Kala Ramnath is an Indian classical violinist from a lineage of 7 generations. She was awarded the Sangeet Natak Academy Puraskaar in 2016, Rashtriya Kumar Gandharva Sanman in 2008 and the Pandit Jasraj Gaurav Puraskar in 1999.
It was a real pleasure to hear Kala’s thoughts about music based on her lifetime of experience and dedication.
WM: Today I’m very excited to welcome Kala Ramnath to the show. I’ve admired her beautiful violin playing for many years and it’s great to have you here, Kala.
KR: Thank you. Thank you for having me.
WM: Well, I always like to start off with wondering how your music training started? And from what I know your grandfather started introducing you to music? I’d just love to hear what that experience was like in that time, your first exposure to music.
KR: So, I don’t know if you know, I come from a family of musicians. I’m in the seventh generation in my family. So in my house everybody plays the violin. And I started on the violin, when I was two years old. And they started me on the normal size violin, because they didn’t have any small violins in India then. So my grandfather would hold the violin and the bow. And I would, with my tiny hands hold the bow and just bow. I couldn’t hold the violin. My hands were too small. So, he would hold the bow and I joined him and I would act as though I bowed it. So it started that way and it was only for maybe two, three minutes. I couldn’t do more than that because it was heavy and then slowly… You know, I started building stamina. I just kept playing, increasing my time a little bit more and more and more. And by the age of seven, I was playing full fledged. Yeah, but actually I have pictures of me when I was four years old, the violin is bigger than me up here. I think it’s on the internet too. You see, that’s how I started and I guess I had an affinity for music, because I did not complain. And as I grew up I started enjoying it more and more.
WM: Well, your seventh generation from a very musical family, I’m sure music was always just a part of your life growing up. But I’m curious, even though you were holding the violin at such a young age and playing it, was there a point where you really knew that music is what I want to do and what I feel called to do? Was there like a certain time where you remember that?
KR: At the age of seven. When I heard… I learned from Pandit Jasraj, you know, when I heard his recording on the radio… When I used to return from school, you know, this used to be playing. So when I heard him, and there was another maestro called Kishori Amonkar. She was a singer. And whenI heard them sing, I felt “if music is this beautiful, this is what I want to do in my life.”
WM: So it was through Pandit Jasraj-ji’s vocal?
KR: And also, I wanted to play like my aunt, because I idolized her.
WM: Wow, that’s amazing 7 years old you knew that that would be your path.
Well, you’ve had a very amazing career as a performer. I mean, you’ve played all over the world, and when you were beginning, was it stressful? Was it fun? Like how was it to begin your life as a performing artist?
KR: I started when I was 12 years old as a performing artist. And I didn’t have fear of the stage or the audience. So I guess I was a natural on stage, because I had no fear. But otherwise, I’m very scared of everything, even a cockroach or I mean, I was scared of dogs, now I’m not scared of dogs, but I was scared of everything… But on stage I wasn’t scared.
WM: Well that works.
KR: I guess I was not stressed when I had to go on stage. I guess that’s because of the amount of practice one puts in. Then you are confident of that. I think that must be it.
WM: And, you know, touring is difficult, sometimes you’re traveling and you’re busy and you’re trying to get the preparation and then to play raag music, you really need to be in a calm state and you need to be collected. I’m just wondering if you were, say on tour and you only had like 20 minutes to sit with your music before going on stage, what would you do in that time? If you have only a little time to prepare what best gets you ready for your performance?
KR: So I can give an example here… Once I was in Montreal and I finished my concert the earlier day in Montreal. And then I took a train to Toronto. And the train got late. So, the concert was at five, six o’clock or something, I don’t remember the time, but I had very little time. I landed at five. So then I knew that it was going to get late, I’m not reaching there on time. I kind of told myself, “there is no hope in panicking and nothing is going to happen if I panic.” I’m just going to stay calm, whatever time it takes to get there. But once I’m there, I will be ready to give my best. So what are the things I can do? Maybe I can dress up on the train? And then I can go there and just go straight on stage, that’s the only thing I can do. So, there is no point fretting and fuming that “oh I’m getting late” and getting upset about it. So that’s how I am. I am calm. If I missed a flight or a train, I missed it. I did my level best. I missed it. So it’s not that if I had to go to the airport, I wind up at the airport late. No, I take time to be there at this point in time. But even after doing all that, if things like this happen, then it’s a stroke of fate, it’s not my mistake. So that’s how I am. I’m kind of calm. And I tell myself “let me think about the music.” I don’t need to think about these things that are happening. Though they do keep coming up, I calm myself down saying “no, no point. Just take it easy.”
WM: Now, I know that for many musicians including myself, this music is like its own form of devotion, prayer and meditation. And for me, I identify more with music than even a specific religion. And I’m just curious, if you have some thoughts to share on how you relate to music, as like a spiritual practice or a form of devotion. How does that feel for you?
KR: Okay, so this is what I’d like to say; when I play the violin, nothing else bothers me. Then I can forget this pain you know, extreme pain, and there could be something really dreadful happening like, I don’t know, something can happen like an earthquake or something but it won’t affect me. When I’m playing I’m there in that zone. I think that is what is meditation, prayer or whatever you want to call it. So, that’s how I am when I play my music. I also, like before I go on stage, I always dedicate it to the Almighty and say “If I play well, then all the credit is yours.” And I also kind of threaten him saying, “If I don’t play well, then the credit also goes to you. So you better make me play well.” So whatever I do, I feel when I’m sitting and performing it, I’m not doing it. Because if I’m able to touch everybody’s heart in the audience, then that cannot be me. It’s the music, and it’s some higher power which is making that reach the audiences.
WM: Yeah I’m finding this to be a beautiful theme in a lot of my interviews that something I’m passionate to share with our listeners is, you know, us as artists, we are like a vehicle for something greater than us to come through and that’s what music is, it’s a channel. I like to share that with people who maybe aren’t, you know, music students. It’s a very deep and important concept.
KR: Yes, because the minute that I am that ego comes in there, you lose it. If you think you’re doing it, no you’re not doing it. Because there are many times when I’ve heard my own recordings and I felt “was that me?” I’m surprised. “Was that me?”
WM: I’m curious, you know, having studied Hindustani music for many years. If you can kind of summarize, like points, say the first 10 years, the second 10 years, the third 10 years. And what kind of things started to be shown to you that you didn’t see in the first 10 that you saw in the next 10 in the next 10, because for me as a student, like many people we study rag yaman in the beginning. And I am always seeing new things and it never fails to expand or just inspire me and so I can only imagine that a long life of study there may be so many things that come…
KR: Yes. So the first 10 years. What I felt I did was get good at technique. And the next 10 was when I started performing. The next 10 years of my life as I had already started performing. So when I used to play initially in those initial five, six years, my family- my aunt, my grandpa would say “bring in some feeling to the music.” I would be so irritated at them thinking, “what the hell should I do? I’m just playing it right!” So then, I lost my dad. My father passed away and it was a big setback to the family. And I still remember the day I think I started feeling the music was; I missed my father and then I was playing. And I had tears in my eyes. And I felt “oh this is what they meant when they said bring in feel into your music.” So that was my second ten year phase. And the third 10 year phase was when I was performing, I would say in the second 10 years, I would plan my performances.
WM: You would choose which rag and composition.
KR: Exactly. And what I would play and that you know, in the beginning everything was kind of planned completely from the beginning to the end. But slowly in the second 10 years, towards the end of the 10 years I started loosening up and I could do things, like I could change rags…You understand? Then the third 10 years, I think it started even in the second 10 years, towards the end. Like, I was figuring out my own style of playing. What I could do, what I could not do, what I could change, what I could not change, what I felt had to be changed, and how to change. I think the next 10 years went on that. So you’ll see me evolving as a musician better and better and better. That is what I feel, I did. And, when I look back at my first 10 years, whatever I played. And today, whatever I play. There is a huge difference. The same yaman sounds, “oh my god is that me!” It’s so bad. [laughter]