in their mother’s wombs was our music!
I have a lifetime of NMC memories and stories. Here are just a few.
A super-surprise baby shower for Janani, mother of our very first NMC baby Vishak.. Through fever and exhaustion she displayed a gratifying degree of enthusiasm for our raucous surprise party. Janani is the classic example of a super-woman on steroids. This is the person who will wake up, run a race, come back home and cook a multi-course gourmet meal, host a puja for dozens of people, sing, translate some Tamil literature, and complete a work-related deadline, all the while smiling and looking like Vyjayanthi Mala. Janani is now in Los Angeles but her heart is here in New York, with NMC. We miss you, Janani!
A crack-of-dawn Navarathri meeting at Kalpana’s home. The earliness of the hour did not deter us from scarfing down a vast quantity of food, washed down with an energetic Jagadanandaka. Kalpana is our Kannamma, our classic Tamil beauty who is serene, soft, gentle and sweet, but with a steely determination and steadiness and clearness of focus that are truly laudable. Her smile never wavers even as she juggles her PhD research, her thesis proposal exam, presentations before a hundred professors and red-eye flights. And now, she is the mother of our second NMC baby, Sadhana!
Food! Can you have music without it?!
We have our own design and decor expert with impeccable taste and wonderful ideas: Shraddha. She joined NMC a few months after it was started, and insisted that she was a terrible singer, that her voice was a mess, that she hadn’t sung in years. And then we heard her sing and each and every one of us thought, this girl is crazy, what on earth is she talking about?. How beautifully she has blossomed with NMC, and it has been such a joy to see her confidence and formidable musical talent flourish. Pay special attention to the design of NMC’s soon-to-be-released album: the artwork and design are by Shraddha!
Often, when our regular rehearsal space is not available, we camp out at Preetha’s home for an extra-long session fueled by her yummy home-cooked food. I first met Pree when she was fresh out of college and came to me for music lessons. She seemed a bit shy then, slightly awkward and wary. But then, as we got comfortable with each other, the floodgates opened and then there was no looking back! She is a young woman of so many talents, full of boundless energy and infectious enthusiasm to share her favorite movies, songs and books. Name any song from almost any genre and part of the world - I wouldn’t be surprised if Pree knew it!
A few months after NMC got going, a young man named Vignesh came to my music class at Navatman. The class was learning Geethams then, easy beginner songs. He sang along enthusiastically. At the end of the class, I asked him to sing a song for us. To everybody’s surprise, he sang a short alapanai in Nattai, followed by a full kirthanam (advanced song). He belongs to NMC, I thought, and he was roped in, and there has been no looking back. Vigs is always ready to give a helping hand, always ready to try new things, always smiling and enthusiastic, and is completely unlike many young men his age who are awkward, self-centered and not very thoughtful. When it comes to planning parties and surprises, Vigs is in his element. He is now composing lyrics and songs and he displays a real gift for this.
I have lost count of the number of times I’ve driven home with Shiv after practice when he’ll ask: “Aunty, do you mind if I sing a song for you?” And my heart melts as I listen to this preternaturally gifted young man with a heart and voice forged from something incalculably precious. Shiv is a doctoral student of Sanskrit and he is surely the most unique young man I have met. I imagine that he is home to the souls of exceptional people - ancient sages and poets, seekers of beauty and truth, musicians of otherworldly grace and divinity. He wanders through this world along paths of profound thoughts to the soundscape of ragams and songs and poetry. But he is also childlike, in the best sense of that word, finding joy and laughter in things big and small. Shiv is now in India for a year, on a Fulbright fellowship. We miss you so much!
New Yorkers seem to live in a state of flux. We move in, we move around, we move out. One of our first members, Divya, a young woman with a razor-sharp intelligence and a soft, sweet smile, an oasis of calm in the tumultuous chaos that often characterizes us and our rehearsals, has relocated to India. Listen for her voice - and her musical input - in the Hindolam thillana in our upcoming album! Rashmi was with us for just a few weeks, but her quirky sense of fun and humor left a lasting impact.
We lost some, we gained others. We are hugely fortunate to have Bhargavi, who very recently moved to New York, join our group. She sings beautifully? Check. She loves food? Check. She smiles and laughs? Check. Enough to become a bonafide NMC member! While I’m still thinking about the best way to get something done, the pitfalls of this approach versus the advantages of the other, the steps involved, the energy, mental and physical, that needs to be mustered to take the first step, Bhargs has completed the task, neatly and efficiently!
Our newest member, who apparently survived the depths (heights?) of craziness we are capable of descending (ascending?) to (I wasn’t around to witness it, but I can imagine what it must have been like) and continues to come back for more, is Kaushik. We are yet to decide on a suitable moniker for him: - K-Dawg? Ravioli? Kau?. But he has fit into the group like a hand in a glove and has endeared himself to us with his charm and good humor and the fact that he is such a good sport. I’m sure Vigs is relieved to have a fellow Carnatic ‘bro”, someone on his side when we argue about what sruthi to sing in, now that Shiv is away for the year.
None of who were there will ever forget the night that Anjna and Rajna came for practice. Sisters of extraordinary ability, one a violinist, the other a percussionist, both musical angels, the kind of people who make you feel blessed that you met them. They taught us their composition in Gavati, an offering to Carnatic music unlike anything we'd heard before. It was riveting, thrilling and an absolute joy. And then, as a special treat, they played it for us, on the piano and violin. We turned out the lights; the din and clamor of the city faded away as their beautiful music washed over us in the darkness. What a spell of enchantment they wove that night! They have played with us many times, are on our upcoming CD and are de facto members of the NMC clan.
And Roopa. What can I say about her that adequately describes how amazing she is? Everything about her is larger than life: her talent, her heart, her personality, her laugh, her hair. Just imagine what a delicate and difficult talk she had ahead of her when we began. We were charting new territory, we had to define who and what we were and wanted to become, how we would set ourselves apart from all those other Carnatic Choirs. And she had to do it with a group of exceedingly opinionated, high-spirited adults who were highly accomplished in a variety of areas, who had been trained in a variety of banis (styles) of Carnatic music, who had to be convinced that this Choir thing was worth their time and effort. I can’t imagine anyone better than Roopa, our very own Maha Shakthi, to tackle this and make such a success of it. The group could have easily dissolved into petty ego-driven bickering and jealousy (after all, musicians are famous for being diva-like), but instead, with her inspired and inspiring leadership, a perfect blend of fun, laughter, sternness and pressure, where she always takes the time to listen to us and incorporate our many suggestions and ideas into the program, we are a family. The NMC Family.
One Crazy Family!
And here is why our group is so good - even if I may say so myself, at the risk of sounding like I’m tooting my own horn. Come with me, and take a peek into one of our practice sessions.
I am a few minutes late for practice. I don’t need to search the blueboard to find the number of the studio we are in - the sound of laughter and happy chatter leads me straight there. Inside, a joyful reunion is taking place; for several of us it has been a whole day since we last met and OMG, there’s so much to catch up on! K-Ravioli/Kau has brought bags of chips and yummy guacamole and some serious munching commences. In a few minutes, food and talk are (temporarily) set aside as IPhones and IPads are brought out and tambura apps turned on. An debate ensues. Please can we sing in G# this time?, implores Bhargavi, with Vignesh putting in a doomed bid for B and Shraddy, for E. This is one of the pitfalls of singing in a group with a range of vocal pitches. But we have made it work, settling on a pitch that isn’t really anybody’s ideal, and then pushing ourselves to ensure that we are in perfect harmony with the tambura.
Our base standard is perfection - of shruthi alignment, rhythm, vocal synchronization, raga bhava, lyrical integrity, and then we aim to raise that level still higher. We are a group, and the synergies and possibilities are very different from the way Carnatic music has been traditionally performed, as a solo art, and we try to harness the best of what a collection of voices can offer. We take what could potentially be a weakness - different pitches - and try to use it to our advantage, using harmonies, switching octaves, striving for an aurally pleasing blend of the range from baritone to soprano. We will work on a micro-section of a particular phrase, keeping at it, individually, in pairs, in threes, as a whole group, until we are satisfied that there is no stray note out of sync, that everybody is comfortable and confident with it. It’s this attention to detail that Roopa insists upon that pays handsome rewards. And everybody has an input; this is a conglomeration of equals, no suggestion is deemed unworthy of trying out, no question is considered too trivial. We are all teachers, we are all students. We argue, we tease, we test our ideas, we come to a consensus, we practice, we practice, we practice. This is a safe space in many different ways. Nobody hesitates to try something, we understand that even the best musicians can find learning a new song difficult, that everybody makes mistakes. In this environment, we have all pushed ourselves to try things we were hesitant to do earlier, for fear of failure, of being mocked. I can think of no better way for a musician to grow and thrive.
We are a group, but when we sing we are both acutely aware of each other as well as immersed in our own private zone, communing with the music and its emotions in an intensely personal manner. I really believe that this is what makes us special. Too many groups I have listened to sound like automatons, in which emphasizing the team’s harmony takes precedence over the individual’s identity. At NMC, I truly believe that we have achieved the perfect balance of the two: bringing together the strengths that each of one us has, and keeping them distinct while becoming a part of the whole. This is a musical union of kindred souls made in heaven.
Now NMC is an established entity and we are here to stay! We work hard, practicing, creating new songs, expanding our repertoire, recording our debut album, taking our music to fun places and new audiences. Our group is a microcosm of New York City: diverse, vibrant, dynamic, hard-working and a bit crazy; we are scientists, designers, scholars, writers, architects, corporate professionals; we have grown up in all corners of the world and have come together in this city, united by our passion for a wondrous art form, Carnatic Music.
We have high goals and exciting plans for our music. We want to continue to delve deep into the music and to stretch boundaries. We want to steep ourselves in timeless classical compositions and to create and innovate. We want to collaborate with artists from within our genre and beyond, to harness New York’s creative energy. We want to take this ancient music from a faraway land and showcase it to a global audience in a modern world. We want to do all this, and a great deal more, and we want to share it with you.
The NMC Dress Code: Silks and Shirts, Pattu and Pants!
And now you have an opportunity to hear us live! We will be performing on August 24th at Drive East, a brilliant festival curated by Sahasra Sambamoorthi and Sridhar Shanmugam of Navatman, of music and dance from the Indian subcontinent, right here in New York City. And we have our very first CD, that will be released very soon! Do come for our show, we’d be delighted to see you there.
The NMC CD Crew!
For reading through to the end, a reward: a sneak peek of our latest creation, a love song in Kambodhi composed by Shiv. Come listen to us at Drive East to hear the song in its full glory!