Raised in Detroit suburbs for most of her young life, Sindhu Vasudevan has been earning prizes and critical acclaim as a vocalist in Carnatic music, a South Indian classical style. The junior at Lake Travis High School in Austin, Texas came to our notice about a month ago through a Facebook video of her singing Dave Brubeck’s famous jazz tune “Take Five” and improvising in the Carnatic style.
Vasudevan’s interest in Carnatic music arose when she was three or four and living in Northville. Her mother prepared a traditional Navaratrigoludisplay at home, and her elder brother, who was learning Carnatic violin, used to play songs for visitors. “That year, I insisted that I must sing,” she says. Her mother, Swathy, was surprised, but acquiesced. Vasudevan sang Bhavayami Gopalabalam, an Annamacharya composition made popular by the legendary vocalist, M.S. Subbulakshmi. It went well enough that her mom and grandfather decided to enroll her in the Carnatic class, too.
She began started learning from Smt. Lalitha Ravi in Novi. As she advanced to senior level, Vasudevan joined the class of Sri Jayasankar Balan, a well-known violinist in the area. Since 2016, Sindhu started learning from Smt. Vijayalakshmy Subramanyam of Chennai, through classes on Skype.
She augments her Skype classes every December and in the summers by traveling to Chennai, and doing gurukula vasam— staying as a member of the teacher’s family — with her guru for a few weeks at a time. Vasudevan feels that these sessions help her to explore the music deeply and understand her teacher’s musical lineage and method. She also takes live classes in Austin with Sri C.M. Venkatachalam.
Her home and social environment have certainly helped her Carnatic music growth; she was surrounded by music everywhere. And even then, the rigorous practice required to get a good command of the basics was challenging. However, with her family’s encouragement, she overcame the difficulty and developed her solo practice into a passion. Now, every day, she launches into her practice promptly by 6 a.m.
Vasudevan counts the experience of giving a full 3-hour long concert at her grandparents’ hometown in Palakkad, Kerala, among her most cherished musical memories. She was able to showcase her prowess on solo improvisational elements like alapana, kalpana swaram and neravalsinging. She is particularly thrilled that many in the audience knew the art well, some of them being accomplished musicians themselves, and values their appreciation of her music.
The Indian Scene caught up with this busy young woman by phone. The interview has been lightly edited and condensed.
The Indian Scene: You have been into Carnatic music from a very young age. When did you get introduced to Jazz or any other Western music?
Sindhu Vasudevan: It too started at a young age. Being driven around by my mom, I used to listen to the radio in the car — what you’d listen on top 40 radio stations. Once I started school, I joined the choir in 2nd grade, and I’ve been in choir ever since. I didn’t dabble much in pop music, but I got a deeper look into Western music from a choir standpoint. Through middle school and high school, we got introduced to more complex pieces of music. I began to get to know the music of greats like Mozart. As both the choir and my Carnatic classes dealt with vocal music, I continue to see similarities between the two.
IS: So, you didn’t have any introduction to jazz, formally or informally. Then, this Dave Brubeck piece—how did this come about? Did you hear the original?
SV:Yes, I heard the original piece. Chandana Bala Kalyan (from Mumbai) sang a version in Carnatic style and that video was going viral. It was interesting, but I didn’t particularly care. However, as I continued to listen to both the original instrumental composition and Chandana’s video, something about this piece really pulled me in. I picked it to perform for my choral solo performance concert at school. I wanted to share Carnatic on a bigger stage.
The piece straddled two ragams, Keeravani and Kalyana vasantam. So I built up on the improvisational svara kalpana in both the ragams; that part was spontaneous. Mainly the chorus svaram was taken from Chandana’s but the rest of it my spontaneous improvisation.
IS: What was their reaction?
SV: Our choir director was very complimentary. It felt special because he had exposure to a wide variety of world music. He was always enthusiastic about learning about Carnatic and my pursuit of it. Others heard the original and are familiar with the song, so they were curious about my improvisation. My choir mates started putting khanda chapu talam — I wasn’t directing them or anything. They did it spontaneously. This really tickled me. This was my contribution to popularize Carnatic, and I think I did it with this piece. Show and share my talent and heritage at the same time.
IS: Are you more open to more jazz now?
SV: It opened my eyes and ears to what kinds of music are alike. As I got deeper in choral and then working with this piece, I was really able to see the similarities of diverse music. One can’t bring very separate pieces or very different music together. There has to be some common elements.
IS: You are going to be a junior this fall. On the verge of college, what will happen to music?
SV: I will be double major with one major being music, or, at least, a minor in music or ethnomusicology. I do plan to continue my vocal training with Vijayalakshmy Aunty and with Venkatachalam Mama as well.
IS: Describe your identity. What does being Indian American mean to you?
SV: Born and raised in the Midwest, I was exposed to Indian culture and tradition from a very young age. Growing up in a very culturally-oriented house, celebrating the many Indian festivals, attending religious and cultural community events, lessons in music and dance have exposed me to my roots and heritage. I consider myself fortunate and proud to be an Indian-American because I have been able to blend my Indian background and culture into my everyday American lifestyle. I feel I have gotten the best of both worlds and developed a unique perspective and gained valuable exposure to how different cultures can co-exist.
IS: Who or what inspires you?
SV: My maternal grandfather has been my inspiration since childhood. In spite of not having formal training in music, his love and passion for music sparked his curiosity about ragams, musicians, etc. He has built a huge repertoire of Carnatic music. At the young age of 83, he remembers 100s of krithis, composers and ragams without having any formal music education.
Every time my family visited India, I enjoyed my time at my grandparents’ place. My interactions with my grandpa were mostly around ragams, compositions, musicians, concerts, etc. He would share with me many anecdotes about Carnatic musicians from yesteryears and his experiences from attending concerts. My grandpa is a friend to me and will always be my biggest inspiration.
IS: Did you ever feel pressure and how do you handle it?
SV: I don’t usually feel pressure. I put time and effort into rigorous practice and preparation. I focus on what I can do best. I usually plan and organize my time so I can get everything done. I have a special playlist which I listen to if I ever need to get over any pressure.
IS: What traditions do you value the most?
SV: I enjoy and value any tradition associated with music and dance. For Example, at the Chinmaya Mission in Ann Arbor, we play Anthakshari on Thanksgiving day. I love singing at Navaratri golusand the many music get-togethers we host at our home. Celebrating Indian holidays, especially Navaratri golu, Holi, and Diwali are always fun. I also enjoy Indian weddings – the henna, the multi-color outfits, etc.
IS: Describe the future Sindhu.
SV: I strive to be a musician performing both in the U.S. and abroad. Possibly with a career in the sciences or medical field, balanced with my passion for music and dance.
IS: What makes you happy?
SV: Hiking at Sunset with Rojo (my dog) and my favorite music playing. Hanging out with my friends at school and Facetiming with my friends in Michigan and other cities is something I enjoy. Obviously, singing and dancing – that goes without saying.
IS: What advice would you give others who are trying to progress with their talents and passions?
SV: Dreams are never too big, so always dream big. Don’t go in search of fame or popularity, but pursue your passions. Whatever you want to be – work at it, practice, practice, practice, practice, practice – oh and one more thing – practice.
Flavor of ice cream: Cookies and cream with colorful sprinkles
Actor (Hollywood and/or Bollywood): Will Smith, Deepika Padukone, Hrithik Roshan
Vacation: Anywhere Tropical
Color: I love all colors because I don’t want to hurt the feelings of the other colors.