Jeremy: [00:00:00] Welcome to think like an improviser I'm Jeremy Richards. Srivani Jade is an Indian classical vocalist, composer and educator. As you're about to hear, she's also a captivating performer and storyteller. She has performed worldwide and won multiple awards. Including a national endowment for the arts award. Here's a preview of performance from this interview.
Jeremy: We'll hear more of Srivani's music in a bit. First, she [00:01:00] joins me to share how improvisation is core to her composition and performance.
Jeremy: And how those improvised insights inspire every aspect of her life. Srivani, thank you for joining us.
Srivani: Thank you for having me, Jeremy.
Jeremy: As a reminder for the audience, I originally interviewed you, I think it was back in 2009 for KUOW.
Jeremy: Sounds about right. Yeah. Wow. It's hard to believe it's been that long, but you had a really compelling story at the time that you shared. Can you bring us up to speed? And then maybe a little bit about what you've done since then. About your journey, I think we talked a lot about. Going from being an engineer into the world of music, right?
Srivani: Yes, I grew up as a child in a small engineering township, as we called it, on the outskirts of Hyderabad in India. My dad did a lot of [00:02:00] music.
Srivani: On the side at home. We presented at the local radio station a lot. Not just my singing, but a lot of work with young adults. Group songs by adults in the community. It was really a beautiful community effort the whole time, putting a radio program together. So music was always there, but sort of on the side.
Srivani: And if you know middle class India at all we prefer... that are children going to guaranteed jobs. Become engineers and doctors and maybe lawyers. So that's the route I went because I really enjoyed mathematics as well. And for me having been on stage from far too young in my life, I felt a certain respite in just sitting down with math and working through and reaching definite solutions and just being quiet and introverted because that was not [00:03:00] what you know, something easily to be had when you're a stage performer and you're that young.
Jeremy: So the math was a break from the arts for you.
Srivani: Yes. A rebellious, yes. A rebellious young mathematician. That's what it was. I like it. So I had pretty much made up my mind that I wouldn't perform music, for sure. And to my young mind, that also equated somehow to I won't be doing music. As well, because there's a curse of the gift, if you will, when you're a gifted child in a really small community, then the spotlights on you all the time.
Srivani: However, today I look back and I really thank my parents and that whole village that raised me to just have a lot of good music come my way, a lot of attention. And with that in my back pocket, I feel that. Once I reconnected with it, which incidentally was during my [00:04:00] maternity leave with my child.
Srivani: And then it became a sort of music became an immediate home presence, you know, to sing for him. Something I could do from the heart. And that, that I think really opened me up and then music became not just a toolbox of amazing skill set or virtuosity or, you know, a hundred song repertoire or winning competitions.
Srivani: It became more about really singing for joy. And one might think. That is such a strange thing for a person to have not connected with it joyfully, but I think that is how the pressure of performing perfectly or excellently, that's what. It does to a child, but long story short, I connected with it. And ever since I've been on a joyous exploration of the music.
Jeremy: I love that. And that's something that we often don't think about that the early formative years, when[00:05:00] creativity is equated with discipline and excellence and perfection, which is always elusive and never present. There is no perfection. And. Also, that idea of rediscovering it on your own terms is really beautiful.
Jeremy: So it sounds like you were just starting that journey when we spoke 14 years ago. And since then, it has really Become your path in music and education, right?
Srivani: Correct. I think in a classical art form, such as Khayal, which is what I do, it's like a river flowing. There is the tradition that's giving you momentum, but it's your individual flow of creativity that's pushing you forward.
Srivani: That's what keeps it both traditional and living at the same time. So I feel that [00:06:00] that personal connection and that joy was really the key to unlocking creativity. And the minute it became creative music, it was an entirely different ballgame for me. And then. I formed a small group, an ensemble at the time in Seattle, and we performed in Northwest Folklife a couple times.
Srivani: And then I was scouted to Town Hall Seattle and then performed all around the state and soon a little bit around the country. And now I share my time between doing tours in India as well. And crafting residencies where I can go and actually talk about the music, talk about the improvisation aspect, talk about creativity, meet people.
Srivani: My main shtick, if you will, has become always about communicating about the music, whether I'm on stage or in a classroom or in a workshop. And I'm so happy to have arrived at [00:07:00] this place that really works for me.
Jeremy: I'd love to hear more about the improvisation involved in your music because in the West we associate improvised music with jazz essentially as the primary form, but you say it's quite different in your genre.
Jeremy: How is improvisation manifest in your work?
Srivani: It's really interesting that unless I call out and say it explicitly, most people don't realize that in a one, two, or even three hour performance of Khayal on stage, only about 5% is preset by way of compositions. So the composition is actually just about four lines.
Srivani: It's a simple two part composition that forms a structure and a blueprint from where the improvisation takes off. So the [00:08:00] singer is kind of creating a vision and driving that vision on stage, improvising. Now the rest of the accompanist, be it the harmonium or the tabla, or it could be an older instrument like the sarangi.
Srivani: Or even the person playing the tanpura in the back doing a little vocal accompaniment at times are all following the lead of the singer. The singer improvises, but the improvisation sets out with a theme that they all repeat a couple of times and there's agreement on an understanding of the theme right there on stage.
Srivani: This is not pre rehearsed, not in the green room, not in tech check, and not prior with recordings. It's set up there. And then... There is a method to the improvisation. So I feel that when we sit down with the components and [00:09:00] practice, we're not practicing the product, we're practicing the process of improvisation.
Srivani: There are some rules to the game, otherwise it would be chaos. So we all kind of follow the rules of improvisation and then come up with a product that at that instant of time was an absolutely. Singular and new instantiation of the raga, the melody, and what keeps it fascinating and creative each time, of course, then the downside is you should be okay that it's not cooked very well.
Srivani: Sometimes, you know, the rapport didn't build, the atmosphere wasn't right but at least it relieves you from needing to be perfect against a certain set Assumption. You know what I mean?
Jeremy: Right. I think that resonates with the way that we think about theatrical improv as well, which as you know, goes beyond just the short comedic styles into longer forms, into [00:10:00] emulating Shakespeare or Tennessee Williams or all sorts of sophisticated approaches that we do.
Jeremy: And I write about the idea that presence is the practice, you know, we're not rehearsing Dial to say, we're going to do it always this way, or even a specific scene. We never do the same thing twice. Right. And it sounds like you have a similar way of you're building those muscles and. You know that you're going to show up with a certain preparedness and a set of tools of, that readiness, but you never know what's actually going to emerge in that presentation,
Srivani: Exactly. And, and you said it so beautifully. Presence is the practice. Absolutely is. It's the quality of presence that you bring to it. It has to stem from joy, even the pieces that have pathos in them when they, I use the word joy in a very large [00:11:00] sense. It has to come from where you're completely aligned.
Srivani: With your own authenticity. So no matter what the song is talking about, it could be a love song. It could be a song about a mother trying to distract her child. It could be a song about the flowers blooming in the spring. You've got to bring your personal experience to bear upon it. And that authenticity and is your success is your path to success.
Srivani: And in that there is joy. And it once at once relieves you from the pressure of. Creating a perfect piece that was meant to do X, Y, Z
Jeremy: that theme of perfection and maybe perfectionism has come up a few times starting from your, your discipline practice as a child, how have you come to see the pursuit of perfection differently as your artwork has?
Srivani: You know, first of all, I had to acknowledge that perfectionism was [00:12:00] not necessarily a great thing after all. It's passed down to us as a worthy goal. You know, we say to a child, practice this 10 times until you're perfect with it. And we use that word rather callously. How about we move away from that fixed mindset to a growth mindset?
Srivani: Wherein we say, we get more fluent with it, we flow more smoothly with it. How about we pursue excellence? rather than perfection.
Jeremy: Are you familiar with the work of Tal Ben Shahar? No. He's the Harvard based psychologist who has this concept of optimalism over perfectionism and it's tightly You know, connected to Carol Dweck's research in growth mindset, as you alluded to as well.
Jeremy: So it's all connected and it's, it's beautiful that we're finally getting the research and the guidance and the codifying of the
Jeremy: freedom to let [00:13:00] go of perfectionism and forgive ourselves and. probably be better performers and better people for that.
Srivani: Yes, absolutely. I'm grateful for all those books. And I think as parents and teachers, it would behoove us to kind of understand the impact as we teach and practice these art forms as to, as to embrace the process and the presence much more than the product.
Srivani: In India, we have a proverb that roughly translates to operation successful, but patient failure. You know, when you come out of surgery saying that the surgery was beautifully, perfectly done, checked all the lists, but the patient didn't make it. So we don't want that to happen with art, when you delivered something perfectly, but so joylessly it did nothing for you.
Srivani: And I think by extension, it wouldn't do very much for an audience. As well.
Jeremy: And part of that [00:14:00] is, as improvisers, getting into our own heads. That's my biggest challenge. Even after 28 plus years, maybe it's even exacerbated by overthinking it and writing about it and talking to a lot of people about the theory of improv.
Jeremy: So None of that is going to give us the gateway to get out of our heads and, and really be present in that practice. As a musician then, what helps you to really be present and to connect with the music?
Srivani: So I've learned to lean on my tanpura which is a four stringed instrument that gives you a fundamental tonic and either the perfect fourth or the fifth.
Srivani: I could turn on an electronic version of it in a minute when I sing. That sounds a lot like a drone to Western audiences. In fact, there was a student that recently did a paper studying drones from different parts of the world, the Djeridu, the [00:15:00] Tanpura, and so on, and interviewed me for it.
Srivani: And I told them that. Yes, it does sound like a drone, but for us, the four strings and actually strumming them with the hand and feeling the intermingling of the harmonics in that pumpkin gourd that forms the base, we sit almost hugging the tanpura. If you find album images of me or live performance images of me, you'll see I'm sitting hugging it.
Srivani: So it's a companion and to learn to take the time both in daily practice, but also in performance to lean into that sound. People talk about rituals, you know, stage rituals, backstage rituals. When I get on stage, the ritual is to pick it up, tune it perfectly, to give it the attention that it needs and to settle into the harmonics.
Srivani: And then it's a very [00:16:00] familiar territory. I could be in Meany Hall. I could be sitting on a street corner. The ambience of the music is That personal ambience is the same.
Jeremy: How about the connection with the
Jeremy: audience? You know, in theatrical improv, we usually have this conceit of asking for a suggestion or several suggestions throughout the night to quote unquote prove that we're improvising, right?
Jeremy: But there's also some great Relationship building and resonance with the audience because they can see in real time that their input is Is cycling back to them in the work. Obviously, you don't come up with your musical instruments and say give me a suggestion for The the way to start this music, but there must be some intuitive way that the audience Informs it
Jeremy: would you say?
Srivani: You're absolutely right. I know performers of Indian music. In fact, the traditional format would be that you'd come, you'd salute with the [00:17:00] namaste, and you'd get started with the music. There are many sayings in Hindi that translate to a singer must not talk too much. Let the music speak for itself.
Srivani: You've heard that. So, but I come, I greet the audience. I tell them a little bit about. What I'm thinking this evening and it's not exactly banter, but there is. a connection. In fact, I don't like it too much when the hall lights are brought down and it's a dark well and I'm speaking and singing to no one.
Srivani: I like the lights to be up. I like to see people. I like to see their reactions. When I try something amazing and either pass or fail, doesn't matter. But when people acknowledge that, appreciate that. It makes, keeps the music living because it's, it's being improvised in the moment. So whether they know it or not, they are actually contributing to the improvisation.[00:18:00]
Srivani: Now in a comedy show or an improv skit, you're taking suggestions from them upfront, but we're reading the cues. all the time as to what is this audience going for. And then, you know, naturally as human beings, we tend to go where the connection is stronger with, with the music. So I definitely do introduce the pieces.
Srivani: Just generally keep it a narrated performance rather than Here I come and sit with 30 years of KL experience, and I do this amazing thing in three octaves. Listen to me. It's never my attitude,
Jeremy: You also spoke previously about the distinction in the Western and maybe the Indian aesthetic that relates to the individual versus the group mindset in improvisation.
Jeremy: [00:19:00] Could you speak more about that?
Srivani: Right. But, but I think it is to the credit of this music tradition again, you know, as, as a classical music that's based in improvisation. It's an interesting conundrum for people, especially in the, the Western mindset of having written pieces, beautifully composed pieces in so many movements the composer has really thought through how this piece should evolve and the symphony or the performers are interpreting it in a certain way, in a very informed, educated, enlightened way.
Srivani: But since we don't have that and it's an oral tradition and Only the bandish or the composition is written down, that too in lyrics. It's passed down orally from guru to disciple, then, and so on and so forth, many generations. A [00:20:00] few things are lost in translation. A few things are stylized differently.
Srivani: And of course, my inputs and all the musics I hear around me are different, so I interpret it differently. But I lean in with my individuality to take that tradition forward so that balance between tradition and striking out independently in my interpretation is my everyday work.
Jeremy: Yes. Beautiful.
Jeremy: There's a certain, not just creativity, but philosophy and spirituality. It sounds like in the way the music manifests. I'm wondering if your experience as an improviser then carries beyond the creative work. How does it inform other parts of your life?
Srivani: think that practicing this music every day has given me an ability to be confident and yet humble. What I mean by that is [00:21:00] There is this big, hoary tradition that's been refined, expanded branched off into different tributaries for about 250 years. And it's not even the oldest musical tradition in India.
Srivani: There are older traditions. But that. Shouldn't become a burden, shouldn't become like this juggernaut that you're pulling every day and trying to make some progress with it.
Srivani: There is that. It's your foundation and you tread lightly you know, you allow yourself to be you. You improvise some things you like, some things you don't like, move with it. So that ability of being humble. because of what you stand on and being confident and lively, I think it's a beautiful balance in life to have.
Srivani: And I tell my students this all the time, you know, because as a teacher, sometimes you unwittingly get put up on a pedestal. And I say, there's nothing more humbling than this music. You tune your tanpura, you sit [00:22:00] down with it in the morning. You're never sure after all these decades of singing this, whether you're going to be in tune today.
Srivani: It's always a bit of a gamble because your human body is your instrument. Sometimes it seems easy, you don't have to check it in, no baggage disasters with it, but then your sleep your mindset, what you bring to it, spiritually, mentally, emotionally, affects your music. There's no escape from it. You can't isolate yourself from the music.
Srivani: So nothing more humbling than sitting with a piece that you've done for 20 years and not knowing what to do with it. Some days.
Jeremy: Yeah. I, that really resonates with me after writing this book about imposter syndrome and creativity to emphasize that humility is not self erasure or self limiting. If anything, arrogance is the [00:23:00] most limiting posture we can have when trying to be creative, right?
Jeremy: Yes. So if we have the humility to tap into something larger than ourselves, that's the most powerful posture you could possibly have.
Srivani: Yes. And for a generally risk averse person that I thought I was, maybe I wasn't. I did come halfway across the world before I turned 21 and came to a place, no internet, so just arrived and figured my way out.
Srivani: in America, but I feel again, it, it really put me on a growth mindset to say, let me give this a try and see where that goes. And it shows now in all aspects of my life, I like to think I travel. I travel solo. I travel in countries where I don't know the language haven't dealt with the currency, don't always know the political climate either.
Srivani: But then again, I go there and I so want to share my experiences with others. I write about it. I'm so alive in that sort of[00:24:00] guided risk taking, if you will. And I think that balance comes from doing Kyaal every day is. Is what I believe
Jeremy: That is the improviser's way. I love that you said you wanted to give us a little bit more of the, the history context beyond behind this genre and how it ties into improvisation.
Srivani: Yes. I'd like to, because even at a personal level, I often wonder. If I had not done Khyal, but had done another kind of
Srivani: classical music or traditional music in India historically I haven't fared very well, even as a child, with very set ways of thinking and doing. You know, I wanted to strike out and do something a little differently. So, even though I've trained in Indian music from the age of four or five, I came to cal much later in life and it just attracted me very [00:25:00] deeply.
Srivani: Attraction is a small word. What I mean is I felt at home with it. There was a sense of coming home to this music, and yet it was not the music that was practiced in my childhood home when I was growing up. Nobody sang or did that particular music around me and. I think it's because of the essential nature of Khyal.
Srivani: Khyal is actually a Persian word that means imagination. It's not a musical term. It's not even in an Indian language. But at about the time that the ancient music of India called Dhrupad had become highly codified and quite I would say if not dogmatic, but very rigorously classified. There was this period in India towards the end of the Mughal rule, 18th century, where there was a call for personal expression in all walks of life.
Srivani: [00:26:00] Religion went through that. Suddenly, there was the Bhakti movement. The Sufis had already come into India. And there was this. This notion grabbing hold of the country wherein you could cast aside the mediators of scriptures, the priests, the people who told you how exactly you should reach your own salvation and go with a personal connection to God.
Srivani: Why not? Think of God as a simply speak in your own language address. Divinity as mother, father, lover, child, friend whatever way that you would wish that you connect with people. This was actually a very powerful movement in India that just grew in, in magnitude. It was sort of a, the spring of the time.
Srivani: And I think in music as well, there must have been a sort [00:27:00] of rebellion against the codified nature. Of Drupad. So, these two court musicians in in the court of Gwalior,
Srivani: Sadarang and Adarang, became their pen names later, they proposed this way of simplifying the Drupad composition, a four part composition, into two parts, Sthayan and Tara, that form a small three minute composition that lays out the structure of the raga, the melody. You learn those compositions and once you've internalized it, everything you need to know about the raga is encapsulated in that bandish.
Srivani: So you have the seed of your improvisation right there in that bandish. Whether you make a 10 minute piece, a 15 minute piece, a one hour long piece. is your journey and it [00:28:00] could potentially be a lifelong journey and it absolutely is. I, I've taken the same bandish that I learned as a child. I still perform it today.
Srivani: It's one of maybe a thousand compositions, but I'm still finding new things to do with it, to do to it. And I'm surprised and excited that it probably means I'm growing as a musician to be able to see all these layers of possibilities with that same little thing. And I can see I'm somewhere along the path there.
Srivani: I'm trying to help my students see that place. And when I hear an old master perform, I see where they've gone with it. Hopefully I'll be there in a few years or many years, many years, maybe. But that is a story of Cal being essentially another word for improvised traditional music. In India.
Jeremy: [00:29:00] With that, Srivani, we'd love to hear a sampling, if you are willing to share.
Srivani: Absolutely. I have a little, maybe just a couple lines, since I don't have a drummer here with me.
Srivani: Can you hear my tanpura?
Srivani: I'm going to sing a song of the spring. And since this is all about improvising. Do a little improv on it as well. The song says,
Srivani: Piya gharinahi, meaning that the garden is full of flowers, of spring flowers, but where is my beloved? As in the implication being, how do I enjoy all of this, or all of this is of no use to me unless he or she comes home. Om Hridayanti Haan. [00:30:00] Subban... Um, uh, uh, oh railway a
Srivani: Uh, rail, a Um, Uh, all Uh Um, yuh. Railahlen
Srivani: piya ghar naahi sab bhan am vaa bahur ahile am vaa bahur ahile lag naai digar obtar
Srivani: [00:31:00] paat dhuki dhuki gayale Oh, Rama, Dar pat jhuki jhuki gaye
Srivani: Oh, Rama, Piya ghar nahi, Rama, Piya ghar nahi,
Srivani: Suburban, um, uh,
Jeremy: Wow. Thank you so much. Srivani. That was beautiful. Thank you. Is there anything else I should have asked you?
Srivani: I don't know that you should [00:32:00] have asked me, but I want to tell younger people out there
Srivani: to really embrace who they are in, in art, especially it's a, it's a great way to safely create, to give kind of wings to your own expression, whatever your medium and maybe a page from my own life. Is to have felt okay to take the risk that you need to, to be an improviser. To take a line, to think, to go with it, to go somewhere with it, and to enjoy that process without worrying too much about, is this great, does this serve the tradition, am I representing my gharana right, am I representing my guru's right, is this meeting someone else's expectations.
Srivani: I think part of growing up has just been about. Embracing one's own care, so to speak with each passing year, I find I'm more at home, more [00:33:00] at home within myself. And that is a great joy of life. I think improvising can really liberate you and just find your medium and find your joy.
Jeremy: Thank you so much.
Jeremy: Where can people learn more about your work and your music?
Srivani: My website would be a good start srivanijade.com but also I put up all my albums, all my music all of that is freely available on YouTube or whatever else other, you know, Spotify and Amazon media and iTunes and all of that. But write to me I absolutely welcome questions about my music.
Srivani: I'm also trying to go out into schools in the area in the state as well both high school, middle school, and sometimes elementary schools as well, that's a nice, cute experience for me. Yeah, just, just get a conversation [00:34:00] started and you know, write to me on my website.
Jeremy: Excellent. We'll link to that in our show notes.
Jeremy: So, Srivani, thank you so much for
Srivani: joining us. I am so happy to be here and I wish you and your show all the very best.
Jeremy: Thanks for listening to think like an improviser. Please subscribe, rate and review on your podcast app of choice. For more information about the show and about Srivani Jade visit Jeremy richards.com.