This year, the Drive East Festival of New York had the privilege of coming to San Francisco for a week of power-packed performances by Indian classical musicians and dancers from around the world. Featuring double-billed shows by artists of high caliber, the Drive East Festival is an immersive experience into the creative world of the arts. The second evening of the Drive East Festival in San Francisco featured a performance by Navatman Music Collective, a New-York based vocal choir whose singers are all trained in Carnatic Music. They perform traditional Carnatic songs with a contemporary twist, imbuing their sound with harmonies and authentic self-expression.
Navatman Music Collective began their performance with “Mayilae”, a unique varnam in the raga Guhamanohari. This song beautifully describes a heroine calling out to different animals and elements of nature, urging them to listen to her woes. The choir continued their performance with a mélange of thirupugazh verses in praise of Lord Muruga composed by Arunagirinathar. The intentional shifts in pace from one section to another made this a more upbeat number in the first half of the performance. The third piece of the evening was “Isane Koti Surya”, a composition of Muthu Thandavar in Nalinakanthi. A soothing raga alapana preceded the song, which was followed by Kalpana swaras by vocalist Shiv Subramaniam and violinist Anjna Swaminathan. A mellow soulful number well-performed by the entire chorus of coordinated vocalists.
The main song of the concert was “Sharavana Bhava Guhane”, a Papanasam Sivan composition in Madhyamavati. The alternating raga alapana between artistic director Roopa Mahadevan and vocalist Bhargavi Kamakshivalli was a true testament of their talent and creativity in Carnatic Music Improvisation. The krithi was beautifully rendered by all vocalists and was followed by vibrant Kalpana swaras by Roopa Mahadevan, Shiv Subramaniam, Vignesh Ravichandran, and Anjna Swaminathan. The improvisational energy among the artists and the intricate rhythmic sequences in the swara patterns were a pleasure to hear, for folks familiar and unfamiliar with this art form. Supplementing the kanakkus of the vocalists and violinist was Rohan Krishnamurthy, whose thani avartanam added a cherry on top of this wonderful center piece.
After the brisk main piece, the choir continued their show with melodious heart-rendering slokas from Kalidasa’s Meghadhootam or The Cloud Messenger. Particularly noteworthy were the production elements of the singers holding small lamps in their hands with minimalistic lighting onstage, which combined to create and set a spiritual feel for the subsequent musical numbers.
The next song was Ajapa Jaap, a Kabir doha in Hindi set to the seven-beat cycle of Misra Chapu. This lilting Charukesi melody included soul-stirring harmonies that layered above one another, highlighting the beauty of this raga. The alternating vocal canons and percussion accompaniment by a tabla player for this song were subtle touches that enhanced the musical experience of this song. Navatman Music Collective concluded their performance with a lively Thillana in Basant Bahar, a raga whose nuances and diverse flavours the team of singers highlighted through characteristic phrases of the scale.
In their performance, Navatman Music Collective presented the perfect blend of spirited and soulful songs in the Carnatic tradition in a unique vocal concert. Featuring a restaurant-themed format that interspersed some moments of comedy, the showcase of various ragas and talas in this ode to Lord Muruga was a clear display of this choir’s musical talent, creativity, and potential.