100 choirs in 100 cities in 20 years

100 choirs in 100 cities in 20 years

Having unearthed the joy of singing together and celebrating commonalities through global community choirs, Cincinnati-based Dr Kanniks Kannikeswaran is enthused to create more new sounds writes PRIYA SUBRAMANIAM.

Kanniks mission is to create 100 choirs in 100 cities in the next 20 years. Kanniks has always been enamored by the unlimited possibilities music offers, and how instrumental it is in establishing connections,

Born and raised in Chennai, Kanniks trained in Karnatic vocal and violin, and performed his first concert at the age of 13. Even during his engineering days at IIT Chennai, music was an integral part of his life.

As a young immigrant in the US in the early 90s, Kanniks taught himself Hindustani and Western classical music, while working on degrees in Engineering and Business at the University of Cincinnati. His first composition, Tiruvarangam, in Tamil (1991) was based on hymns of the Alwars. It was at this time, in late 1993, that he formed The Great Cincinnati Community Choir with about 20 Indian singers.

Reflecting back on Basant - A Musical Celebration of Spring (1991), his first production, Kanniks says, “Suddenly musical ventures revealed a greater depth of purpose. When people sing together, there is so much joy in reaching out to each other.” He soon collaborated with Western choirs featuring diverse groups of people. A human chain was created, and these individuals, bonded together by music, stayed connected for life.

Kannik’s expositions are based on the fundamental raga or melodic scheme of Indian music. He amalgamates these with Western orchestral elements and global music forms. The productions delve into the intensities of classical Indian and Western music and showcase the rich cultural heritage of India. While many a Kanniks creation is founded on seasons and moods, the underlying theme, generally, is one of universal peace and the philosophy of the unity of creation.

In The Blue Jewel (1996,), the word ‘earth’ is used in 26 different languages. Surya – A celebration of the Winter Solstice (2003), includes an arrangement of ancient Sanskrit chants and celebrates the life-sustaining source of energy. Chitram - a Portrait of India, (2005), is a multimedia musical theater production. With a cast of over 100 performers, it depicts India’s unity in diversity. Compelling visuals of the subcontinent’s rich heritage and choreographed regional dances make this a visually stunning show.

Kanniks’ Shanti – A Journey of Peace (2004), a large-scale production with over 250 performers, was a poignant plea for world peace, in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. “Shanti is essentially an oratorio”, explains Kanniks. It features Sanskrit chants and Indian ragas.

Unlike many choral directors, Kanniks does not travel with a conventional group of performers. Every choir in every city is constructed grounds up and comprises amateurs, trained singers, chamber orchestra members and conductors, local to that area. Kanniks recognizes that working with a different bunch each time is exciting and challenging at the same time. “Each choir has its own persona and lends the recital a new meaning and new feel each time,” he points out.

Preparation starts months, often a year ahead, when Kanniks travels to the venue and familiarizes the ensemble with the music. Technology makes things a bit easier nowadays as some training is conducted online. Thus, a group of people, of different ages, speaking multiple languages, belonging to varied demographics and, hitherto, strangers, are fused by the common goal of learning Kanniks’ music. What they sing in unison is a blend of Indian classical music, Sanskrit chants and phrases that could be from Hebrew, Bengali, Gujarati or Tamil. When Sharad was performed in the Netherlands in 2013, it was the first Hindustani choir, comprising Surinamese people of Indian origin, none of whom spoke English. It is also the first of its kind trans-Atlantic musical work featuring a US-based composer of Indian origin.

The communities thus built, sustain lifelong relationships. In the choral journey they undertake, they discover synchronizations in their lives, not just in music. Families pitch in to help in with rehearsals and get involved in all aspects of a performance, from stage management, logistics, meals, to costumes. When the curtains come down, Kanniks says, he is “enveloped by love”, and the affection that the performers bestow upon him, and each other, is unparalleled, “every single time”.

Kanniks has also put together children’s choirs in the same fashion. Often, like in Chitram, they are built into the mainstay production. He perceives that children are attracted by rhythm and can relate easily to beats. “The key to getting children interested in music is to just expose them. Have them be part of rehearsals and take them to concerts. They will register subconsciously,” he observes.

Elaborating on his experience at the INKTalks 2015 in Mumbai, which he considers “one of the best experiences of his life”, he says he was very easily able to connect with the children from underprivileged backgrounds from the Dharavi area, whom he had only tutored on Skype the past few months. “The experience was simply magical”, he quips, adding that the musical grand finale he conceptualized for the event, was near perfect and achieved with hardly any live rehearsals. “If one focusses on togetherness, purity of intonation and expression, then musicality flows, even with children,” he observes.

Kannik’s command of notes is evident in his orchestral and choral works, and his versatility, in the suite of geethams, thillanas, kritis, padams and varnams (Karnatic), and bandishes, taranas, chaturangs and dhrupads (Hindustani) that he has composed. His doctoral work explores the dimensions of Muthuswami Dikshitar’s music and their sources of influence.

Kanniks suggests that Indian classical music be rightfully called Ragavidya, as the raga is the common thread running across both Karnatic and Hindustani streams. He envisions a world when “raga-powered music begets a wider outreach and enhances the experience of commonality in choral music”. According to him, music is also very dynamic. It can educate, entertain and enchant. One of his dreams is to create a parallel repertoire to Western Gospel music, using Hindu scriptures. “How wonderful would it be for people to walk into temple, pick up a recording and sing along a universal version?” he asks wistfully.

 The links with Dikshitar

Kanniks, who has conducted elaborate research on Muthuswamy Dikshitar, based his doctoral work on the commonality between the dhrupad compositional form and the krithis of Dikshitar. Along with the Gundecha Brothers, Kanniks composed Guruguha Dhruvapada, the first ever rendition of Dikshitar’s compositions in dhrupad format.

Why did Dikshitar choose to write in Sanskrit?

Dikshitar had a pan-Indian outlook. Though he mostly lived in South India, he spent five years in Banaras. Dikshitar was rooted in the Vedantic vision of non-duality; his compositions address divinity in its myriad manifestations; he was schooled in mantras and tantrasastras - and all this found logical expression in Sanskrit.

What was the reception for Dikshitar's notuswarams during his period, and his motivation in using Western tunes?

We are not sure! There is a manuscript from the 1800s containing Dikshitar's lyrics presented to Collector Brown, stating that these were Sanskrit lyrics written to Western tunes. Were these sung then? We don’t know. All we know is that Dikshitar was open to ideas; he was able to step out of his orthodoxy, listen to Western tunes and bring them into his lyrical fold. His lyrical idiom, style and subject matter expertise are just amazing. It was just extraordinary creativity and artistry that led this to happen.

What is the most important distinguishing feature in the music of Dikshitar that sets him apart from Thyagaraja and Shyama Shastri?

There are many. For one, Dikshitar conformed to the orthodox Venkatamakhi sampradaya - and stuck to ragas that belonged to that tradition. Second, he used Sanskrit as a medium of expression. Third, his compositions are all in the chauka kaala - the slow tempo of rendition. Fourth, his approach is very syllabic and phrases typically do not spill across tala cycles. Fifth, the way the compositions are written - they do not have sangatis and are not very sangati-friendly (most sangatis are thrust upon the music today).

Then you have the fact that every 10th composition of Dikshitar is based on a Western tune. A sizable chunk of his compositions are in rupaka tala. Next, there are similarities with the dhrupad form of music. One cannot ignore the lyrical aspect - where the compositions are in a stoic mood, as opposed to conversational lyrics in Thyagaraja's music.

Dikshitar had a completely different style. The only common feature is that he belonged to the same period as Thyagaraja and Syama Sastri and was from the same geographical area.

(This interview first appeared in Saamagaana The First Melody