A Thrilling Centerpiece to This Year’s Drive East Festival of Indian Music

by delarue

High-voltage Indian vocal and instrumental group the Navatman Music Collective played one of the year’s most exhilarating concerts as part of this year’s Drive East Festival last night at LaMaMa, a sold-out performance in celebration of the release of their new album An Untimely Joy. Although each member got at least a couple of turns out front to dazzle the crowd with their voices and their chops, their de facto main soloist, Roopa Mahadevan, reaffirmed her status as not only one of the most spellbinding singers in New York but in the entire world. With her pulsing, minutely inflected melismas, powerful low register and the occasional dramatic flight upward, she displayed thrilling command of classical carnatic styles from throughout the ages, in addition to ghazals and theatre music.

The rest of the group pretty much did the same. What was most striking right off the bat was how far they’re pushing the envelope. They opened counterintuitively with the kind of coda typically associated with a dance theatre piece and concluded with what Mahadevan said was one of the alltime bom diggity ragas, and she wasn’t kidding. The strong baritones of Vignesh Ravichandran and Kaushik Ravi anchored the music, usually hovering an octave beneath the kaleidoscopically timbred voices of the women: Mahadevan, Kamini Dandapani, Bhargavi Khamakshivalli, Prettha Raghu and Shradda Balasubramaniam. Kavi Srinivasaragavan negotiated the music’s tricky rhythmic shifts on mridangam, while 17-year-old violin prodigy Harini Rajashekar wove meticulous, often plaintive lines amid the dynamic, often joyously dancing melodies.

Perhaps ironically, the night’s most riveting moments came not during the most ecstatic peaks but in a brooding, low-key mini-epic that Mahadevan began slowly and plaintively. Tali Rubinstein’s flute spun eerily baroque-tinged lines against Camila Celin’s stark sarod while guest tabla player Ehren Hanson engaged Srinivasaragavan in some subtly wry rhythmic jousting.

The early part of the show quickly rose from a raptly enveloping medieval piece to a new arrangement of a classic carnatic theme featuring some stunningly unexpected harmonies and intricate counterpoint making its way throughout the choir, akin to a mashup of Thomas Tallis with classic Indian themes. The night’s most epic work was a torrentially rising and falling new piece by Ravichandrana and Mahadevan, featuring the full ensemble along with Celin on acoustic guitar. There was also an ecstatic raga made famous as a film theme, opening with a stunningly dynamic, melismatic solo vocal from Mahadevan, along with a stately ghazal with Kamaikshivalli taking the lead.

They brought everything full circle at the end. Hearing the voices in unison delivering the kind of shiveringly precise, minutely wavelike phrases commonly associated with the sitar reminded how carnatic music is the foundation of the Indian classical canon. Long before there were sitars, people were doing the same thing with their voices, which is actually more physically demanding than merely playing it on a fingerboard. That this group challenge themselves to take this music to yet another level testifies to their collective fearlessness and irrepressible joie de vivre.

The Drive East Festival continues through Sunday at LaMaMa, 74 E 4th St. between Bowery and 2nd Ave. Tonight’s performances begin at 6 PM with carnatic instrumental ensemble Akshara, featuring sensationally eclectic violinist Trina Basu.