Maestro Chitravina Ravikiran and the Planet Symphony Orchestra
Music for the World
assimilate a lot. I would say the same goes for the north of the country. The North Indian music actually assimilated a lot of the Persian culture, which is what you
hear today as Hindustani music. That’s more of a Indo-Persian kind of approach. It’s an amalgamation of the two concepts and similar in sounds. Everything is very
similar. Because I have collaborated with Persian artists, I can easily see the similarities between the two. And that is also very well-known throughout the world.
Carnatic was able to assimilate a lot of concepts from even Western classical because some of the Carnatic composers ventured into composing Sanskrit
compositions with Western kinds of tunes. Some popular Western tunes were introduced because we had some guests from the UK for several hundred years. A
bunch of songs are based on simple English and Irish tunes but it sounds Carnatic. That doesn’t mean that Carnatic is never sung that way. It will still be sung with
a Carnatic, melodic kind of approach with some oscillations here and there. But at the same time, a lot of the concepts have been there and we haven’t hesitated to
look out. But at the same time, we are very, very sure it’s only going to be an assimilation that still becomes extremely Carnaticized, so to speak, at the end of the
day. Even some of the Indian Ragas have names that are festive of countries like Cambodia or Persia. Obviously there has been a lot of interchange of knowledge,
even hundreds of years back.”
This innovation led to Ravikiran collaborating with many Western artists since the 1980s.
“I was always fascinated by not so much the differences between the Western and Indian systems, but more between the similarities of the systems,” Ravikiran
said during a trip to Middleton from his native India. “That also led me to see how many of these collaborations or fusions become confusion because we barely
meet and then you try to jam and sometimes you just don’t have enough time for each artist, no matter how great they are, to get a taste of the other side of the
picture. It’s very difficult. I’ve played several concerts like that. You would just get on stage and play. The music could be magical sometimes. But that’s more do to
with the brilliance of the artists rather than actual diligence. Artists do rehearse. There’s no doubt that when we do have the time, we do rehearse. But there are
times when we just go ahead because there are so many scheduling conflicts. One of my most memorable albums was with Taj Mahal, the blues legend. We barely
met, about a half hour before the actual album was to be recorded. Quickly we discussed what was happening. He sang and showed me a couple of things. I said,
‘Just sing whatever you like. I will be able to hold my own.’ That album is called Mumtaz Mahal. It was done by Water Lily Acoustics in Santa Barbara. Within a
couple of weeks, it was a super hit at that time in 1994. It was used by some movie in Hollywood. But what is happening is I played several albums like this with
great artists from different cultures. And then gradually, I started realizing that if we can actually start seeing the similarities and tapping on the similarities, and
create something both systems could start understanding. It would empower all of the composers of both systems, whether it is Indian and Western or Indian and
classical or jazz. The Western tradition is harmonic and the Indian and many Eastern traditions are melodic.”
Ravikiran wanted to bring the two traditions together in a format where all musicians, whether Western or Eastern, would be on the same page. He got his chance in
London, England as it began to prepare for England’s Millennium celebration.
“When I was given the opportunity to collaborate with the artists of the BBC Philharmonic in 2000 — UK was doing the millennium festivities in a big way — there
was an organization called Colosinum,” Ravikiran said. “They anointed me to collaborate with BBC. It was called Melham. I spoke to BBC and said, ‘Why don’t we
create something new like this?’ They were very excited, much to my surprise. I thought they would be confrontive. Luckily, they were extremely open to the concert.
Then I created some harmonization of some of the traditional songs of very brilliant Indian composers who were contemporaries of Beethoven and Bach. The best
part of the development happened almost simultaneously in both cultures. The BBC played it. We introduced the concert as, ‘You are all used to BBC Philharmonic.
Today you are going hear BBC Melharmonic.’ The BBC magazine actually ran a cover story called BBC Melharmonic. Our concert was selected among the top five
out of 2,000 events during the festival. We were reunited for an encore and all kinds of things.”
The fusion of melody and harmony was complete and it was called Melharmony.
Later on, Ravikiran had the chance to formalize Melharmony when he began collaborating with Professor Robert Morris of the Eastman School of Music.
“He got fascinated by this concept because he is also familiar with both cultures and extremely familiar with Indian culture,” Ravikiran said. “He saw the potential of
this as an academic study. We were able to develop a lot of critical groundwork for Melharmony, so a lot of credit should go to Professor Robert Morris for
developing the theoretical framework from a Western standpoint. From the Eastern standpoint, I was developing it. We presented papers, wrote lectures and
attended conferences. Melharmony became a fairly good subject at international seminars and stuff like that. We created sheet music. When I work with a Western
orchestra or jazz musicians, every single note is coded by me and given in sheet music. With jazz musicians, we also improvise a lot. The music structure can be
slightly simpler. But the Western classical, for me to do even a five-minute piece that I can almost compose in real time if it were only melody, I would take a few
months where it is harmonized and arranged the way that I like it.”
It takes a lot of familiarity and knowledge of the two traditions in order to produce Melharmonic pieces lest one tradition becomes subservient to the other or not
adequately expressed. Ravikiran has been a student — not necessarily a master — of both.
“It is and is not complicated to meld these two traditions together,” Ravikiran said. “If you have the knowledge base of the similarities of both systems, it is slightly
complicated. That’s why Melharmony really demands that there is a reasonable working knowledge at least of them. In all honesty, I would never say that I am a
master of Western classical traditions. I am not. That’s not going to be my priority because I want to stay fresh in my output. I don’t want to become another traditional
Western classical artist or jazz composer. So it’s intentional. But at the same time, if one wants to master it also, that is a huge ocean. You approach the project
with a lot of humility and commitment, which unfortunately, I won’t be able to do in this lifetime because I am already committed to something. I’m already married to
the Indian tradition. So I developed a working knowledge of the basic principles that would make it sound palatable. But at the same time, Melharmony by definition,
explores chords and counterpoints with an emphasis on the melodic progression, which is very, very contrasting with the emphasis on harmonic progression, the
traditional approach of the West. Here we shift the emphasis and make it a very clear, well-defined approach that any chords and counterpoints will be subservient
to the melodic progression of the music, which makes it cool for the Western composers too because they are really getting to explore frontiers that they never might
have ventured into. That’s the beauty of it. That’s why a lot of Western orchestras and composers and jazz musicians are also fascinated by Melharmony.”
Maestro Chitravina Ravikiran is the originator of
Melharmony that brings QWestern and Eastern
musical traditions together and served as the vehicle for
the Planet Symphony Orchestra.
Part 1 of 2
By Jonathan Gramling
Everything happens for a reason and sometimes those reasons may not become apparent for 25
years or more. Chitravina Ravikiran, a maestro of Indian Carnatic music, has been evolving an art
form Melharmony that is being used as a vehicle for the world’s musicians to raise their voices and
instruments for the cause of the environmental health of the world and to issue a unified voice about
Ravikiran is classically trained in Carnatic music from Southern India. While Indian classical music
has its roots in music created thousands of years ago, it is still evolving. He has enjoyed evolving
his music and pushing it to its limits and beyond.
“Any tradition is not something that is frozen in stone, whether it is Carnatic or Western,” Ravikiran
observed. “There is always going to be refinement, reformations and even revolutions happening in
every tradition. And to that extent, Carnatic is also absolutely not immune from that. In fact, I would say
that Carnatic is probably one of the much more open-minded systems. It has always been very open in
its approach. That’s probably because of Indian ingenuity. Especially South Indians, they try to
While Ravikiran and Morris have created Melharmonic pieces on sheet music, there is
a long ways to go before it becomes a formal school of music.
“There are no schools that have picked up Melharmony as a formal course of study,
although we did summer schools,” Ravikiran said. “For example, Eastman School of
Music actually did a summer course on Melharmony. It was very well received. I still
need to actually sit down and write some theoretical material that would be a little more
expanded to modules and course materials that can be taught. Of course, my focus is
more as a performer and a composer. Some other time, maybe I will be able to get
some research people to start doing more on that. I can reasonably explain how it is
done, but I just don’t have the time to start packaging it unless it’s elements of a lecture
on Melharmony. At several schools like MIT in Boston, we have done lectures on
Melharmony and also back home in India and in Europe as well. But if I’m going to start
doing full courses for 3-6 months, that’s going to take a different kind of temperament.
Someday, maybe I will.”
In many ways, Ravikiran is a musician for the world. He travels extensively,
particularly between India and the U.S. And he states, with a smile, that his base of
operations is wherever he is working at the moment.
“I am first and foremost a performer,” Ravikiran said. “I have performed in all kinds of
venues, a lot of different festivals. I have made probably more than 100 trips to the U.S.
in the last two years. I performed at the Concert on the Square with the Wisconsin
Chamber Orchestra about 2-3 years ago. We presented compositions of Beethoven and
Mozart along with an Indian composer.”
And perhaps it is his world travels and contacts with so many musicians from all kinds
of traditions as well as having created a musical form, Melharmony, that can speak to
the world’s musical traditions that led Ravikiran to form the Planet Symphony Orchestra
made possible by an increasingly technologically wired world to raise a common
musical voice to warn all global citizens of the universal experience of climate change.
In that, we are one.
Next issue: Climatrix Symphony