Kala Ramnath is an Indian classical violinist from a lineage of 7 generations. She was awarded the Sangeet Natak Academy Puraskaar in 2016, Rashtriya Kumar Gandharva Sanman in 2008 and the Pandit Jasraj Gaurav Puraskar in 1999.
It was a real pleasure to hear Kala’s thoughts about music based on her lifetime of experience and dedication.I
WM: Today I’m very excited to welcome Kala Ramnath to the show. I’ve admired her beautiful violin playing for many years and it’s great to have you here, Kala.
KR: Thank you. Thank you for having me.
WM: Well, I always like to start off with wondering how your music training started? And from what I know your grandfather started introducing you to music? I’d just love to hear what that experience was like in that time, your first exposure to music.
KR: So, I don’t know if you know, I come from a family of musicians. I’m in the seventh generation in my family. So in my house everybody plays the violin. And I started on the violin, when I was two years old. And they started me on the normal size violin, because they didn’t have any small violins in India then. So my grandfather would hold the violin and the bow. And I would, with my tiny hands hold the bow and just bow. I couldn’t hold the violin. My hands were too small. So, he would hold the bow and I joined him and I would act as though I bowed it. So it started that way and it was only for maybe two, three minutes. I couldn’t do more than that because it was heavy and then slowly… You know, I started building stamina. I just kept playing, increasing my time a little bit more and more and more. And by the age of seven, I was playing full fledged. Yeah, but actually I have pictures of me when I was four years old, the violin is bigger than me up here. I think it’s on the internet too. You see, that’s how I started and I guess I had an affinity for music, because I did not complain. And as I grew up I started enjoying it more and more.
WM: Well, another thing I would love for you to share… I’m curious how the violin became a part of Indian music (I’m not sure if it started in Carnatic music before Hindustani)? I’ve never really known how the violin came to India and became a prominent instrument. Now it’s a big instrument, but I’m assuming it came from Europe at some time? I’d love to know a little bit about that kind of history of how the violin emerged as a voice in Hindustani music.
KR: Yeah. So basically, India has had a lot of bowed instruments, like the sarangi and dilruba, all of them are played with the bow, right? So, if you go back to Vedic time, there was an instrument called the dhanur veena. So the veena is like any string instrument and then dhanur means bow, the one played with the bow. So, there have been instruments which were played with the bow from those times, and there is a folk instrument called ravanhatta. If you see that instrument, it has a round, hollow body with a fingerboard that is 22 inches long. And it’s played with a one string only and played like this with a bow. Now, the present day violin has a fingerboard that is five and a half inches and you play three octaves on four strings. Five and a half into four is 22. And it was played. So, I read in Max Mueller’s, one of his writings that this instrument the ravanhatta, was taken in the sixth century from India by the Arabs. They took it to Persia. They made it the rababi. And then the Moorish invasion happened in Spain in the 10th century. They took this rabibi there and from there it went to Europe and became the viol, viola and then the violin. And then the Britishers brought it back to India when they colonized India. In the 17th century, it came back to India as a Western instrument, and it came down south and that’s why you find more violinists in Carnatic music than Hindustani music. I’m also a South Indian, but since I play North Indian music I played the violin that way.
WM: That’s really fascinating. It’s kind of like a reverse of what I was thinking…The origin of this stringed instrument is very likely from India and then it traveled, and then became the violin.
KR: That is the reason why the technique is totally different from what it is in the West. And I mean the glides and the slides that I do, it sounds as though it is just made for this instrument, right? It doesn’t sound like it’s crazy or it’s weird. No, it sounds like it’s just made for this instrument. So I guess you know, as time passed from the ravanhatta, everything was played on one string, all the three octaves were accessed in just one string. Now we’re doing it in four strings.
WM: Right. Yeah that’s fascinating how that original instrument had the one string with the same octaves.
KR: Yeah, and it’s there even today.
WM: In Rajasthan people are still playing this?
KR: Yeah it’s the folk instrument called ravanhatta. There is a mythological story also… I don’t know if you’ve heard of this story the Ramayana from Indian mythology? So the demon king there, Ravan, used to play this instrument so well. The dhunar veena, which was there in Vedic times. The name changed into ravanhatta, because he was such a master of it, and he played it so well.
WM: Now that’s very interesting because even in the West, we have stories of these great violin players that were…people didn’t understand how they got to be so good and there’s stories about them associating with the devil to get their power, which is very interesting because we have that in the Ramayana as well!
KR: Yeah! The Demon King.
WM: Wow. Interesting… I want to look into that more! There are not many instruments that have that mythology of you know the demon being a part of that.
KR: And I guess because this is the most difficult instrument to play, because there are no frets. I guess that’s why they said you know, you need the strength of the devil to play this. Probably. I learned something today! [laughter]
WM: Well, I don’t think that you had to go to the devil to gain your mastery.
KR: Maybe the devil inside me! [laughter]
WM: It doesn’t sound like the devil! Well, your seventh generation from a very musical family, I’m sure music was always just a part of your life growing up. But I’m curious, even though you were holding the violin at such a young age and playing it, was there a point where you really knew that music is what I want to do and what I feel called to do? Was there like a certain time where you remember that?
KR: At the age of seven. When I heard… I learned from Pandit Jasraj, you know, when I heard his recording on the radio… When I used to return from school, you know, this used to be playing. So when I heard him, and there was another maestro called Kishori Amonkar. She was a singer. And whenI heard them sing, I felt “if music is this beautiful, this is what I want to do in my life.”
WM: So it was through Pandit Jasraj-ji’s vocal?
KR: And also, I wanted to play like my aunt, because I idolized her.
WM: Wow, that’s amazing 7 years old you knew that that would be your path.
Well, you’ve had a very amazing career as a performer. I mean, you’ve played all over the world, and when you were beginning, was it stressful? Was it fun? Like how was it to begin your life as a performing artist?
KR: I started when I was 12 years old as a performing artist. And I didn’t have fear of the stage or the audience. So I guess I was a natural on stage, because I had no fear. But otherwise, I’m very scared of everything, even a cockroach or I mean, I was scared of dogs, now I’m not scared of dogs, but I was scared of everything… But on stage I wasn’t scared.
WM: Well that works.
KR: I guess I was not stressed when I had to go on stage. I guess that’s because of the amount of practice one puts in. Then you are confident of that. I think that must be it.
WM: And, you know, touring is difficult, sometimes you’re traveling and you’re busy and you’re trying to get the preparation and then to play raag music, you really need to be in a calm state and you need to be collected. I’m just wondering if you were, say on tour and you only had like 20 minutes to sit with your music before going on stage, what would you do in that time? If you have only a little time to prepare what best gets you ready for your performance?
KR: So I can give an example here… Once I was in Montreal and I finished my concert the earlier day in Montreal. And then I took a train to Toronto. And the train got late. So, the concert was at five, six o’clock or something, I don’t remember the time, but I had very little time. I landed at five. So then I knew that it was going to get late, I’m not reaching there on time. I kind of told myself, “there is no hope in panicking and nothing is going to happen if I panic.” I’m just going to stay calm, whatever time it takes to get there. But once I’m there, I will be ready to give my best. So what are the things I can do? Maybe I can dress up in the train? And then I can go there and just go straight on stage, that’s the only thing I can do. So, there is no point fretting and fuming that “oh I’m getting late” and getting upset about it. So that’s how I am. I am calm. If I missed a flight or a train, I missed it. I did my level best. I missed it. So it’s not that, if I had to go to the airport, I wind up at the airport late. No, I take time to be there at this point in time. But even after doing all that, if things like this happen, then it’s a stroke of fate, it’s not my mistake. So that’s how I am. I’m kind of calm. And I tell myself “let me think about the music.” I don’t need to think about these things that are happening. Though they do keep coming up, I calm myself down saying “no, no point. Just take it easy.”
WM: That’s a very good attitude, did you have an example of that or do you just think that’s your own nature?
KR: I don’t think it’s my nature. [laughter] Because I am a nervous person. I don’t like being late. I like to be, you know, perfect in whatever I do. So, yes, I’ve developed, because I’ve realized if I do that, I’m just spoiling my health and getting, you know, worked up for nothing because when things are not in your hands you can do nothing. So I wouldn’t say I’m in a Zen state, no. [laughter] But yes, I’m calm.
WM: Now, I know that for many musicians including myself, this music is like its own form of devotion, prayer and meditation. And for me, I identify more with music than even a specific religion. And I’m just curious, if you have some thoughts to share on how you relate to music, as like a spiritual practice or a form of devotion. How does that feel for you?
KR: Okay, so this is what I’d like to say; when I play the violin, nothing else bothers me. Then I can forget this pain you know, extreme pain, and there could be something really dreadful happening like, I don’t know, something can happen like an earthquake or something but it won’t affect me. When I’m playing I’m there in that zone. I think that is what is meditation, prayer or whatever you want to call it. So, that’s how I am when I play my music. I also, there is also like before I go on stage I always dedicate it to the Almighty and say “If I play well, then all the credit is yours.” And I also kind of threaten him saying, “If I don’t play well, then the credit also goes to you. So you better make me play well.” So whatever I do, I feel when I’m sitting and performing it, I’m not doing it. Because if I’m able to touch everybody’s heart in the audience, then that cannot be me. It’s the music, and it’s some higher power which is making that reach the audiences.
WM: Yeah I’m finding this to be a beautiful theme in a lot of my interviews that something I’m passionate to share with our listeners is, you know, us as artists, we are like a vehicle for something greater than us to come through and that’s what music is, it’s a channel. I like to share that with people who maybe aren’t, you know, music students. It’s a very deep and important concept.
KR: Yes, because the minute that I am that ego comes in there, you lose it. If you think you’re doing it, no you’re not doing it. Because there are many times when I’ve heard my own recordings and I felt “was that me?” I’m surprised. “Was that me?”
WM: I’m curious, you know, having studied Hindustani music for many years. If you can kind of summarize, like points, say the first 10 years, the second 10 years, the third 10 years. And what kind of things started to be shown to you that you didn’t see in the first 10 that you saw in the next 10 in the next 10, because for me as a student, like many people we study rag yaman in the beginning. And I am always seeing new things and it never fails to expand or just inspire me and so I can only imagine that a long life of study there may be so many things that come…
KR: Yes. So the first 10 years. What I felt I did was get good at technique. And the next 10 was when I started performing. The next 10 years of my life as I had already started performing. So when I used to play initially in those initial five, six years, my family- my aunt, my grandpa would say “bring in some feeling to the music.” I would be so irritated at them thinking, “what the hell should I do? I’m just playing it right!” So then, I lost my dad. My father passed away and it was a big setback to the family. And I still remember the day I think I started feeling the music was; I missed my father and then I was playing. And I had tears in my eyes. And I felt “oh this is what they meant when they said bring in feel into your music.” So that was my second ten year phase. And the third 10 year phase was when I was performing, I would say in the second 10 years, I would plan my performances.
WM: You would choose which rag and composition.
KR: Exactly. And what I would play and that you know, in the beginning everything was kind of planned completely from the beginning to the end. But slowly in the second 10 years, towards the end of the 10 years I started loosening up and I could do things, like I could change rags…You understand? Then the third 10 years, I think it started even in the second 10 years, towards the end. Like, I was figuring out my own style of playing. What I could do, what I could not do, what I could change, what I could not change, what I felt had to be changed, and how to change. I think the next 10 years went on that. So you’ll see me evolving as a musician better and better and better. That is what I feel, I did. And, when I look back at my first 10 years, whatever I played. And today, whatever I play. There is a huge difference. The same yaman sounds, “oh my god is that me!” It’s so bad.
WM: Yeah, it’s really one of the beautiful things of this art form and I think all music there’s just never an end to it, and we’re always evolving it really has no end.
KR: And this really has no end! There’s so much to do, so much to learn. I’m still learning, I’m still seeing a lot of stuff, new stuff in the same thing and wondering, how come I missed this so many years?
WM: Do you work in styles outside of Hindustani where maybe you’re doing a fusion?
KR: Yes, I do.
WM: Do you enjoy that type of composition and creation?
KR: Yes I do, I do. There’s a challenge to it.
WM: So what makes a successful combination of bringing different styles together? What makes that work and be something that is successful and sounds coherent and really something new is created?
KR: So for that, I think one needs to; first, the personalities between the artists should gel. The first one, you should have healthy respect, mutual respect for each other’s music. And this concept of one upmanship, putting the artist down, that should not be there, the other artist, and you should look at music as something which is not competitive. You’re going to create something beautiful. So, if my contribution is less, and another person’s contribution is more. It should not be looked at like, “oh she’s doing a little and I’m doing more.” It’s still together. Because if that little was not there, still that creation won’t be there. This is as far as personalities are concerned. As far as music is concerned, I think musically also you have to start reading each other’s mind. And to read each other’s mind; If you’re going to go and just have a rehearsal in the green room, and then you go play on stage, then that’s not a collaboration. A collaboration means you work on something for six months or something and then go on stage. Like I played something with the Danish orchestra and the Danish Jazz Orchestra and the classical orchestra together, we worked on it for two years. That’s when you know you can exchange ideas and you can understand where they’re coming from, where you’re coming from, and you can find a common space there to work on.
WM: Yes, it’s not just copy paste it’s an actual mixture and collaboration.
KR: Yeah. So to understand each other needs time. If you really want to create a good collaboration. Otherwise a jam session you can do as many as you want.
WM: What has been your favorite collaboration outside of classical?
KR: I think whichever collaboration I’ve worked on. I spent a long time creating. So I like every one of them, but I definitely do like working with orchestras. I also like working with jazz musicians and flamenco players.
WM: Beautiful. Now coming back to raga in Hindustani music… You know, for our listeners, the ragas all have a time of day or season that they are best played at. And in my study, my teachers didn’t really explain the scientific system behind that. But I know that there are the prahars, which are the times of day. And the ragas are all connected with these times of day and our moods and the changing of the sun. But I feel like there’s something kind of more intuitive underneath it all and I believe there is a science but I like to ask musicians how they personally feel like these ragas connect to that time. And what does it feel like to you and what does this connection mean to you with the time of day and seasons in raga?
KR: So, I hope you’ve heard about the 22 microtones in Indian music. So all the notes, like the 12 notes, the flats and natural notes (sa, re, ga, ma, pa, dha, ni). All the 12 notes in the system. They are based on these 22 microtones. So between Sa and Re, I think you have three. Ra and Ga, I don’t know three or four. So, everywhere you have you have these microtones, which to make up to 22 from sa to the whole octave. So, it is these notes that bring this time cycle into play in Hindustani music. So for example if you take rag Bhairav. So, usually at the time of bhairav in the morning. You have shuddha ma which is in play. The natural fourth. But in the evening, around the same time, you have the raised fourth in play (tivra ma). All the notes of the raga, the ascending and the descending depend whether it is high or whether it is low. According to the time cycle time of the rag. Like if you take bhairav, bhairav’s re is komal re, right? If you take rag shree, that also has komal re, but re of bhairav in the morning, in case this is the place of bhairav’s re, shree’s re is even lower. So this has to do with the physiology of the individual. So in the morning you’re well rested and when you hit the note you hit it right. But after the whole day, in the evening, when you start shree, you’re tired. Then you’ll hit it lower. So all this time cycle has a connection with the physiology of the individual and nature. That’s how they got this time cycle.
WM: Beautiful. Yeah, I love to hear about that, you know it’s a very unique quality that this music has that I don’t really see so much in other music.
And I’m just wondering what advice you may have to share with young musicians who are maybe on a path towards making music a career, and just some words of advice for a music student.
KR: I would say when you learn music, learn music because you love music. Career and everything comes later. And do it with a passion. And once you’re very good at it, then automatically making a career for yourself is not a problem. Because it will definitely happen once you’re good at it once people hear you, they’re going to want to hear you more. But for that you have to be good in what you do. So at that time don’t focus on “oh, I have to be on stage, therefore I need to do well.” No, you do well because you want to do well, and then that happens.
WM: So, you know, we’re in some kind of unique time here. I’m assuming that normally you would probably have a busy touring schedule.
KR: Oh yes!
WM: But we’re in the midst of this pandemic, which is reminding us that there are things we cannot control in this world. You know, that’s kind of what started this podcast for me is I just have more time. I’m not out performing and so this is just an inspiration project because I just love to connect with musicians and share more of what we do and I’m just curious what are you enjoying about this time? Are you teaching more? Are you having more family time? Riyaz time? What are you making of this time?
KR: All of those that you’ve said, and taking care of my health. I’m thinking, you know I should be healthy so I’m doing all the things that’s needed to be healthy. Eating right, exercise.
WM: And is there a project that you’re currently working on maybe a recording or something that our listeners can look forward to hearing from you that will be coming out, or anything that you released recently that you would like to share?
KR: I released an album with this tabla player called Bikram Ghosh. It’s called rang, colors.
WM: I listened to some of it, it’s very nice.
KR: Yeah, we did that. And then what else, I’m just sitting and reading more on music and developing my skills more. That’s the only thing I did, the album. Yeah, and of course there’s been so much online stuff happening. Yeah, I’ve been collaborating with a few of them once in a while.
WM: Do you teach a lot? Do you have many students?
KR: Yeah I have about 10 to 15 students. Yeah, dedicated ones.
WM: And what do you see as the future of Hindustani music, now that it is a global art form? And, what do you see the next kind of evolution of this music, looking like? Kind of from what you’ve seen in your lifetime… For me it’s unique that I’m from a fully Western background, and I know many people like myself that are very serious and immersed in this music, and that wasn’t happening in the past, only since maybe the late 60s that started to happen and I’m just curious what you see for this music tradition, and what you would like to see, as it continues to progress and be passed on.
KR: I hope… See one thing about this music is, it’s the oldest form of music in the world. And this music hasn’t been documented properly. It’s all been passed on from teacher to the student. No? So it has never been documented. And with all the upheavals in the Indian subcontinent as far as, you know, people from Persia and all those areas attacking India and colonizing India. Whatever happened until now, the music has kept on evolving and it’s not dead. So there is something in this music which keeps it alive. And it’s always kept evolving and, I will say that the masters of yesteryears, the way they sang music is not being sung now that way, there’s a difference in presentation. So maybe the next generation will take it even further. I do not know how because they’re more tech savvy and stuff like that and I’m thinking, it will keep on evolving. And I don’t know which direction it will take but I hear many people saying “this music is going to die.” I don’t think it will die. Because if it can live for so many years, over 5000 years then there is no end to this. It will evolve itself in a better fashion.
WM: I agree, I think it’s so unique for music to become so widely embraced by the world and it’s actually, it’s spreading beyond to people all over.
KR: And it’s not documented ever. You know, so many compositions are lost, so many, there was 4840 rags. And today, I know about 500 of them. That’s it. Nobody knows all the 4840.
WM: And even the rags that we know now could have been played differently because you the notes can’t even fully cover some things.
KR: So, yeah there’s so much to dig in.
WM: Yeah, I definitely feel that the music will not die in the fact that it’s such a long standing tradition, it has a timeless current moving through it. Yeah. And to me it seems like it kind of reflects the culture of the time. You know, you got to see, probably a lot of the old maestro’s aren’t with us any longer and you got to see that time and from what I know it was more of a slower paced culture, people weren’t so distracted, you know we’re on screens all the time and now you see we’re kind of a more busy fast culture and for example the role of the tabla has become much more prominent. Which isn’t bad, it’s just different. It’s a change, reflecting maybe our own culture so I think we both don’t know where it will go but it will keep going.
KR: It will keep going. That’s what I’m saying. Yeah.
WM: Well, Kalaji, it’s just been a real pleasure speaking with you and I’m so honored to have you sharing your thoughts and to have you on the show.
KR: Thank you. Well, thank you so much.