MITHILA SARMA

The former artistic director at zerOclassikal is not new to breaking a few rules. After innovating a totally fresh take on the Veena, bringing an ensemble of three veenas to play together, she went ahead making a piece called ONE and touring it nationally.   Initially seen as a ‘gimmick’ by  conservatives, it worked (!), turned a few heads, brought new audiences and now there is serious consideration for a girl veena band concept ..

 

We’ve heard of kids picking up a guitar, trampling chords on a piano, how come the Veena?

Actually, the first instrument I picked up was the Carnatic Violin. I saw my cousin play and begged my mum to take me to lessons when I was roughly five years old; but before I knew it I was suddenly going to vocal lessons, Bharathanatyam lessons, piano lessons and finally around the age of seven, my mum took me to my first veena lesson. As a first generation Sri Lankan refugee, living away from your roots it’s the first thing you do –  educate your kids in your cultural heritage. I still remember my first lesson at my Guru’s house in East Ham. I’m not sure exactly when I fell in love with the instrument but it was the one that immediately took and over time, as I got better at playing the veena, the others sort of unintentionally fell away.

So where was growing up? What was it like?

I grew up in East London and currently still live here. We moved from Newham to Redbridge so that my brothers and I could go to better schools as our education, not just formal, was very important to our parents, who didn’t have the same opportunities back in Sri Lanka. We grew up in a melting pot of different cultures and we had opportunities to experience Carnatic music right at our finger tips from the number of Tamil schools and private music teachers surrounding the area to the opportunities to perform at temples and community halls that were regularly organised by our community.

How did it feel for a young girl going to school in East London and then going home to carnatic music lessons – did it feel like a conflict?

I guess I can’t really remember there being a conflict, but I do remember being woken up before school to make sure I memorised my pieces before getting to school. My mum was a big driver of my musical education and for her I think sometimes it was more important than my school education.

I was lucky that I went to schools that embraced our cultural differences and if anything, I had more opportunities in school as well as outside because I played the veena and this motivated me to keep playing classical music rather than explore other avenues. Also, I guess I aligned my subjects with my interests as studying music is something I did at GCSE and A Level.

We’ve had music styles and expressions by new waves of south Asian economic migration, for instance we had Bhangra in the 80’s from the Punjabi migration, then we had ‘Asian Underground’ in the 90’s from London’s East End Bangladeshi community, do you see your music (carnatic) in a kind of a similar wave?

I haven’t really thought about it in this way but I guess there is considering the influx of Sri Lankan migrants and refugees in late 80s and 90s that have led to second-generation children having carnatic music lessons as a way of preserving their culture and heritage by their parents.

However, it is still at its early stages as I feel that there is not yet an industry to support British South Asian classical artists.

In your new work ONE – you are experimenting with bringing three Veena players together, what was your thinking for it? How did that come about? 

Often the veena is overshadowed by the Sitar and Violin, which are both more well-known to the Western world. My biggest inspiration is Jayanthi Kumaresh and her Mysterious Duality album which consisted only of the veena with every part played by Jayanthiji herself, led to the idea of ONE being formulated as a live performance using three veenas. It was about experimenting with the sounds of the veena that are rarely heard and to explore the full range of the instrument beyond the typical vocal-led compositions within Carnatic music. It was also about incorporating chords and harmonies not used in Carnatic music but in a way that is so suited to the nature of the Veena.

 

With Pradeepa Sivanthiran and Shyla Shanmugalingam who formed the trio for ONE

As former artistic director of zerOclassikal – you were shaping south Asian classical music to a different palate and expecting a different approach from an artist? Is that unique mindset you see developing for yourself and future artists of this genre?

I think it is important to showcase your own identity within your music but it is up to you how you do this. We’re growing up in a world where so many diverse influences are available to us and there are many ways in which you can interpret and use these influences as an artist. Within zerOclassikal, it is about exploring what it means to be British and changing mindsets so that we look outside of the ‘traditional’ or ‘cultural’ and purely focus on exploring and testing the boundaries of what is ‘classical’. It is about changing the context around the music and showcasing what the music becomes when looked at through a British mindset.

For artists looking at it in this way, the music suddenly becomes really interesting and another sort of challenge from what we are usually battling with like trying to master a raga or improve our improvisational skills!

 

So has zerOclassikal captured something unique —  is it at some cusp?

Certainly. ZerOclassikal has come at a time where there is a great pool of talent however the mindset has very much been about preserving the culture within South Asian classical music and not breaking boundaries. Even simple requests like not asking musicians to wear traditional clothing when performing has caused discussion and concerns and so it has really begun to change perspectives of musicians and audiences. It will be great to see what South Asian classical music looks like in 20 years or so!

A key thing about the project’s success would be to see more professional artists engaging with the mainstream arts sector. Also how young classical artists voice their expression and experiment with their identity and statement.

 

Photography : Tahmina Begum

 

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