Imagine yourself seated in an auditorium where the curtains open to reveal a set of 150 saree- and kurta clad-singers poised to sing. Imagine their combined sounds and chants in Sanskrit, with the sounds of Indian ragas mingling with a symphony orchestra and reverberating through the audience in a truly cross-cultural musical experience. This is how Shanti: A Journey of Peace began.
I could not help but reflect back on how our journey began, including a pinnacle performance in 2016 at the Interstake Center in Oakland, where Bay Area Indian community singers sang with the Santa Clara Chorale, a 25 piece orchestra under the baton of Choir Director Scot Hanna-Weir, accompanied by dancers from all over India, coordinated by Sangam Arts. The event was hosted by the Dharma Civilization Foundation as a fundraiser for Graduate Programs in Hindu Studies at the Graduate Theological Union at Berkeley, California.
Dr. Catherine Roma, a peace and social justice activist in a coffee meeting with me at Starbucks in downtown Cincinnati back in 2002 told me, “Kanniks, you should write a new musical piece – themed on Universal Peace – and you should get us all to sing in it. The world post-911 is so disturbing. An epic work like this will bring much healing.”
Since 1996, I had been dreaming up an oratorio that would reflect 5,000 years of cultural history of India. The Indian cultural ethos to me is synonymous with the quest for peace – the quest for a state of oneness where there is no feeling of otherness. Cathy’s request was almost a decree to me to put into sheet music all the ideas in my head.
Little did I realize then that what I was about to write in 2004 would get performed 12 years later at the Mormon Temple auditorium in California, celebrating the establishment of a Chair for Hindu Studies at the Graduate Theological Union, Berkeley, CA.
I still remember the very first rehearsal in 2004 when an almost impossible 80-member Indian choir in Cincinnati combined forces with the Martin Luther Coalition Chorale and singers from St. John’s Unitarian Church. Layer after layer of sound built up as the sopranos, altos and bass/tenors added their part to an aalaap in raga yaman sung by the Indian singers. Sargams and taranas hit the skies. A thundering cadence sung by a 120 voices left us spellbound in awe.
And this was only the beginning. When the strings, winds and timpani joined us in late April 2004 in a rehearsal we manifested soundscapes that had only existed in my imagination. And then the dancers joined us; the freshly woven attire from India added a level of formality and we performed Shanti for the first time on stage in 3 packed shows in the first week of May 2004. In Cathy’s own words, “The electricity we generated engendered an understanding of life that can only come from this kind of cultural work.”
I am still amazed at how fresh these memories are and how my goosebumps that suddenly formed happen every time we rehearse the invocation to the river Ganga, no matter which community it is that sings the music.
Much has happened since we performed Shanti in 2004. The Shanti experience has been re-created through this colossal production and through many other small and large productions in 16 cities in the US and in the Hague in Europe.
I reflect with gratitude thinking of the first sounds of the tanpura and the first alignment of new groups of voices every time a project begins to take shape. What is it that makes the first sound so special? Whether it was Allentown, Pennsylvania, in 2006, Tampa and Houston in 2009, Fort Lauderdale in 2011, Minneapolis in 2011, or Chicago and The Hague in 2014, I bask in the memory of the collaborating sounds of music and feel a profound gratitude. I would like to give special thanks to the UN Choir in Houston and the Indian singers from all over the Houston area and extend my gratitude to collaborating conductors Eric Esparza, Ray Wheeler, Hu Mai and Scot Hanna-Weir.
Shanti proved that we as the Indian diaspora could come together regardless of musical, cultural and linguistic differences and sing in one voice and harmonize with voices from this land. It didn’t matter that the western voices read the music and that we memorized it true to the tradition of the Sruti. Our work caused ancient chants for peace to reverberate through the Masonic Temple in Cincinnati, the Anton Phillipszaal in the Hague and on Capitol Hill in Washington DC.
We continue to deliver this ancient yet timeless Vedantic message through music that all of this Universe is interconnected; it is indivisible, whole and infinite. A perception of this state of oneness is Shanti. We also shine light on the ancient Indian model that allows for a plurality and diversity of faiths to allow us to connect to this one source of it all. How can there not be multiple ways to connect to the source? An acknowledgement of our shared source and the possibility of multiple ways to reach the source readily gives a model for peaceful coexistence on this planet – which is a mere speck in the vastness of creation!
We will continue to sing. We hope to expand our outreach, train choral leaders and build a 100 diaspora choirs in cities around the world. We hope to create a new paradigm in Indian diaspora choral singing that brings ragas, Sanskrit and sargam to the classically uninitiated and opens new vistas in creativity and collective expression.
Please contact me if you are interested in exploring the possibility of bringing the Shanti experience to your part of the planet. We launch our organization ‘Shanti Academy’ to make raga based choral singing available to communities around the world and to share India’s vast cultural knowledge-base with one and all. Look forward to all of us singing together and resonating with the message of universal peace.
May all be blessed with boundless joy.
May all be free from needless fear.
In this world of harmony, may peace and joy prevail.
Also, this holiday season, hear “Carol of the Bells” with an Indian twist.
Kanniks Kannikeswaran is an award-winning visionary composer, music educator, scholar and thought-leader whose pioneering work in the area of Indian American choral music that combines Sanskrit text with choral harmony (now in its 25th year) and uses the transformative power of music to build diverse communities. It has led to the founding of Indian diaspora choirs in over 15 cities in North America and Europe. His opening invocation ‘Mahavakya’ was performed at the historic reception accorded to the Indian Prime Minister at Madison Square Garden. His work with children from the Dharavi area was featured as the finale of INK Talks 2015 in Mumbai, India. He has collaborated with the Cincinnati Chamber Orchestra, the Cincinnati Pops, the Martin Luther King Chorale, and many others. He is the founder of the American School of Indian Art, an institution committed to bringing the best of the East and the West to the Indian-American diaspora and beyond.