Across America, Voices Rise To Reinvent India

Nov 7, 2013
Originally published on November 7, 2013 3:20 pm

When I visit Kanniks Kannikeswaran on a weekday evening, he is warming up his choir in the meeting room of a civic center in suburban Cincinnati.

"Breathe in the cosmic energy," he says to the choir. The response is a collective "Ommmmmm ..."

The people in this room are not professional singers: They are IT developers, professors, researchers and entrepreneurs. They are distinctly Indian in dress — the women wear decorated tunics; the men are in hip-length shirts.

This is the award-winning Greater Cincinnati Indian Community Choir. Kanniks — who goes by his first name — formed it 19 years ago.

"There is something in Indian classical music," says Prassana Malaviya, a research scientist and choir member. "When you're really into it and you're really singing it, you feel 5,000 years of history gushing through you. And that is an unbelievable, incredible experience."

But this choir is doing something different: Its music is neither entirely Indian nor entirely American.

Traditional South Indian classical music is typically sung solo, and heavily improvised. What Kanniks has done is fuse that music with the Western choral tradition, in effect creating an Indian-American choral movement. It is completely original, and quite distinct from groups that get together to sing Bollywood pop hits.

"There's joy when you sing together," Kanniks says. "Indian music has entirely been about individual self-expression. We haven't had a strong choral music tradition in the Indian classical idiom."

Indian classical music has been in a straitjacket, says Sundar Kadayam, a Cincinnati technology entrepreneur and friend of Kanniks. "Something about the way Kanniks has approached the classical genre has almost freed it up for the rest of the world to actually enjoy in a way that was not possible before," he says.

Kanniks absorbed Indian sacred music growing up in Madras, India. He came to the United States to attend engineering graduate school, and stayed. The soft-spoken 51-year-old with a well-trimmed, salt-and-pepper beard is a technology engineer by trade, but his life is music.

His compositions are based on ragas, melodic tonal centers associated with moods and seasons — for instance, there are ragas for morning, evening and the rainy season. His lyrics are Sanskrit and contain references to Hindu spirituality, which Kanniks says he aims to articulate for a Western audience.

"We are all interconnected, and what goes around comes around. So, those are at the very core of what we're trying to communicate," he says.

Kanniks' 18-year-old daughter, Vidita, is studying at the University of Cincinnati Conservatory of Music. She's also learning her father's compositions, including a piece written in praise to the Hindu deity Shiva.

"In theory, he's the destroyer. That sounds very negative, but it's actually very profound," Vidita explains. "The Hindu philosophy, I guess, is the universe and life is created, sustained, and then destroyed and then is reborn. So that is Shiva's role."

There's something else going on here: If you haven't heard, group singing is all the rage. Choirs of all types are mushrooming, because of the calming, energizing, connecting effect they have on the singers.

Kanniks discovered this himself when he began assembling Indian choirs around the country. "I've actually seen it come to life when a group of about 20 strangers get together and sing raga-based music with choral harmony for the first time. Something magical begins to happen," he says.

By popular demand, Kanniks has also started Indian choirs in Washington, D.C.; Houston; Tampa and Fort Lauderdale, Fla.; Minneapolis-St. Paul; Allentown, Pa.; Toronto; and, most recently, The Hague. And it's only a matter of time, he believes, before Indian community choirs catch on around the world.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

Let's hear, now, our latest installment of Ecstatic Voices, Sacred Music in America. This morning, a profile of a Cincinnati musician, educator and composer. Kanniks Kannikeswaran reinvented the idea of India in this country through his Hindu sacred music and the community choirs he's formed. NPR's John Burnett reports.

JOHN BURNETT, BYLINE: Kanniks is warming up his choir on a weekday evening in the meeting room of a civic center in suburban Cincinnati.

KANNIKS KANNIKESWARAN: Breathe in the cosmic energy...

BURNETT: These are not professional singers. They're IT developers, professors, researchers and entrepreneurs.

KANNIKS: Breathe out your workday.

BURNETT: And they are distinctly Indian in dress. The women wear decorated tunics; the men are in hip-length shirts.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHOIR SINGING WARM-UP NOTES)

BURNETT: This is the award-winning Greater Cincinnati Indian Community Choir. Kanniks, who goes by his first name, formed it 19 years ago.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHOIR SINGING)

BURNETT: Prassana Malaviya is a research scientist and a choir member.

PRASSANA MALAVIYA: There is something in Indian classical music that when you're really into it and you're really singing it, you feel 5,000 years of history gushing through you. And that is an unbelievable and incredible experience.

BURNETT: But this choir is doing something different. Their music is neither entirely Indian, nor entirely American. To give you an idea, listen to some traditional South Indian classical music. It's typically sung solo, and heavily improvised.

(SOUNDBITE OF TRADITIONAL CLASSICAL MUSIC)

BURNETT: Now, here is Kanniks' music.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHOIR SINGING)

BURNETT: What Kanniks has done is fuse South Indian classical sacred music with the Western choral tradition, to create an Indian-American choral movement. It is completely original, and quite distinct from groups in the U.S. that come together to sing Bollywood pop hits.

KANNIKS: There's joy when you sing together. Indian music has entirely been about individual self-expression. We haven't had a strong choral music tradition in the Indian classical idiom.

BURNETT: Kanniks absorbed Indian sacred music growing up in Madras, India. He came to the United States to attend engineering graduate school, and stayed. The soft-spoken, 51-year-old with a well-trimmed, salt-and-pepper beard is a technology engineer by trade, but his life is music.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHOIR SINGING)

BURNETT: This is from a work titled "Shanti: A Journey of Peace." It was originally performed nine years ago at the University of Cincinnati, and later at a sold-out extravaganza in Houston.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHOIR SINGING)

BURNETT: His compositions are based on ragas. These are melodic tonal centers associated with moods and seasons. For instance, there are ragas for morning, evening and the rainy season. His lyrics are Sanskrit. They contain references to Hindu spirituality, which Kanniks sums up for a Western audience this way:

KANNIKS: We are all interconnected, and what goes around comes around. So those are at the very core of what we're trying to communicate.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHOIR SINGING)

VIDITA KANNIKESWARAN: This is actually a piece composed by my father, in praise of the Lord Shiva.

BURNETT: Kanniks' 18-year-old daughter, Vidita, is studying at the University of Cincinnati Conservatory of Music and learning her father's compositions, including this piece to the Hindu deity Shiva.

VIDITA: In theory, he is the Destroyer - of destruction. That sounds very negative, but it's actually very profound. The Hindu philosophy - I guess - is life is created, sustained and then destroyed, and then is reborn. So that is Shiva's role.

BURNETT: There's something else going on here. If you haven't heard, group singing is all the rage. Choirs of all types are mushrooming because of the calming, energizing, connecting effect they have on the singers. Kanniks discovered this himself when he began assembling Hindustani choirs around the country.

KANNIKS: When a group of about 20 strangers get together and sing raga-based music with choral harmony for the first time, something magical begins to happen.

BURNETT: By popular demand, Kanniks Kannikeswaran has also started Indian choirs in Washington, D.C.; Houston; Tampa; Fort Lauderdale; Allentown; Minneapolis-St. Paul; Toronto; and most recently, Amsterdam. And it's only a matter of time, he believes, before Indian community choirs catch on back in his homeland.

John Burnett, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHOIR SINGING)

MONTAGNE: This is MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

And I'm David Greene.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHOIR SINGING) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.