It’s a blistering hot August evening at St. John’s Unitarian Universalist church and Kanniks Kannikeswaran is trying to corral members of the Greater Cincinnati Indian Community Choir into the sweltering church sanctuary for rehearsal.
A couple dozen people mill about the meeting hall. Men and women of different ages and diverse backgrounds greet each other with the easy camaraderie of old friends. The energy is palpable as animated chatter swells and echoes in the tall-ceilinged room.
The group’s excitement is understandable. Just weeks earlier, the choir won two silver medals in the prestigious World Choir Games, held July 4-14 in downtown Cincinnati. Organizers billed the event, which drew more than 360 choirs and 15,000 singers from 64 countries, as the “Olympics of choral music.”
For a choir of about 40 amateur and lay singers of Indian origin, the journey to the international stage is a remarkable feat of dynamic synergy, perseverance and the power of community. But, perhaps, even more remarkable is the fact that the choir achieved its success while also breaking new ground in a musical genre that fuses classical Indian music with western choral technique.
At the forefront of this new artistic movement is Kannikeswaran, an Indian-American immigrant who’s hailed as the pioneer of the Indian-American Choral movement.
His family, friends and colleagues know him as simply “Kanniks,” a devoted Mason husband and father of two daughters.
To the musical world, however, he is “the magical musician of Madras.”
New doors, new worlds
Born in 1962 in Chennai (formerly known as Madras), India, off the coast of the Bay of Bengal, Kanniks learned the art of classical Indian music much the same as Indians have done for thousands of years – passed down orally, from generation to generation, within families or in music schools known as gharanas.
A spry man with warm brown eyes and a soft voice, Kanniks recalls learning the hauntingly beautiful music of his ancestors at the feet of his aunts. At their suggestion, he began formal music lessons at age 9. By 13, he performed his first concert before a crowd of 500 at a relative’s wedding.
Soon after, he began to tackle learning the Indian violin. But despite his passion for music, Kanniks says his formal music education came to a standstill when he entered the prestigious Indian Institute of Technology – Madras.
“It didn’t even occur to me that music could be a career,” he says wistfully. “Growing up in India, you almost had to study and go into an academic discipline. There was a family focus on getting educated and doing all the right things.”
Kanniks found a way to pursue his love of music in other ways throughout college, learning the guitar and forming a band that played older Bollywood hits.
He graduated IIT with a degree in engineering and, in 1984, arrived at the University of Cincinnati, where he would go on to earn graduate degrees in engineering and business.
Moving to the United States opened new doors for Kanniks.
He purchased a radio, marveling at the availability of music broadcast 24 hours a day, and listened to new and different musical styles while working in his lab. After discovering the Public Library of Cincinnati offered a wide selection of records, he became a frequent patron, discovering new composers and musical genres.
“It was only after I came (to the U.S.) that I realized there were so many possibilities,” Kanniks said.
“I don’t know if I would be myself if I had pursued a career in India.”
Breaking new ground
Kanniks wrote his first composition in 1988. After taking classes in MIDI technology and recording, he purchased a computer and set about creating his first album. “Tiruvarangam,” a contemporary musical rendition of the Tamil hymns of the Alwars. It was released in India in 1991, where it received rave reviews from Indian critics and film directors.
“I realized the joy of sharing music, talking about it, explaining the nuances of Indian music and how it related to various other musical forms,” said Kanniks.
He formed the Greater Cincinnati Indian Community Choir in late 1993 and set about working on his first full-fledged musical production, “Basant – A Musical Celebration of Spring.” The choir of about 20 Indian members performed two shows before a sold-out crowd of 2,000 people at UC’s Kresge Auditorium.
Emboldened by the success of his “experiment,” Kanniks dreamed of an even larger production. A chance meeting with director Catherine Roma – a professor of music at Wilmington College and the minister of music at St. John’s Unitarian Universalist Church in Clifton – led to a shared collaboration between the two choirs.
Billed as a musical salutation to the planet Earth and presented as part of the 1996 WorldFest, “The Blue Jewel” brought together more than 150 artists in a 70-minute multicultural production featuring Western and Asian instrumentalists, dancers from West Africa, Ireland, the Philippines and India, and multimedia elements.
The monumental production was not without its challenges. The score incorporated elements of Indian raagas with chants in languages such as Sanskrit and Hebrew with elements of choral and orchestral harmony – a synthesis of musical traditions and languages new to both choirs. Kanniks also had to tailor rehearsals both to the Indian choir members – who learned by ear – and to the Western choir members, long used to printed scores.
“We started at ground zero, because we had to get a way for Western people to grapple with the music,” Roma said. “We – and Kanniks especially – were constantly reworking things to see what worked and what didn’t work.”
“The Blue Jewel” received acclaim from critics and community leaders, and was performed again to sold-out crowds in 1997, 1999 and 2008. Its success led Roma to declare Kanniks “the magical musician from Madras” for his technical skills in blending together different cultures and traditions into spellbinding artistic representations of global community.
It’s a moniker that humbles Kanniks.
“Cincinnati is our home now,” he said. “It makes a lot of sense to share what we have with others and learn from our fellow Cincinnatians. It’s a gift to be surrounded by many different cultures.”
In the wake of the terrorist attacks of 9/11, Kanniks and Roma met again to collaborate on a piece that would bring together people from diverse communities through music and dance in an attempt to foster understanding and peace. The result was “Shanti: A Journey of Peace.”
“It’s the idea of realizing your oneness with all of civilization and the entire universe itself,” Kanniks said.
Considered to be Kanniks’ magnum opus, the multimedia musical journey weaves its way through 5,000 years of Indian cultural history. It is hailed as an oratorio based on raagas (melodic framework) of Indian classical music that combines choral and orchestral harmony.
The musical theater production brought together more than 100 singers from the Greater Cincinnati Indian Community Choir, the St. John’s choir and the Martin Luther King Coalition chorale in multiple sold-out performances in 2004 at UC’s Great Hall. Repeat performances in 2006 at the Aronoff Center for Performing Arts led Cincinnati Mayor Mark Mallory to declare March 25, 2006, as “Shanti Day” in Cincinnati.
The production has since been repeated by 900 performers in three different cities before crowds of more than 9,000 people.
“Singing in a group produces such a different energy,” said Mukta Phatak, a choir member who performed in “Shanti.” “Indian classical music is usually a solo performance or performed in a group of two. This is one of a kind.”
“Kanniks created an entirely new medium,” Roma wrote in a letter supporting Kanniks’ nomination last year for the Ohio Governors Award for the Arts.
The American Dream
Another multimedia production, “Chitrum – A Portrait of India,” premiered in 2005 as part of the Asian Cultural Festival at Wright State University. The production, which explores the diversity and plurality of Indian culture, has been performed in Cincinnati, Detroit, Tampa, Minneapolis and is currently in production in Toronto, Canada.
In 2010, Roma invited Kanniks to perform in the sixth annual World Choir Games in Shaoxing, China, as part of SingCincinnati, a regional ensemble of 27 performers. The choir, which included daughter Vidita, won two silver medals in the Gospel & Spiritual and Popular Music categories.
“We were blown away when we went to China,” he said. “We were part of the American dream.
Kanniks signed on as a member of the music advisory committee of the seventh World Choir Games, held this past summer in Cincinnati – the first U.S. city to host the global event. It seemed only appropriate to showcase yet another Cincinnati first, the nation’s first Indian-American choir.
The group, whose members range in age from 17 to 62 and speak eight languages, began preparing last October with twice-weekly rehearsals. Family and friends stepped up to support the choir as rehearsals intensified, helping members design costumes and bringing food.
Rathish Mohan, who moved to Cincinnati in 2009 to study at the University of Cincinnati and joined the choir earlier this year, said the group’s preparations remind him of an elaborate Indian wedding.
“I’ve made so many friends,” he says. “It’s not just the music; it’s a big family.”
The choir performed in two categories in the prestigious Champions category.
In the Music of the Religions category, the choir blended ancient Sanskrit chants for peace, as well as contemporary compositions written by Kanniks, paired with cello, tabla and piano accompaniments.
The group faced its largest audience – 2,600 – at the Aronoff Center for the Performing Arts in the Scenic Folklore category. The arrangement, which included choreographed dancers, featured an arrangement of liturgical verses and those written by Kanniks. The performance earned the choir a spontaneous standing ovation.
“It was so moving,” Kanniks says. “At that time, if we won a medal or not, it didn’t matter. We moved the audience.”
Judges award gold, silver and bronze medals. Kanniks can still remember the tension as the choir of amateur and lay singers awaited its fate as an international panel of adjudicators rated it against hundreds of the best choirs in the world. Then, as two silver medals were announced, a sense of validation.
“As soon as the names were announced, it was a feeling of elation … we placed!” says Kanniks. “It’s not about performing and getting something in return. It’s a feeling of gratitude.”
The choir’s win at the World Choir Games not only marks a victory for the trailblazing choir, it helps further global visibility for the new genre of Indian choral music, Kanniks says.
“Our work is also beginning to inspire the blossoming of more Indian community choirs,” he said.
“Choral culture is big in the West. It is only a matter of time before choral culture catches on in India both in both domains – classical and popular music.”
He added: “I hope the message of universal connective-ness is conveyed by what we are doing. Let’s take the best of both worlds and find what’s common between us and build more meaningful relationships.”
Back at St. John’s, the chatter has died down.
A tanpura drones in the background as choir members take their places for rehearsal.
Whirring fans offer little comfort in the sweltering sanctuary as Kanniks leads the choir through vocal warm-ups but no one seems to mind.
After all, the eighth World Choir Games in Latvia are just two years away.
ABOUT INDIAN MUSIC
Unlike Western music, which is based on a complex, ever-changing harmony, Indian music is based on a melody or rhythm and allows for greater improvisation. At the heart of Indian music is the raaga, a melodic framework that forms the basis for all Indian classical music.
In Sanskrit, the ancient Indian language, raaga literally means “color” or “mood.”
Raagas are usually performed at a set time of day or season with the intention of evoking specific moods. The Malhar raaga of Northern India, for example, is said to be so powerful that when sung, torrential rains pour from the sky.
Classical Indian music boasts two styles: Hindustani music, which is prevalent in the north, and Carnatic music, practiced in the south.
While the two styles have evolved over the centuries, both are monophonic, follow a melodic line, and use a drone, or tanpura, to maintain the melody. Musicians perform while seated on mats on the floor, and, depending on the raaga, performances can range from 30 minutes to upward of an hour long.
Kanniks Kannikeswaran is hailed as the pioneer of the Indian-American choral movement. He holds advanced degrees in engineering and business. works as a consultant in information technology, and teaches musical theory at University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music.
Kanniks founded the American School of Indian Art in 2005 and travels the nation giving talks and seminars on the theory and history of Indian music.
He has written 10 full-scale theatrical performances, including the critically acclaimed “Shanti: A Journey of Peace,” which has been performed in three cities. He is the recipient of the 2011 Ohio Heritage Fellowship in Performing Arts and McKnight Fellowship.
Kanniks lives with his wife, Jayashree Kannikeswaran, and daughters Vidita and Sukhita Kanniks in Mason.