Sangam and the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra: Finding Indian Roots in Western Symphony

“For me, performance feeds into research, and research into performance,” says Priya Srinivasan.  

Priya is someone who knows that art can become history and live forever. But she also knows a secret - that if we uncover forgotten histories and find ways to bridge styles and collaborate then we can accomplish something rare - bringing something truly new into the world. 

Priya is the co-director of the Sangam: Performing Arts Festival and Platform of South Asia and Diaspora. She is an accomplished artist, dancer and director with a passion for South Asian representation and history. Priya and Sangam’s co-director Hari Sivanesan are hot off their latest performance, a collaboration between Sangam and the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra (MSO) that came to life at Bunjil Place in the City of Casey in Melbourne’s South East. Bunjil Place is a partner venue for Sangam, and the event was part of the MSO’s Summer Symphony series, where it takes music to local metropolitan communities.

Sangam artists including Priya Srinivasan, Hari Sivanesan and the MSO performing at Bunjil Place.

Speaking to Priya is like talking to a close, incredibly smart friend about her favourite track and dance move - you can’t help catch the contagious excitement. But what’s unexpected is how the creation of this show drew not just on Priya’s skills, but on her original research about a forgotten troupe of Indian musicians and dancers who travelled to Europe in the mid-nineteenth century and inspired artists from Paris, ballet dancers in Russia and musicians in Vienna, including symphonic composer Johann Strauss I. 

An invisible historical encounter made visible

“This is a story that I couldn’t believe no one knew,” says Priya Srinivasan. “In 1838, five South Indian dancers and three musicians travelled from the French Protectorate of Pondicherry in colonial India to Paris. They travelled all over the UK and Europe. They performed hundreds of shows, and made a significant mark.”

“This history is alive today. In Paris, they made a bronze statue of one of the dancers, Amany, that you can still see in La Musee de Guimee.”

A bronze statue of Amany recently sold for over $6,000 at an online auction.

“The dancers met Lucien and Marius Petipa, the most famous Russian ballet dancers and choreographers at the time, leading to the creation of several Indian-themed ballets such as Sakuntala and La Bayadere. But this encounter has been passed off previously as imaginary and not real.”

The ballet “La Bayadere” has clear Indian roots.

“At the end of their journey, the group had an encounter in Vienna with composers Johann Strauss I and Josef Lanner. The South Indian musical ragas and the accompanying dances inspired the European composers. The result was influential ‘Indian-themed’ songs in western classical music like ‘Indianner Galopp’ and ‘Malapou Galopp.’”

The Indian roots of this music extends beyond the name to the form itself. Priya’s research showed newspapers at the time said the Indian dancer’s footwork sounded like a horse galloping. So, the music came to be called the galop. The galop became a forerunner of the polka. Even today in Australian bush dance, the dance is often called galopede.

“There were over 30 pieces of music inspired by this encounter between western composers  and  Indian musicians and artists, and those are just the ones we know of,” says Priya.  
 

Priya found many historical references that had been forgotten. 

This story and the music that resulted from it formed the basis of a collaborative project between the MSO and Sangam. The first of two pieces performed at Bunjil Place as part of this collaboration was entitled Encounters: Seen and Unseen. It was choreographed and adapted by Priya and her Indian-based collaborator Yashoda Thakore and the musical score was composed together by Hari Sivanesan and Alex Turley of the MSO. It featured music, dance and film. 

What amazed Priya was that the original historical encounter that inspired Encounters remained forgotten, and nearly invisible for over 160 years

“The pieces inspired by this encounter in Europe remain in practice by orchestras today, but the MSO didn’t know the music had this history, and these connections to Indian women and men,” says Priya.           

 

As a passionate advocate of undercovering history, it was important to Priya and her collaborators that the references to history in the performance were real and not fictional. As a result, the performances at Bunjil place featured many historical images. 

Importantly, an image of the contract between Amany and the other dancers and their European tour agent, written in Telugu and Tamil, appeared in the performance, as a way to eliminate any idea that this historical encounter was anything but real.  

A deeper personal connection

Yashoda Thakore, a cultural leader in this sector, was Priya’s collaborator on Encounters.  

Yashoda speaking on the screen telling her story. 

Yashoda is part of the Kalavantalu community, a caste of women that were previously dedicated to  temples and courts, later shunned by the British. Indian nationalists, upper caste men and the men of their own community worked towards banning the women from dancing in 1947 under the Devadasi Abolition Act. Today, Yashoda is working to make dance possible for the women of her communities without the stigma it has attached to it. 

Priya found an additional personal connection during the early discussions that brought even greater resonance and served as a signpost for the direction the piece was taking. 

“When I talked to Yashoda about creating this collaboration with the MSO, drawing on Strauss’ Indianner Galopp, she had an incredible story.”  

“I showed her and her guru (Annabattula Mangathayaru) my research about this historical encounter. The beautiful thing that emerged out of it was that her guru is one of the direct descendants of one of the original dancers who went to Europe in 1838. The deity from the lithographs at the time is the deity in her local temple still to this day. And it was her great (times 7) grandmother’s sister who was made into a statue in the French museum!”  

Because of this historical connection, when Yashoda told Priya it was time for this story to be told and performed to an international audience in Australia, Priya wholeheartedly agreed. 

A truly open, collaborative mindset 

In collaborating with the MSO to bring this performance to life, Priya and Hari drew on their  knowledge of South Asian performance, which has some distinct differences from traditional symphony. 

“We said (to the MSO), it has to be about text and storytelling and dance, not just music, which we don’t often see in Western classical music performances. It seems to be very separated.” 

Priya believes that one of the things we from South Asians backgrounds bring is the idea of being interdisciplinary which is already present in our art forms. 

“The MSO was very excited about that, very open to change,” she says. “That approach was led by Matthew Hoy and Benjamin Northey from the MSO, who showed us what it meant to have an open mind, willingness to change and the security to let us lead them.”

Priya on stage with Sangam musicians Hari Sivanesan, Rohan Dasika, Bala Sankar Sastry and R. Srinivasan with the MSO for Encounters.

“The themes we worked on were historical and contemporary, but the content would always be experimental. That way it built upon South Asian forms, in our case Carnatic Music and classical Indian dance. The performance was really well received with not a dry eye in the audience at the end of the piece.” 

The MSO and Sangam had built trust through a previous collaboration that began in  2019. 

“Based on our first collaboration, inspired by Robin Batt, Head of Programming at Bunjil Place, the MSO came back to us and approached us saying, ‘What would you like to do?’ Not, as an add on, but with an openness to shift and learn and grow." 

“It was something we didn’t expect and was very refreshing,” Priya says. She emphasises that allyship is something earned, through attitude and approach. With the support of Veronica Pardo, former CEO of Multicultural Arts Victoria, Sangam was able to engage the MSO and discuss issues openly.

“They created this allyship, this place of solidarity, that says, let us help you tell your stories the way you want. What can we enable to help you do that?” 

 

The unique depth and freedom in this collaboration made Priya and Hari appreciate that allyship can come from places we sometimes don’t typically expect. 

“We really need to understand where and how our stories come together, as a journey in time, and be guided through equitable processes that account for power differentials.” 

A world-first veena concerto

The Sangam festival works with both emerging artists and established artists. This year, Sangam chose to work with more experienced artists for their second collaboration with the MSO. 

Hari Sivanesan, Sangam’s co-artistic director, led the development of the second piece performed at Bunjil Place, entitled ‘New Homes: Loss and Hope.’ The performance’s sound, light and multilingual written work are a reflection and tell of the story of Sri Lankan migrants in Victoria who experience so many varied emotions upon their arrival in a new land -  from loss, to curiosity, to turmoil and of course, hope. 

Hari Sivanesan performs on the veena with the MSO. On screen: "This work aims to highlight the voices, and lived experiences and the emotions of those Sri Lankan Victorians."

Hari is a very accomplished Sri Lankan Tamil artist and composer, born and brought up in the UK,  who has played frequently with  BBC TV and Radio, toured with late sitar maestro Ravi Shankar and has global recognition, though less popular awareness in Australia.

For this piece, he created a solo concerto on the ancient veena, a string instrument that is the national instrument of India, and what Hari calls the mother of the well known sitar. 

Typically, a concerto is an Italian form of solo performance in western music, accompanied by an orchestra. But in this performance, Hari worked with the MSO to create a world-first, a veena solo performance as a concerto, performed with an accompanying symphony orchestra, telling a story of refugee and migrant emotions. 

This work builds upon Hari’s existing research and work into the possibilities of orchestra and polyphony within South Asian music. The piece is an extension of a work entitled “Hope” that he presented with the Northern Sinfonia Orchestra for the BBC Proms 2012, where he scored for veena, voice, percussion and harmonium, and which carries the same themes of the Sri Lankan migrant voice.

Hari’s piece mirrors Australia’s varied response to intergenerational Sri Lankan refugees and migrants, where some sit in unending immigration purgatory, and others can come into Australia more quickly and find community and build a home. 

“Hari wanted interviews, text and poetry on screen to accompany the music, building a narrative that would be felt through the music and light but also read, understood and questioned. People who saw this said it was very moving to see that in relation to the soundscape they heard,” says Priya Srinivasan. “He based the text  on careful interviews with Sri Lankan migrants, who were acknowledged in the work.” 

“Alex Turley, a young composer from the MSO worked with Hari to set the symphonic arrangement. He was patient in learning our aesthetic and growing  the music in a considered way with us.” 

Priya believes there is something special about Australia, and Melbourne, that allowed the two collaborative pieces to be created. 

“Despite the racism issues we have here in Australia, I don’t think these pieces could have happened anywhere else. Even though there is inequity, this is also a place of possibility.” 

 

Hari Sivanesan playing the veena for New Homes: Loss and Hope.

For both pieces in this performance, Priya and Hari and their collaborators went beneath the music. For New Homes, they went beneath the concerto form to find the underlying harmonies and dissonances with the veena, with the Carnatic ragas and rhythmic patterns. And for Encounters, they listened to Stauss’ original piece on a digital piano so they could hear the ragas and talas, the Indian improvised melodic scale and rhythms respectively, that were going on underneath. 

“We took this beautiful journey. Yashoda, Hari and I found the ragas and excavated them. We listened to the colonial music score and were able to find (the music of) our ancestors inside it,” Priya says excitedly.

 

“It made us think: How can we look back from the present with the fragments that are given to us and reconstruct the music, with the MSO?”

That reconstructive process allowed each musician and artist to listen and bring a piece of their knowledge to create a performance greater than one individual. 

“There was no single composer for Encounters,” reflects Priya. “There were multiple. That was perhaps surprising to the MSO, and we helped them dismantle the idea of a single, often white male, composer who takes credit to think of the many that can come together to create art and be credited for it. They were very open to that.”  

 

“The rest was artistic problem solving, led by us. They got to encounter our heritage and instruments, like the veena, as well as our historically-informed contemporary practice as South Asian artists.” 

A lesson for emerging artists: Ask yourself about the moral and ethical dimensions 

“For me the most important lesson for artists in our community is not just aim high, but also go deep,” explains Priya, as she considers Sangam’s role in inspiring and supporting emerging artists.  

“It’s easy to go into the superficial stuff, but if we go deep enough we understand the complexity of what these figures can teach us about ourselves and multiplicities of truths that can coexist at the same time,” says Priya.  

Priya perfoms at Bunjil Place by channeling history, culture and possibility. 

Priya Srinivasan’s research changed how she danced and made her ask bigger, deeper questions, ones that emerging artists can learn from. 

“Research and practice always go hand in hand,” Priya reiterates.  

“I remember learning about this historical encounter we put in the show for the first time in my 20s. I was so shocked this group of women from this community had been effectively erased (from history) that I cancelled myself.” 

“‘Do I have the right to do these forms?’ I asked myself.”

The shock discovery led Priya to grapple with the idea that there is more than one version of history. 

“I really needed to question the lie that I’m doing an uninterrupted 3,000 year old dance form, now in the diaspora. On the other hand, that’s the form that got me through racism in Melbourne. The form empowered me, but on the other hand it disempowered the women who went before us,” Priya says.  

“I stopped myself from dancing the repertoire I’d learned since the age of 5. I went on a journey to reconcile history with my practice, in an ethical way that made sense. So I learned about the history - and wrote a book about it: Sweating Saris:Indian Dance as Transnational Labour. It looked at South Asian women and men who went to the US in the 1880s and early 1900s that inspired the mother of American dance, Ruth St Denis. 

“In that process I was dancing and I was questioning. I was speaking and I was writing. I was trying to overcome a binary. It somehow started to come together, and after 12 years I felt I could start doing this dance again in public but very differently than I had done before, with full consciousness of the inherent power dynamics of erasure.” 

“Primarily this happened for me through feminist collaborations, working with others who were similar and also very different to me,” she says wistfully. 

Following this reflective period, Priya gained clarity about how she needed to approach history and stories that both empower and erase. 

“That’s what I bring to this work now - the question: What are the moral and ethical dimensions of doing this work? And asking: who do these stories belong to? And how do we ask who these women belong to?”

 

“They are Yashoda’s guru’s ancestors and they are ours, hidden originators of the modern forms.”

"These are the pioneer women who made incredible international connections and we in the diaspora need these role models because we do not see representations of ourselves in the artistic worlds dominated by western practices.”

Yashoda performs on the large screen for Encounters with the MSO

In addition to South Asian histories, Priya is quick to mention that in Australia we also have much to learn from our Indigenous cultures. 

“We also need to learn the processes of indigenous art making and therefore Sangam works closely with Blak Dance (Merindah Donnelly, CEO), and learn how we ethically do this work in conversation with the Indigenous Arts sector, especially around cultural intellectual property, licensing, cultural protocol, getting permissions to use fragments of history. Things that are useful for us as settlers on this land but as settlers who have been colonised ourselves.” 

“They (Indigenous artists such as Dr. Vicki Couzens who I have collaborated with) taught me how colonisation has often made us (South Asians) assimilate into whiteness and colonial structure, and that there are knowledge forms that exist orally, in fractured histories. They taught me that we are also fractured in history. There’s a lot we can learn, if we are led by their wishes and the work is done in a careful way.”

“It shows us that we don’t have to be ‘the other,’ adopt how dominant structures operate, but can engage with the idea of otherness from our own perspective.”

Priya says the lessons from Indigenous artists, and from this collaboration between Sangam, the City of Casey  and the MSO  will stay with her. But she also  hopes it inspires future collaborations with this open mindset of allyship and curiosity. 

“We need to learn, unlearn and relearn continuously,” she says. “That’s the way to create something truly unique and true.” 

 


Connect with Sangam, Bunjil Place and the MSO

You can connect with Sangam at the Sangam website or on Instagram, or you can connect directly with Priya Srinivasan on Linkedin or Instagram, Hari Sivanesan on LinkedIn or Instagram, and Yashoda Thakore via her website or Instagram.  

To check out more from the Bunjil Place, visit their website or follow them on Instagram

To check out more from the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, visit their website or follow them on Instagram


Sandeep Varma is the Founder and CEO of SAARI Collective.