I hail from a culture that is rich in mythology and accords a special status to those skilled in the art of story telling.
Indian music is about excelling in individual self-expression; it is about communicating with the listener and transporting them to a different plane through ragas. It is about conveying the angst of separation and the pangs of love through the ragas of the monsoon and spring. It is about conveying bhakti or devotion through the lyrics of the Golden Age of Indian Art music of 200 years ago.
It is common knowledge that congregational singing of an anthem has the power to reinforce the patriotic fervor that bonds people of a nation together. It is also seen that the singing of ancient hymns has the power to reinforce the feeling of connectedness with the source.
It was in the 1990s in Cincinnati that I realized the power of 'arranged music' in story telling. A new reality opened up from me as I listened to and sang spirituals along with African American choirs and learned of and empathized with stories of the epic struggles of the community and their search for liberty and equality. I resonated with the ideas of a common destiny of all of humanity through the hymns of a Unitarian congregation in Cincinnati.
I felt ancient chants of peace come to life as I directed newly formed Indian community choirs in raga based choral arrangements of Indian mantras that I wrote. I could feel perceptible changes in moods when we sang multi-part choral arrangement of ancient pentatonic ragas. I felt the electric pulse of the kinship that the Indian American singers experienced when they sang choral arrangements of ancient Vedic/Upanishadic chants and broke bread together with established multi-ethnic choristers of Cincinnati .
Choral singing has the power to move congregations. When we sing in choir we forget our ethnic, educational, cultural, professional and linguistic differences. When we sing timeless Sanskrit lyrics invoking peace on every aspect of creation -- in raga based polyphonic choral arrangements, the air that we breathe changes and resonates with peace. The feeling of wonderment is the same as I shared this experience with several other communities across North America -- city after city -- audience after audience.
We have the ability to empathize with cultures that we sing to. We have the unlimited potential to cut across cultural musical boundaries and collaborate with partners from around the world. It is during this collaboration that unseen possibilities begin to emerge and this is the zone in which innovation happens.
Two hundred years ago -- during the dark ages of Colonial rule in India, Muthuswamy Dikshitar, one of India's foremost composers wrote Sanskrit lyrics to Celtic and other folk tunes that came with the East India company. The result of this unprecedented act of creation is the birth of a new genre of Indo Colonial music that is neither completely Indian nor completely western. The music thus born in the 1800s tells the story of innovation and the unlimited possibilities that can be realized when one is open to ideas and influences from around the world, particularly in a 'connected and wired' world of today. In
The stories we tell and the themes that we communicate through music do have a lasting effect on the audience. We as musicians and composers have with us a unique opportunity and a responsibility; that of telling stories that can empower communities and enable six billion of us human beings to create new possibilities for a shared future.
There is nothing stopping us from exercising this responsibility.