Adjunct Associate Professor of Music B. Balasubrahmaniyan shares a tribute to S.P. Balasubrahmanyam, “a rare combination of humanitarian and legendary singer,” to whom the Navaratri Festival Committee has dedicated Wesleyan’s 44th annual Navaratri Festival.
The iconic singer S.P. Balasubrahmanyam (1946-2020) was one of India’s most celebrated artists. Shattering world records for singing more than 40,000 songs in sixteen different languages, SPB or Balu Sir (as he’s fondly referred to), was unmatched in his vocal range for Indian cinema, throughout South Asia, spanning multiple popular and classical genres of music.
For me, he was not just a musical legend, he was also one of the most compassionate humanists that I have met and interacted with. He held many unbreakable records in his music career for the past five decades starting from the mid 1960s as well as holding equally unbreakable records in generosity, compassion, and humility!
I have experienced his love and affection from my recent meeting in 2019 (pictured above).
His recent demise on September 25, 2020 has left millions of his ardent fans feeling devastated and empty.
Wesleyan dedicates its 2020 Navaratri Festival to S. P. Balasubrahmanyam as a testimony to his unique musical ability to unite South Asia and South Asians in truly interconnected ways, transcending language, ethnicity, caste, class, and more.
For a detailed insight into this genius singer’s life, see this recent BBC profile:
Wesleyan graduate music student Suhail Yusuf, a sarangi player, vocalist, composer, and ethnomusicologist, reflects on the Navaratri Festival and shares a YouTube playlist.
The playlist below consists of ten recordings by some of the greatest legendary musicians of North India and Pakistan and a few contemporary ones. The performing artists through these recordings were carefully selected on the basis of––keeping in mind––their connection to Wesleyan, especially with the Navaratri Festival, or the artists’ creative ideas aligned with the vision of our world-famous ethnomusicology program, offered in the Music Department.
From the impeccable upbeat rhythmic structures to utterly complex melodic runs, the opening track in the list is a power packed instrumental called “Kriti.” With its roots fixed in the Carnatic (South Indian classical) music tradition, this particular recording was made by the internationally acclaimed group known as Shakti. The members of this super group consisted of L. Shankar (who earned a Ph.D. in ethnomusicology from Wesleyan University in 1974), John McLaughlin (Carnatic music student at Wesleyan in the 1970s), Zakir Hussain, and Vikku Vinayakram. Apparently, McLaughlin met Shankar at Wesleyan around the mid ’70s and went on to form this super group.
Although “Kriti” is more likely to raise our excitement levels with its raised tempo and breathtaking virtuosic performances, the track after is a rather peaceful rendition of the raga “Jaunpurī.” In the recording, the artist performing this raga is the late Buddhadev Dasgupta. While “Jaunpurī” is a beautiful early morning raga from the Hindustani (North Indian classical) music tradition, it has healing properties and provides a soothing effect to the soul. This particular rendition was specifically made for a series of recordings featured as part of musicologist and ethnomusicologist Joep Bor’s book The Raga Guide. The book is a historical and an ethnomusicological outlook on the raga system of North Indian music. Indic music scholars at universities across the world include chapters from this book into their syllabi.
After a glimpse of traditional sounds from both North and South Indian classical music, the playlist will now move on to discover some of the contemporary approaches used in twenty-first century Indian music. Although a lot has been explored under the banner of “contemporary Indian music” sounds, e.g. composer Philip Glass’ collaboration with Ravi Shankar, and The Beatles and the Rolling Stones incorporating Indian sounds into their albums, amongst others, for the sake of this playlist, I will focus on collaborations from the last twenty years.
Track number three, “Amirah,” is a composition by U.K.-born sarangi player Surinder Sandhu. In the track, one can hear cinematic musical influences combined with traditional Indian sounds. What I absolutely love about this piece is the almost avant-garde approach in Sandhu’s sarangi playing and the orchestral arrangement given to the Indian instruments––a practice that became popular during India’s colonial days.
While maintaining the contemporary vibe, track four moves away from highbrow orchestral sounds and transitions into an earthy combination of U.K. folk and Indian Sufi sounds. The song “Westlin Winds” by the U.K. based Indo-jazz-folk trio Yorkston/Thorne/Khan was originally written by Scottish poet Robert Burns (1759-1796). However, in this version the trio translates Burns’ song into Hindi. They do this by borrowing Hindi lyrics from Indian Sufi poet Amir Khusrau (1253-1325) and as critics have said, “gave new lungs to the song.”
Moving forward on the lines of fused sounds, the next track features critically-acclaimed Indian pop duo Hariharan and Leslie Lewis, popularly known as Colonial Cousins. In this playlist the duo’s featured song is “Krishna,” based on a composition that was popularized by T. Balasaraswati and other musicians of her family. As the story goes, Hariharan’s mother learned this song from T.Brinda (T.Vishwanathan’s cousin’s sister) and passed it on to Hariharan. Hence, a very strong connection with the Carnatic music legacy of Wesleyan University. In their version, Colonial Cousins, while giving it a western touch, maintain the prayer-like feeling of the song: requesting Kriśna (Hindu mythical God), Jesus, and Allah to come and save the world; indeed, a song we all need in these unprecedented times!
On the other hand, track six “Dubla” presents an interesting combination of the North Indian version of Solkattu (vocalized rhythmic syllables) and electro-dance beats. It is written and produced by U.K.-based tabla player and DJ Talvin Singh. The song was released as part of Singh’s highly-acclaimed album Ha in 2001. With a blend of folk, jazz, orchestral sounds, and new age electro-beats, our contemporary Indian music section in the playlist comes to an end. In contrast, the remaining four tracks will lean back towards the traditional approaches used in Indian music.
Although the playlist began with separate showcases of each of the Hindustani and Carnatic music traditions, this last leg of the playlist will explore interactions, amalgamations, and cross-cultural togetherness that has brought Hindustani and Carnatic musicians together through music-making. Track seven is a unique 1935 vintage recording featuring the doyen of Hindustani music Ustad Abdul Karim Khan. In the recording Khan sings a Carnatic raga “Karharapriya,” probably one of the earliest documented renditions of a Carnatic raga sung by a Hindustani vocalist.
The next track is a beautifully crafted instrumental duet of the late Sultan Khan (Hindustani sarangi player) and the late U.Sriniwas (Carnatic mandolin player). While revamping each other’s traditions, in the recording both Sultan Khan and U.Sriniwas masterfully performed raga “Hemavati.”
The second to last track on the list is a Thumri (semi-classical song in Hindustani music) composed in raga “Sindhi Bhairavi.” It was sung and recorded by Pakistan’s legendary vocalist Salamat Ali Khan, who visited Wesleyan in 1982 in order to participate in the Navaratri Festival. Every time I hear this recording it feels as if I am drenched in a shower of blissful melodic notes falling from the sky.
With astonishing singing from Salamat Ali Khan, we have now reached our final track in the playlist. And as per the tradition goes in Carnatic music performances and also at Wesleyan’s Navaratri Festival music performances, a concert must end with a drum solo––popularly known as taniavartanam. Therefore, this last track presents a rhythmic dialogue between master drummers Zakir Hussain and Vikku Vinayakram, performing a “taniavartanam” in a complex rhythm cycle set to 9 1⁄2 beats. I have to say, they sound like fire! Thank you for listening and I hope you have enjoyed this experience of active listening. Please stay safe.
From Joseph Getter MA ’99, director of the Youth Gamelan at Wesleyan University:
“This playlist represents some of my favorite artists from India and beyond, primarily in the South Indian Carnatic tradition as well as a few from the North Indian Hindustani style. Most performed at Wesleyan University during our Navratri Festival, and a few were faculty members.”
This week, Navaratri Festival Intern Aditi Mahesh ’21 writes about the annual festival that celebrates traditional Indian music and dance.
Navaratri has long been a vital part of Wesleyan’s history, bringing in established Indian artists to celebrate the auspiciousness and showcase the depth of Indian classical art forms. Navaratri, held in the honor of Hindu goddess Durga, is a prominent festival celebrated in India for nine (nava-) nights (ratri). Each day signifies a different avatar of Durga, nine avatars in total (navadurga). On the tenth day, Durga defeats the demon Mahishasura, celebrating the triumph of good over evil, light over darkness. This last day is Vijayadasami or Dussehra, the most auspicious day of the year for beginning a new endeavor, especially in the arts.
Wesleyan’s commitment to Indian music, dance, and culture was one of the main reasons I chose to apply to the University. Coming from a family of Carnatic vocal musicians and being an Indian classical Bharatanatyam dancer myself, I couldn’t see myself thrive anywhere else. I’ve taken Bharatanatyam classes from Chair of the Dance Department and Professor of Feminist, Gender, and Sexuality Studies Hari Krishnan, and Carnatic vocals from Adjunct Associate Professor of Music B. Balasubrahmaniyan, giving me both a well-rounded Wesleyan education and a robust insight into the inner workings of the Navaratri festival held at the Center for the Arts each year.
Back in 2017, when I was a freshman, the University brought the distinguished Mallika Sarabhai and her company to perform for the Wesleyan audience. Her work really challenged the traditional notions of Bharatanatyam. It was more than just a dance form; it was a powerful mode of political communication. This very sentiment was reflected in my Bharatanatyam classes with Professor Krishnan, who challenged the ‘Brahminical’ perspective of the artform, teaching us the courtesan style of Bharatanatyam and instilling in us the powerful responsibility to use our platform for social good (very characteristic of a Wesleyan education!). This deepened my own narrow preconception about the dance form, allowing me to apply my art beyond the walls of the classroom, communicating powerful stories.
On the musical side, Wesleyan has always brought diverse artists, celebrating both North and South Indian musical styles. Last year, we heard from Ustad Amjad Ali Khan on the sarod, who powerfully captivated the audience with his music. We also have our very own talent, Professor Balasubrahmaniyan, who performed on the Friday evening of the festival [with Adjunct Associate Professor of Music David Nelson]. In past years, his South Indian voice class has been an opener to his concert, allowing for Wesleyan students to showcase their learning and play a crucial role in the festival.
The Navaratri Festival not only draws in a Wesleyan audience but also a local Connecticut audience, allowing for greater community interaction and education about Indian art forms.
As a result of the global situation, Navaratri at Wesleyan has adapted to a virtual platform. Despite these challenges, the Center for the Arts is bringing in rich talent while still maintaining its core integrity of social responsibility through the arts. We hope you join us for this year’s virtual festival!
Aditi Mahesh ’21
Navaratri Festival Intern
Thursday, October 1, 2020 at 4:40pm Music Department Colloquium with Anna Morcom (Professor of Ethnomusicology and Mohindar Brar Sambhi Chair of Indian Music at U.C.L.A.’s Herb Alpert School of Music): “Music, Exchange, and the Production of Value: A Case Study of Hindustani Music.”
Thursday, October 1, 2020 at 8pm “Sakthi Vibrations” Film Conversation with Director Zoe Sherinian. Moderated by ethnomusicology doctoral student Bianca Iannitti. The film will be available for viewing online before the event with a link included with the reservation confirmation.
Friday, October 2, 2020 at 7pm Rethinking “Navaratri.” A conversation with Artistic Director of the contemporary Indian dance company Ananya Dance Theatre Ananya Chatterjea and Chair of the Dance Department and Professor of Feminist, Gender, and Sexuality Studies Hari Krishnan.
This week we focus on a virtual residency at Wesleyan featuring The Era Footwork Crew from Chicago.
I first saw The Era Footwork Crew perform in November 2019 at Links Hall in Chicago. The show, In the Wurkz, was an extraordinary combination of Chicago footwork, live DJs, spoken word, documentary film, and community spirit. I was struck by how The Era had been able to integrate every aspect of its ambitious artistic mission into one inspiring and beautifully crafted performance. The energy emanating from the audience, comprised of family, friends, neighbors, and children from The Era’s youth footwork summer camps, was palpable. The show was a love letter to the local neighborhoods which have supported The Era and a message of hope to the youth. This was a remarkable model of how the arts can truly strengthen and uplift a local community, and it felt urgent that Wesleyan students and the Center for the Arts audience be able to learn from this group of dedicated artists and community activists.
Footwork is an improvisational, competition-style form that encompasses music, dance, and a distinct Chicago culture. It is an inter-generational, community-based artform that is taught and passed down through dance battles, clubs, house parties, dance downs, and recently formalized through youth summer camps on the south side of Chicago. The Era is known not only for their incredible mastery and elevation of Chicago footwork but also for their social justice initiatives. The Era proclaims to anyone who will listen that “footwork saves lives.” They mean this in the most literal and non-hyperbolic sense possible. This saying is what drives an extraordinary partnership between The Era Footwork Crew and their non-profit, Open the Circle (OTC). OTC takes its name from crowded Chicago dance floors. When the floor gets overly packed, two people will lock hands and spin through the crowd–“opening the circle”–to make space for dancing. In this spirit, OTC is committed to opening tightly-knit circles of power and resources in society, re-centering them to benefit artists and youth in divested communities. The Era and OTC work hand-in-hand to promote dance education, document the development of footwork, recover and highlight women’s contributions to the artform, and elevate the visibility of footwork through performance. At Wesleyan, The Era and OTC will talk to students and our audience about how footwork has the ability to truly transform and, indeed, save lives.
The Era will join us this fall for a series of virtual engagements. On Thursday, September 17, 2020 at 7pm, there will be a documentary film screening, “Footwork on Film.” Dance filmmakers Brandon Calhoun and Wills Glasspiegel have been documenting the art and history of Chicago footwork for the last decade. They will share a series of short film clips from their archive, introducing the audience to The Era Footwork Crew, the cultural history of footwork in Chicago, and the rise of the dance form.
This event will be followed by a footwork technique workshop on Thursday, September 24, 2020 at 7pm. The Era Footwork Crew will give an introductory dance workshop, open and accessible to everyone regardless of dance background or experience, followed by a community conversation with the Hartford-based street dance collective 860MVMNT. The Era and 860MVMNT will explore differences in regional dance styles and how community culture can give rise to dance forms. They will also talk about their respective youth education initiatives and the impact they have had in the Chicago and Hartford communities.
Finally, on Thursday, October 15, 2020 at 7pm, Open the Circle will join members of the Wesleyan Dance Department for a panel discussion on OTC’s community engagement work and racial justice initiatives in the south side of Chicago.
Please join us for a dynamic series of virtual engagements that immerses our audiences in Chicago footwork and The Era’s racial justice work. We hope this introduction to The Era inspires you to join us again in fall 2021, when The Era will be in residence on the Wesleyan campus to perform In the Wurkz and engage with Wesleyan students and our regional community.
Associate Director for Programming and Performing Arts
Center for the Arts
We are excited to open the 2020-2021 Performing Arts Series this fall with the extraordinary theater-maker, performance artist, writer, cultural commentator, and satirist Kristina Wong.
Wong is an activist artist dedicated to forging meaningful social change, interrogating heteronormative standards, subverting racial and gender stereotypes, challenging complacency, and empowering audiences—a model for the values that we hold here at the Center for the Arts.
Wong began her career as an activist and performance artist in 2000 as a senior at U.C.L.A. with her fake mail-order bride site www.bigbadchinesemama.com. This internet performance installation was Wong’s first experiment to see if “the act of protest [can] actually be funny and enjoyable.” This philosophy, and her approach of using humor, parody, and satire to expose painful truths about race, class, gender, and the fallacy of the American dream is central to Wong’s work. She followed this inaugural work with projects such as Wong Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (2011–2013), which explored the stigma surrounding depression and rates of suicide in Asian-American women, and The Wong Street Journal (2015–2017), which broke down the complexities of global poverty, privilege, and America’s influence in the world while charting Wong’s own brief role as a hip hop star in Northern Uganda. Her YouTube channel, Radical Cram School, encourages Asian American children to explore revolution, social justice, the power of their identities through puppets, community storytelling, and comedy.
During a time when civil liberties are being eroded on a daily basis, our nation is convulsing with protests over police brutality and systemic racism, and our healthcare system and federal response to the pandemic is in tatters, Wong’s voice is needed more than ever. She is a remarkable example of an artist who is responding in real time to the current moment and who is also translating her community activism into art and performance. What an extraordinary model for Wesleyan students and our audiences to have.
At Wesleyan, she will present two shows for us this fall. On Thursday, September 10, 2020 at 7pm, Wong will perform Kristina Wong for Public Office which details her real-life experience running for office in Koreatown, Los Angeles. Blurring the lines between performance and politics in a way that has become all too familiar, Wong re-enacts her campaign for elected representative of Wilshire Center Koreatown Sub-district 5 Neighborhood Council. A mash-up between a campaign rally, church revivals, and a solo theater show, the piece explores the anxiety leading up to the 2020 presidential election, questions the differences between performance art and politics, and challenges audiences to get civically engaged. Public Office will be co-presented with the University of Massachusetts Amherst Fine Arts Center.
Wong joins us again on Monday, October 5, 2020 at 7pm for a performance borne from the COVID-19 pandemic: Kristina Wong, Sweatshop Overlord. Wong charts the experience of creating a “homemade face mask empire in just ten days,” gathering together a sewing squad of volunteer “Aunties” making free masks for people “the government didn’t care about.” The Auntie Sewing Squad has been featured on NBC News, Good Morning America, and USA Today, and has made and distributed over 50,000 masks. This performance looks at the significance of Asian American women and women of color performing this historically gendered and racialized, invisible labor.
Wong will also join Wesleyan students for a virtual residency that includes class visits, career talks, open rehearsal/directing sessions, and one-on-one conversations with students doing senior theater capstone projects. Finally, on Tuesday, October 27, 2020 at 6pm, Wong will give a speech about the intersections between her political activism and her art for Wesleyan’s Engage 2020 initiative with the Allbritton Center for Community Partnership.
Our Performing Arts Series this fall will be virtual, and all events will be free. We hope you join us for an inspiring series of events and performances with this extraordinary activist and artist Kristina Wong.
Fiona Coffey Associate Director for Programming and Performing Arts Center for the Arts