Carnatic music has been the common thread connecting diverse cultural communities in South India for thousands of years. The veena, a 24-fretted lute made with two resonating gourds, is the primary stringed instrument of this classical tradition. In Chicago, the great midwestern metropolis that is literally and figuratively thousands of miles from South India, veena player Saraswathi Ranganathan is winning accolades and fans for her mastery of the instrument.
Musical education was a given in the community where Saraswathi Ranganathan grew up in Bangalore, in southern India. She humorously notes that it was common practice to start a child on classical Carnatic singing, move them to an instrument if their voice wasn’t good, and if none of the instruments took, to place them, finally, as a dancer. For Saraswathi, however, it was never a second choice to play the veena. Her studies began at age 6 under the tutelage of her mother, Shantha Ranganathan, a musician of exceptional skill who just happened to have won as a competition prize a finely crafted, child-size veena, which quickly became Saraswathi’s musical voice. By age 11, Saraswathi was performing publicly with her three siblings, including younger brother Ganapathi Ranganathan, who will join her on stage in Richmond.
As early as her teenage years, Saraswathi’s skill had developed to the level that she took on her own students. She has continued teaching in the decade and a half that she has lived in Chicago, where she founded the nonprofit Ensemble of Ragas school, offering both private instruction and educational outreach. As both a performer and teacher she’s beloved in Chicago; the city recognized her skills in 2018 with a coveted Chicago Music Award, making her the first Indian American woman and first veena artist to be so honored. Now performances also take her to concert and festival stages across the U.S. and India—including a recent six-month residency as the pioneering veena player for the Chicago and Boston presentation of Disney’s Jungle Book.
Saraswathi Ranganathan credits her mother for setting her artistic approach to music: “She would always say that along with the melody, you should have expertise in how you bring out the beauty of the instrument itself. The thing about Carnatic music is that there’s a lot of emphasis on the emotive expression, so a lot of the time, the technical aspects of the instrument are kind of buried. I like the aesthetic interpretation of bringing out both.” Through the structural frameworks of the ancient ragas and their component rhythms, Carnatic musicians build improvisations that are personal but also reach for the universal; Saraswathi is particularly inspired by the example of legendary 1970s veena innovator Chitti Babu, who encouraged Carnatic musicians to explore how this ancient musical form spoke directly to the concerns of the present moment.
The Surabhi Ensemble, a music collective she founded, does this work explicitly, bringing a message of “living as one family” to people from all walks of life. In her solo work as well, Saraswathi Ranganathan aims to break through the fear of difference to find hope and connection; using her veena and her deep knowledge of Carnatic music, she works towards her mission: “One Stage. One Music. One Community.”
At the Richmond Folk Festival, Saraswathi will perform with a trio. She will be accompanied by her brother, Ganapathi, on kanjira, a South Indian frame drum that belongs to the tambourine family, and Patri Satish Kumar on mridangam, a double-headed, barrel-shaped drum that is the defining instrument of Carnatic music.