The Sound of Music: A local woman's lifelong love of classical Indian music

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Matt Geiger
Vanitha Suresh was born in Chennai, India. For the past decade, she has taught Carnatic music out of her home in Middleton, Wisconsin.

It started with a little girl in southern India, riding in a car with her father and listening to classical music on cassette.

“I would go on long car rides with my parents,” says Vanitha Suresh, who has her own children today and lives 8,000 miles away in Middleton, Wisconsin. “I remember singing along with the great masters on tape.”

Suresh’s father died when she was only nine years old, but during their too-short time together, he left what she describes as an “indelible” impact on her life.

“My father worked a lot, and he traveled for work, but whenever he was with us he was completely with us,” she says tenderly as she drizzles honey from a plastic bear into a cup of spicy Chai tea in her kitchen.

The music – primarily classical Indian music, as well as some classical Western – started in those early days with family, and she has never stopped learning about it, loving its beauty and its vastness, as well as teaching it.

Today, Suresh, professionally trained as a computer scientist and also the devoted mother of two young boys, Sanjay and Arjun, is involved in a dizzying whirlwind of musical activities and organizations in Dane County and abroad.

She founded and runs Arohana School of Music out of her Middleton home. She is the devoted student of her current guru, Chitravina N. Ravikiran, and she fondly remembers all her prior Gurus as well. She is currently busy helping lead the Melharmony Foundation, which works to bridge the divide between Eastern and Western classical music traditions. She organizes local concerts, and she even teaches an online course at her alma matter in India. In her spare time, she and her husband, professor Krishnan Suresh, are teaching children the concepts of programming through 3-D printing, hoping to inspire more young girls to become scientists.

The story that follows represents only a tiny portion of Suresh’s seemingly boundless energy and enthusiasm in the realm of music.

Arohana School of Music:

In the rolling interior of a Middleton home overlooking a field of rapidly growing corn, four young musicians are having a jam session. They warm up, chat a bit about what they want to play, then riff and experiment within the music’s ancient and complex framework.

But this is not your typical Midwestern garage band.

Seated on the floor, using their voices, drums and a violin, they are not playing American rock or pop. They are performing Carnatic songs, a form of classical music with origins stretching back into southern India’s early history. According to legend, its roots run even deeper, all the way to Devas and Devis; the Hindu gods who are believed to have been the music’s initial source.

This is the home of Vanitha Suresh, a lover of Carnatic music. For the past few years, it has also served as a base of operations for Arohana School of Music, where students from across the country come to learn about the music - and about the culture that is woven into its very fabric.

Standing in the room’s arched entryway, wrapped in an elegant blue sari, Suresh is quick to deflect praise. She is still very much a student, she says, despite the fact that she spends so much of her time teaching.

“It is an ocean,” Suresh says of Carnatic music. “You can only get your feet wet. In my opinion, an entire lifetime is not enough.”

“Unless I continue to learn, I cannot grow as a teacher,” she adds in a melodic voice that borders on music itself, even in casual conversation.

While she discusses the music, the lush smells of homemade Indian food drift in from the kitchen, where a birthday cake is enjoying its final few moments before being devoured by a crowd of hungry young students who are here to study traditional Indian music from Suresh.

For Suresh, who was born in Chennai, India, immersed in music from the age of three, and arrived in the United States at the age of 23, this is a combination of art and family - of enjoyment and discipline. The students, who range in age from elementary schoolers through high school, come from Middleton, Madison, Chicago, California and beyond. While they are here, they are like family, they say.

It is a school modeled after one where Suresh spent much of her time learning Carnatic music from Guru T.N. Bala in Philadelphia.

“It was a home away from home for us,” she recalls. “We would study, eat food – we were like children to them.”

There is no question who rules the house. Suresh, who is vibrant, warm and welcoming, can silence a young musician in his or her tracks with no more than a quick, critical glance.

The music, which is written in a system that seems completely foreign to those only familiar with its western counterpart’s scales and notes, requires exceptional discipline, as well as creativity. The closest Western counterpart, they all agree, is jazz.

“It is full of oscillations,” Suresh explains.

“It is more intricate,” says Sahana Kumar, who traveled from her home in California to study with Suresh. “And because of that, I think it’s more beautiful. It’s not just what’s on the page. There is more to it than that.”

Both current and former students jump in to offer their own takes on the Carnatic philosophy. Imagine infinite, non-linear scales, they say. It can incorporate Western instruments like violin and saxophone. It is related to but distinct from other forms of Indian classical (such as Hindustani), in part because the influence of Persian and Muslim music in northern India caused music there to move away from its Carnatic roots. Its basic form is simple, but its possibilities are limitless. One former student of Suresh, who is now 41, likens it to poetry.

“First, you learn the alphabet,” he explains. “Then you learn sentences. Only then can you learn poetry, and that is only the beginning.”

Arohana School of Music, they say, is a vibrant “cultural ecosystem” where people learn about India’s rich cultural heritage without leaving the heart of the American Midwest.

This all requires a lot of work, according to the students.

“You learn discipline more than anything else,” says Kumar. “You wonder, when you are four, why you have to sit inside and practice while other kids play outside. But then you get older, and you learn that the practice means something. You learn to put work into it because it means something.”


The Melharmony Foundation:

A few weeks later, Suresh is busy preparing for a special “Concerts on the Square” performance in Madison. On Wednesday, July 27, at 7 p.m. on the corner of King Street and the Capitol Square, Chitravina N. Ravikiran, her Guru, who has been called “the Mozart of Indian music,” and other musicians from the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra will introduce audiences to the sounds of Melharmony.

Melharmony is a fresh approach to world music that explores new chords and harmonies anchored on the rules and aesthetics of “evolved melodic systems.” It is a form of fusion that meshes harmony-centric systems like Western classical and jazz with melody-centric systems such as Indian classical. In simpler terms, Eastern music tends to focus on note progression, while Western music tends to focus on chords.

Suresh is the Melharmony Foundation’s executive director.

“Melharmony is an amazing concept that brings together melody and harmony,” she says. “It brings cultures together by focusing on similarities rather than differences.”

Suresh, one of the first females engineers hired by Siemens in India, and a devoted yoga practitioner, says music can teach people much about art, history, philosophy, math and culture as a whole.

To someone who has lived and flourished in two different worlds, it makes perfect sense to bring them together. Suresh grew up singing along with both Carnatic Ragas and Christian Christmas carols. Today, she uses Western nursery rhymes to help her youngest students begin understanding the complexities of Carnatic music.

“When I was growing up in India, Western classical music was considered ‘world music.’ I listened to it as lot,” she points out. “Now, living here, Indian classical is considered ‘world music.’”

Created in 2000 by Ravikiran, the concept of Melharmony has evolved and grown, she says. The foundation itself was started as a 501(c)3 non-profit, in 2015.

For the past decade or so, Suresh has split her time between learning and teaching.

“Once we feel we’ve conquered something, we always want to move on to the next challenge,” she says. “But [music] is unending. I think the best way to learn more is to teach what you know, because the moment you share something it only gets clearer in your mind.”

“I think mostly this is a cultural thing for me,” she adds. “I have kids with different religions who study from me. Non-Indians too. What we’ve created is an extended community.” 

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