Carnatic Music : Varnam Mashup : DIY Austin Raga Labs

It all starts with an idea.

During one of our numerous chats, my sister-in-law Rema Hariharan said she and I should collaborate and bring DIY RagaLabs to Austin. Rema’s daughter was part of Indian RagaLabs twice before, both times in Houston.

It was our desire to put Austin on the map of Indian Raga!

That is how our fun, exhilarating and enriching journey started.

We reached out to Sriram Emani who gave us a green signal and enthusiastic thumbs up. He also forwarded us a super-organized email with information on how to put together a DIY RagaLabs.

He also introduced us to Shan Rao who was person behind the Bangalore RagaLabs. Shantala spent an hour with us over skype and poured so much valuable and practical tips (planning, giving creative license to participants etc) on how to put together a successful lab.

Rema and I also reached out to our buddy Sangeetha Sampath Sairam who is a carnatic musician and participant in Bay Area Raga Labs.

From Day 1, Rema knew that our local multi-talented artist Poornima Rao should be the Creative Director. Poornima is a “vainika” and vocalist, originally from Mysore area who has collaborated with local teams on creative productions. Her work with Stage Sanchar was quite amazing, as any Austinite lucky to have watched the show would tell you. Rema said Poornima has a natural knack of bringing out the best in children, and with that our stars lined up for the next step.

Over the next few weeks, we short listed participants. Rema reached out to parents and we set up a first intro meeting. From the first meeting, the chemistry between the young participants and the Creative Director was obvious.

Next for next month, Poornima ran 2-3 hours practice sessions over the weekends. Every attempt, the participants came together better. The violinists practiced together themselves to ensure they are in full sync with the singers. Families took turns hosting the meetings. There was much laughter and fun. There was chai, chaat and chats.

When we got ready to do the audio recording…it was almost bitter sweet. Because, all of us realized that the weekend meetings are drawing to a close. We recorded over 5 hours in Dan Benkmens studio.

Rema and Poornima spent several hours in Dan’s studio finalizing the audio for the video recording the subsequent weekend.

We completed the video recording on one of the docks on the Colorado River. One of the parents, Priya, was kind enough to help us through the reservation process for using this gorgeous location. We were fortunate to have professional photography by Balaji Janakiraman, who is one of the parents of the lab participants.

Throughout this journey, Sriram was always just an email away. He responded back to our queries promptly. He gave such great and candid feedback on the audio and video recording to polish it off.

I’ll miss hanging out with the DIY Austin RagaLabs group.

However, all good things must come to an end. Or should it?

Rema already has some more ideas and plans. I wonder what fun project we’ll collaborate on next.

I hope you enjoy the fun music, the ethereal location and most importantly…I hope you will feel the happy vibes from the happy participants. They are the music torch bearers that we’ll send off into the future.

Don’t miss the candid shots and interviews at the end of the video.

Thanks Sriram Emani for a fun RagaLabs experience.

So, now, without further ado, here is the video that started of as just an idea in Rema’s mind.

Unorthodox Enjoyment of Music

There is something to be said about having friends. They send you all sorts of interesting stuff….like music/song selections…all sorts. I like some and I hate some….but, the good news is, there is always a steady stream of new music that finds its way into my music player.

So, here is my latest addiction.

I am trying to influence Adi to play this song on the piano by playing it on my music player a zillion times.

Adi told me that the song is Chatushra Jathi Eka Talam (4 beats per measure).

As much as Kumar likes me liking this song, he doesn’t like Adi and I trying to explore Talam (rhythm/beats) for all these “non-carnatic” songs. He thinks I am being a bad influence on Adi by teaching him how to be “unorthodox” in music.


I like to think of it as fulfilling an important parenting duty – encouraging a child to love music in all forms, to see patterns (leading up to brain growth) and to be creative.

Also, quite honestly, I don’t care about the so-called elitists or elitist mentality to music anymore. I am too grown up and too much of a “let us think outside the box” person for that bull-shit. The elitists can take their freakin’ “music follows centuries old boundaries” speech to their grave.

I, for one, will be, exploring new music everyday and seeing beautiful patterns. And, that is exactly what I’ll teach the boys to do.

What about YOU?

Ustad Amjad Ali Khan Concert

After a crazy weekend, I drove over to the Austin Performing Arts Center today afternoon.

I found myself in the company of this man – Ustad Amjad Ali Khan.

Like many musicians and artists that came before him….little will he know how much of my heart he managed to steal with each stroke of his sarod and his charisma.

Music rules.

Bharathiyar’s Chinnanchiru Kiliye

Some poets pull the chords in your heart and bring about a myriad of emotions.

One of my favorite poets of all times is Bharathiyar. I think I might even have a huge crush on him.  His poetry has influenced my outlook on life. I want to live a free-spirited and forward-thinking life like him.

I try to share my love for Bharathiyar with the boys in small doses…a couplet here…and a couplet there. So, hopefully, one day they will sing it to the one who captures their heart.

When the boys kiss me, I end up singing
Lyrics in Tamil: கன்னத்தில் முத்தமிட்டால்-உள்ளந்தான் கள்வெறி கொள்ளுதடீ
English Transliteration: Kannathil muthamittal ullamthaan kalveri kolluthadi
English Translation: If I kiss you on your cheeks, my heart goes beserk as if it is drunk with liquor

When the boys are upset, I end up singing (Sickness in Winter)
English Transliteration: satrum mugam sivandhal – manadhu sanchalam aagudhadi
netri churukam kandal – enakku nenjam padhaikudhadi
English Translation: If your face turns to discomfort, even momentarily, my heart is disturbed
When I see your forehead wrinkle, my heart flutters with fear.

When the boys cry, I end up singing
Lyrics in Tamil: உன் கண்ணில் நீர்வழிந்தால்- என்நெஞ்சில் உத்திரங் கொட்டுதடி; கண்ணம்மா என்னுயிர் நின்னதன்றோ!
English Transliteration: unkannil neer vazhindhal – en nenjil udhiram kottudhadi
kannamma en uyir ninnadhanro?
English Translation: If I even see small droplets of tears in your eyes, a whole river of blood flows in my heart
(because) You’re the light of my eyes, my life is yours

Yesterday evening, I took the boys to Austin’s India Fine Arts first concert of spring series.  It was not 1 concert….but, 2 back-2-back concerts for 5 hours.

I lucked out. The artists wrapped up the concert with one of my favorites – Bharathiyar’s Chinnanchiru Kiliye Kannamma. Adi was in one of the first seats and captured this video.

Here are the artists featured in the video: Vidushi Shantala Subramanyam on Flute, Vidwan Vishaal R Sapuram on Chitravina, Vidwan Melakkaveri Balaji on Mridangam and Vidushi Sukkanya Ramgopal on Ghatam.

Because my sister-in-law Rema Hariharan hosted the visiting artists, I even got to hangout with them one of the evenings. They are not just talented. (As you know, I believe talent is over-rated.) The artists were so down-to-earth and such fun to get to know.

Thank you to Nagarajan Mama and Janaki Mami who are the pillars of carnatic music circuit in Austin. They move heaven and earth to bring talented artists to Austin. They make it possible for Adi to sit in the front row seats and get absorbed in the magic that happens as artists improvise and put to use every single technique that they have learnt over decades.