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Don’t let this diminutive lady, sitting cross-legged in her sari and bindi, fool you. Kala Ramnath with her hands on the violin can set any stage on fire. From jamming with Ray Manzarek (founding member and keyboardist for The Doors) to building moments with her music in Leonardo DiCaprio’s Blood Diamond to performing with the London Symphony Orchestra and the London Philharmonic Orchestra, Kala has been adding her north Indian classical touch to every realm of music.
t2 caught up with the 46-year-old violinist hours before she took the stage on the Calcutta Club greens with one of her many bands, Global Conversation, featuring jazz saxophonist George Brooks.
You seem to have a band in every continent!
Oh yeah! India doesn’t have concerts during the summers and monsoons. Everyone goes to the US and so did I and I seemed to have a good career in the West. So now I operate out of Bombay and San Francisco wherever I go. Global Conversation is my band with George (Brooks) on saxophone in the US. It’s about jazz and Indian music together. I have another band with George and Gwyneth Wentink, who plays the harp, called Elements . That has jazz, Indian and Western classical coming together. I work with flamenco and western classical musicians in terms of symphony and philharmonic orchestras in Europe, and in South Africa I have Raga Africa where we perform a blend of Afro-jazz and Indian music.
What are your origins? How did you end up in such an offbeat, unconventional and cool career?
I’m originally from the south. My ancestors are from Kerala but I was born in Chennai and that’s where I grew up. I’m the seventh generation in my family who’s into music. My ancestors were court musicians in Travancore but from the time of my grandfather, the idea of court musicians fizzled out and from vocals it veered towards violin. I took to north Indian classical music because my grandfather felt I should. I got started on the violin when I was two years old. On nobomir din during the pujo of 1969 is when he got me started on my music. In Kerala, every family worships a goddess deity and therefore Durga pujo has had a big significance for our family.
I’ve also lived in Calcutta for six years and that has been a very important phase in my life. When I moved to Bombay I was a full-fledged artiste but it was in Calcutta that I blossomed into a good musician. I trained under Pandit Jasraj. This place has so much music in everything. Even boys playing para cricket, the ball thrown feels like Bhimsenji’s taan!
And how did you happen to enter the Hollywood studio?
I was in the US in 1996 and had a student called Michael Robinson (composer and musicologist) who told me, ‘Kala, I’d like you to play with Ray Manzarek.’ I had no idea who Ray Manzarek was! So I called my cousin and asked him: ‘Have you heard of Ray Manzarek? I went to his house, we had a jam session and I’m playing a concert with him.’ He almost fell out of his chair and went, ‘You mean The Doors? Do you even know how big he is?’ And then he sent me all this stuff about The Doors and their songs. So I played at the concert which was called ‘Indian Summer’ (named after the Jim Morrison song from the album Morrison Hotel), my first experience of collaborating with someone so big. And I didn’t even know who he was! A similar thing happened when I was asked to play for Blood Diamond (the Leonardo DiCaprio thriller that won him a nomination for best actor at the 2006 Oscars).
I was at a world music concert in Montreal once where I was going to play a kajri and usually when you play a kajri it rains, which I did announce before starting out. It was a day of clear skies and as I started to play, it actually went dark, started pouring and the entire concert was a washout! This was heard and witnessed by an Iranian couple who were supposed to play after me but couldn’t because of the rain. Later when they started an art gallery in Los Angeles, which was frequented by all the actors and directors from Hollywood, they wanted me to come and perform there.
So I played there and Morgan Freeman was there to listen to me. By the way, once again I didn’t know who Morgan Freeman was! And with him was George Acogny who was the music producer of Blood Diamond. He was in tears when he heard me. He was literally weeping when he came up to me and said, ‘You’ve changed my life, I’ll email you tomorrow.’ So he emailed the next day and said he wanted me to record for Blood Diamond. And James Newton Howard (American composer who has scored for Batman Begins, I Am Legend, The Dark Knight and The Sixth Sense), the music director for Blood Diamond, had sent me a stretched limo to fetch me from the airport!
Tell us about stepping into Leonardo DiCaprio’s world and building the mood for Blood Diamond with your violin!
So James Newton Howard was there at the studio. They would play me scenes, give me chords and allow me to improvise and they canned about three hours of what I played. I remember war scenes with people running, some with Leonardo where he was in a hotel, one where he’s standing and shaving. Throughout the film they made me play and the challenge was to follow the sudden changing of the chords. You have to be very alert because they’re split-second changes. It had to complement the chords, not clash.
Weren’t you intimidated by the scale of the project?
No, since childhood I’ve never been intimidated by music or meeting people. It comes from a supreme confidence in what I do. Everywhere people read music and play but the quick translation of what I hear into notes and ragas, I can do in a flash because of my training in Indian classical music. But the only time I was a bit intimidated was when I went for the premiere of Blood Diamond in Bombay with my mother and brother. There were so many people and so much of media. All talking and questioning. Seeing the crowd I ran back home! My mother was mad! I’m a quiet person, I like my anonymity and that big crowd was too much for me (laughs)!
And how did your violin get termed as the singing violin?
I don’t know who coined it but if music is divided into singing, instrumental and dance, singing is regarded as the highest form. I don’t play instrumental style but play vocal style in totality. I’ve imbibed that thoroughly and in sync with what a vocal musician would do. It helps me reach out to the audience and tug at their heartstrings.
What is the difference between what you play as an Indian classical violinist and the way the violin is played in the West?
First thing is the posture. That’s different. Also the tuning. In western music, it’s all staccato, Indian music it’s about the slides and glides in between the notes. That’s the basic difference. In the West they are fascinated by this fact, that a violin can sound this way. That’s my USP.
Do you see the scope for your violin in Bollywood music?
You know, I don’t like the fact that whenever there’s a sad scene in an Indian film, they use the violin to project the mood. Violin is not a sad instrument. It has varied hues. I don’t like to associate myself with anything that’s sad. I feel that the violin could be explored much better to express happiness, romance, joy, excitement. Violin is multifaceted.
So what’s the next big thing on your cards?
I’ve just started the Kalashree Foundation in Calcutta. When I went to Hungary and Venezuela I found 100 per cent literacy in music. The government trains slum children in classical music and they go around the world performing. I thought I should also gift the children in our country music. So, I’ve picked some music teachers who have started visiting NGOs to reach out to underprivileged children. We’ve devised a five-year curriculum where every genre from western classical to Indian classical to jazz from reading, writing to playing music will be covered so students can later decide what they want to pursue.
Oh, and a year ago I got an email from Eric Clapton’s manager that he had heard my recording and liked my music. I was jumping around when I got that email because for a change I knew who and how big Eric Clapton was! I responded that I would love to collaborate with him. Let’s see what happens.