Showing the world what our city is made of, these performers keep their craft alive overseas.
Called the Mecca of music, Chennai attracts performers from across the world who are hoping to carve out an identity in the performing arts. But how is it for artistes raised in the city who have had to migrate to a new country? Five such exponents who’ve perfected their craft here and doughtily pursued it elsewhere, share their story of aggrandising our art forms.
It must have been no easy decision to migrate to the US for vocalist Shankar Ramani, then a budding performer and a student of the free-of-frippery music style of the renowned OS Thyagarajan. When he did migrate in 2003 for work, Ramani seems to have ensured that he did not lose his foothold in Chennai.
The 43-year-old, who works at a senior level in a multinational, says he manages a staggering 15 concerts in the Margazhi festival every year. “I would say 75 per cent of my concerts happen in Chennai,” says the Pittsburgh-based musician. Describing the city as the ‘ultimate gold standard’ when it comes to music, he says performing here puts him in touch with the best performing talents in the industry.
Migrating to a foreign country is not part of the plan when you’ve displayed a prodigious
talent to identify 200 ragams as a two-year-old and hail from a family of musicians. So when vocalist Kiranavali Vidyasankar’s husband got a great job offer in the US, she confesses it was something she never imagined. “People asked me what I would do there, and a few even suggested that I do something like an IT course. I started a country-wide concert tour, and teaching and performance offers starting coming my way,” she explains.Now, 14 years later, the Philadelphia-based vocalist says that she has had a very good run. “Listeners here—even Americans—have asked me for serious ragas and compositions, something I gladly include in my performances,” explains the 43-year-old. Vidyasankar
performs for at least 30 weekends every year in the US, besides six-eight concerts in Chennai every Margazhi season.
For a North Indian who hails from Calicut and has made the US her home for 23 years, Deepali Vora credits Chennai for her art inspiration. Which perhaps explains why she tries to have her students come to the city from the US to perform their arangetram. The 43-year-old first came here as a seven-year-old.
“I got introduced to Mohiniattam and a few folk dances in Chennai, but it was Bharatnatyam that I liked the most,” she says. When she had to move to the US following her wedding in 1993, Vora says she was already a performing artiste in Madras, and it took her only a week in the US to start training students. Her dance school, Nitya Shetra School of Dance, today has three branches across California. Vora herself has over 100 performances to her credit, and performs there every year.
Chennai is a hotbed for the classical arts, but Dallas-based Vandita Parikh says the city also nurtured her love for folk forms. “I learnt Bharatnatyam for 15 years from Kalakshetra, but I was always fascinated by folk dances. I got to learn some Tamil folk forms like kaavadi, oyillattam and poi kal kudhirai in the city, besides being introduced to Rabindro sangeet and Odissi,” recounts the 43-year-old. In 1994, she started her dance school, Nruthya Shakti, here, to train students for college cultural events. Parikh says she also travelled far and wide to learn folk forms across the country. Upon moving to the US in 2000, she continued her dance training there, and currently teaches over 100 students. “In the US, there are a lot of options to learn classical dance, but not folk forms,” she explains. She does over 20 shows in the US annually. On every visit to India, she makes it a point to learn a new folk dance. “I am still learning, though I can teach 40 different dance styles,” she says.
When Lalgudi-based Chithra Ramakrishnan moved to Chennai as a 10-year-old, she admits the aim was to find recognition in the music hub. But she had to relocate to Iraq two years later, and then to the UK, and today, the Birmingham-based musician and dancer does not regret moving out of Chennai. “When I came here, people knew only Hindustani music as Indian classical music. I wanted them to know about Carnatic music, too,” explains the 46-year-old. She started Shruthi UK to promote our classical arts and, most recently, in 2015, launched the British Carnatic Choir. “Compositions that lend to a choir style, like Dikshitar’s Nottuswarams, are being performed by non-Asians today as part of the choir,” she proudly says.