Acclaimed Indian Musician Enriches Davis with Teaching and Performance

“If I were a court musician in the 18th century and asked to present my art form, this is probably how it would sound,” visiting Fulbright Nehru scholar Sikkil Gurucharan (aka “Charan”) said before he sang out a slow, melodic improvisation of the Kalyani raga (a scale of Carnatic music from India). The group of students in Associate Professor Archana Venkatesan’s religious studies course sat mesmerized, listening attentively as Charan moved deftly between octaves and tempos.

With the benefit of on-demand musical interpretations from Charan – one of the most respected and well-known Indian artists of the Carnatic tradition – UC Davis students in RST 156 are learning about the relationship between religion and the performing arts in India, with an emphasis on the reinvention, re-making, reforming and rewriting of the performing arts in the nexus of colonialism and nationalism.

In class, Venkatesan asked students to listen closely as Charan sweetly sang a line of an emotive love song, only to stop him mid-sound with a question for the group. “I don’t have an off switch,” Charan joked as the class broke into laughter. Venkatesan, a 2014-2015 Chancellor’s Fellow also recognized for her mentorship and teaching, relishes the opportunity to have her “own private jukebox.” The students of RST 156 clearly benefit from his talents, as their historical readings are transformed into group hand claps and call-and-response chants led by Charan.

Teaching through the Fulbright Nehru Scholar Fellowship

Charan is in residence at UC Davis for the 2015 winter quarter as a visiting Fulbright Nehru scholar in the Religious Studies Department, with guest lectures in the Departments of Music and Anthropology. Charan is one of India’s leading classical musicians, an ambassador for Carnatic music, and a Grammy-nominated collaborator on the album Miles from India: A Celebration of the Music of Miles Davis.

He is an acclaimed artist, the recipient of numerous awards and a celebrated figure who broadens audience appeal of classical Indian music by creating collaborative projects with world renowned musicians while retaining the spirit of the art form.

For the Fulbright program, Charan said he is embarking on a “different kind of journey in my world of music” by co-teaching at UC Davis and leading a series of demonstrative workshops. Charan has a background in teaching individual classes and public musical demonstrations.

“Carnatic music is a wonderful art form that needs just a tiny bit of technical knowledge from the listeners to enjoy and evolve along with its dynamic nature. Once we let listeners in through the various gates of entry, they are on the path to discovering new ways of enjoying it,” Charan explained. “My idea is to bring those perspectives into the minds of the students over here in Davis.”

Charan has performed around the world for a diverse range of audiences, and he noted that each performance is “shaped by the way in which listeners react.” The opportunity to teach at Davis is “a means to gauge my own understanding of music and its ability to speak in a foreign language.”

“It is not necessarily breaking down the pieces as a simplification process but to draw in some interesting pieces that might actually complete this puzzle in fewer moves. My interactions with the students in the workshops and Archana’s classes have given me a better insight on how to convey ideas,” Charan said.

Performing for Eager Audiences

While Charan has come to hone his teaching skills, the Davis community and especially the South Asian community in Sacramento and the Bay Area are eager to attend his performances. Charan has been leading a series of workshops open to the public that continue on February 21 and March 7, exploring aspects of classical Indian music with distinguished accompanists and co-facilitators.

He will appear on stage at the Vanderhoef Studio Theatre at 7 p.m. on Wednesday, February 25, for a concert with North Indian musician, Rita Sahai. Sahai is Director of the Hindustani Vocal Ensemble, and an accomplished composer, performer and teacher. The event, “Jugalbandi,” explores Carnatic and Hindustani vocal music from the South and North of India through the gifted voices of Charan and Sahai.

Venkatesan explained that the February 25 performance brings together the two dominant systems of Indian music – North Indian ragas (melodies) and the South Indian music system – to explore similarities and differences shaped by hundreds of years of Indian culture and politics.

A student in Venkatesan’s class who attended a February 7 workshop featuring Charan and Sahai commented that it was “pretty awesome [to experience] blending two different styles of music and have it explained really well.” Make room in your calendar this month and the next to experience Charan’s musical talents while he is still in residence at UC Davis.

– Stephanie Maroney, DHI Graduate Student Researcher and doctoral candidate in Cultural Studies