Sruti at 30 — Some Reflections
M.M. Subramaniam, Dinakar Subramanian,
Uma Prabhakar, Balaji Raghothaman
SRUTI turned thirty on September 14, 2016. In this article, we share some of our reflections on the organization from its humble beginnings to its current stature as the premier institution presenting classical Indian music and dance forms in the Greater Delaware Valley region. Mani, one of the founders and the first president of Sruti, traces the origins of the organization from the formative period. We highlight the two major milestones on the way. The first was the tenth year (1996) gala. Dinakar, who presided over the celebrations, describes the showcase star-studded event. Uma describes 2011, the banner year for SRUTI, marking the silver jubilee year for the organization, during which we were treated to yearlong programs and events of classical music and dance. Finally, Balaji, the current president, brings us up to date with a state of the organization and a sneak peek into the future.
Usually in early spring of each year Carnatic Music (CM) aficionados in U.S.A think about and organize Thyagaraja Aradhana (TA). So did a small group of enthusiasts who met in March 1986 at a community center in Havertown, Delaware County to celebrate the Aradhana. As they gathered around for lunch after the festivities the burning question among them was: big names in CM and Bharathanatyam world like Lalgudi Jayaraman, T.N. Seshagopalan, Padma Subrahmanyam had previously performed in New York/New Jersey, Washington D.C. areas but had skipped Philadelphia that is right smack in the middle of these regions; why and what can be done about it?
A sub group among these enthusiasts decided to meet more formally and brainstorm these and related issues. The invitees included some who in their individual capacities had occasionally organized CM programs in this area. The consensus was that the lack of a structured and formal organization with a set of byelaws and elected Board was the primary reason for these and other leading artistes to bypass the Greater Philadelphia area. The group then resolved to take steps to organize such a society and elected five members to take suitable action. (A complete list of the composition of this and all other committees is available on SRUTI’s website: Sruti.org.) The official name of the organization was adopted as,The India Music and Dance Society; however, it has always been popularly and affectionately known by the moniker SRUTI.
As the committee went about initiating the organizational activities, they were also looking for a highly reputed artist to perform for the inaugural program. And who was on a concert tour of the country but the great M.L. Vasanthakumari! The group jumped at the opportunity. The concert took place on 14 September 1986. Since then 14 September has been accepted as the anniversary date for SRUTI. The large audience of nearly 200 (a very big number those days) who attended the concert confirmed that the organization was on the way to fulfill a keenly felt need of the region. Some of the events that that followed and put SRUTI firmly on the cultural map of the region were the Krishnam Vande Jagat Gurum — bharathanrityam program by Dr. Padma Subrahmanyam (1988), grand CM concert by the great Balamurali Krishna (MBK) (1989), and the highly successful jugal bhandi by MBK and the legendary Bhimsen Joshi (1990). These programs also attracted very large crowds.
While the concerts referred to above were financially successful, the real financial stability was obtained by generous grants from different sources that SRUTI applied to after SRUTI was recognized by the IRS as a not for profit organization (1992). Starting with the Pennsylvania State Council on the Arts, Philadelphia Foundation, SRUTI has been the recipient of grants from many agencies including the prestigious Pew charities, Philadelphia Music Project, Dance Academy.
From its inception SRUTI has strictly maintained firm traditions like starting programs on or close to advertised time, pricing tickets at a reasonable rate, promptly producing and distributing at cost recorded cassettes/CD’s (whenever possible) of the concerts. The committee deliberations were always conducted in a collegial atmosphere with the issues discussed thoroughly until a consensus emerged. Once an issue was resolved, the entire committee worked for its success. The early days featured many top artistes, flute N. Ramani, Maharajapurum Santhanam etc. Then came 1996, the tenth anniversary of SRUTI.
Early in 1996 we realized that Sruti would complete its 10th year of existence in September. We started discussing various options for a suitable celebration. Clearly we wanted to make it a big bash. Our ideas included multi-day or multi-weekend affairs involving big name artist(s). We even toyed with the possibility of getting the legend M. S. Subbulakshmi do a ‘live’ feed from India to a local screen to include her lighting a light.
We formed a ‘gala committee’ to continue with the discussions and arrangements. This committee dove into the project with gusto meeting multiple times a week during certain phases.
We were thrilled when we found that Pt. Ravishankar, yes the legendary sitarist, with his talented daughter Anoushka, would be available in September. We jumped at the opportunity to show case one of the greatest names in Indian classical music. With the encouragement and help of Panditji’s wife Sukanya we firmed up Swapan Chaudhari for tabla.
We also firmed up Siva Sakti, a dance drama in the Bharatanatyam style choreographed by Guru Radha to be performed by Sridevi Thirumalai (a dance teacher from Boston) with her students.
By decentralizing and delegating, we had individuals handling the contact with Sukanya and with Ajay Tirumalai from the dance school. Soon things started falling in place and by June of 1996, we had a signed contract from Sukanya agreeing to Panditji performing for us on September 14, the very day of the tenth anniversary! This was indeed a great and lucky break for Sruti. The contract itself was an interesting read especially on the requirements and exceptions, certainly the first of its kind that we had seen in Sruti.
As negotiations were getting finalized, we started looking for auditoriums. The Valley Forge Music Fair (VFMF) in Berwyn presented itself as a choice. This circular auditorium was unique as it presented the option of a rotating stage. Attractive as this option was, we decided to keep the stage static, just take a portion of the auditorium just beyond a semi-circle and cordon off the rest. For our Sruti members, who have moved to this area after the mid 1990s, this auditorium was razed to the ground in December of 1996 to build a shopping complex.
I feel that the whole experience was a classic case for project management. We had to handle the financial aspect of this program — matching the artists’ fees with the appropriate venue, ticketing structure, the logistics like lodging/transportation for the artists, venue food, and the marketing all of which were intertwined.
We knew that an artist of the preeminence of Pt. Ravishankar would strain our finances considerably. So we approached many members to underwrite part of the expenses in case things did not go as expected. Looking back, I am amazed at the foresight that our treasurer had to seek such guarantee.
There was a proposal to honor Shri T. N. Bala, a well-known Carnatic musician and teacher in the area. After much discussion as to whether honoring anyone would fit into the plan, it was voted to present a plaque to Shri Bala praising his services. The gala committee recommended that we reach out to the founders and other well-wishers of Sruti. In particular, we decided to recognize all the past board members.
We decided to go with tiered seating at VFMF. There was no online purchasing at that time. So a select set of team members was tasked with managing the sale of tickets by geographical region. The master seating chart was constantly updated manually with seats being blocked off — quite a far cry from the automated seating charts of today. We created several versions of the marketing collateral including large and small posters for different needs — grocery stores, music related places such as theaters, record stores. Trips were made to downtown Philadelphia with posters to be left at many of those places. One record shop owner actually said — “Oh Pandit, I saw him during the 70’s.” We were able to get Air India and Devon consulting as major sponsors for the event. The many local organizations such as Triveni, Telugu association, Tamil association helped us promote the event. The library committee brought out a special edition of Sruti Ranjani as a souvenir containing many interesting articles and nostalgic photos from personal collections.
September 14th finally dawned. We showed up in the morning at the Valley Forge Music Fair. The VFMF came to life with a whole bunch of people, volunteers and union workers setting up everything. Later Pandit Ravishankar remarked in the green rooms that he felt transported to the Music Academy when he saw so many Kanchipuram saris. The circular stage though novel was not a very good fit for the dance program but all credit for the dancers who adjusted extremely well to it. Catering was outsourced to Rajbhog restaurant. Mr. Modi, the owner efficiently managed all logistics related to food.
The morning session was the Siva Sakthi program that was well received. The evening program started with a rousing speech by Chief Guest C.V. Narasimhan (former Under Secretary-General of the UN) who came from the DC area. A short history of Sruti was provided and all the committee members who had served Sruti until then were recognized on stage. Panditji was brought to the stage to rousing ovation. He, with his daughter Anoushka, gave a fantastic performance including many South Indian ragas. Swapan Chaudhari’s tabla accompaniment was superb as well. The packed hall of nearly 1400 attendees, the largest ever for Sruti, thoroughly enjoyed the concerts.
The packed hall of nearly 1400 attendees, the largest ever for Sruti, thoroughly enjoyed the concerts.
I recall waiting outside the VFMF with the team after the event as a student of Panditji’s rushed towards us asking for the master tape of the concert. All in all, the celebration was a resounding success. We exceeded our financial expectations. Actually we made a sizable profit providing Sruti the seed for several years to come. Further, it also gave all of us confidence that as a volunteer run organization we can pull off such grand events.
For 25 long years, SRUTI had not only helped our family develop stronger and deep appreciation of classical music and dance, but it also gave us glimpses of the stalwart artists as real people in non-concert settings and helped us develop bonds and friendships with so many of them. Further, our relationships within our community also matured into meaningful and lifelong friendships and interactions. With such history and background with SRUTI and our community, I was thrilled to have the honor and privilege to lead the organization into her 25th -silver jubilee 2011 year and am grateful to our members and previous office bearers to have given me that opportunity. I now look back to those days fondly as I narrate how the year’s events were planned, how they were funded and how they were executed.
Before delving into the details of the silver jubilee celebrations, I must mention that the years leading to this milestone of SRUTI, embraced numerous and significant advances including surveys to gauge patrons feedback from concerts, electronic and disciplined publicity campaigns to advertise Sruti events, efforts to enhance and diversify audience base and outreach, initiation of workshop events to enhance appreciation of the arts and interactions with the artists, identification of funding mechanisms to support the programming and organizing programs that reflected classical music and dance forms from all over India. During the year, the programming was taken to the next level in the number of events presented, the funding raised, the recognition the organization received within the cultural community both in the US and in India and in the participation by the local youth.
During the 25th year, an incredible board comprising a team of dynamic, experienced and a go-getter attitude and, an enthusiastic SRUTI youth group helped plan and execute the year-long events. An ambitious programming plan was initiated way back in the 2010 of May/June. I had envisioned presenting what seemed incredible and perhaps even unreasonable programming to mark the special year for SRUTI. Indeed, rather than having one single special program to mark the event, we went with several special events (25 to be accurate) throughout the year featuring some of the best artists representing the Indian classical music and dance scene today. We also wanted to use this opportunity to showcase the Indian heritage to a diverse audience by having the events in well-known performing centers in Philadelphia and the suburbs. We also recognized local talent that SRUTI had nurtured over the years.
Consequently, we lined up a sensational repertoire of artists such as, Dr. Balamuralikrishna- Ravikiran jugalbandi, Amjad Ali Khan and his sons, Kalakshetra Dance Troupe, T.M.Krishna, Viji Rao, Priya Sisters, T.N.Seshagopalan, Abhishek Raghuram, Kiranavali Vidyasankar, Malladi/Gundecha brothers jugalbandhi, Shantala Shivalingappa, Ragamala, and several others. The Kalakshetra dance and the Malladi-Gundecha jugalbandi performances were presented in North American for the first time.
Indeed, rather than having one single special program to mark the event, we went with several special events (25 to be accurate) throughout the year featuring some of the best artists representing the Indian classical music and dance scene today.
Of course events of such caliber and magnitude come with unprecedented budgets, something SRUTI has not undertaken previously. Our members, supporters, grantors and advertisers stepped up and gave generously to make the planned events happen and we also ended the year with surplus funds- something we really never even dreamed of doing!
Two very high quality publications, the Thyagaraja Aradhana Souvenir and Memorial Day souvenir, ‘Great composers of India’, and the release of a 25th year anniversary CD pack featuring select musical compositions of each and every artist that had performed for SRUTI over the 25 years were accomplishments worthy of mention here. The dedication to the completion of one the publications in a timely manner was exemplified by the overnight drive from Detroit to Philadelphia by the chairperson of the Publication committee just so the publication could reach the printers in time!
The fitting tribute to SRUTI and the silver jubilee landmark year came when the PECO building in Philadelphia flashed ‘SRUTI, The India music and Dance Society celebrates 25 years’ on their Crown lights for all in the city to see (Nov 26–28, 2011) and recognize our beloved organization!
It is debatable as to whether organizations grow up at the same rate as people, but Sruti, at 30, has certainly reached the status and maturity of an adult in her prime condition. We have crossed many a hurdle, and forded many a river, to a point where we are undisputedly recognized as one of the premier cultural organizations in the Philadelphia area. For local cultural beacons like the Pew Center for Arts and Heritage, we have become one of the go-to organizations they rely on for dependable execution.
The year’s line-up was a mixture of established star power and new emerging lights. We started the year with the talented Amrutha Venkatesh at the Tyagaraja Aradhana, and followed up with an unusual vocal-piano combination of Sikkil Gurucharan and Anil Srinivasan.
The biggest event of the year in terms of scope and breadth of activities was Saayujya, by Priyadarsini Govind and T.M.Krishna. Saayujya was indeed a complex effort, spanning a week, and including many outreach events, rehearsals, and interviews, culminating in the final performance at the Annenberg Center that was attended by 835 people. This was the first time Sruti had been involved in commissioning a new piece.
A magnificent concert by Sanjay Subrahmanyan followed, where he kept the audience spell-bound for three and a half hours. A moving performance by the 86-year-old doyen, Dr. T.N. Krishnan, rounded out the spring calendar. The sights and sounds of TNK mama performing non-stop for 2 hours, with such grace and ease and a smile, will be one of the unforgettable aspects of the year for me personally.
The fall line-up included the uber-traditional Vijay Siva, followed by Bombay Jayashri. We then went back to the marvelous St. Mary’s Church once again, this time for a Sarangi recital by Harsh Narayan. The last big event of the year was a tour-de-force lecture demonstration by R.K. Shriramkumar, on the life and art of Smt. M.S. Subbulakshmi, as a celebration of her birth centenary.
One of the heart-warming aspects of my association with Sruti has been the increase in emphasis on nurturing the local talent base. As part of the MS centenary lec-dem, we arranged for two groups of kids to be taught by Shri RKS to render MS amma’s favorite numbers. In addition to this, the Bala Bhavam series, started last year (2015) under the initiative of the then President, continued apace this year. This unique concept provides opportunities for talented local youth to give long-format concerts/performances on the Sruti stage. We had a Bharatanatyam performance (Rumya Venkateswaran), and there will also be two vocal concerts (Akshaya Raman and Shreya Srinivasan) on Sruti Day.
As we continue our growth, we make inroads into the collective consciousness of the wider population. Our outreach activities clearly show the trajectory of this growth. The Penn museum requested us to an outreach to their summer camp kids, and Madhavi Ratnagiri rose to the occasion. During the Saayuja week we had dance and music outreach events at U of Arts and at Curtis, that were packed with students and with scintillating discussions. The Harsh Narayan concert also had the feel of an outreach event, with almost 100 people of non-Indian origin attending.
One of the developments that provide a stark contrast from the prior major anniversaries, has been the rapid invasion of social media into our lives. Sruti has done a reasonable job of keeping up with the times. Facebook and Twitter are both used as major platforms to propagate our information, in addition to the website and email. A blog, Sruti Smrti, was started a couple of years ago, but is now dormant. One of the ongoing tasks at Sruti will be to continue this evolution into digital online media effectively, while at the same time retaining our identity as a classical arts organization.
Another aspect that the organization has to come to terms with, is that, with the growth and maturity of the Indian diaspora in this region, the number of avenues of cultural activity are also growing, and so are the demands on people’s time and money. Sruti will need to keep its stamp of excellent quality, and continue innovating, in order to retain its position in the long term. I am sure that we are up to the task, and that the future is bright.
SRUTI, The India Music and Dance Society is a non-profit organization based in the Philadelphia region and founded in 1986. Sruti’s principal mission is to promote and present Indian classical music and dance. In addition SRUTI seeks to educate the Philadelphia community at large about Indian arts. Follow SRUTI on Facebook.
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