Outside (In)dia—a four-part series of free concerts at the David Rubenstein Atrium presented in collaboration with The India Center Foundation and Brooklyn Raga Massive (BRM)—pushes the boundaries and conceptions of Indian classical music. With commissions of new works creating a conversation between raga and musical traditions that range from Cuba to Iraq, the series will position Indian classical music as a space for inclusion, collaboration, and conversation. The first concert, on Friday, September 8, will feature trumpet/santur player Amir ElSaffar, members of Brooklyn Raga Massive, visual art by Nitin Mukul, and a post-concert social hour with a set by DJ Shishi.
Three of Outside (In)dia's organizers—Hans Taparia of the The India Center Foundation, Arun Ramamurthy of Brooklyn Raga Massive, and Meera Dugal of Lincoln Center—got together to talk about the collaboration.
Eileen Willis: How did this project come about?
Hans Taparia: It was a lovely meeting of the minds across all the organizations, with overlapping missions. The India Center is dedicated to the study of India and its unique relationship to the United States. Within that, we are trying to figure out ways to make Indian culture more accessible. It can be a difficult tradition to understand, and it can be simple and intuitive as well. We really feel that BRM makes it easy and brings in new audiences into the fold in a unique way. You see it in their audiences, you see it in the type of musicians that come together, you see it in the type of music that comes out of that.
Meera Dugal:I first fell in love with BRM for the way they're democratizing the process of learning and appreciating Indian classical music. The fact that it's so open for everyone to learn and participate and perform this music is so radical compared to the way that it's presented and taught in a traditional setting. Indian culture is so often presented as ancient, classical, and esoteric, but BRM is about inviting everybody in, whether it's an artist or an audience member, and also paying homage to other traditions that have had an influence on Indian music.
Arun Ramamurthy: We were trained in the traditional forms of India, but most of us were born and raised in America. It's common to find musicians in our circle rooted in styles from various parts of the world. I think being in the U.S. and having interests that lie outside of Indian classical music has helped connect all of us, and our audience.
MD: I also think that what's so special about our organizations is that we're tapped into the breed of global music that can only happen in a place like this. BRM is so eclectic, it has a lot of first-generation Indians, it has Cuban, Malian, Iraqi artists in its family. This sort of mashup couldn't happen in this organic way anywhere else in the world. It's just so chilling to think of the genre that is just New York. It's unbelievable. It's its own being. And the four different shows that are part of the series are bringing together seemingly disparate traditions, but these musicians live in the same world together. Their traditions can fuse not just musically but philosophically. There's a lot of coming together that is authentic and not just about notes.
AR: The common thread between these traditions—Indian classical and the four that are laid out in the series—is being in New York. That's what actually connects us. We all have the same mindset as we're all willing to reach beyond the boundaries of our tradition in an attempt to connect with each other. When we sat with Amir, for example, we wanted to get a deeper understanding of what maqam is: Where does it come from? What are the different kinds of maqam? And he wanted to understand raga as much as he could, so that when we do collaborate we're doing it authentically and from a place of understanding and respect for each other's tradition. I think all four concerts will have that element, and the collaborations will be something that's truly organic.
Two of the shows that we're doing—the collaboration with Román Díaz (November 10) and the collaboration with Awa Sangho from Mali (February 9)—have been explored by BRM before but we'll be reinventing those two in a new way, bringing in new musicians and new repertoire.
The maqam show with Amir ElSaffar (September 8) is a brand-new work that we're very excited about. We are finding the commonalities between two ancient musical traditions, exploring the spaces between them while staying true to structures from each. Using poetry and lyrical content, we'll make connections between the cultures and spirituality of both worlds.
The second new show is with Martha Redbone (April 13), a Native American folk, blues, soul singer who is incredible. The Native American community is one I feel is forgotten and underrepresented in this country, and she's a great activist and voice for the community. Many BRM musicians have worked with her in the past. She's an amazing person and musician. We're really looking forward to diving into that one.
MD: Martha and Amir are two artists who are deeply embedded in the Atrium history. We've commissioned both of them here in the past two years, so they have a long relationship with the Atrium and Lincoln Center. It's indicative of the kind of long relationships we want to build with our artists. It's so special for us to be able to be a platform for these new works, to help develop artists' careers over a long period of time. To have them see our space as a playground and a testing ground is a great privilege.
HT: When we look back on this many years from now, I think what we're onto with Brooklyn Raga Massive is something quite big. If you think about tap dancing as Irish dance meets Harlem over 150 years ago, or the cultural pieces that came together to form jazz, and today we have Hamilton, which has the audacity to tell the story of America's founding history using hip-hop with a Thomas Jefferson who's Black, we're perhaps on the cusp of new genres here together.
What I think we try to do is ask the right questions.
EW: Arun, how do you keep a project like this artistically focused enough so that you can go deep into a certain tradition? How do you limit it without it feeling limited?
AR: It's a good question. You would have to dedicate your life to truly understanding and internalizing these traditions. We say the same thing for Indian classical music. What I think we try to do is ask the right questions. It's getting inside the heads of the musicians on the other side and thinking about what their influences may be. Music is a personal expression and reflects the people and culture of those making it. We try to understand the intentions of artists, what and who they're drawing from.
Sometimes the music itself can be challenging because things like technique and aesthetic that we grew up on are ingrained in us. For example, to try to play a note that's in between this note and that note—it can be challenging to hear it in an authentic way. You have to try to forget certain things that you've always done, and open yourself up to accept something new. Musicians that follow one path and study one tradition is a form of expertise, but there's also an expertise required to allow yourself to embrace new approaches.
MD: Someone like Amir totally redefined what my idea of collaboration is. It's not A plus B makes this cool thing that's AB. It makes blue. It's a new thing. It's about being open. Good fusion comes out of humility and listening. To understand how to listen to support the other person is what makes a good show. The structure of the concerts also reflects that ideology. All of the featured artists will have a period in the night where it's just them, and throughout the course of the evening the other collaborators join in and it's a slow build into the new works. That's also unconventional for Indian music collaborations. Humbling yourself in front of someone else's tradition is radical for Indian music, and really key to the structure of the series.
EW: What do you hope that audiences come away with at the end of the series, other than just enjoying it?
HT: At the very minimum we would hope that they would want more and that it would draw them in, whether it's through the Indian cultural angle or through another angle, to explore for themselves. At the highest level, I would hope that this would open people up to understanding other cultures. You know, we all think we're not biased, but no matter how progressive you are, there is bias, even if it's just in your body language. Can we at least be aware of our bias as a starting point, and once aware of that bias be able to control it or reason with it, and therefore to change? That's kind of a high-level goal that would take many, many years.
AR: You're going to have traditional Indian classical fans in the audience and you're going to have Cuban music fans in the audience and they're all going to be sitting next to each other. We want to see those folks get together, get to know each other, see the music onstage, and see everybody collaborating and be like, man, this is cool.
MD: And space for conversation is built into the evening. After each show DJ Shishi will keep the vibe going and there will be time to mingle, so people can talk, discuss, digest. There will also be a visual element to these shows. We want to make it a multimedia presentation and showcase Indian art of all disciplines, so Nitin Mukul will be doing original video art—beautiful abstract art—for the first performance on September 8.
EW: What is it about music that makes it such a powerful way to cross barriers?
AR: I think music is like a direct line to emotion. You don't have to think about the words, translate the words, figure out what they mean, what was the motive behind it—none of those things matter. It is what it is. I think it goes directly to the core of the way somebody's going to feel. Maybe that's why music can be so powerful and can reach across all boundaries.
MD: It's something you feel in the back of your throat and in your stomach. It's supremely physical and overwhelming. You can show up and it just floods you. It is something beyond words.
About the Organizers
Hans Taparia has spent most of his career as an entrepreneur. He was a co-founder of Tasty Bite, one of America's leading health food brands and the country's largest Asian and Indian meals brand. He is also a co-founder of Tejas Networks, a leading optical networking technology company that went public earlier this year. Hans is also currently a clinical assistant professor at the NYU Stern School of Business and sits on several nonprofit boards. He has a Bachelor's of Science degree from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Meera Dugal is the Programming Manager for the David Rubenstein Atrium at Lincoln Center. Previously, she has worked with globalFEST, The National Jazz Museum in Harlem, The Jazz Gallery, and Iraqi-American musician Amir ElSaffar. She is a member of Women of Color in the Arts and serves on the Brooklyn Raga Massive Advisory Board. Outside of Lincoln Center, Meera is the manager of NYC-based Moroccan band Innov Gnawa and a contributing music expert to NYC cultural concierge platform What Should We Do?!
Arun Ramamurthy is a versatile violinist, composer educator and organizer based in Brooklyn, NY. A disciple of the celebrated Carnatic violinist brothers, Dr. Mysore Manjunath & Sri Mysore Nagaraj, Arun has become one of the country’s leading Indian Classical and crossover musicians. He has performed internationally in both traditional Carnatic and Hindustani settings as well as bridging genres with his own innovative projects. Arun is a co-founder and Artistic Director of Brooklyn Raga Massive, a collective of forward-thinking musicians rooted in and inspired by the classical music of India.
Eileen Willis is Editorial Director at Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts.