Masks are recommended, but not required.
Hear from composer Reena Esmail on how working between the worlds of Western and Indian classical music uplifts her sense of purpose and connection to humanity.
Can the art of music bridge differences that separate us? For Reena Esmail, working as a composer is about more than music: It’s about building what she calls “equitable musical spaces” for the performers and the audience. Born to Indian immigrants, she feels passionately that cultural differences can be a source of richness in both life and music. A memorable concert at The Met particularly inspired Reena to work between the worlds of Western and Indian classical music, a joyful combination that refines and uplifts her sense of purpose.
Subscribe to Frame of Mind wherever you listen to podcasts:
Listen on Apple Podcasts Listen on Spotify Listen on Google Podcasts Listen on Stitcher
I see my music as a window both ways, you know. My music is not Hindustani classical music, and also my music isn’t Mozart and Beethoven, and you know other things like that, but it’s kind of a conduit. It’s kind of a passing through point, where if you hear it, you might kind of go into the other musical form and investigate it a little bit more — and that is my intention.
Barron B. Bass:
Welcome to Frame of Mind, a podcast from The Metropolitan Museum of Art, about how art connects with wellness in our everyday lives. So, has a song ever helped you through a difficult chapter? Energized you? Brought tears to your eyes, or made you sing along? Music reflects all kinds of emotions, and studies have shown that singing, playing an instrument, or listening to music improves your wellbeing. This is true across all cultures and musical genres.
Indian American composer Reena Esmail discovered the positive effects of making music early on. But it wasn’t until she attended a concert at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, where sitar player Guarav Mazumdar performed, that she found a path to working between the worlds of Indian and Western classical music. This week on Frame of Mind, Reena explores the power of music to build a language between cultures.
So, I started playing the piano when I was 11 and I started kind of concertizing pretty quickly after that. I went to an arts high school. We had to give these recitals and we were in a piano department. Everyone knows what you’re supposed to be playing. I am a composer now because I have incredible stage fright.
I remember getting up onto the stage and just looking at the piano and having this feeling as if I had never seen a piano before. So, I started playing. My hands started shaking. My feet started shaking to the point where, you know, for years after people remembered that performance and they were like, “How were you playing with your hands and then your legs? We could see all of you just shaking.”
I look back at it now with a lot of love and, you know, a bit of laughter but at that point it was like, I felt like I had so much to prove, and I was never quite able to prove it. And I just remember feeling this cognitive dissonance and feeling like I know I have something to offer. I know I can see so deep into this music, and yet the pathway is not a pathway that allows me to express what I want to express.
For most of my time being a composer, you know, I went to conservatory. I did my undergrad at Juilliard. I did my masters at Yale. And so, I had this kind of pedigree in Western classical music and Western classical composition. But I realized that it was starting to separate me from my own culture. People would always kind of ask, “You’re Indian. Do you do things with Indian music?” And I felt kind of embarrassed.
There just were not very many Indian people in Western classical music at that time and I really wanted to make music and make art with people who shared something about my culture. I was at Yale, and I had been thinking for probably a decade before that, I really want to do something with Indian Classical Music. Yale hired a professor from India to come and teach Indian classical music and there was something about feeling like I was learning, not even through a Western lens, but just as an Indian girl studying Indian classical music.
Part of me was so amazed and so fascinated, and then part of me was like, so angry that I didn’t get a chance to study it when I was a child. But eventually I realized, you know, I have this really unique blend of understanding Western classical music and loving that tradition, and knowing a ton about it, and then being able to connect to my own culture through Indian classical music. I had this wonderful friend and she said, “Hey there’s this concert at The Met, you know, why don’t we go?” And it was Daniel Hope, the violinist, and Gaurav Mazumdar, who is a sitar player.
Left: Antonio Stradivari (Italian, Cremona 1644–1737 Cremona). The Gould” Violin, 1693. Maple, spruce, ebony, 23 1/4 × 7 3/4 in. (59 × 19.7 cm). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York,Gift of George Gould, 1955 (55.86a–c) Right: Sitar, mid-19th century. India. Wood, 53 1/2 × 14 13/16 × 3 1/2 in. (135.9 × 37.6 × 8.9 cm). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York,The Crosby Brown Collection of Musical Instruments, 1889 (89.4.190)
We went and, you know, we listened to this music, and I remember that so many people knew Daniel Hope. Like, there was a long line to go and see him, and then I realized like there wasn’t as long a line for Gaurav because people didn’t know him as well, I guess. And I was like, let’s go stand in that line. I want to meet this sitar player. He was really, maybe my first like very very deep dive into Indian classical music in India.
So that all started at that one concert at The Met. And what ended up happening is that I went on my Fulbright and studied with Gaurav for a year. You know, he taught sitar, but I also just studied basic Indian vocal music with him. He would sing a phrase. I would sing a phrase back, and we would just go back and forth, and back and forth.
When I am the most lost, I realize it’s probably a time when I haven’t heard my own voice for a long enough time. I used to live alone for many many years, especially when I was living in New York, I was just alone. And there would be days that passed by where I wasn’t teaching. I would just be in my apartment, and I would be completely silent. And I think the practice of singing, however basic, even if it’s just humming one note and just being able to hear your own voice — it kind of confirms for you, like, I am alive.
The year I spent in India was the best year of my life, I think. Because it was transformative in so many ways. It was the first time in my life I had ever been in a culture where everyone looked like me. My teachers just had this kind of attitude towards me, where they thought, “Okay, we think you’re going to get it, you know, we think you’re going to be good at this.”
Whatever the reason was, the result was that I picked it up very quickly, and I so enjoyed the process because I wasn’t fighting against other people’s perceptions of me. And I realized, I even picked up Hindi more quickly that way because when people speak to you like they know you’re going to understand, it actually almost helps you understand more and pick it up faster.
When I came back to America, it was fascinating because I started to then, in retrospect, see how difficult it had been when people’s perceptions of work against you, a little bit. That they’re like, “Ah, does she really know a lot about Beethoven?” You know? And fighting against that just takes so much energy. And I think there’s so many places in the world where we’re not able to show one another our best selves, and I don’t want to be part of that. I want to be in a place where I’m creating a space that allows people to show who they are to one another, but then to also maybe feel safe enough to just take one step toward the other person.
As a Western classical musician, I take for granted that sometimes in front of an orchestra there’s a person waving their arms and we understand what that means. To pretty much anyone else, it’s foreign. There was a tabla player, who was an Indian percussion player. The tabla is made up of two drums that you play with your hands. So, in Indian culture, the purveyor of rhythm is the tabla player.
So, I always tried to make sure that he could actually hear the beat and so what I did is I paired a Western percussionist, a timpani player with him. They are also drums but usually they’re a set of four much, much bigger drums. The tabla player was a man from Varanasi, in India. He was probably in his sixties. By contrast, the timpani player was a student at Julliard. So, he was young, in his twenties, and had probably spent his entire life studying Western classical percussion.
Even though they were so grounded and so trained in their own tradition, and they came from such different places in the world, they really saw the value in learning from one another. This piece had five major performances for the premiere tour, both in India and in the US. They would be sitting in the back of a bus when we were going on tour and they would be kind of exchanging beats with each other. It was this language that they were speaking that wasn’t Hindi, it wasn’t English. It was just percussion. They would just start talking to one another and sharing their traditions with one another.
Finally at the end of the tour, the tabla player actually gave the timpani player his drums and said, “Hey please take these and please stay in touch and I’d love to, you know, continue to work with you.” Just the fact that there was this beautiful desire to kind of keep the conversation going because they had to align and listen to one another in the context of a piece of mine. Ultimately bringing out the best in people allows you to let them make their own connections and let them kind of find things that are so much more than you could ever have done.
One of the things that I think is so important in the arts is that it’s not a zero-sum game. It’s not a place where if one person appreciates music then the other person will appreciate that music less. What does happen in the arts is that when you appreciate something from a certain perspective and another person appreciates the exact same thing from a different perspective, you’re then able to turn to one another and have a discussion. And I think when you start a discussion in a warm way, when you start it based on a shared love of something — that then allows you to build a relationship, that will allow you to then access those deeper tougher places where our culture collide in ways that are harder.
There are people who are so meant to spend time with each other, so meant to get to know one another, and influence one another’s lives that might just never meet because they don’t speak the same musical language. I’m so interested in writing music that allows people to build those relationships. Like, what does it mean to be a person who writes music that can actually change people’s lives and affect them personally so deeply? If my music has done that for any person in the world, I mean, that’s the highest thing I could hope for in my life.
Barron B. Bass:
Thank you for listening. This has been Frame of Mind, an art and wellness podcast from The Met. To find out more about Reena and her work, please visit the Met’s website at www.metmuseum.org/frameofmind, where you’ll find bonus articles, features, resources, and videos on the endless connection between art and wellness.
Frame of Mind is produced by the Metropolitan Museum of Art and Goat Rodeo. At The Met: Head of Content Sofie Andersen, Executive Producer Nina Diamond, Associate Producer Bryan Martin, and Production Coordinators Harrison Furey and Lela Jenkins. At Goat Rodeo: Rebecca Seidel is Lead Producer. Megan Nadolski is Executive Producer. Production Assistance from Char Dreyer, Isabelle Kerby-McGowan, Cara Shillenn, and Max Johnston.
Senior producer is Ian Enright. Story Editing from Morgan Springer. Series Illustration by Sophie Schultz. I’m your host, Barron B. Bass. A special thanks to our guest on this episode, Reena Esmail. This podcast is made possible by Bloomberg Philanthropies and Dasha Zhukova Niarchos. If you liked this episode, please leave us a rating or review and share it with your friends.
Next time on Frame of Mind…
When we first start to go dig the clay, we are very respective of Earth Mother. So, when we get to the area where the clay vein is, we introduce ourselves, we say our prayer, we state our purpose, ask permission, take only what we need. My parents, they had told me that like, “You know, we see how the connection is made right now, like the clay is speaking through you.”
and Dasha Zhukova Niarchos.