A Journey to Bring Peace Through Music

pruthvi śāntir antarikshagam śāntir dhyau śāntir diśa śāntih
diśa śāntir avāntaradiśā śāntir agniśāntir vāyur śāntihi

(May there be peace on the earth, the skies, space, in all directions and in the elements)

With this invocation, 150 voices joyfully soar in the oratorio Shanti, a Journey of Peace, singing of a connected world where there may be many ways to reach the source, but there is no concept of the “other” and we are all united in a state of oneness.

This ambitious choral work, augmented by dance and multimedia, is the creation of Dr. Kanniks Kannikeswaran, (fondly called Kanniks) and makes its premiere in the Bay Area on April 30, 2016. A blend of Indian and Western voices, Shanti is composed in a unique style developed by Kanniks, a blend of Indian and Western choirs with support from instruments and dance performances.

“My work is strictly based on harmonizing Indian ragas,” explains Kanniks. He is very particular about maintaining the structure and purity of the Indian ragas while writing polyphony for them. Kanniks uses the foundation of Indian classical music, particularly Hindustani classical music, to create a new sound that combines Indian and Western voices. “We have our way of singing with a little bit of ornamentation and voice texture,” he notes. “Our voices are trained to sing a certain way. When you combine our voices with the traditional Western soprano, alto, tenor, and bass sounds, that’s when you get goosebumps!”

Kanniks, who is trained in Carnatic music, gave his first vocal performance at the age of 13. A graduate of IIT Madras, he arrived in the US in 1984 to pursue a Masters in Materials Engineering and later an MBA in Information Systems. He began attending Western classical concerts out of curiosity and was spellbound by the music as well as the discipline of the performers. He taught himself Western music theory and MIDI and began experimenting with his new sound.

“Western composers have tried to incorporate some elements of Indian classical music,” he says. “But the music still has a Western approach, with just a feel of the raga – or an Indian sound in places. My compositions are written from an Indo-centric perspective.”

To his surprise and delight, he has been able to integrate many more elements into his creations than he thought possible to begin with. “When you talk about Western music you are talking about a range of frequencies that are available through various instruments. I visualize a length of an alaap (the improvised section of a raga) then support it with voice layers which harmonize without hurting the raga. On top of that I add layers of strings, woodwinds and even percussion like timpani and brass. They are all playing different things but the unified effect is what gives you chills.” The orchestra and Western voices he uses to enhance the ragas are not standalone pieces; they provide support and depth.

Kanniks created his first piece Basant (Spring) in 1994 in Cincinnati, where he lives and works as a consultant in the field of data warehousing and analytics. Basant was performed with a group of young, amateur Indian singers and accompanied by a Cincinnati church choir and local orchestra.

“Working with Western musicians was quite a learning experience,” he recalls. For one, the musicians could not abide the constant drone of the tanpura, an instrument used by Indian musicians to keep the pitch. Taken aback initially, Kanniks came around to their point of view. “I figured the Goddess Saraswati would not be offended if we switched it off,” he laughs.

He also realized that he could not rely on any improvisation on their part. “The entire score has to be written down and fixed,” he says. “It is comforting to have Indian musicians who can just wing it based on your instructions, but with Western musicians you have the satisfaction of knowing that the sound will be exactly the same each time and delivered perfectly.”

He also quickly realized that unlike Indian performers, Western musicians were very disciplined when it came to rehearsals. “If I had a rehearsal from 9 am to 11:30 am, the musicians would troop in at 8:50, start tuning their instruments and be ready to begin at 9 sharp. At 11:30 they would just pack up and leave, even if we were in the middle of a piece.” Unused to this behavior, Kanniks put it down to rudeness before realizing that this was, in fact, professionalism!

How does he come up with the themes of his compositions? “I think that even with my very first piece, Basant, my effort was to find unity through ragas and conveying the message that together we are bigger than the sum of our parts, though I am better at articulating that message these days!”

His second piece, The Blue Jewel, conveyed how the environment is sacred to us all, no matter which culture we come from. Film slides played during the performance captured the wanton destruction of the earth by human beings, while ragas with diabolical or devil’s intervals, sung by the choir, suggested the discord the environmental destruction had brought about. The piece ended on a message of hope and a prayer that we could correct course and respect and restore the blue jewel of the Earth. “When you want to show something big, music alone is not enough,” says Kanniks, who uses multimedia in nearly all his performances.

One exception is his Ragas in Symphony, which recently had a sold-out performance in Dallas. “It does not have a story line like Shanti,” explains Kanniks. “It is just about the changing of the seasons. We start out by holding the sacred sound of cosmic energy – Om. It is from this energy that everything manifested. You and I and everything else are a manifestation of this un-manifest reality. When we sing the piece we get in touch with this reality.” Ragas in Symphony also debuted the Nightingale Overture, a composition by Kanniks that paid tribute to the work of M.S. Subbulakshmi, the acclaimed Carnatic vocalist.

Shanti, A Journey of Peace, is Kannik’s most ambitious work. The musical extravaganza features both Indian and Western vocalists, a Western orchestra, multimedia support, and several dance troupes that bring the music to life. This synthesis of Indian and Western music in choral form is a new genre by itself.

Here is an excerpt of a previous performance of Shanti

Indian classical music, despite its beauty and complexity, has no choral or, for that matter, no vertical elements to it. “Indian classical music is about individual self-expression,” Kanniks points out. “There is no word in North or South Indian music that signifies a concert, a coming together of musicians.” Indeed, the closest modern word for a musical performance in South India is “Kachcheri” which is derived from an Urdu and Hindi word meaning “court,” signifying the patronage of musicians in the king’s court. Kanniks’ creations, therefore, forge a new path for Indian music.

“Here’s what I would like to leave behind,” says Kanniks when discussing his legacy. “Maybe one day we can have 100 choirs in a 100 cities. Each choir has a leader who I mentor. I create hundreds of taranas(melodies) with these harmonies that are performed by these choirs. Eventually each choir becomes self-sufficient.”

“My dream is that when the city hall is celebrating Diwali, this choir is invited to perform. We become part of the musical landscape. And when a newcomer moves to a city and they want an opportunity to sing, they find this organization and join.”

“To begin with, I will be the source of the music and provide the template. In another 10 years people familiar with the music will start writing their own compositions.”

Kanniks’ dream is well on its way. He has founded and led community choirs in 10 cities in North America including Cincinnati OH, Bethlehem PA, Dallas TX and Washington DC. He has expanded his work to Europe (The Hague – Netherlands). Now he brings his opus Shanti to two venues in the Bay Area, supported by a devoted and enthusiastic set of Indian and Western musicians and performers.

To experience the magic of Shanti – A Journey of Peace for yourself, check out http://www.dcfshanti.org/performances/

Performances are at 5 pm and 9 pm on April 30, 2016 at Flint Center in Cupertino and at 7 pm on May 21, 2016 at the Interstake Auditorium in Oakland. There is a special 50% off promotion going on the 5PM show on the 30th of April. Please avail of this discount using the discount code ‘MAR’ at Ticketmaster, accessed through the link above.

(Full Disclosure: I am one of the singers in Shanti! My experience with the rehearsals has been enormously uplifting and I often find myself humming the tunes while going about my day’s work. There’s something to be said about having a head filled with music, isn’t it?)

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