By Sydney Williams
Arjun Verma is a revolutionary in the world of Hindustani classical music as he pays notable homage to the historical essence of the sitar. With his newest album, Epiphanies, Verma meshes traditional dhrupad style with the more common modern style, khyal. Being American is a philosophy where countless cultural representations come together like a potluck to create a beautiful mosaic. Being a natural-born Indian American, Verma brings his unique perspective on traditional music and Americanness into one groundbreaking album.
Stick with us to find out more about the inspirations behind Verma’s Epiphanies and a peek into his life outside the studio.
Tell us about your new album and what was your inspiration behind the title?
This album came out of the experience that so many artists have had in this last year where when the current situation hit it, (my) life changed dramatically. Going from jet setting across the world one to three times a month, to just being at home.
I spent a lot of time playing with the sitar and started to wonder – what’s a way I can move forward and continue to connect with my audience and continue to make art while stuck at home? The clear answer that came to me was to create an album, which I finally had time to do. In a way, the full stop that life sort of thrust upon me and so many others was a sort of blessing in disguise.
The inspiration for the album, which inspired the title, was Epiphanies. This came out of my reflections on my process, learning and development as an artist, as well as the joy and wonder that the search for epiphanies cultivates.
Epiphanies is a collection of four tracks and it covers three ragas or melodic forms: Madhuvanti, Madhumalati, and Gorakh Kalyan. The crafting of rhythmic and nonrhythmic components of this album create a big immersive sound.
You’ve said that this album has a new (old) sound. Can you elaborate?
If we look at the history of Indian classical music, it is divided into two main sub-styles. The old style of music, which is called dhrupad, is much slower and more meditative. It is often associated with temples and worship and was designed to be more and more of a contemplative experience.
Then, just within the last few hundred years, the newer form became more prominent, which is called khyal. Khyal has more of an exciting listening experience and tends to be faster and more rhythmically complex. A lot of modern sitar music is based on this more modern style.
Today, playing the sitar in the dhrupad style sounds new because it has sort of gone out of fashion. But more truly, it is a throwback to an earlier time that hasn’t been touched on in modern music. I’m trying to bring this style back into popularity by bringing the contemplative and thoughtful mood of the slower sections of my album and morphing into the faster sections, adding all the exciting parts that you want to tap your foot to, but not losing that mood.
Where can the readers find the album?
Epiphanies is partially up on streaming sites, all the usual spots: Spotify, Amazon, and Apple Music. However, I decided to not publish the complete album on these platforms because it will be released in its entirety on Bandcamp. Bandcamp is a great way for artists to directly engage with their fans.
I’m also doing other releases related to this album. One of them is the special headphone mixes, which are sort of like a 3D experience listening to the album. The second is basically a video version of the album, which includes excerpts as well as full length video of my actual studio tracking sessions so that people can watch me as I’m creating these tracks.
Any upcoming collaborations/ performances?
I have a project coming up with San Jose Jazz (presented by Mosaic America). I will be working with George Brooks, as well as tabla player Nilan Chaudhuri and guitarist Gyan Riley. George and I had put together a set that was co-sponsored by Mosaic last fall, and we received a lot of good response to that. That was done all virtually, where it was either his song or my song that we would send back and forth, add layers as we went. This will be the first live presentation of that work!
This performance is scheduled for August 14th through San Jose Jazz Saturday evening performance.
What does your American Story or being American mean to you as a natural-born American with strong ties to your ancestral culture?
My mom was born and raised in the US and my dad immigrated from India. So, both genetically and culturally, I have two sides to my experience growing up as an Indian American.
Growing up in a rural area of New York, I felt like the only one of my kind, as there were very few other Indians in the town. Yet at the same time, growing up as an American, I didn’t feel different. As I have grown up, I’ve realized that the essence of Americanness is more about a shared philosophy of society, really.
I think if we look back at the founding of the country, it was based upon a philosophy from a time when Europe was ruled by monarchs with absolute power. But now, we follow a new modern philosophy of seeing if we can create a society where we can give more power to the average man and woman.
Being someone who’s now bringing a culture that originates from India into the vast tapestry of American culture, it feels really good. It feels like I am helping to enrich the container that is American society. American society is not a culture first and foremost. It’s a philosophy of society. I believe it’s a belief that everybody should have a chance and that there should be an equal shot for everyone. That shared vision is what I believe to be the essence of being an American.
What’s your signature move on the dance floor? Probably some Punjabi Bhangra
What’s something you wish you were better at? Playing the sitar. As much as I have achieved, it still challenges me every day.
What’s your hidden talent? I have all kinds of odd hidden talents. I am pretty good at cooking and grew up spending a lot of time exploring mathematics. I’ve also been a near life-long practitioner of traditional Japanese martial arts, which has been a nice complement to a very sedentary activity of playing sitar.
Top 3 songs on repeat. They’re all going to be basically recordings of my teacher Maestro Ali Akbar Khan. Basically any work of his almost always just floors me, and it has been that way for my entire life. But if I’m in the right mood, I love listening to jazz and European classical. I grew up listening to Bach and Beethoven and Mozart and stuff and nowadays listening to all kinds of classic funk or Hendrix or Marley or all these kind of classics, as I do seem to be drawn a bit more to classics of decades past
Next place you’d like to travel to. Norway and Germany for sure!
Something you wish more people knew about your culture. I think the most important thing is actually to understand that culture is multifaceted. In my experience, having led a somewhat international life, the most useful takeaway I’ve had is that no people, group or demographic is a monolith.
Favorite food. I love Mexican, Italian, Japanese, and Thai food. And of course Indian food!
Style icon. My style definitely reflects my role as a global citizen, so it really varies. I will say that I would love to see more Indian American takes on traditional cultural attire.
Bravest thing you ever did. Playing Indian classical music. In continuing to play this music and publishing and doing new works it always feels like a huge leap for me and something that takes a lot of courage because I am constantly cognizant of all these maestros before me and what they achieved.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.