Since she was a small child, Saraswathi Ranganathan has been focused on opening her ears to new sounds, and encouraging those around her to do the same. Raised in Southern India amid a family of musicians who play in the Carnatic tradition, the artist-composer cradled her first veena at age 6. By 11, she was performing concerts with her other siblings—including her younger brother, mridangam master Ganapathi Ranganathan.
For the past 15 years, Ranganathan has lived, worked, played, and composed as a world renowned veena artiste from her home base in Chicago. In between teaching master classes on raga-based music—and raga-inspired collaborative expressions—at DePaul and University of Chicago, she has managed to release four records as a leader with more in the works.
To Brooklyn Raga Massive’s Out of the Woods festival, Ranganathan brings with her a legacy of firsts. She is the first Indian woman and veena artiste to win a Chicago Music Award in its 35-year history, the first veena artiste to perform as an orchestra member of Disney’s Jungle Book production and the first veena artiste to receive a $10,000 grant from the Logan Foundation in Chicago. She attributes her path-carving success to the inclusive energy in her music and in her life. Her goal? Bring artists and listeners together as one community united in music and understanding.
The Jazz Gallery: The Gallery was founded on ideals of creative expression and individualism but also on community. Can you talk about your interpretation of “one-stage one-music one-community” as it relates to your artistic narrative?
Saraswathi Ranganathan: When I think about the intent behind my work, it’s to bring a diverse community together. The way I do this is, I take the veena, and mingle raga-based music with other genres of music, like Spanish music or Maqam music and then a little bit of blues music. What I do is take all these acoustic instruments and present it to an audience. So then we get a cross-cultural listener versus someone who, for example, only wants to listen to raga-based music. If I were to collaborate with a cross-genre, then I might have more people—a wider base, a wider cross-cultural audience. My goal is to showcase all these different genres to different types of people under the same platform.
You see a lot of conflicts that are happening these days, and a lot of that is happening because of hate. A lot of the time, hate arises out of fear. And the fear is because of a lack of awareness—a fear of the unknown. So my goal has been, because of my own personal experiences in life, to make people aware of what is different out there so that, at the very least, even if they’re not able to embrace the differences, they’re able to appreciate what’s different. And then they’re aware: “Hey, this is different, but it’s not really harmful.” And then, at best, they embrace it. They say, “Hey, this looks different—the music looks different, the way they’re dressing looks different,” [but they embrace it]. I share some of the language, some of the culture, some anecdotes and some things about the instrument. I try to showcase many acoustic instruments from around the world. So there’s a lot of exchange that happens, and community outreach is part of that.
So to cut it short, my intent is: less hate, less fear, greater awareness—so that we all can live as one family.
TJG: Is this your first show at the Gallery?
SR: Yeah, it’s my first show in New York.
TJG: Ah, you totally buried the lede for our readers.
SR: I’m so excited.
TJG: You’ve been drawn to a number of musical styles and cultures throughout the years, and obviously you’ve worked very deeply through them. You’ve just mentioned some of them—Flamenco, the blues, Middle Eastern music, etcetera. I know how this openness has influenced your approach to your artist mission, but I’m curious to know how embracing these different styles of music has informed your technical approach to the instrument?
SR: Yeah, that’s a great question. I like that. Essentially I was trained in traditional Carnatic music. That music encompasses a lot of emotive expression on the instrument. So we place a lot of emphasis on how a raga is interpreted. The meaning of a raga is emotion and expression. So that’s the basis of Indian classical music, especially Carnatic music and Southern Indian style. So, and I do this at schools as well, I play something and I ask them how they feel about it. And then I tell them that the raga, you can interpret it in so many different ways, and the children always come up with so many cool words to interpret the ragas. The main essence is more melodic and that’s how it becomes universal.
In terms of the actual technique from other genres of music—for example, the chords—I have learned to do a few things [on the veena] that sound like the blues scale using a fingering technique that uses a little bit of modification. So I know a little bit of jazz and a little bit of the Spanish style, but I’m not an expert.