Since its opening in January 1921, the iconic Town Hall in Manhattan has hosted some of the world’s greatest musicians, such as Paul Robeson, Sergei Rachmaninoff, Billie Holliday, Nina Simone, Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen. On a crisp October evening in 1962, it staged what was the first major Carnatic music concert ever held in the United States.
“One of the oldest living musical traditions, with all its color, exoticism, and age-mellowed subtleties, was heard at Town Hall Saturday Night,” The New York Times wrote in its October 8, 1962 edition.
The concert, performed by five musicians from what was then Madras, was part of a tour sponsored by the Asia Society, which was founded six years earlier by philanthropist John D Rockefeller III. Back then, few Americans had any clue about Carnatic music. Even the word Indian was mainly associated by New Yorkers with Native Americans, not with people from South Asia. Yet, a big crowd of 800 turned up at the event, including eminent individuals such as avant-garde composer Henry Cowell and musicologist Willard Rhodes, who was famous for recording Native American music.
Among those in the audience that autumn evening were members of New York’s small Indian community as well as music critic Robert Shelton, who helped launch the career of Bob Dylan. “Enthusiasts have long been trying to woo Westerners to the excitement and mysteries of the Indian raga,” Shelton later wrote in The New York Times. “A lucid set of program notes helps in this respect.”
The group from Madras, which was on a two-month tour of the US, comprised young and promising musicians who would end up becoming legends in the world of Indian classical music. Leading them was 35-year-old Sundaram “Veena” Balachander, who, besides being a musician, was a renowned filmmaker and actor. On the flute was 28-year-old Natesan Ramani. Vellore Ramabhadran, then 33, was on the kanjira, although he was better known as a mridangam artist. Umayalpuram Sivaraman, 26, played the mridangam. And the fifth musician was a thamboura player named Natesan.
Describing the moment the concert started, Shelton wrote, “The curtain parted on a group of four white-robed, barefoot musicians, sitting crossed-legged on a raised platform, around a low-mounted microphone.”
Since Carnatic music was alien to the New York crowd, Balachander gave an explanation of the music and its patterns before each song. What compositions were performed, though, is unclear. For an idea about the set list, a good place to look is an album the group made under the title Sangeeta Madras, which most likely contained compositions from the US tour. Released by World Pacific Records in 1963, it includes Ihaparamenum, Saamajavagamana and a veena-and-flute duet performed by Balachander and Ramani. The album has been digitised and is available on Archive.org.
The New York performance won over Shelton, who was familiar with the work of Ravi Shankar. Describing the concert as “worth 10,000 words”, he said, “The droning of the thamboura set a hypnotic background. Balachander’s deft and delicate fingerwork on the veena revealed a horde of surprises: darting runs and eccentric leaps, purring resonances that trailed off long after his hands left the strings.”
A “13-minute intense drumduel” between the artistes delighted Shelton, who compared the musical jousting to jazz. He wrote: “A Western listener approaches this music with the awe deserved by a tradition older than Western art music, with an appreciation, if not an understanding, of the mystique of a music that is steeped in myth and religion.”
The critic sensed that America was not ready for Carnatic music, but clarified that the concert was just the beginning. “Some day we may all know the differences between the Kalaanidhi and the Karaharariya ragas,” he wrote. “Some day it may enhance our understanding to know the origins of the Indian national anthem, ‘Jana Gana Mana’ or that ‘Naadhavindhu Kalaadhi Namo Namo,’ which means ‘In Praise of the God of Melody.’ But for now, the barriers of different universes of discourse in speech and music are less important than simply venturing into this engrossing world of sound.”
There’s little doubt that Shelton’s glowing endorsement helped the group produce and release their album in the United States.
Three weeks after their performance in New York, the group went to Washington DC for a concert that was sponsored by the US State Department, which believed in “music diplomacy” and sent famous jazz musicians like Duke Ellington to Asia and Africa.
The concert in the American capital did not get much press coverage, but the now-defunct Washington Evening Star did print a small announcement. The paper said the concert was a “Festival of Music from South India” and would be held at the West Auditorium of the State Department on October 26, 1962.
A few months after the group toured the US, mridangam maestro Palghat Raghu travelled to the country as a member of Ravi Shankar’s ensemble, according to The Hindu. By then, American academia was beginning to develop an interest in Carnatic music. The big moment in the popularisation of Carnatic music in the US came when MS Subbulakshmi performed at the United Nations’ General Assembly in 1966 and the Carnegie Hall in 1967.
While the Sangeeta Madras group’s concerts in New York and other parts of the US in 1962 did not bring the young Indians immediate fame, its members went on to have highly successful music careers, becoming household names among South Indian intelligentsia.
Natesan Ramani and Vellore Ramabhadran would both be awarded the Madras Music Academy’s prestigious Sangeetha Kalanidhi. Umayalpuram Sivaraman, who is now 87, went on to receive the Padma Vibhushan and a Sangeet Natak Akademi Award. Sundaram Balachander, who also composed music for a few of his films, was awarded the Padma Bhushan.
This group was the pioneer of Carnatic music in the United States, a country that is now one of the world’s most important centres for the South Indian classical music form and home to new forms of fusion music born of Indian immigration. Unfortunately, very little information is available about their path-breaking 1962 tour in the public domain.
Ajay Kamalakaran is a writer, primarily based in Mumbai. His Twitter handle is @ajaykamalakaran.