South Indian Arts Scene Booms in Silicon Valley

Neyveli Shri. Santhanagopalan headlined a recent concert organized by South India Fine Arts. He sang to a sold out house at the Soto Theatre in San Jose. (Photo: Courtesy of Prasanna Ranganathan)

pARTicipate-button-400x400Silicon Valley has drawn hundreds of thousands of South Asians to the Bay Area in recent years. This influx has led to a massive boom in Indian arts offerings locally, especially music and dance -- and most especially South Indian music and dance.

"If you look through the pages of our magazine, you will see pages and pages of events that are happening," says Vandana Kumar, publisher of San Jose-based India Currents, an online and print publication which puts out a comprehensive calendar of All Things Indian. "This is just for the month of April, and I don’t, in fact, have everything listed."

The listings include music, dance, book readings, lectures and other cultural happenings -- even non-Indian productions that include Indian talent, like Cirque du Soleil shows. "As long as they can make an Indian connection, they can get featured in our magazine," Kumar says.

India Currents has more than 190,000 readers nationwide, 70,000 of them in the Bay Area. 30 years ago, when she started the magazine, Kumar says concerts often happened in private living rooms. That's changed, she says, thanks to Silicon Valley. "The tech boom that happened brought a whole lot of people," Kumar says. "These were people with jobs, with disposable income, willing to pay for tickets."

That's proved a demographic windfall for organizations like South India Fine Arts (SIFA). For the last 37 years, the Cupertino-based non-profit has produced a steady stream of concerts celebrating local talent, as well as headliners from India. "The music is thriving at both ends of the globe," says SIFA President Anu Suresh.

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South Indian traditions

South Indian music is quite distinct from the Hindustani, or Northern style of music Ravi Shankar popularized with Western audiences in the late 1950s, boosted by his superstar student, George Harrison of The Beatles. While both Indian traditions feature ragas (scales) and talas (rhythmic patterns), they employ different instruments and stylistic approaches.

Feel like you need a little primer on Indian music? At TEDxMumbai, Dhanashree Pandit-Rai delivered a fun demonstration of some of the elements of Indian classical music.

Swelling audiences have forced SIFA to start booking for bigger halls for the more popular acts -- as well as compete with younger groups doing the same thing. Other nearby presenters include Kalalaya in Fremont, Sri Ranga Ramanuja Maha Desikan Fine Arts (aka SR Fine Arts) in San Jose, and SanKritiLaya in Cupertino.

SIFA board member Meera Chari is magnanimous about the growing number of players on the scene. "Competition is always healthy, and keeps us on our toes, Chari says. "We have no objection to that." In the same spirit, Suresh adds, "We also try not to overlap the concerts so we can go to each others."

Indian migration to Silicon Valley

Is Carnatic music the next big crossover hit after yoga and Bollywood dance? If so, it’s likely to happen here in the Bay Area. Take a look at the numbers:

According to the US Census, more than 350,000 Indians moved to California in the last 15 years – many of them South Indians – most of them to Santa Clara and Alameda Counties.
According to the US Census, more than 350,000 Indians moved to California in the last 15 years – many of them South Indians – most of them to Santa Clara and Alameda Counties. (Photo: Courtesy of AAPI Data)

Karthick Ramakrishnan, Associate Dean of UC Riverside's School of Public Policy, says the population boom began during the DotCom boom around Y2K, when many programmers from South Asia arrived in the region. "Many of those temporary immigrants ended up staying and applying for green cards," Ramakrishnan says.

As Silicon Valley grew, more Indians came, and as the tech industry's geographic footprint expanded, they began to settle all over the San Francisco Bay Area, as well as in Southern California. (See graphic.) Even so, the South Bay remains the demographic center of South Asian culture.

Anu Suresh says the Bay Area has established itself as a respectable satellite to Indian performing arts. It's become a go-to stop for artists touring internationally. "Today, I think we can proudly say that Bay Area is [the #2] place [outside of India] where all the Indian artists love to come and perform," Suresh says.

The love goes both ways. Packed theaters demonstrate many Indian-Americans want to hear Carnatic music, and they want to their children to learn to play it as well, to connect with their South Indian heritage.

Home grown talent is easy to find

Those with demonstrated talent have the opportunity to take their skills to the stage before an enthusiastic crowd. "Performing at SIFA is sort of a graduation of sorts for the kids who have grown up here and studied classical music and had this immersion," says SIFA board member Meera Chari.

On a recent Saturday afternoon, the opening act at the Soto Theatre in San Jose was a trio made up of local university students. Vignesh Thyagarajan, on violin, is a sophomore at San Jose State. Vignesh Venkataraman, on mridangam (percussion), is a graduate student at Stanford. So is singer Sruti Sarathy.

"We played together since our very first concerts when we were like, 8 and 10 years old," Sarathy says. "So we’re very comfortable with each others’ style."

Like her peers, Sarathy has studied classical Indian voice and violin with local masters, as well as teachers in India, via Skype and periodic visits to see her mentors in person. "There are lots of people learning," Sarathy says. "There are lots of people to practice with, and you just keep getting inspired from watching your peers play and sing. And then we get concerts from India which also keep us motivated."

(L to R) Sruti Sarathy, Vignesh Venkataraman and Vignesh Thyagarajan wait in the wings at San Jose's Soto Theatre before heading on stage to perform.
(L to R) Sruti Sarathy, Vignesh Venkataraman and Vignesh Thyagarajan wait in the wings at San Jose's Soto Theatre before heading on stage to perform. (Photo: Courtesy of Prasanna Ranganathan)

Vandana Kumar of India Currents says Silicon Valley has provided the technology for a truly trans-Pacific cultural exchange. "People are getting training over Skype or Google Hangouts," Kumar says. "It’s brought this world so close. Physically, yes, India is 10,000 miles away. But the culture of India is accessible on your phone."

Can young musicians coming up locally hope to make a career of Carnatic music? "In a warm and fuzzy world, that would be a fantastic future," says Vignesh Venkataraman, who plays mridangam.

Venkataraman currently lives at home with his parents in Cupertino. But he’s getting his masters degree at Stanford in computer science and mechanical engineering. "I like to say that it’ll guarantee me financial flexibility to pursue this stuff, the music, on the side," Venkataraman says.

This weekend, SIFA features two days of classical music and dance More info here.

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