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.
TJG: How do you relate to the structure of a trio such as this as a vocalist?
RM: It’s interesting. I don’t think it’s perfect. Because I think it gives a little too much agency to the vocalist, honestly. For example, if I were to do improv on a scale, do a raga alap, I do it first, and then the violinist has to do her own version, but not as long as me, a little less long, and during my alap, she’s shadowing me also, she’s echoing the last part of each phrase. You know, these kinds of things that become part of the protocol. But it’s kind of silly. I’ve actually thought that if you can have a beautiful exchange, between the vocalist and violinist, that can stand alone as the alap, you don’t need to then do a separate violin alap, or think of it as just the vocal alap. It could be this beautiful coming together of two ideas. The mridangam player has an interesting role because they’re kind of ever-present. They don’t do the alap, for example, that’s arrhythmic. But when you start the composition, they’re always playing, depending on the school or the specific aesthetic of the mridangam player, sometimes they’re right under you all the time, and sometimes it’s more sparse. Sometimes they actually have another rhythm that’s going, that’s kind of counter to what you’re doing, but complementary.
TJG: I noticed on your website, on your “About” page, you also link to your gurus, you share it with them, which seemed like a unique gesture. Could you talk about why you do that?
RM: Yeah, I guess a lot of young professionals don’t do that. But I feel like, especially in the classical world, with this training, it’s kind of ingrained into us. It’s also the Indian cultural thing of respect elders, acknowledge them, that kind of thing. And I do feel in some ways I’ll never master Carnatic music, so I need to kind of keep myself humble.
TJG: Why do you say that you’ll never master it?
RM: Because I’ve heard the masters and they’re incredible! If I really wanted to be the best Carnatic musician ever, I’d probably move to India, and live there in that scene and listen to that music all the time. But, you know, I grew up here, I have a lot of different kinds of musical interests, and what I want to do with the music is different, it’s not necessarily regurgitating the same old stuff.
TJG: So what are some of the different interests you have?
RM: This choir that I lead [The Navatman Music Collective] has been really fun. A lot of Carnatic music can be sung in a group. And I’ve heard that in India growing up, many musicians would participate in competitions, Bhajan competitions, where the idea is that you sing as a group and you’re judged. And you often learn in groups with the guru and stuff like that. So it’s not so bizarre to sing with other people, but to have that be the main performing entity is not as common. And for me, what I’m trying to do with the group is take this kind of music away from a place of fear. The thing is, I do think that’s how a lot of people access this kind of music.
That’s how we’re taught to approach it—it’s this weird music, it takes your whole life to master it, it’s nothing that you hear on the radio, it’s hard to get. And once you start training, there’s always that expectation – how good you are, how virtuosic you are. It almost has a competitive feel to it. And I feel that in this group we’re actually showing that, wait a minute, you could actually just sing. These songs are beautiful, and you can just sing them, and appreciate the beauty. And you can actually find community through the music. Which is what we’re doing.
We were all strangers, none of us knew each other that well, and through this group, we’re all family now, we’re all best friends. Everyone’s coming at it from a different place. Some people trained for years and then stopped and felt bad and wanted to start again. For some people it’s just stress relief. For others, maybe they learned more light music, bhajans, folky stuff, and they want to do more classical. For some others, they just feel bad that their voice is out of touch. There’s one person who’s actually started performing now, and takes on gigs. So it kind of serves a different purpose for everybody. But there’s a palpable sense of joy when you see us, when you hear us. So that to me has been a really cool project, democratizing the music.
TJG: Making it more accessible to a variety of singers.
RM: The other thing I would say is that our members – some of them are really good at Bollywood singing. Some of them are really good at ghazals, music from Pakistan, North India. So I also say, let’s get rid of the labels, you know, good music is good music! The Queens Museum had this event where Mani Ratman, who’s this really famous filmmaker in India was coming, and his movies often have really good music, because he has A.R. Rahman do the soundtrack. So we did a whole film medley of Bollywood and Kollywood—Kollywood is South Indian Bollywood. And people really shined there, because these are songs they grew up with, they sing in the shower, they can do it. And to me – why can’t that also sit among all the other music that we’re doing?
TJG: What other projects are you involved with?
RM: Carnatic music my main thing, but I do it in a lot of different contexts. So I do traditional concerts like what this gig will be. I also love singing R&B/soul music, since I grew up with it, and dabbling in theater projects. But I also work with dance a lot. So I sing for tons of Bharatanatyam dancers and also more experimental contemporary dancers. And I love that. Having a muse to respond to vocally is a really fun thing for me. I’ve worked with folks like Parijat Desai, or Preeti Vasudevan. People who are coming out of Indian training, but their preferred form is hybrid, often unrecognizable as a single genre. I did this one piece recently – this dancer, Parijat, wanted to talk about journalism in India and how it’s so obtuse sometimes, you can’t tell what they’re saying, and sometimes it seems purposefully so. So there was an article about this woman that had been ill-treated by members of the military, but they were under protection of the law, so she did a public fast as an act of protest, and the way they talked about it was so convoluted. It was full of acronyms, like, “The TNT office has met with the minister of the IADMK to propose that DM…” So Parajit thought acronyms would be a cool thing to work with. So she was dancing, and then I sang acronyms, in letters, as opposed to Indian words. So I would throw these letters out there, sometimes it would be random, sometimes it would be in a raga, very improv based. So I really enjoy projects like that. I can’t say that I’m doing a traditional Carnatic repertoire but I’m using some of the Carnatic skills in terms of the gamakas and the vocalizations. And certainly the improv – comfort with time, the rhythmic stuff – comes with the Carnatic training. But I don’t know that a pure Carnatic audience in Chennai would enjoy with that music.
TJG: Can you tell us a little about Brooklyn Raga Massive?
RM: They do a weekly jam. So every week they have a featured performer and then they open it up to whoever wants to join. They have a core set of committee members, and core set of people who perform the most with them, as a group. I’m one of their members. This gig is part of the Raga Roots series, which presents BRM musicians who have had significant training and/or are actively performing Indian classical music in its more grammatical form. What I love is how BRM has democratized Indian classical music—in terms of who’s allowed in and the kind of spaces it can inhabit.
TJG: Is there anything else you’d like to add?
RM: I’m excited to bring this kind of music to a new audience. I think those of us that do this kind of music in New York enjoy being kind of the ambassadors for more traditional classical music. But at the same time—all three of us grew up in America, so I think that’s an interesting vantage point. Because we have other cultural influences, and because we think critically about the meaning of this music in our contemporary/diasporic lives, we’re constantly challenging cultural assumptions, trying to fight narrow-mindedness where see it. Every art form has within it the contexts which have housed it so far, so we’re also actively involved in creating new ways of being musicians.
Brooklyn Raga Massive presents Raga Roots at The Jazz Gallery on Friday, July 21st, 2017. The group features Roopa Mahadevan on carnatic vocals, Anjna Swaminathan on violin, and Abhinav Seetharaman on mridangam. Sets are at 7:30 and 9:30 P.M. $22 general admission ($12 for members) for each set. FREE with SummerPass. Purchase tickets here.