Can Carnatic music retain its soul when experimenting with other genres? Are musical traditions richer or weaker as a result? New England-based musician Deepti Navaratna offered much to ponder during her "Carnatic Cadenzas" concert in Keefe Tech Auditorium, Framingham, on March 8. The event was Navaratna's first major concert under the Carnatic Alchemy Project, a nonprofit organization she founded to expand the reach of Carnatic music to diverse audiences. The concert also celebrated the release of her CD titled "Ka," a selection of Carnatic-inspired contemporary music. The event established Deepti Navaratna as a creative force in music.
The concert began in traditional style with Manikya Veenam, an invocation to Goddess Saraswati, and Nammamma sharade, both of which highlighted Deepti Navaratna's extraordinary control over her voice. K.V.S. Vinay, on the Carnatic violin, and Mahalingam Santhanakrishnan, on the mridangam, provided solid support to the rendition. One of the gems of the concert came early in the form of Yaduvamsha, which Navaratna referred to as her "first experiment." Delivered in the semi-classical style of a thumri, the song acquired a devotional quality while maintaining its Carnatic melody. A great match for Navaratna's voice, this Carnatic thumri spoke volumes for her ability to improvise. With Rajesh Pai on the tabla and Dilip Acharya on the harmonium, Navaratna's interpretation of this song has the makings of a classic in its own right.
Throughout the concert, Deepti Navaratna utilized different genres ranging from Hindustani classical to Turkish music to Western classical. Her choice of songs attested to the depth of research involved, and the artists she chose to collaborate with were noteworthy as well. Krishnam Bhavayami and Dil dhoondtha hai stood out more for poet Sunayana Kachroo's assured delivery of her own lyrics that accompanied the songs. Although Navaratna included traditional pieces such as Srimannarayana, Prabhu kar sab dukh door humaare and Lalgudi Jayaraman's Desh Thillana, she was at her best performing songs that displayed her musical innovation. For The Raaga Gypsy, she combined a Turkish folk song with Lalgudi Jayaraman's Sri Jagadeeshwari in Ahir Bhairav. This unlikely pairing was a risky move, but Navaratna's skilful vocals and Rajesh Pai's ultra-smooth transitions on the tabla made it work. New England Conservatory musicians Abby Swidler and Jacob Means provided excellent support on the Western violin and the mandolin respectively for Vande Meenakshi, another gem of the concert. Delivered to rousing applause, this song, which married Mozart's Symphony No. 25 with Muthuswamy Deekshitar's composition, offered more evidence of Navaratna's vision.
If the concert was any indication, Deepti Navaratna's training in Carnatic music and her association with New England Conservatory position her uniquely to contribute to the cause of the Carnatic Alchemy Project. The CD release ceremony that followed the concert provided ample evidence of the support that Navaratna enjoys in the New England region. Dr. Manju Sheth, Anu Chitrapu and Dr. Pradeep Shukla were among the numerous familiar names who felicitated the artists. "It takes a community to raise an artist," Navaratna said, referring to the support as she thanked the audience at the end of the evening.