Awash in ragas


Growing up in India, Kartik Seshadri was recognized by musicians at age 6 for his full-scale sitar solos. Not long after, his music even caught the ear of the legendary sitarist Ravi Shankar, who paid him a visit and later became his guru.

“It was a complete honor,” Seshadri said. “Obviously, I couldn’t believe it.”

He added: “No matter what I was doing as a kid, whether flying kites or running down the street or playing cricket or marbles, one thing that always called to me was music. I can’t put into words why that is.”

More than five decades later, he’s still enamored with Indian classical music, a form that has its roots in Hindu scriptures and includes instruments like sitar and tanpura.

Seshadri’s dedication hasn’t gone unnoticed. Songlines Magazine UK has called him today’s greatest sitar player. And the Federation of Indian Associations, San Diego will honor him Aug. 24 at the California Center for the Arts, Escondido, for his contributions to Indian music.

He often performs throughout the world, from Carnegie Hall to his homeland. Once in a while, he plays in Encinitas, where he’s lived for more than two decades.

“Kartik is a world-class musician who has achieved great success internationally,” said Jim Gilliam, Encinitas arts administrator, in an email. “We know him as a humble and generous artist who presents concerts for the community at the Encinitas Library.

“People probably don’t realize that this is the same person who concertizes at Carnegie Hall. His talent and passion for Indian classical music connects with people from all cultures and we are honored that he is part of our local arts community.”

In his teens, Shankar formally took him on as a disciple, which proved to be formative to Seshadri’s development as a musician. Seshadri recalled playing from early in the morning to late at night at Shankar’s house in Varanasi, India.

“We were awash in music, steeped in the depths of our tradition,” Seshadri said. “I learned a lot, to say the least.”

Seshadri moved to the U.S. in 1981 to continue his apprenticeship and support Shankar at concerts throughout the West.

Shankar, who died in December 2012, relocated to Encinitas in the early 1990s, drawn by the weather and tranquil atmosphere. He invited Seshadri to follow.

These days, Seshadri has his own disciples, who come from around the world to learn from him. And he heads one of the world’s largest Indian classical music programs at UC San Diego.

When he’s not teaching, he’s touring.

To that end, one goal of his performances is to change perceptions. To some Westerners, Indian music only conjures up images of the sitar and The Beatles.

“This is a 5,000-year tradition,” Seshadri said. “It didn’t start in the ’60s. I want to convey how ancient this tradition is and how it requires such discipline and rigor. It takes years and years of practice, like studying Bach or Beethoven, to understand the intricacies of a raga.”

Ragas, the lifeblood of Indian classical music, are a large group of traditional melody patterns that musicians infuse with their own improvisation. They often start with an introspective section and later burst into a dramatic emotional finish.

“For those who aren’t familiar with Indian classical music, they have this ‘Aha!’ moment, because they pick up on the improvisation and various movements that happen within the raga,” Seshadri said. “There’s something that speaks to everyone.”

He added: “The challenge with performing is you don’t want to be pedantic and so theoretical you lose your audience. But at the same time, it’s not to be a populist, where you redo the Monterey Pop Festival.”

Similarly, Seshadri is opposed to market-driven fusion music, saying that it often means watering down the Indian form. However, he has pursued orchestra music when it makes sense to him. Notably, he’s collaborated with famed minimalist composer Philip Glass.

“There is a point where you can take Indian music, with great care, to a chamber orchestra,” Seshadri said.

Whether experimental compositions or playing traditional Indian music, he has no plans to stop. Ragas beckon.

“Music, to me, is a tremendous medium for bringing people together,” Seshadri said. “And it also means being lost in these worlds of sounds.”