How violinist Bhairavi Raman strings together two cultures

By Indira Laisram
Bhairavi Raman // Pic supplied

Each time I’ve seen Bhairavi Raman perform, she’s clad in beautiful saris that, along with her music, pull in the audience. Like many children growing up in diaspora communities, Raman says she has learned to adapt to different cultural situations.

For this Melbourne-based violinist, her music reveals her dual cultural influences—India and Australia, reflecting what she calls a fluid ‘hyphenated identity’.

“When I was younger, the difference between my ‘Australian’ and ‘Indian’ selves was starker, as I would make an active effort to keep them separate from one another. For example, I didn’t speak much about my cultural activities to my school friends, I would be embarrassed to speak Tamil or wear ethnic clothes in public.

“In South Asian community settings, I would play down aspects of my identity that appeared more ‘Western’. This was challenging and exhausting, as it always felt like I was hiding a part of myself in any given context, and it got in the way of forming meaningful relationships with my friends and family,” she reflects.

With time, Raman has embraced her bicultural identity as a strength, not limitation. This transformation is not confined to her identity alone; it has permeated her music, allowing it to become a genuine expression of her entire being.

Raman’s musical journey spans 24 years, during which she carefully delineated between Western Classical and Carnatic art forms. While pursuing Western music through private lessons and school activities, including orchestras and choirs, she dedicated her evenings and weekends to Carnatic music, performing at community events and immersing herself in intensive learning sessions in India.

Bhairavi Raman // Pic supplied

In the past four years, she has embarked on a journey to explore the spaces between these two musical traditions. Music, she believes, is the medium through which she communicates this comprehensive identity without the need for words.

Raman’s musical lineage traces back to her family’s profound connection with Carnatic music. Her parents, originally from South India, met in Chennai and later settled in Bahrain after their marriage in the late ’80s. She was born in Bahrain.

With her great-grandmother playing the violin and her grandmother and aunts singing, Raman inherited a rich musical heritage. However, it was her mother who sustained this tradition by learning the violin from Shri Kandadevi Azhagiriswami in Chennai. Upon relocating to New Zealand, Raman’s mother expanded her musical repertoire, incorporating Western Violin into her skills.

Quite naturally, Raman’s journey into music began early. At four, she urged her parents to enrol her in violin classes. Finally, at six, they relented, recognising her genuine interest. Given the absence of Carnatic violin teachers in New Zealand, she learned Western Classical Violin using the Suzuki Method, similar to how Carnatic music is taught. Simultaneously, she learned Carnatic vocal from a family friend.

Bhairavi Raman in concert // Pic supplied

“When we moved to Melbourne, I began formal training in Carnatic vocal from Sri Gopinath Iyer and continued Western Classical violin. At the age of nine, I started learning Carnatic Violin from Sri Murali Kumar, who had learned from Sri Kanchi Janardhanan and Sri MS Gopalakrishnan,” she says.

Her passion for Carnatic music deepened over the years through visits to Chennai, where her extended family lives, and her consistent engagement with the Margazhi December music season. However, it was in 2011 that her profound love affair with India truly began. During that year, two of her best friends and her now-husband visited Chennai simultaneously, marking a pivotal period. Immersed in the music scene, attending kutcheris (gathering of musicians and audience in Carnatic music), and forging connections, Raman’s bond with India deepened.

Earlier in 2005, she also encountered a transformative moment when she met Sri S Varadarajan, a renowned violinist. Three years later, she began her musical tutelage under him, a relationship that has significantly shaped her journey over the last 15 years.

“One class with Varadarajan sir would give me 10,000 hours of things to work on. He also encouraged me to keep learning compositions on my own. One of my friends, Ramya, who plays the veena, joined me in this learning journey, and together, we learned at least 50 compositions, discussing sangathis, raga lakshana, intricacies, and exploring the music together,” she shares.

Bhairavi Raman // Pic supplied

After completing her university degree in Psychology in 2014, Raman spent a year in Chennai delving deeper into Carnatic music. This immersive experience, beyond the fervour of the Margazhi season, marked a pivotal period. She found herself performing multiple kutcheris a week by the year’s end.

While living in India felt like an ‘alternate reality’ with enticing opportunities, Raman decided to return to Australia in 2015, guided by a gut feeling and promising herself an annual return to immerse in Carnatic music. The exceptions were in 2020 and 2021 when international borders remained closed due to the pandemic.

But the pandemic prompted Raman to reevaluate her artistic pursuits and explore local opportunities within the Australian arts landscape, leading to a shift from her exclusive focus on building a profile in India. “Now I realise there are many ways to pursue a rewarding creative career, and location need not be as big a barrier as I had previously thought.”

In addition to navigating the complexities of defining her music, Raman faces the substantial responsibility of representing the rare art form of Carnatic music in the broader Australian music scene. The pressure to label and brand her unique style adds complexity to her artistic journey, she feels.

Bhairavi Raman performing with Nanthesh // Pic supplied

Being relatively new to blending musical genres, she grapples with the challenge of letting go of deeply internalised ideals, including preconceived notions of how her music ‘should’ or ‘shouldn’t’ sound. Despite this, she is cautious about presenting her work as constantly ‘different’ or ‘innovative,’ recognising the depth and capacity for creativity within Carnatic music.

Raman views her experiments as a personal journey toward an authentic musical voice, always conscious of not disrespecting the rich and complex art form of Carnatic music. Technical challenges arise when merging Western and Carnatic musical forms, such as differences in tuning. To overcome these barriers, she experiments with notating compositions in both systems, allowing them to be played on both Western and Carnatic violins.

“I certainly have some moments when I ask myself, ‘Am I playing Carnatic violin? Am I playing western violin? How should I tune it? is this even a violin?’”

To a question about a work reflecting her bicultural identity, Raman shares the special significance of ‘Bittersweet Reflections.’ This semi-composed, semi-improvised piece holds a unique place in her heart as one of her very first live experiments, gaining popularity as a frequently requested number during her gigs.

In her creative process, Raman embraces spontaneity, often sparked by sudden inspiration like a motif or melody. She promptly records these ideas and explores adding layers or adopting frameworks from Western classical or Carnatic music for structure. An ongoing project involves a solo violin composition inspired by JS Bach but tuned to a Carnatic ragam.

Raman has collaborated with artists from diverse musical backgrounds, including Jazz, Pop, Contemporary, Folk, and traditional music such as Uilleann Pipes (Irish), Guzheng (China), Bengali folk music, and Hindustani classical musicians. She views each collaboration as an opportunity to learn, gaining insights into different musical perspectives, life experiences, creative inspirations, and approaches to practice.

Bhairavi Raman seen here with tabla player Nanthesh // Pic supplied

To aspiring musicians navigating diverse cultural influences, Raman advises experimentation while building on a strong foundation. With over 20 years of training in Western and Carnatic music, she stresses the importance of a solid technical base for intentional boundary-pushing. Authentic artistic expression, she believes, involves understanding your music today.

“I am also by no means an expert—there is a vast ocean of musical knowledge that I am yet to traverse,” she adds.

Living in Melbourne, the city’s sizable South Asian diaspora fosters cultural connections through the arts, says Raman. “Over the last 40 years, people have migrated here and have established music schools, many of them balancing a day job while dedicating their nights and weekends to teaching an entire generation of young musicians. My generation is a product of two-three decades of dedication on the part of music teachers here, and it’s important to acknowledge this.”

Adeptly balancing a dual career as a musician and a management consultant, Raman anticipates her music will continue evolving, currently experiencing what she humorously describes as an ‘identity crisis.’

Whether it becomes smoother and more defined over time or maintains a constant state of experimentation remains uncertain. Her recent fascination with string music, exploring various textures and layers of sound within her violin, adds a new dimension to her artistic exploration.

By her own telling, a scenic route to a musical career—one that Raman does not regret!

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