The Spirited Kings

Posted on April 30, 2013

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This trio of Indian-American siblings have a prodigious talent for Indian classical art forms.

The King siblings—as they are collectively called—have been moving in Chennai’s performing arts scene for many years now. The boys—Sean and Anish—are skilled violinists, while the youngest, Anuka, devotes herself to Bharatnatyam. Born in New Jersey and having lived both in India and Bangkok, the trio have been raised with a mix of American and Indian cultures. Although their American side is apparent in their accent and demeanor, their passion for the Indian arts is remarkable for people as young as they are. Despite pursuing degrees in the US, the boys accompany Anuka and their mother, Priya, to Chennai each year to perform in festivals and train with other artists.

A former dancer herself from a musical family, Priya always wanted her kids to be involved in music and dancing. “It was a way to keep them rooted in their culture,” she says. While her American husband John has no background in music, he is also supportive of their endeavours. “I lived in India for five years and picked up a lot on the culture. I have attended a lot of performances, so from that point of view, I can appreciate the form. But I am still learning,” he says.

With all their academic responsibilities and extracurricular activities, the King siblings have in their mother a manager and publicist, juggling their schedule and handling the press. “When it comes to your own children, you have to step out of that boundary, and you tend to be a little bit harsher on them. Coordinating their timings and practices was tough,” Priya says.

But none of the siblings have any intention of making a career out of music and dance. “This is something that is there at the core, but they are quite interested in pursuing a variety of things outside of music,” John says. “And if it were to happen,” Priya adds, “I would lay it all out and ask them to think through the pluses and minuses of being a full-time musician.”

In our interview, the talented trio share stories of their jugalbandhi and their love for traditional Indian art forms.

FROM MUNCHKINS TO MUSICIANS

At the time of this interview, Sean and Anish were back from the US for Christmas vacation. The eldest, Sean, 21, will graduate from Johns Hopkins University this year with a degree in biomolecular engineering. The dry-witted Anish, 19, is pursuing computer engineering at Columbia University. The two have been playing ever since they were in elementary school in India. A decade later, they have each given over 30 recitals and performances in India, Bangkok, and the US, with the most recent being at the Indian Cultural Centre Bangkok late last year, where Anish sang for the first time.

What was it like growing up in a mixed household?

Sean It is great to be able to grow up in an environment where both your parents are from different cultures. Because you get that perspective, you develop more holistically. My dad is really into tennis and sports. My mom is into music, and I have been able to develop both.

Anish I felt I got the best of both of cultures. My dad, though he doesn’t speak Tamil or understand the lyrics, definitely supports the music.

How did you develop an interest in the Carnatic violin?

Sean I got started after watching the play, The Wizard of Oz, at the American International School in Chennai. They had an orchestra playing, and having heard that, I was [determined] to take up violin lessons. It’s quite funny because it wasn’t classical Indian music that got us into violin. It was Western classical. Living in India is what got us into Carnatic. After moving to Bangkok, I started learning Western classical as part of the music programme at International School Bangkok (ISB).

Anish I chose to be a munchkin. So I just followed him. He is a good role model.

What is the difference between Carnatic and Western violin?

Sean The ragam [tune or scale] is something that is very unique to Carnatic music as opposed to Western. There are just so many ragams, and new ones are being invented constantly. Unlike Western violin where there are many parts, in Carnatic, there is only one part. We can add our own improvisations or interpretations of the ragams. So there is room for creativity.

How is the music scene in India different to that in Bangkok or the US?

Sean At our last performance at the ICC, we got a nice crowd—a mix of our alumni, our teachers, as well as a few people who had read about it in the newspaper. I feel like they definitely enjoyed it. It was a very different crowd from Chennai because the rasikas [connoisseurs of Carnatic music] that come to our concerts have higher expectations. It has been very tough to keep up while we are not in India. Even in the States, there are not that many teachers. That’s why we always go back to India, because there you have the Carnatic Club. Bangkok does not have too many youngsters who are into Carnatic music. In the US, there are many, and they practise together. It’s a very different sort of approach to learning than what I have seen in India. In India you are under your teacher or guru. In the US, there is a lot of community learning. I find that very effective, especially when I am practising with my friends.

What was your arangetram [first formal performance] like?

Sean Our first full performance was in Chennai. For that, we made sure we were well-prepared and understood the 72 base melakarta ragams. We put together a full repertoire with a nice mix of ragams and thalams [rhythms]. It was a big step for us.

You often play together. How does that jugalbandi go?

Sean Actually, that is the biggest challenge—playing duet instead of solo—because of differences in opinion. For example, how a song has to be played or how many times different sangathis [variations on a sung line] should be repeated. Sometimes while picking the songs, we have to compromise.

Anish But I always win.

Have you ever had any missteps during a concert?

Anish There was a time when I thought I was going to skip a beat. It was during a concert in Singapore. The guy who was playing the ghatam [a clay pot–like instrument] dropped his mic into the pot and was unable to get it out. I couldn’t control my laughing, but I somehow managed to pull through.

Sean Once my teacher was messing around with me. He was trying to get me to pay attention and poked me with his bow. So out of reflex, I accidently cracked his bow.

What are you plans for the future?

Sean I am graduating in May, so before I start working, I want to go on an adventure. Preferably to South India. Palghat in Kerela will be my first destination. It is supposed to be the Carnatic hub.

Anish I am interested in computer engineering and research.

What are your goals in terms of music?

Sean I definitely want to get into accompaniment. I feel like that will help me become a stronger violinist and soloist.

THE DANCER’S EXPRESSION

Anuka, 17, the youngest of the trio, gave her first dance performance at the age of eight. The disciplined and graceful dancer is shy, but quick to get back at Anish’s gentle teasing. Proficient in ballet and sharp at chess, she is also a violinist, but claims not to take it seriously, even though she was chosen for an inter-school cultural convention, where she played in a travelling orchestra around Asia—something Sean and Anish were also a part of during different years. Classically trained by renowned teachers in India, she is also passionate about the sciences.

What was it like living in India for the first five years of your life?

During the time we lived in India, I picked up Tamil. My grandmother lives there, so I feel that Chennai is my home, too. I learned dancing there and also chess. We  know the mythological stories through comic books, so there is a lot to relate to in Indian culture.

What inspired you to take up dancing?

My mom introduced me to it. I remember the first dance classes I had. I enjoyed going because my friends were there. In my arangetram, I didn’t know if I was any good or not, but I liked it. I did a lot of practice and was very motivated to perform on stage. Before the performance, I would see a video of myself, and I’d look at the corrections that I needed to make and what I needed to do to get the steps right. My mom, being a dancer, also taught me.

What are your fondest memories of dance?

When we visited the North, I learnt how to do the Kalbelia [Rajasthani folk dance]. I think I saw it on my first trip to Rajasthan. The spinning was really nice. I even had a tailor stitch me the costume. What I had learnt from these professionals, I later performed it in my school.

Do you have any memorable performances?

I like all my performances. But the one that made me feel like I had matured in my dancing is the performance I gave in 2012. In Bharatanatyam, there are two components, the nritya, which is the footwork, and the abhinayam, which is the facial expression. Usually, dancers are not able to express themselves facially. Only the professionals or well-known dancers are able to do the abhinayam very well. To get to that level shows that you are pretty accomplished. I showed that in my last performance.

What is your annual show in Chennai like?

I only do one full two-hour performance a year because it requires a lot of stamina and energy. During these events, a lot of dancers perform, so the audience is very small, and they rather go watch the people they know. When you work really hard, and four people show up, it’s discouraging. But the few people who do turn up give good feedback and are supportive.

You have performed for Her Majesty the Queen of Thailand. What was the experience like?

I got the opportunity from an ambassador who saw me dance for a South Indian Diwali function. He really liked my dance and thought I could perform for the queen. I was eight years old, and it was a solo. Maybe I didn’t realise [at the time] how important the queen was. I found it like any other performance.

Would you like to collaborate with your brothers?

We are planning to do something where they play the violin and I dance. We have seen this combination before. There is this dancer who dances while her brothers sing. So they could do that with the violin. But it has to be innovative, because typically an orchestra accompanies a dancer. It is always that the dancer is on the centre stage and the musicians on the side.

What are you career goals?

I am currently doubling up on science in school, so I would like to pursue something related to science, such as biomedical engineering.

Featured in Masala magazine, April 2013, Thailand

For original PDF click The Spirited Kings

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Posted in: People