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Indian Classical in Cleveland

The Cleveland Thyagaraja Festival is the largest Indian classical music festival outside India. 

If your travel plans bring you to the United States this spring, be sure to put Cleveland, Ohio, on your itinerary between March 28 and April 8, 2018, for a one-of-a-kind immersion in Indian classical music. 

It may seem like an unlikely location, but since 1978, the midwestern city has played host to the Cleveland Thyagaraja Festival, which has become one of the largest Indian classical music festivals outside India. 

The festival was started by two families seeking to promote interest in music in the local Indian community. After its first year, the festival moved to the Cleveland State University campus, where it continues to take place today and draws international performers and audiences.

The festival is held in honor of Thyagaraja, one of “the most prolific” composers of Carnatic music, says Gopi Sundaram, a core volunteer of the Aradhana Committee, which plans and organizes the festival. Sundaram’s father, V.V. Sundaram, is the co-founder and secretary of the Cleveland-based committee. The festival was modeled on the one held in Thiruvaiyaru, Tamil Nadu, the birthplace of Thyagaraja.

To celebrate Thyagaraja and other popular Carnatic composers like Muthuswami Dikshitar and Syama Sastri, “the vast majority of our programming is Carnatic music concerts, featuring many of the top musicians in the field from India,” says Sundaram. “We also make it a point to feature lesser-known but highly respected musicians, as well as up-and-coming artistes from India and from across the U.S.”


The songs

Concerts at the Cleveland Thyagaraja Festival typically feature a series of songs by different composers.

“Songs may be preceded by a raga alapana, or free-form improvisation of the raga phrases. The artistes choose a few songs for further types of improv, such as niraval—variations on a single line of the composition—and kalpana swaram—solfège [associating notes with syllables in words] sung in patterns,” explains Sundaram. Most artistes convey devotion, longing, surrender and grace through their performances, he adds. 

The works are often written in Telugu language, with some in Tamil, Kannada, Malayalam and Sanskrit. The festival organizers also “make it a point to have at least one veena concert and one nadaswaram concert,” to feature these traditional instruments “that are slowly losing their popularity,” says Sundaram. 


The dances

Beyond its Carnatic highlights, the Cleveland Thyagaraja Festival features several dance performances, mainly of bharatanatyam.

“These performances are usually commissioned works with original music and choreography composed specifically for our festival,” says Sundaram. “For example, in 2017, we had a series of dance performances based on Srimad Bhagavatam, in five parts. We occasionally feature other dance forms as well, such as kuchipudi, kathak and odissi.”


The add-ons

In recent years, the festival has branched out to host concerts of Hindustani music as well. These performances complement the event’s World Music collaboration program, which brings together on stage Indian musicians and artistes from other cultures and musical traditions. The 2017 festival, for instance, included Jamey Haddad, an American percussionist, and his band, Under One Sun.

Youth participation is another key component of the Cleveland Thyagaraja Festival. Since 2007, the event has included an educational program called Sustaining Sampradaya, under which children from across the United States train with senior musicians based in India for six months using video conferencing and other online tools. They learn traditional compositions and perform in groups at the festival. 

The festival also offers an opportunity to young musicians and dancers to compete to showcase their talents. The Carnatic music competition, The T. Temple Tuttle Memorial Music Competition, has become one of the largest of its kind in the United States, drawing 905 entries in 2017. Some of these vocalists and instrumentalists compete in advanced categories that require improvisation. The winners earn the opportunity to perform at the following year’s festival. The annual bharatanatyam competition draws participants from around the world in four age categories. They compete over two days and the grand prize winner gets to perform either at the next Cleveland Thyagaraja Festival or in December in Chennai, where the organizing committee hosts a festival featuring primarily young American performers. 


What's ahead

The list of musicians for the 2018 Cleveland Thyagaraja Festival includes N. Ravikiran on the chitravina, a 20- or 21-stringed fretless lute; Sudha Raghunathan, Carnatic composer and vocalist; Trichy Sankaran on the mridangam, a percussion instrument; V.V. Subrahmanyam on the violin; and Neyveli Santhanagopalan, vocalist. 

The festival always aligns with Easter, beginning the Wednesday before the Sunday holiday, and continues for 12 days into the following week.

“Easter weekend is usually when we see our biggest crowds,” says Sundaram. “And it’s typical to see dhoti- and sari-clad people wandering around downtown Cleveland.”

Carrie Loewenthal Massey is a New York City-based freelance writer.