Lithuania discovers Hinduism

This article first appeared in The Sunday Guardian on April 13th, 2019 – written by Mamta Chitnis Sen

It is summer in Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania and I am seated in one of the classrooms of the historic old building of Vilnius University listening to Professor Nijole Laurinkiene’s presentation on the Sun in traditional context. Mid-way through her lecture, I hear distinct chants of “Hare Rama Hare Krishna” filtering in through the large windows behind me. A group of young boys are singing praises of Lord Krishna outside the campus grounds.  Looking at my surprised reaction, a musician who is also attending the lecture and is seated next to me says with a smile in his broken English laced with heavy Lithuanian accent, “That is Indian no? We have lot of Hindus here who follow Krishna and even Shiva.”

Baltic and Vedic traditions merged in the festival Goloka Rasos. Photo: V. Tumenas

Intrigued, over the next few days of my stay in Vilnius while I did come across several Lithuanians confessing to be fans of India and its culture, I also had opportunities to interact with a select few who have immersed themselves completely into becoming followers of Hindu traditions.  While some enrolled themselves with Hindu organisations like International Society of Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON), Shri Sathya Sai Baba and Brahma Kumari, there were others who were seeking the internet to seek information on what it takes to become a good Hindu. Students of Indology in Lithuania appeared to be at an advantage over others as their curriculum enabled them to undertake trips to India to understand and explore the country and its religions.

Located in Eastern Europe, Lithuania is called a gem of the Baltics as it shares borders with the Baltic Sea on one side and countries like Latvia, Belarus, Poland and Russia on the other. That Hinduism should have reached its shores seems to be an interesting thought in itself.

Indologist and social anthropologist Samanta Galinaityt, a first year Master’s student at the Institute of Asian and Transcultural Studies at Vilnius University, who has travelled to India twice believes that though there are a lot of similarities between Lithuanian traditional Gods and Hindu Gods but it is hard to say that Hinduism as a concept exists in Lithuanian culture.

“In my strong opinion, different concepts of Hinduism are getting popular nowadays, but they are just concepts. For instance, we have a lot of different Yoga schools in Lithuania as well as a lot of houses related with Ayurveda. Of course, there are some individuals who practise or follow Hindu traditions but usually in small groups, communities or in private.”  Samanta continues that she has met quite a lot of Lithuanians following the religion too. “I have seen a lot of Lithuanian devotees from ISKCON community, but there are also some individuals who follow the Hindu Gods as well. There are people who follow Hindu religion, but there is no data based on this,” she points out.

I meet one such follower a 50-year-old art collector, (he wishes to remain anonymous) who claims he makes it a point to visit his favourite temple in southern India twice every year, and has also given up meat to become a full time vegetarian.

In her paper “Strangers Among Ours: Contemporary Hinduism in Lithuania” written by Dr Milda Alisauskiene, Professor with the Vytautas Magnus University as part of a special volume on Hinduism in Europe, she analyses the phenomenon of contemporary Hinduism in Lithuania from historical and sociological perspectives and discusses diverse forms of its expressions and public attitudes towards it. Her paper points out that Hinduism in Lithuania might be considered a new religious tradition.

Dr Alisauskiene writes that groups representing contemporary Hinduism are active in large cities and smaller towns of Lithuania. “The adherents of these groups are citizens, majority of them have higher education, usually within natural or technical sciences and have cosmopolitan worldviews. Majority of contemporary Hinduism communities in Lithuania have affiliates in smaller towns, they also organise meetings in the rural areas but these are allocated for mainly citizens. Women prevail among the followers of contemporary Hinduism and men make up around one third of the followers. With this aspect contemporary Hinduism does not distinguish among other religious phenomena as women religiosity and their active participation in religious activities is well known and widely discussed phenomenon among researchers of religion in Western and post-communist societies.”

The age of the members of contemporary Hinduism groups, she continues, varies; though around 35-50 year-old individuals prevail.

She further writes, “Two public surveys conducted in 2007 and 2014 showed the dynamics of Lithuanian population knowledge about religious groups existing in the country. Among groups of contemporary Hinduism best known was ISKCON (34% in 2007 and 48% in 2014). Public knowledge about other groups of contemporary Hinduism differed. In some cases like Osho community knowledge remained the same, in other cases like Sathya Sai Baba community, Sahadza Yoga and Brahma Kumaris public knowledge slightly increased.”

Dr Alisauskiene further states in the paper that historical analysis showed that interest in Orientalism and Hinduism might be traced to the sixteenth century, however the institutionalization of this interest took place in the nineteenth century with the establishment of study programmes in Vilnius and later other universities.

“During the Soviet times, religion was removed from public life, however private religious practices continued. ISKCON started its activities in the late 1970s and its adherents experienced persecutions from Soviet authorities. Since the 1990s, with new conditions for freedom of religion possibilities, groups of contemporary Hinduism became even more active. ISKCON and Osho were two organisations whose activities were mostly visible in the 1990s. Art of Living and other so called spirituality groups of Hindu origins were more active in Lithuania.”

She continues that groups of contemporary Hinduism in Lithuania are mainly global organisations with centred management and controlled content of teaching, even more if the leader is still alive. “Despite global aspect these religious organisations in Lithuania have localised their activities in a new social context. The manifestation of such localisation is emphasis on the spirituality essence of these groups instead of going into the competitive field of religion with mainstream Roman Catholicism. An important feature of contemporary Hinduism in Lithuania is the ethnicity of members who are Lithuanians and not Hindus.  Contemporary Hinduism in Lithuania is a social phenomenon indicating and manifesting social and religious transformations from homogeneous field of religion to religious diversity and reflecting the trends of religious individualisation,” she states.

But Dr Audrius Beinorius,  Professor of Indian and Buddhist Studies, Institute of Asian and Transcultural Studies Vilnius University thinks otherwise.

“Dealing academically with India for more than 30 years I don’t believe there has been a rise in people following the Hindu religion in Lithuania, because many people are becoming more and more secular and not intended to replace one religion (local Catholic Christianity) with another (Hindu). They are searching mainly for practical spirituality, that would conduct a healthy way of life, help control stress and emotions, increase self-conscious attitude and so on,” he says.

Gaura Purnima celebrations at the Dvarka Temple in Vilnius, Lithuania.Photo: ISKCON

ISKCON, he continues, is among the older Hindu religious organisations that was perhaps not most popular at the end of Soviet occupation period and was one of the spiritual alternatives of atheistic communist ideology.

“During last 10 years this movement is evidently decreasing in number of followers, perhaps it contradicts the local habits of social life.”

He points out that indigenous Baltic religion has many common elements with ancient Vedic religious culture and less with contemporary Hinduism.

“Lithuania was the last European country to accept Christianity. Baltic people have been fighting for almost 300 years against united European crusaders to project their own ancestral religion, language and culture. Thus similarities between Sanskrit and Lithuanian languages are tremendous, as the names of Gods namely Viešpatis (Višpati), Dievas (Devas), Vejas (Vayu), Ašvieniai (Ašvins), some mythological elements, fire rituals, polyphonic religious chanting etc.” He states that it’s a pity, not much is left during last 400 years of brutal Christianisation.

“The indigenous Baltic religion movement nowadays is mostly reconstructions. And thus these people are deeply interested in Vedic tradition and Hinduism, not because having intention to become Hindus, but because living examples of Hindu practices could help in reconstructing ancient Baltic religion.  To my knowledge except ISKCON movement members there are almost no cases of Lithunians consciously and formally converting into Hinduism. Even followers of numerous yoga schools, among which Shivananda Yoga Center is the most popular, never consider themselves as a Hindu. Because chanting of mantras is considered to be auspicious and purifying your mind and soul, but that does not imply becoming a Hindu.”

Dr Beinorius believes that he does not see any sudden interest in Hinduism among Lithuanians. “Yes many people are visiting India, travelling to historical and archaeological sites, relaxing in beaches, claiming Himalayas. People are interested in the cultural heritage of India: Indian classical dances, classical music, Ayurvedic treatment, Jyotish predictions, meditations or even Bollywood cinema, but as I said before cultural interest has nothing to do with intentions for religious conversion.  Lithuanians, like other Westerners are not entirely able to connect Indian gurus seriously and properly as Indians do, because too strong sense of individuality, pride and non-obeying that hinders their devotion. They are more interested in following a kind of ‘scientific raja yoga’ created by Swami Vivekanda, Advaitic perspective of Sri Ramana Maharishi and Nisargadatta Maharaj, or Intellectual Integral Yoga of Sri Aurobindo, than purely devotional bhakti of Sai Baba, Art of Living of Sri Sri Ravi Shankar and similar. Perhaps our people trust themselves and their own efforts instead of waiting for blessings from gurus of divine anugraha,” he says.

Responding to the queries on whether ISKCON has seen a rise in Lithuanians seeking to follow the Hindu religion, Shatakula Das, of ISKCON Communications, Vilnius, Lithuania, said, “Yes, ISKCON has seen a rise in Lithuania for many years. ISKCON is part of the Gaudiya, or Chaitanya Vaishnava, tradition, which hails from the eastern regions of India. While we don’t have the exact number, an estimated 2,000 people are connected with ISKCON in Lithuanian through the Summer Vaishnava festival (which is hosted by the temple) and other program and events which are held regularly at the local centre. ISKCON Lithuanian’s  facebook group Lietuvos Vaishnavai has 2,166 members. There is no exact statistics on the number of followers we have every year but approximately 10 new people appear yearly at the temple or festival,” he states continuing that ISKCON in Lithuania started in 1979.

“In December 1989, the first community of Krishna Consciousness was registered in Vilnius and after a few months in Kaunas. Now we have 5 communities registered and many legal public entities such as Vedic Centers, or Vaishnava Culture Centres around Lithuania.”

A journalist for over 15 years, Mamta Chitnis Sen has worked with several reputed publications.

Another prize for the Tabla

Indian tabla player Sandeep Das wins prestigious Guggenheim Foundation Fellowship for Music Composition for 2019

SANDEEP DAS considered one of the leading Tabla exponents in the world today, has been awarded the prestigious Guggenheim Foundation fellowships in the category of Music Composition for 2019.

The Guggenheim Foundation was founded in 1925 in honour of John Simon Guggenheim to support the projects of artists and scholars in any field or discipline who have “demonstrated exceptional capacity for productive scholarship or exceptional creative ability in the arts”.

Roughly 3,000 candidates were in the running this year and of those 168 were selected to receive fellowships across disciplines, with 11 awards being granted in the field of music composition. Amongst the other awardees are Nobel Prize Winners, Poet Laureates, members of the National Academy of Sciences, and many more distinguished individuals! You can view more on the Guggenheim Foundation website via this link. 

Sandeep’s collaboration with the Silk Road Ensemble for “Sing me Home” won the Grammy Award for the Best World Music Album. Prior to this win, he was nominated for the Grammy Award in 2005 and 2009. A professional career spanning 23 years has seen him composing and playing with the Legendary Cellist Yo-Yo Ma and The Silk Road Ensemble, String quartets and Orchestra’s such as The New York Philharmonic, The Chicago Symphony Orchestra, and the The Boston Symphony Orchestra to name a few.

International Cellist Yo Yo Ma says about Sandeep:

 “Sandeep transcends his instrument- when he plays the Tabla he is a creator of myths, a master communicator and an orchestra, all in one. In my decades of collaboration around the world, he is easily one of the greatest artists I have ever met. Not only is he one of the best artists I have met but he is also once one of the best teachers I have met. I believe there is no one he cannot engage!” 

It all started with a complaint that Sandeep’s father got from Sandeep’s school teacher.  “Sandeep has been disturbing the class…asked to stop tapping the desk with his hands, he starts tapping with his feet. Please take him to a doctor!” On reaching home that day, instead of being taken to a doctor Sandeep was gifted his first set of Tabla and taken to his first guru Shiv Kumar Singh where he spent one year in training.

Being a big fan of Pt. Kishan Maharaj of the Benaras Gharana, his father K.N.Das, sought and requested the legendary tabla maestro to teach his son. The Maestro proceeded to test his skills in various ways. At the end He was very happy and said –‘He has tabla in his blood and I will teach him.’

Sandeep learnt tabla under his Guru for 11 years in the Guru-Shishya parampara. Sandeep proudly mentions how everything he learnt was taught to him orally and thus all those years of learning live with him every second of his life and he doesn’t have to flip through any written diary of any sort.

For the first few years, he would travel from Patna to Benaras every Friday evening, stay overnight at his guru’s home and then return on Sunday. He would never spend a single vacation at home. Later his father took a transfer to Varanasi, so that his musical education could continue unhindered.

Under Pt. Kishanji Maharaj, Sandeep not only learnt tabla but also valuable lessons in life.


“When I was 9 or 10 years old, we were practicing in a room and Guru ji got very mad at us. He said why don’t you people clean the room before you sit down to practice and he asked me to clean the room. I had never done it at home so I couldn’t sweep the floor nicely. He took the broom from my hand and taught me how to sweep the floor and mentioned to me that if you sweep the floor nicely you can also be a good tabla player. Words which at that time didn’t make sense to me. How did sweeping the floor relate to tabla but as I grew up I realized that the other things he was teaching us to do, even doing the smallest jobs perfectly, taught us discipline, focus, attention to details and made the toughest jobs seem easy and that would also spill over in our playing.”

Pt. Kishanji Maharaj always discouraged his students from copying him. He would say, “As long as you are a Xerox you’ll never have any value. The moment you start playing, everybody should know which gharana you come from, but you must always have your own personality, your own thoughts imbibed in what you are playing.” Unlike many others, he advised his students to listen to every tabla player, but said, “Even if you like something, don’t try to play like them. Make it your own. It should sound that its Sandeep Das playing and not Sandeep Das copying or mimicking somebody else.”

Under his Guru’s guidance, Sandeep debuted on stage with legendary Sitar maestro, Pt. Ravi Shankar. He also won the national drumming championship thrice and became the youngest drummer ever to be graded by All-India radio.

One of the biggest turning points in his career came with his meeting the world famous cellist Yo-Yo Ma who invited him to play with the Silk Road Ensemble.

Interview with Sandeep Das:

Indian percussion is so well appreciated abroad, how can it be supported in India?

The major factor is that the percussion players have to understand that they are a very needed aspect of Indian classical music and stand up against exploitation. They have to believe in their hard work and realise that it is the quality of the playing that gets them concerts and not just by being subservient to someone, who in return will exploit them. They themselves have to stand up.


Is the domination of one or two great maestros distracting attention from a whole lot of young talented percussionists? Why do we always talk of only one or two great musicians for every instrument?

As you must have noticed, where are the art and culture pages or focus on anything of our own heritage and culture in today’s media, be it print or television. Whereas you pick up any media from the west and you will see dedicated critics and pages for the same. That is a very unfortunate situation in our country now that the media will only cover people who are already well known or people who can pay for PR.


What is the most important change happening in Indian percussion today?

There is no dearth of great individual talent in our country so we have talented younger players but the majority in a rush to get popular are ending up mimicking the west. That is where we are going wrong. I would say learn one this well enough and deeply first and be proud of your own music and culture.


What is it about the Indian tabla that makes it so universally popular?

When I think about it I am amazed at how smart and intelligent our predecessors were. Even one instrument like Tabla has such a vast repertoire that is unmatched with any percussion from anywhere in the world. It is an instrument that with the right training and application can be played with almost any kind of music. Thus I am playing with the biggest western classical orchestras of the world to String quartets and Jazz musicians.

Intrinsic Soft Power Manifest in the Art and Culture of India

Though art and culture may outwardly seem to be independent, they are intimately interlinked and always go hand in hand. Common elements like cuisine, ornaments, dress, language, behaviour, music, dance, literature etc underlie the customs of every culture, each having its own uniqueness.Culture is reflective of the ethos of a particular society and determines its character.

Art is a product of culture, a defined creative approach to interpreting ideas, drawing images on canvas or in space, and creating concepts. It is a creative expression of deep thoughts and situations that trigger transcendent experiences presented orally, visually or interactively.Art can re-enchant the way humanity sees the world, especially in times of challenges and struggles. For instance, it can rekindle a sense of patriotism, stir people into right action, uplift their spirit and aspirations.

This intrinsic power of art and culture has a universal value that infuses all relations and relationships both at national and international level. When districts in states, states in a country, and countries in the globe come together, art and culture provide a vital fabric of expression and cooperation. It provides a beautiful medium to educate and enlighten the significance of the cultural ethics and ethos of different regions.

Influence of Cultural Linkages

Cultural linkages develop mutual respect and honour in international relations and a certain peace and joy in human relations. Beyond theboundaries and differences, theypromote a common ground to unite. For instance, India and Russia recently celebrated the 70th anniversary of their diplomatic relations with the President of Russia, Vladimir Putin blogging a special message in the Times of India on May 30, 2017 and Prime Minister Narendra Modi visiting Russia to mark the historic occasion.[i]

Influence of Indian culture on Russia predates economic and trade relations between India and the then USSR, to the 15th century, when AfanasiyNikitin, a merchant from the land of Tver in Russia, in his three-year stay (CE 1466 – CE 1472), documented every aspect of the Indian society in his book, A Journey Beyond the Three Seas.[ii] Since then, cultural exchanges between the two countries have followed a consistent trajectory. Nikitin’s book became a major motion picture in Russia in CE 1950, with the Russian actor Oleg Strizhenov playing Nikitin and co-featuring the Hindi actress, Nargis Dutt.[iii] In my international travels, I am yet to meet a Russian who has not hummed “Awara hoo” or “MerajoothahaiJapani…sar pe laal topirussi…” with such pride to display his love of Indian culture.

The setting up of the Mayuri Dance Company in the Russian Republic of Karelia stands as a testament to this influence. Vera Evgrafova, who has always had a love of Indian dance was deeply moved by the 1985 movie “Mayuri”, which featured the story of an Indian Bharatanatyam dancer named Sudha Chandran. With aspirations of being a Bharatanatyam dancer, Sudha Chandran begins her training in the dance as a young girl, but as a teenager, loses a leg in a car accident.  Sudha fights her struggles to regain her dignity and identity as a dancer.  Vera Evgrafova, was so inspired by this feature film, that she appropriated the name of the character (Mayuri) for her dance group that she formed with dancers who shared the love for Indian dances in 1987 Railway Workers Cultural Center in Petrozavodsk, the capital of the Republic of Karelia. Winning the “Narodiny” award in 1995 by the Karelian Ministry of Culture, Vera secured a spot at the state-wide level.[iv]

There are many such inspiring stories of countries coming together for peace and cooperation where culture has been a major factor promoting the respective national interest and contributing to a more peaceful world order.

International Recognition to Indian Cities for its Art and Culture

Three cities in India – Chennai,Varanasi and Jaipur – have joined the prestigious UNESCO Creative Cities Network for its rich music and cultural tradition. This world organization has identified culture and creativity as integral and strategic factors for development at the local level and strengthen mutual respect and cooperation at the international level.

During the December – January “Margazhi” month of the Tamil Calendar, Chennai celebrates its rich Carnatic music and classical dance,predominantly Bharatanatyam, attracting host of artistes and art lovers from all over the globe. It is a beautiful coincidence that it is held in the Tamil month of Margazhi – a month traditionally dedicated to religious activities and spiritual disciplines. People wake up early morning, sing hymns and devotional songs on the deities, participate in processions and cook delicious delicacies!“Among the 12 months, I am Margazhi,” says Lord Krishna in the Bhagavad Gita (verse 35, chapter 10).

For many in Chennai, “December season” as it has come to be known as, is like a pilgrimage. Around 3000 programs and performances take place in established and upcoming Sabhasor organisationsat over 300 venues in Chennai. Every Sabha reverberates with melody and rhythm in praise of the divine, through the composition of saints, sages and many great composers. In recent times, temples and ancient traditional houses also serve as venues for lectures, demonstrations and concerts.

I am a proud and happy Chennaite. Being a performer and a participant of this grand Dance-Music season, I have been enjoying this wondrous festival for decades now.The festival was launched  in 1927 as an adjunct to INC, and has now completed 92 glorious years!The schedule of at least the top 10 Sabhas, are published in The Hindu on December 1st supplement. There are apps now that track the schedule of sabhasandkutcheris(concerts) like MargazhiSangeetam, SaRiGaMa, Zeek and collection of favorite songs from Twang. Online websites like KutcheriBuzz are a great source of the season schedule too!

Performers save their best repertoire to showcase for the season, and the audience – their best ethnic attires! The ladies already plan a display of collection of their Kanchipuram silk sarees and jasmine flowers. The men join the show with their shawls,  Kurtas and veshtis!Margazhi is to Chennai as Ganges is to Varanasi. Perhaps no other city in the world has such a kind of festival.

“Varanasi was advocated as an ideal example of India’s intangible Cultural heritage as a combination of a temple city with its rich tradition in music. The Varanasi school of music or the Benaras gharana named after the city along with the semi classical genres like Hori, Chaiti, Tappa, Daadra are rich in musical heritage.The ghats, havelis and temples have housed the Benaras gharana and nurtured it backed with the Banaras Hindu University with its Music and Dance departments.The Government of Rajasthan nominated the Jaipur City under the Creative CitiesNetwork for its art & craft. 36 varieties of crafts were identified including the ones related to sculpture, pottery, textiles and jewellery making. Right from King Sawai Jai Singh II of Jaipur in 18th Century to his successors, the city has been nurtured as a centre of artistic excellence.”[v]As designated  members of UCCN (UNESCO’s Creative Cities Network), they reflect a hub for creativity and integrate culture into sustainable development plans.

Significance of Art and Culture in India

Indian culture is spiritual. It elevates and celebrates mankind, uplifts one to assimilate the four fundamental pursuits of mankind –(i) Dharma (righteous actions), (ii) Artha (securities like wealth, family, power and position), (iii) Kama (sensory, intellectual or emotional pleasures), and (iv) Moksha (enlightenment – gaining freedom from all limitations and sorrow). None of these pursuits are simple, because even though universal, the variety of human choices and the multiple layers of psychological complexities involved, give them a range of interpretations, perceptions and decisions.

The Vedic culture of India unfolds a universal vision that brings harmony in all these pursuits of mankind,with the environment. This harmony is easily attainable with the understanding that when the means or process of accomplishment of any pursuit is undertaken with commitment to right and ethical ways, harmony and fulfillment can be well orchestrated.

Art and Culture of India is Immortal

Do the expression of culture nurture and address all the needs of individuals? If they do not, that culture will not stand the test of time and would be outdated. The Puranas, Itihasaas, temple architecture, the folk lore, food, language, music, dance all seem to have an intrinsic strength to sustain, modify and adapt to the changing times without comprising on its integrity.Vedic culture seems to be relevant to all ages and at all times. Hence,in spite of many years of oppression, the culture today is still alive and celebrated!

For economic growth, technological, medical, industrial, and academic advancement is necessary but it cannot be used as a measure for inner growth or emotional maturity of a person.The struggling human heart always seeks fulfillment, wholeness, to be free from conflicts and pain. Vedic vision helps the individual resolve this fundamental struggle. Art and culture of India facilitates this resolution.

[i]https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/blogs/toi-edit-page/russia-and-india-70-years-together/

[ii]https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/India–Russia_relations#Cooperation_in_the_cultural_sphere

[iii] Ibid

[iv]http://www.thediskcoordinator.com/mayuri.htm Also see, https://www.facebook.com/dancemayuri/

[v]https://economictimes.indiatimes.com/news/politics-and-nation/director-general-unesco-declares-varanasi-jaipur-under-creative-cities-network/articleshow/50143983.cms?utm_source=contentofinterest&utm_medium=text&utm_campaign=cppst

India spearheads global music-ecology project

‘prthivim dharmana dhrtam’ signifies Dharma as sustainer of the earth

As the World celebrates World Earth Day on April 22, Indian musician Chitravina N Ravikiran is galvanising artistic support for the planet. His brainchild, the Planet Symphony Orchestra (PSO) has brought together celebrated performers, orchestras and students (of diverse countries and systems of music) to record music aimed to highlight the pressing issue of global warming and climatic change. 

A number of celebrity artists from every part of the world as well as select orchestras have been involved in the PSO’s historic global audio recording project of the Climatrix Symphony, a 8-minute, 12-part, 72-scale piece that symbolizes the dissonant rapid changes in the earth’s climate everywhere.  While a number of them have sent their recordings, many are in the process of doing so, as a sign of solidarity with the international music community. 

Artists can participate by download score and a rough audio of the Climatrix Symphony from:  http://melharmonymusic.com/planetsymphony (Parts will be shared upon request.) Then they need to record 10-20 seconds (orchestras 15-30 seconds) of the music in any noise-free location including home/normal rehearsal spaces and email a Wav (16-bit, 44100 Hz) or high-quality MP3s to melharmonymusic@gmail.com.

Chitravina N Ravikiran, the founder of Melharmony, which is co-ordinating the effort, says that many eminent Indian artistes have already sent their recordings including danseuse Dr Vyjayantimala Bali, Bansuri player Pandit Ronu Majumdar, Mridangam Vidwan Karaikkudi Mani, Bickram Ghosh, Sitar Maestro Purybayan Chatterjee, Mandolin U Rajesh, Violinist M Chandrashekaran and noted film violinist V S Narasimhan.

Several other musicians including violinists A Kanyakumari, Embar Kannan, Akarai sisters, mridangam vidwan T V Gopalakrishnan are also participating in this project.

As the project gains momentum, it is interesting to see the various links between India’s music and her unique Dharmic view of ecology. It is imperative that the world is aware of India’s unique position on Sustenance and Sustainability, Dr Pankaj Jain, Associate Professor Department of Philosophy and Religion University of North Texas, has written in his book Dharma and Ecology of Indian Communities.

As “the dharmic Indic traditions have [inspired] Indians to limit their needs” (pg 120), dharma could “be developed as an alternative anthropological category to study Indic traditions [and] successfully applied as an overarching term for the sustainability of the ecology, environmental ethics, and the religious lives of Indian villagers” (pg 3), writes Dr Jain. Etymologically, Dharma is derived from Sanskrit dhr meaning to sustain, support, or hold. In the Vedas prthivim dharmana dhrtam signifies Dharma as sustainer of the earth.

N Ravikiran says the sukshmas of Dharma as a concept has been brought out by several of India’s great composers many of them describing God as embodiment of Dharma. “Our culture is very close to the nature. The Saptha Svaras are derived, even if they are not exactly, from the sounds of animal calls. Sa is peacock, Ri Rishabham is the bull, Ga is the Goat, Ma is the Heron bird, Pa is nightingale, Dha is Horse and Ni is elephant. This symbolising ways also helped as a pneumonic for children to visualise sounds with some animal or bird. More than that, the learning of music used to be very close to nature, mostly outdoors.”

His composition the Climatrix Symphony, which forms the basis of this project, is an 8 minute, 12 part, 72 scale composition. It was composed for a full orchestra of 100 members and was performed by an orchestra in Wisconsin. Says Ravikiran, “From the Indian classical perspective it covers all the 72 parent scales of Indian music. The twelve chakras or twelve movements in this composition could be symbolising the twelve months of the year. Within these 12, there are certain consonants parts and certain dissonant parts. So the symbolism here is that weather patterns are getting random and dissonant. The idea is to get everyone to start taking note of the changes in our planet so that there is a dialogue happening. They aim to send this to decision makers in different countries. If we are able to inspire the common man to take small steps to help ward off global warming,” its aim will be fulfilled.

Prof Pankaj S Joshi, an astrophysicist who specializes in compact objects such as black holes and currently a vice chancellor and founding director of the International Center for Cosmology at the Charusat University in Anand, India, supporting the project, spoke of the Butterfly effect in modern environmental sciences. “This means that if a butterfly flaps its wings here, there could be a storm created thousands of miles away. The effect can multiply, that is the idea. The problem is that the common man all over the world is not aware of the magnitude of the problem and so as a result we keep on doing what we are doing. But the problem is that suddenly we hear that the disease is in the third stage, the cancer is in the fourth stage and there is no going back. That is why I think this project is important. The art can sensitise the masses, while science provides the core facts. Their coming together can create a magical effect.”

Many of the Indian artistes spoken in support of the cause

Tabla Virtuoso Bickram Ghosh – https://www.facebook.com/Taalacharya/videos/2264740576898725/

Trilok Gurtu – https://www.facebook.com/emilija.kercan/videos/10157208556271031/

Ghatam Karthik – https://www.facebook.com/1046103862/videos/10217293495343172/

Karaikudi R Mani – https://www.facebook.com/bhargavi.balasubramanian/videos/10215495377189818/

Sitar player Purbayan Chatterjee – https://www.facebook.com/apoorva.ravindran/videos/2167050300040844/

Bansuri player Ronu Manjumdar – https://www.facebook.com/melharmonyfoundation/videos/2368870759813621/

Vaijayanti Mala Bali – https://www.facebook.com/ravikiranmusic/videos/10156903637390155/

Russian designs a cool Veena

(This article first appeared in the Times of India on 13th April, 2019)

Russian pianist, mandolin player and guitarist Denis Petrov is a DIY musician who has the curiosity of an engineer but the heart of a musician. When he met his wife vainika Vijaya Kris, he was first introduced to the soulful sound of the Veena, but also observed at close quarters its limitations.

Denis wanted to gift his wife a beautiful, durable and handy Veena which would overcome the problems of limited portability, sensitivity to humidity and temperature changes, and tuning issues. It took six years of research and 100 hours of actual execution, using the craftsmanship he learnt from his grandfather in Moscow, to design the Shiva Veena, a Veena which fits into a guitar bag. The fretboard has regular guitar frets.

Denis’s initiation into Indian culture and fascination with Shiva began with his colleague in the US who was from Mumbai. “My friend introduced me to Indian culture, food, music and Hinduism. We have a large Ganesh temple in New York City which has Ganesha, Shiva, Subramanya and other deities. We go there every Saturday morning and watch the Shiva abhishekam. I cannot claim that I am a disciple of Shiva in a traditional sense. Someone told me that everyone is a Hindu and it’s just that not everyone knows about it. So that’s how I approach it.”

Denis began creating his version of the Veena as a gift to his wife

Denis says that while the initial inspiration was to gift Vijaya a Veena, as he started researching it became something deeper. “I realised that many people feel that playing the Veena is not a cool thing to do. Cool kids don’t play the veena, they play the electric guitar. Now, I can say that the instrument that I have created can be seen as a cool instrument for young kids.”

Most Veena instrument makers as well as Veena players tend to be conservative, but there have been a few innovators. Bangalore based Radel has one version of a modern Veena, and vainika Dr Suma Sudhindra has designed the Tarangini Veena.

Dr Suma Sudhindra says her intention of making the Tarangini Veena was to address the issues that Veena players face mainly while travelling. “It took me several years of research and experimentation to come up with a concert worthy (the sound has to be pleasing and as close to the sound of the Saraswati Veena as possible) and yet durable version. The Shiva Veena added the stand which made the Veena playing comfortable and it was also fitted with a magnetic pick up made exclusively for the Veena. Ofcourse all of these innovations will help in keeping Veena traditions alive.”

His aim in designing the Veena was also to make it more attractive to younger people by making it cool

There have been criticisms of bending tradition but Denis quotes a 2014 study of violins conducted by Claudia Fritz, a musical acoustician in Paris, and Joseph Curtin, a leading violin maker from Michigan, who reported that in a double-blind test with modern instruments and Old Italian violins, elite violinists preferred the new violins to the old.

Says Denis, “To me this is the favourite story that indicates that knowledge of the non-musical aspects of musical instruments biases the listener. So if you know that the veena was made from the jackfruit tree in a temple, it will sound good to you if you are from that tradition. It may be a cynical way of looking at things, but this is the way a western scholar thinks, where one has to prove things rather than accepting everything as given.”

It is a known fact that that the Western audience for pure Carnatic music is very small, as it requires prior ground work. This can be changed, says Denis who is a self-taught tabla player. “I am sure anyone who has studied music would be very interested in Carnatic music if it was explained to a Western musician in a way that made it accessible. Western musicians are very technique oriented. Based on my own experience I would rather have a plain explanation on the practical aspects, whereas most of the descriptions throw a lot of words at you which have no frame of reference.”

Roundtable on “Education and Soft Power”

India Foundation’s Center for Soft Power, in collaboration with DAV group of schools, hosted a roundtable discussion on the topic of “Education and Soft Power.” The discussion featured two esteemed scholars – Prof. Gulab Mir Rahmany, Associate Professor of Political Sociology from Afghanistan and Prof. Dilafruz Nasirkhodjaeva, Senior Researcher of Economics and Market Economics from Uzbekistan. The roundtable was attended by a number of respected academicians and researchers.

Prof. Rahmany spoke of the historical relationship between Afghanistan an India, which extended beyond a millennium. He spoke of how India has played an integral role in promoting higher education in the country, so much so that there are now even ministers within the Afghan government who completed their PHDs in India. He even noted that India’s current Minister of Textile, Smriti Irani, was a household name in Afghanistan due to her role Tulsi, in the soap opera   

“In the period between 2014 to 2019, over 1400 Afghan students have graduated from Indian universities.” said Prof. Rahmany

Prof. Nasirkhodjaeva spoke on how India was the first country to establish an embassy in Uzbekistan, and how Bollywood played an integral part in making Indian culture something that is known in every household in Uzbekistan. She described how there even existed a channel dedicated to showing nothing other than episodes of the Mahbharata on a loop. She spoke of the impact that the Sikh population in Uzbekistan has had, noting that they have been as essential element in bringing Indian culture, and also trade, to Uzbekistan.

“There are even children today who are being named Shah Rukh and Salman because of Bollywood.” noted Prof. Nasirkhodjaeva

Hanuman, the real Superman

This article first appeared in The Hindu on 12th April, 2019.

Reading the verses of Sundarakandam, I began to wonder how I would be able to even select from among the 2,885 verses for my solo production on this most beautiful section of the Ramayana. Choreographing and getting music composed seemed highly formidable tasks. My spiritual Guru Swami Dayananda Saraswati had suggested that I work on ‘Sundarakandam.’ I realised that unless I undertook it as a Parayana (a dedicated daily recitation), I would not be able to give it a form in Natya. I spent days reading and contemplating on the verses and began to discover the timeless value of the journey of Hanuman to Lanka. When Mount Mainaka, the greatest among the mountains, rises from the ocean to request Hanuman to rest on its peak, Hanuman says that he will not rest until he reaches Lanka. This undivided focus gives him the strength to reach his destination.

“I have dedicated this performance to Shri Hanuman as I am inspired by his virtue and intelligence” says Pavithra seen here as Hanuman setting fire to Lanka

On gaining entry, Hanuman is awestruck by the city of Lanka, the opulence of Ravana’s palace, the retinue, and the magnificent Pushpaka Vimana. He enters the private chambers of the mansion but lust does not touch Hanuman’s heart, where Rama is enshrined.

Not to scare Mother Sita with his sudden appearance, He first sings the glory of Lord Rama and gradually earns her trust. The sense and sensibility with which he approaches Sita reassures her of reuniting with Lord Rama. Hanuman’s strategy is in full play in this Canto — he ascertains the strength of Ravana’s army, by engaging in a battle after destroying the spectacular Ashoka Vana, allows himself to be tied by Indrajit, invokes fear by burning Lanka with his tail set on fire and so on.

With the wise words “Drishta Sita” (Seen Sita), he brings joy and relief to a distraught Rama. None on earth, even in thought, can achieve this feat says Rama, who through an embrace conveys his gratitude and blessing for protecting the Dharma of the Raghu clan!

My first presentation of Sundarakandam was in the presence of Guruji in Arsha Vidya Gurukulam (2009) in Saylorsburg. He was so happy that he called me ‘Hanumani’ in front of the audience. With his blessings, I have presented Hanuman’s journey at several venues in Chennai and across the country and abroad.

‘Sundarakandam’ is a mine of spiritual knowledge, reading of which assures success in all endeavours along with the spiritual strength to face life’s difficulties. Sundara means not only beautiful but also regaining what is lost. It is said that to regain the Self is real Sundaram!

Ramayana is the Adikavya — the very first poem, Itihaasa (epic) in Sanskrit literature — of the ancient Indian civilization. The entire culture of India is embodied in this Itihaasa. It has a very deep influence on the ethos and ethics of people through the millennia. The power it has in moulding the minds cannot be described. Rama resides eternally in Hanuman’s heart. As a Naishtika Brahmachari, he is an embodiment of devotion and fearlessness. To me, he is the real hero, who adorns my Facebook page.

“Indian culture and music has shaped not just my sense of rhythm but my sense of time”

Los Angeles based drummer Greg Ellis is working on a documentary film called the ‘The Click’ looking at the effects of digital technology and mechanical time on drumming, music and culture. Named after the term used for the digital metronome, or ‘click track’, that virtually all recorded music is controlled by, ‘The Click’ delves into relationship between the drum and the clock.  He will be coming to India as well to do more interviews with musicians and scientists for the film. He says that Indian culture and music has shaped not just his sense of rhythm but also his sense of time. He wants to explore the more esoteric side of these two things so he says he will be coming back soon!

Ellis believes that all new recorded music sounds the same because of this technological invention, and if not used judiciously, it is not long before people will begin to see spontaneous, creative music as being ‘unnatural’.

Based on your film ‘The Click’, could you tell us how technology is impacting spontaneity and creativity in music?

I do think creativity remains intact as long as there is still a human using the technology. There is still a creative element in putting loops, programs and samples together but I believe the modern music making process has all but killed spontaneity. To me spontaneity is a property of organic interaction. Technology allows one to be clever rather than spontaneous. How many times as musicians have we hit a ‘wrong’ note or slipped from the rhythm only to turn it into something we have never played before?! Spontaneity cannot be programmed. It is one of the things I miss most in contemporary music.

Despite the ease of access that technology creates as a mediator, does the real power of music lie in listening to music live?

Definitely. But it’s not just listening to music live, it’s also listening to live music. We hear so much about fake news here in America. What about the fake music we have been hearing for years? I feel the lack of resonant frequencies in digital music diminishes the real power of music you’re referring to. Everything including the resonance of the tuned string or skin, the resonance of the instrument itself, the resonance of the musician playing the instrument and the resonance of the studio or auditorium. All these things occur before the sound even reaches the listeners ear and I believe it’s in these frequencies where the feel and soul of music lives.

Without live musicians playing live instruments, the music lacks what I call its nourishment. It becomes like fast food. It no longer has that thing that feeds a musician to want to play better every day or offer a listener a transcendent experience. The feeling we get from feeling music played live is something that has nourished our bodies and souls for millennia. That shared moment between the audience and musician should be a sacred space that unfortunately has been tampered with through modern music technology.

You have played with many Indian drummers (table artistes). How do you think an ancient Indian drumming system be impacted by technological intervention?

I’ve had the honour of playing with some of the best. I worked with Zakir Hussain as part of project with Grateful Dead drummer Mickey Hart. Bikram Ghosh has been a colleague and dear friend of mine for two decades, since his first Rhythm Scape album. I also became close with his father, Pandit Shankar Ghosh. We would discuss this issue often. Pandit Ghosh felt this ‘technological intervention’ as you say, began with recording technology. He was there 60 years ago as the first recordings of Indian music were being made commercially available. He felt that once musicians began hearing recordings of themselves, it altered their playing completely because the music was no longer an offering to the moment.

I wondered if it offered too much a reflection and was the onset of making it more about the musician rather than the music. Fast forward 60 years and it seems that’s definitely the case. Now we have the ability to edit recorded performances and auto-tune to absolute digital perfection. This is creating generations of musicians who are missing the beauty of imperfection. I see incredible technique in younger players but that connection to the essence of the music seems lost due to all the digital distractions. Indian rhythm is a language and like many other languages and dialects in India, it is in danger of obsolescence due to modernization. It’s one thing to know all the words there are to know but then you’re just a dictionary that doesn’t express anything. How you put those words together… that’s the artistry.

Does using low-end technological recording tools creative negative impressions on music listeners where they learn to expect less from music?

It does seem that listeners today in general seem oddly content with less fidelity in their music. We’ve allowed mp3’s, ear buds, phone and computer speakers as acceptable deliverers of music. I also feel the low-end digital recording platforms like garage band and others has allowed access to those who just want to make music but don’t want to become a musician. So if that is the level of music that is being offered by the artist, it would make sense that the listener wouldn’t care as much about the fidelity of what they’re hearing. Again, it’s similar to the fast food analogy in that it merely satisfies a hunger without offering any real nutritional value. Without the ability to both deliver and listen to music in its full dynamic range, listeners have had no choice but to expect less and be surprisingly okay with that.

Is there a kind of music that is of the best kind? Should there be a music that one must aspire to play or listen to, not just in terms of content but also the quality of delivery?

It really depends on the instrument. As a drummer I would say the four styles of music that pretty much encompass the full rhythm spectrum would be American Jazz, Indian Classical, African and Arabic. Just find the best of as many genres and cultures as you can. The best musicians I’ve worked with have a deep understanding of many kinds of music so I wouldn’t want to generalize one kind of music as the best kind in terms of genre or style.

All I listened to through high school was Rock and Roll and taught myself drum kit playing along to Led Zeppelin and Rush. I didn’t really hear Indian music until well into my 20s. When I did it blew my world apart. I had never experienced that kind of journey musically. But there was so much I recognized in the rhythms and it made perfect sense to me in a way I don’t think it would have at anytime before then. It set me on a path to find and listen to the best music of every culture. I started collecting drums from all over the world and developed a technique of hand drumming that has put me on stage with artists from more than 30 countries. But my entry point was Rock and Roll which really shouldn’t have brought me to the music and instruments I now play. What’s important is to find the best artists in whatever style you’re into. Masters are recognizable in whatever form they take.

How can musicians play a role in creating better quality recordings and listening experiences?

After all the tech talk this one is very simple. Every time we are on our instrument, our sole purpose should be to remind the listener or audience of why music exists in the first place. Leave the rest up to the moment.

Could you share a few thoughts on The Click, its production and what the project means to you?

The film looks at the effects of mechanical time and digital technology on our music, our lives and our sense of time itself. As we go from the clock, to the metronome, to automation, to the click track, to the drum machine and now AI and robotics, we see a systematic conditioning to mechanical time in all aspects of our lives. We now live our life to a click track. I’m still in production and fund raising mode but I hope to finish it up this year. It’s my first film but it’s the best way to tell this story and to reach people who have no idea how much their music is processed and how mechanical time has shaped our lives. I want to eventually show it as part of a live performance featuring drummers from different cultures in performance and discussion after the film. I’m also writing a companion book on these concepts as well.

(Ellis is a drummer and multi-instrumentalist born and bred in the Bay Area. He has recorded and performed with some of the greatest musicians and drummers in the world. As composer and session musician for film and television, his drum-set and percussion beds can be heard in the major motion pictures The Matrix: Reloaded and The Matrix: Revolutions, Fight Club, Lara Croft: Tomb Raider, Dawn Of The Dead, Dukes of Hazzard, The Devil’s Rejects, Brave Story, 300, Watchmen, and Argo, among many others.

He has performed and recorded with artists from almost every continent, including Zakir Hussain, Airto, KODO, Mickey Hart’s Planet Drum, Juno Reactor, Billy Idol, Sonu Nigam, Sussan Deyhim, Hamed Nikpay, Bickram Ghosh, Chiwoniso Maraire, Sugizo and many more.)

India-Czech Republic Cultural Relations : Past, Present and Future

The Center for Soft Power hosted H.E Milan Hovorka, Ambassador of Czech Republic to India, for a Round-table discussion on “India-Czech Republic Cultural Relations : Past, Present and Future”

The roundtable was attended by eminent guests representing various aspects of the political, commercial and cultural sectors

The ambassador spoke about the historic relationship that both India and the Czech Republic has had, and how this relationship extends into numerous fields, culturally, politically and economically. The ambassador also took a number of questions from the other participants on various subjects including on immigration and cultural preservation.

“I believe deeply in the power of culture to promote bilateral relations” said H.E. Milan Hovorka, as he spoke about the current status and future potential for cultural collaboration between India and the Czech Republic.

Interaction with International Students of KYM

CSP, in association with Krishnamacharya Yoga Mandiram hosted an interaction with the students of KYM’s international teacher training course.

CSP hosted the International teacher training class of KYM at its headquarters in Chennai

The interaction featured chanting from senior KYM teachers as well as the students shedding light on what brought them to India, and their experiences in immersing themselves into Indian Culture.

The students, who came from a multitude of countries, spoke about their experiences in visiting and learning about India, as well as chanting some of the mantras that they have learnt.

The course consists of students from numerous countries including, USA, Nigeria, France, Poland, Argentina, Brazil, Canada, Ireland, UK, Netherlands and Belgium.