Last night at the Navatman Music Collective’s sold-out show at Symphony Space, choir leader Roopa Mahadevan took what otherwise would have been a pretty generic blues riff and transformed it into shiveringly melismatic, sultry R&B, echoed by guest tenor saxophonist Pawan Benjamin. Not something you would expect at a performance of centuries-old south Indian classical music.
There was another point where singer Shiv Subramaniam took a series of flying leaps from his crystalline low register to a spot much further upward, his voice a comet tail of grit and overtones. Then there was the split-secomd where Preetha Raghu’s brief vocal solo hit a sudden spiraling climb, Mahadevan closing her eyes and shaking her head in wonder that another person could create such beauty with just a brief flurry of notes.
There were thousands of similar moments during the carnatic choir’s epic, magically shapeshifting performance. The Navatman Music Collective are one of three carnatic choirs in the world, and the only one in this hemisphere. If you think that playing one rapidfire, microtonal volley after another on, say, a sitar, is challenging, try singing that in perfect sync with seven or eight other people, some of whom may be an octave above or below you.
Obviously, the reason why carnatic choirs are so rare is that in Indian classical music, there’s no need for more than one voice at a time to sing the melody line. While this group is shifting the paradigm by introducing harmony into the equation, they didn’t do that at this show: this was all about spine-tingling solos, and group improvisation, and spellbinding interplay between the voices, Anjna Swaminathan’s elegantly swooping violin and Rohan Krishnamurthy’s precise, emphatically reverberating mridangam rhythms.
And as easy as it was to get completely lost in much of the music, this group has a sense of humor. That became apparent right off the bat after the stately cadences and tantalizingly brief solos of their first number, an original by Subramaniam utilizing an old Sanskrit poem about a new bride feeling completely lost in her in-laws’ house. Singer Asha Unni was in the middle of what was actually a spot-on description of how its deliciously distinctively Indian microtones differentiate from the standard western scale when Subramaniam and Raghu winkingly interrupted her, shifting the conversation from music theory to the dilemmas among newlyweds across cultures and centuries.
Relevance means a lot to this crew, underscored by a lilting suite by 19th century Tamil composers Papanisam Sivan and Ghopalakrishna Bharan whose subtext was the struggle to abolish the caste system in the midst of a murderous invasion by the British. That number turned into a launching pad for various types of improvisation: Mahadevan’s rapidfire microtones, Parthiv Mohan’s precise, majestic cadences and Subramaniam’s unearthly mesmerizing leaps and bounds. More than once during the show, Mahadevan emphasized how new and often radical this repertoire once was – like the elegant, lush waltz, a real rarity in Indian music, which ended the ensemble’s first set.
Indian mythology is a trip. Another Sivan piece illustrating the Monkey King, Hanuman and his fixation with Lord Rama was more lighthearted, as were Subramaniam’s artfuly interwoven raga themes in a new arrangement of an ancient Kalidana piece depicting Lord Shiva slumming among the peasantry.
The group really picked up the pace at the end with a tongue-twisting display of takadimi drum language: turns out that Sahasra Sambamoorthi, best known for her work in dance, has daunting vocal dexterity to match her footwork. The group closed with a similarly spectacular round-robin of solos. As singer Shraddha Balasubramaniam explained, the title of the group’s latest album An Untimely Joy refers to how great music transcends time even as a particular era’s most fearless musicians take it to new places. As lavish as this concert was, for this group that seems to be no big deal.
And you can learn to do this too: the Navatman organization also runs a Manhattan music and dance school.