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.
TJG: The blues is so potent and powerful that it seems every person can connect with it. Western scales, eastern scales—the blues scale is always in there somewhere.
SR: Yeah! It is true. I’m so glad you’re mentioning that because wherever we went, Hanoi, Spain, Portugal, parts of Africa—everywhere—the blues is there.
TJG: Everybody’s singing the blues. Love and death and the blues—that’s the human experience.
SR: Oh yeah, I love it. I love it.
TJG: Since we’re on the subject, can you talk more about your relationship between technical mastery of the veena and the emotional connection you have to have in order to play the music. How might these two overlap and strengthen one another on the veena in particular?
SR: Yeah, so my grandmother—my great, great grandfather—they have all been composers and singers. My mom, she was the one that taught me veena. At the time when she was playing, she was really good. And she has had a tremendous influence on the way I play. She would always say that along with the melody, you should always have expertise in how you bring out the beauty of the instrument itself. The thing about Carnatic music is that there’s a lot of emphasis on the emotive expression, so a lot of the time, the technical aspects of the instrument are kind of buried. I like the aesthetic interpretation of bringing out both. And that’s a speciality of the instrument. It’s like—intermingling both of them is always a challenge. It’s always a challenge, so I think I’m always learning and learning and learning how to do the balance. But my approach is a balance.
TJG: This balance of technical mastery and emotional connection is a unique relationship that the practitioner has with the veena. How has your early relationship with the instrument allowed you to improvise and collaborate with other artists who may not be familiar with the Carnatic tradition?
SR: You’re very articulate with your questions—I wish I could be as articulate with my answers. I can articulate on the veena better [laughs]. That’s a really good question that you’re asking because being open to a lot of different sounds is very important. I believe that to expand my music, to expand my repertoire and to actually go deeper, I have to follow the example of allowing myself to hear other sounds. So when I was growing up and my mom was teaching me music, she exposed me to the music of several other veena artistes in India [including] Chitti Babu. He’s one of the legendary veena artistes from the ’70s. What he did was something very revolutionary in those days in that, alongside Carnatic music, he composed compositions that had Western influence. So for example, (plays). And in those days, something like this was not heard.
TJG: It sounds almost like Irish folk music.
SR: Yeah! So he composed something like that, and in those days it became a super hit. It’s an album called Musings of a Musician. So I completely enjoyed that, and I could relate to it because he was bringing out the beauty of the veena and he was one of those early practitioners that said, “Veena is as old as the Vedas, yet as modern as tomorrow.” The Vedas are the most timeless, acient scriptures of India. So that’s what inspired me at a young age, and I still believe that music should be expansive and liberating.
TJG: So your musical narrative started with expansion and the intention for collaboration.
SR: Yeah, it looks like that! And the other musicians [who are less familiar with the Carnatic tradition], I also learn from them and they also learn from me. So in terms of the ragas, I teach them simple scales. I play a melody and the guitarist comes in with a chord (plays).
TJG: It sounds like it’s just opening up everybody’s ears from all directions.
TJG: How do you feel playing improvised music influences your worldview?
SR: The intent of improvisation is being free, and putting out your aesthetic interpretation of a raga or of your own creativity. And I think that naturally blends in to an expansive worldview. So, improvisation is being free and flowing free—the creativity being out there. And so, in the same way, if we embrace that attitude in other aspects of our life, it’s sort of like how they say in theater or improv, you get a “yes, and” approach. It’s like a “yes, and” approach to life. So, for example, at The Jazz Gallery, it’s just going to be me and my brother. It’s going to be a lot of Carnatic music, but I’m going to see how best I can adapt it to the audience out there. So again—it’s sort of a “yes, and” approach. I look at the feel of the audience and try to adapt some of that to what I’m going to present. When you are naturally inclined to improvise music, you can be more flexible, more adaptive and more ready to take on things that are newer.
TJG: What is your connection with the Women’s Raga Massive?
SR: There’s a sitarist in Brooklyn Raga Massive who played with me in Jungle Book, so he [facilitated this series].
TJG: What does it mean to you to be an artist presenting your music as part of this festival?
SR: The intent of the festival, as I understand it, is to bring out women’s creativity. It’s all about celebrating and empowering women. So I feel I can connect to that. I am all about women representation and highlighting creative expressions of women. And I think they are also showcasing some women who have struggled and then come up on their own. I can relate to that because I fall under that sphere. So I like both their missions statements and I might play a couple songs that go with the theme.
TJG: Can you talk briefly about the musical history you have with your brother?
SR: My brother and I have been playing—forever, actually (laughs). In our house, we are four of us—two brothers and two sisters, and we all started learning music at the same time. In those days, in every household everybody learns classical Carnatic music. You’re first set to sing. If your voice is not so good, you’re asked to learn an instrument, which is mostly the veena. And then lastly, if neither of that works, then they send you to dance. So it’s one of all the classical arts you have to learn. My elder brother started with the violin, and I did the veena. My younger brother started with mridangam, and my younger sister learned dance. So my younger brother and I—our first performance was when I was 11 and he was 6 years old.
TJG: Is he also in Chicago?
SR: He’s in Dallas, so it’s harder for us (to play together).
TJG: What would you like listeners to bring with them to this performance?
SR: And open mind, and any of their instruments. I like to keep it interactive—so they can bring their guitar or their voice or any instrument and I can devote some time to teaching them the Carnatic way of improvising.
Saraswathi Ranganathan plays The Jazz Gallery on Thursday, March 14, 2019 as part of the Women’s Raga Massive’s third annual March festival in celebration of Women’s History Month. Ms. Ranganathan, on veena, will be joined by Ganapathi Ranganathanon mridangam. Sets are at 7:30 and 9:30 P.M. $15 general admission (FREE for members), $20 reserved cabaret seating ($10 for members) for each set. Purchase tickets here.