Finding a Common Thread to Weave Magical Music

By Srividya Ramasubramanian
(published in the June issue of Asian Outlook magazine)
Houston, TX, May 5, 2012 - What sets visionary musicologist and composer Kanniks Kannikeswaran apart is his ability to weave seemingly disparate cultural threads into a rich beautiful tapestry through the medium of music. He showcased this ability in his magnum opus presentation called “Shanti: A Journey of Peace” performed in Houston back in March 2010.
Kanniks repeated his magic yet again with his latest collaborative creation. It was a unique, first-of-its-kind presentation titled “Meditative Moments: Guruguha - Dhruvapada” at the Stafford Center. The performance was a curated Dhrupad recital by world-renowned musicians Padmashri Gundecha brothers who honored the famous South Indian composer Muthuswamy Dikshitar (1775-1835).
Drawing an imaginary line on the map of India South of the Tropic of Cancer, Kanniks pointed out that train travelers south of the line would hear “Kaapi! Kaapi!” on railway platforms that change to “Chaai!! Chaai!!” as they progress northwards.  Idli-sambar get replaced with paraathaas and the impressive Thanjavur temple swapped with the grandeur of the Taj Mahal.  In delineating the rich diversity of cultural traditions across space, music too is often seen as distinctively South Indian Carnatic or North Indian Hindustani.
What is often overlooked is the core of commonality across what looks like polar opposites. It is this underlying unity that shone through every piece of this special concert. Kanniks’ inimitable ability to highlight this unity in diversity through the medium of music was also emphasized by special guest Honorable Consul General of India Mr. Sanjiv Arora in his opening remarks.
Kanniks started off by sharing the story of how this idea for this unique concert came about. He said, “I heard some Shiva stutis by Gundecha in a CD recording in February 2002. I was blown away by how similar the stutis sounded to Dikshitar's compositions. Subsequently I got deeper into the study of both Dhrupad and Dikshitar. I met Akhilesh Gundecha (who plays the pakhawaaj percussion accompaniment) in April 2011 at Boston where he attended my talk on Dhrupad and Dikshitar. Through him I got introduced to his other brothers. I visited the Gundecha brothers in Bhopal, India in 2011 and they were very receptive to the idea of a unified presentation of Dhrupad and Dikshitar.”
The concert started with the well-known Dikshitar composition Ardhanaareesvaram after an elaborate aalaap in Raag Kumudakriya. Just like Lord Ardhanaareeswara symbolizes the union of the feminine and the masculine, this composition stood as a living testimony of its resemblance in both structure and melodic flow to Dhrupad. The mood was meditative and mesmerizing. The voices of Umakant and Ramakant Gundecha blended in blissful harmony, complementing one another perfectly.
Talking about this opening piece, Kanniks says, “Kumudakriya is a not very frequently heard raga; it is uniquely seen in Dikshitar tradition. When I first proposed this composition to the Gundecha brothers, they loved it. Ramakant ji sang with me phrase after phrase when we first met in Bhopal; that was the beginning. What the brothers rendered in Houston was unforgettable.”
The compositions presented at this concert were very thoughtfully selected by Kanniks. The first two pieces composed by Dikshitar – Ardhanaareeswaram in Kumudakriya and Parimala Ranganaatham in Hamir –appear to be inspired by Dhrupad, probably based on his exposure to this type of music while living in Banaras with his Guru Chidambaranatha Yogi during his youth. The last two pieces were traditional and popular Dhrupad pieces that are not composed by Dikshitar but remind us of his compositions in terms of their lyrics and structure. The compositions were Jayati Jayati Sri Ganesh in Malkauns and Shiva Shiva Shiva in Adaanaa. 
The last piece “Shiva Shiva Shiva” is a megahit of the Gundecha brothers that they get requested to sing wherever they go. This energetic piece left the audience in awe. The pakhaawaj support from Akhilesh Gundecha especially for this finale was outstanding. This song was included into the program upon the request of the event planner, Mr. Shankar Panchavati, who represented the Art of Living Foundation, for which this concert served as a fund-raiser.
As part of the evening’s presentation, the Art of Living Foundation honored several esteemed gurus of classical arts from Houston representing both South and North Indian styles. They included Carnatic vocalist Vidushi Rajarajeshwari Bhat, Hindustani vocalist Pt. Suman Ghosh, Kuchipudi and Bharatanatyam danseuse Dr. Rathna Kumar, tabla artiste Pt. Shantilal Shah, and Carnatic violinist Shri. Mahesh Iyer.
When asked why Cincinnati-native Kanniks chose Houston to launch this exclusive concert, he said, “When I learned that the Gundecha brothers were going to be touring the U.S., a concert possibility seemed exciting. I was initially considering Cincinnati or Tampa. Then I shared the idea with my good friend (Shankar Panchavati from Houston) who immediately said “It absolutely has to be in Houston!” That is how the concert happened in Houston.”
Reflecting on their experiences working together on this collaborative project, the Gundecha brothers said: “'This project gave us an opportunity to explore the great composer Dikshitar.  We are grateful to Kanniks-ji for guiding us through these compositions and we will continue to sing these in our concerts.” Kanniks adds that “it has been a joy working with the Gundecha brothers, trading notation back and forth, and the numerous skype sessions. I admire their simplicity, their willingness to explore, and the combination of their pure Hindi and their tech savviness!”
The next steps are to perform similar concerts at other locations and make a recording of a few Dikshitar compositions in Dhrupad style. However, a live performance is no substitute for a recording. To have experienced this unique concert featuring the best Dhrupad vocalists of our times singing Dikshitar compositions on the full moon night of Buddha Poornima was simply an unforgettable magical experience.
For more information, visit Kanniks Kannikeswaran’s website: www.kanniks.com. Apart from his musical presentations, Kanniks is also deeply committed to preserving temple architectural heritage in South India and maintains a website called www.templenet.com. 
Dr. Srividya Ramasubramanian is a Carnatic vocalist and an Assistant Professor of Communication at Texas A&M University. She had the privilege of attending Kanniks’ talk on Dikshitar and Dhrupad at the prestigious Music Academy in Chennai, India in December 2010 where the seed idea for this concert was born. She can be reached at srivi@tamu.edu.

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