N.C. Raga Revival, Saturday, Dec. 8, 7 p.m., free, Cirque De Vol, Raleigh, www.ncragarevival.com
For hundreds of centuries, raga has formed the backbone of Indian classical music, offering a guideline for musicians to improvise when performed live. Ragas—which roughly translates to “coloring”—are still played throughout India and were first popularized stateside by sitar master Ravi Shankar in the sixties, piquing the interest of The Beatles, John Coltrane, Carlos Santana, and others who began to incorporate its stylings and Indian instrumentation into their own work.
Forty years later, raga is now seeing a renewed interest right here in the Triangle. A loose collective known as N.C. Raga Revival has been congregating every month over the past four years to jam raga-style and share a mutual passion for this ancient technique not regularly heard locally. Their sessions are offering a fresh, a modern approach to a centuries-old music—and its popularity has continued to grow.
“It was just a few musicians in the beginning, and I was playing almost every show,” founder Viswas Chitnis says. “Now it’s become so successful, that I play maybe only once a year now as a solo artist.”
Chitnis is a trained sitar player who was eager to find a new outlet in the Triangle to showcase his life-long love for Indian classical music. Having spent years splitting time between North Carolina and New York City, Chitnis became inspired by Brooklyn Raga Massive, a similar group that holds weekly performances and jam sessions of Indian classical music across New York City, and with whom Chitnis would often collaborate.
“The best part of Brooklyn Raga Massive is that it gives people exposure and creates opportunities for people who would have never played together,” Chitnis says. “I wanted to bring that here.”
Chitnis decided to bring the collective’s inclusive, jam session approach to the Triangle and gathered a few local musicians he knew who shared a similar interest. Soon, the word was out, and what started as a jam session among friends began to blossom. Now, N.C. Raga Revival holds monthly shows that include dance and solo performances, switching every month between The Flowjo in Carrboro and Cirque De Vol in Raleigh—spaces that allow the performances to be a welcoming, all-ages, and alcohol-free environment for whoever wants to join a jam session or simply take in the music.
“I know a lot of people just in the Triangle area who have devoted their lives to this music, but there weren’t that many opportunities for them to showcase their skills. The idea was to change that,” Chitnis explains.
Smitha K. Prasad has found the N.C. Raga Revival a welcome addition. Born in Kuwait, Prasad relocated to India with her family during the Gulf War where she began to train as a Carnatic vocalist (a classical style of music from southern India). After moving to the United States, Prasad continued to train and perform, but it was often strictly within the Indian diaspora communities. Then Prasad heard about the N.C. Raga Revival and decided to attend a show. Now she performs with the collective a few times a year.
“I loved the idea,” Prasad says. “[N.C. Raga Revival] gives a space to musicians to have an opportunity to innovate without the fear of how it’s going to be perceived, while providing a formal stage and platform for this experimentation.”
To Prasad, this openness to try new things is a key part of her own approach to music and its survival as an art form.
“Music has to grow beyond geographic, cultural, and religious boundaries,” she explains. “Here in North Carolina, a warm acceptance of Indian classical music has really developed, and it’s been awesome to see that grow beyond who it traditionally appeals to.”
Aarti Dixit, a vocalist in classical Hindustani music from the north of India, found that N.C. Raga Revival brought something unique to the area’s music scene. She also appreciates the collective’s open-minded approach.
“Sometimes, it is great to bring in a fresh element, because not everyone always wants to hear what is traditional,” Dixit says. “In particular, the younger generations have so many other options for music. Adding a little bit of jamming to the mix is a great idea, especially when also coupled with classical Indian music.”
Dixit first attended an N.C. Raga Revival performance a couple of years ago and was impressed. Chitnis invited her to perform, and now Dixit sings with the group every few months.
“Personally, I found that it helped me a lot to sit and sing with musicians who appreciate Indian classical music, knowing that they understand what I am singing and the music itself,” Dixit explains. “I feel so blessed to know them.”
While raga is hundreds of centuries old (in Hinduism, it’s believed to exist naturally in the world and is discovered by humans), the multitudinous ways it allows for improvisation helps raga continue to find new devotees. Daniel Chambo, who performs the bansuri (a bamboo flute), counts himself as one of the many devoted to raga and the versatility that it offers.
“I appreciate the spaciousness and the patience of the music,” Chambo says. “It allows me to step into a more meditative state.”
Chambo hosted the first ever N.C. Raga Revival show at his farmhouse and has been a regular player ever since. He’s even brought his dad along to play banjo in a jam session, which regularly features a mix of players on both classical Indian and Western instrumentation. For Chambo, performing a raga is also a loose form of spiritual therapy.
“With everything being so busy and so much information out there, it gives people permission to slow down a bit and invites them to move more inward with the music,” Chambo says. “When the audience is on the floor and totally zoned out in a catatonic state after I’m done playing, I take it as a compliment.”
Chitnis offers a similar impression on raga.
“The rules from which Indian classical music is created are not the same as the music that is popular here in the West. It requires a little bit of an open heart and an open mind,” he says.
Excitingly for Chitnis, he has seen just that among the growing audience and artists who now join N.C. Raga Revival monthly.
“When I started this, I knew it would be a lot of work. But a lot of people are passionate about it,” Chitnis says. “It’s fun for me to just create this opportunity for others through this organization and get others involved.”