Roopa Mahedevan is an in-demand Carnatic vocalist on the New York music scene, as well as around the U.S. and India. She sings regularly with a variety of Bharathanatyam dance productions and artists, and is herself a trained Bharathanatyam dancer. Roopa is the artistic director of the Navatman Music Collective, an Indian Classical Vocal ensemble, founded in 2014 by Sahi Sambamoorthy. The Collective released its first album, An Untimely Joy, in 2016. Roopa is a core member of Brooklyn Raga Massive, who are joining her in hosting two sets at The Jazz Gallery on Friday, July 21st, as part of their “Raga Roots” series. For her Jazz Gallery debut Roopa will be joined by Anjna Swaminathan on violin and Abhinav Seetharaman on mridangam.
Roopa has a full-time job in public health policy, and wields degrees in biology and cognitive science. We caught up with her at a Midtown Manhattan coffee shop, in between her day job and her evening rehearsal, and chatted about the various projects she’s involved in, and about the challenges and opportunities that arise when playing Carnatic music in shifting settings.
The Jazz Gallery: Could you start by setting the stage for this upcoming show at the Gallery?
Roopa Mahadevan: It’s going to be pretty much a traditional Carnatic concert. I’ll be singing Carnatic vocal music. On the violin is Anjna Swaminathan. And on the mridangam, or double-headed percussion, is Abhinav Seetharaman. Carnatic musicians often don’t rehearse ahead of time, or make decisions collaboratively before they get on stage. Often the “main artist”—in this case it’s a vocal concert, so the vocalist becomes the main artist—will have a sense of what they want to do, but they may not necessarily tell the accompanists ahead of time. Because if you are a professional Carnatic artist, you’ve already spent years and years learning the technique and repertoire, so even if you don’t know a specific song, if you know the raga, or the scale, and the tala, or the rhythmic structure, you should be able to just go with it.
It’s interesting because it’s an hour-long set, which is short for Carnatic concerts. If you want to do full justice to all of the options that are available in a Carnatic concert, you could do a two-and-a-half-hour, three-hour concert. So it’s actually kind of an interesting challenge, to do this kind of music, in a setting like The Jazz Gallery, because—how do I include all of the elements I want to include in an hour? But I also think that all of us want to go deeper into the pieces that we do. There is sort of a trend in Carnatic music to amass as much as you can and then kind of vomit it all out, and I actually think there’s a lot of value in being patient with how you treat a particular piece. So this [shorter set] will help me actually, to do that.
The other interesting thing about this gig is that there are two sets. And that’s really weird for us. You don’t do two sets! So I have to decide—am I doing two different sets, or the same set twice? That’s what happens, though, when you do this music in a different kind of cultural context, these issues come up. And I would also just add that my generation of Carnatic musicians, and those of us that are not so tied to all the cultural constraints of performing it in India, for example, we share our set ahead of time. Because we want everyone to be at their best. So this idea of surprising the violinist—“hey you didn’t know I was going to do that!”—it doesn’t mean much. I’d rather us all be able to enjoy everything when we’re on stage. Knowing that the other musicians are happy and confident gives me confidence. It feels like we’re in it together as a team.
TJG: Have the three of you played together as a group before?
RM: Anjna and I have played together many times. Abhinav is very busy—he’s as student at Columbia—it’s hard to track him down. The last time we all played together actually was for my group, Navatman Music Collective. I composed a tillana, a little rhythmic piece. We had Abhinav, Anjna, and then a Portuguese guitarist, Pedro Henriques da Silva.