Speaker: Balakrishnan Raghavan

Belonging to the World: Voicing Sacred Poetry of the Marginalized

When he was ten years old, Balakrishnan Raghavan was moved to tears listening to a centuries-old Tamil hymn about Lord Shiva, sung by musician M S Subbulakshmi.  “I was wailing. Subbulakshmi’s voice soaring high and low, calling out to that divine-beloved, the voice of the poet who lived hundreds of years before us, the fierceness of their devotion, the ultimate surrender of the devotee, the madness of love, the pathos of separation, and the anticipation of union; all of this is etched in my memory,” he recalls.

From that experience, Indian classical music became a fount of his practice. Raghavan is a lifelong student of the arts, whose outlook on life and living is steeped “at the intersection of kindness, spirituality, sensuality, music, flow, and poetry.” The poems of the saints from the spiritual traditions of India have shaped “how I engage with, make sense of and access the world around me.” He strongly believes in the power of the collective kindness of humanity across time and space.

Raghavan is particularly drawn to the classical verses of communities on the margins, on the fringes, the “other’” to the dominant. “They were the alternative, the undercurrent, the subversive,” he says. “This liminal space inhabited by the marginalized saint, the marginalized women from the hereditary artist community, and the marginalized sexual minorities are where my work finds solace, inspiration, and meaning.”

He has been bringing forth the voices and contributions of women mystics, poets, and courtesans whose writings have rarely made their way into the mainstream classical tradition. He sets to music erotic poems by some of these silenced voices, and collaborates with dancers in the art form of Bharatanatyam to bring out visual imagery of their poems. One source describes Raghavan as “a passionate classical musician formally trained in Carnatic music, but highly proficient in other forms too, [who] is taking some steps in ensuring the voice of these amazing and daring women poets of our history does not fade off into oblivion.”

As Raghavan says:

“Through the verses and poems of the saints and the voices of women, I strive for a vanishing present. In 15th-century poet-saint Kabir’s words, I was wounded by the word. In my work, I bring together seemingly disparate idioms/poems/stories across time and space and place them beside each other. I enjoy this juxtaposition as it opens up space to consider a perennial philosophy that is beyond binaries, beyond the constraints of borders or boundaries.”

Raghavan finds immense hope, resilience, love, kindness, and diversity in these voices. “As we grapple with global problems of hate and violence, we need to foreground the marginalized voices to find solutions and solidarity. I strive to be a medium of flowing kindness and desire to be surrounded by kindred spirits in this life pilgrimage.”

An elder from Mumbai recently told him, “tum toh duniya ke ho” (you belong to the world). A friend’s mother said that in a world where people are busy creating boundaries, [Ragavan’s] work erases them and makes space for love. Indeed belonging to the world, he has found a home in Santa Cruz, California, while inhabiting spaces with beloved friends and family in India (Hyderabad, Punjab, Pune, Delhi, Mumbai, Bangalore), London, Paris, Mexico City, Berlin, Xalapa, New York, New  Jersey, North Carolina, and New Orleans.

Raghavan is an accomplished musician, researcher, and educator. He is pursuing a Ph.D. with a Regents Fellowship at the University of California, Santa Cruz (UCSC). His research encompasses Carnatic music, mystic traditions, poetry, translation, temple art, gender, caste, South Asian performance traditions, and the politics of spirituality.

He trained from illustrious maestros in Carnatic music for over twenty years, including a two-year-long immersive full-time discipleship (gurukulam) with his guru, Carnatic musician and scholar, Dr. R. Vedavalli. Additionally, he has been training with Shri. Prahlad Tipaniya, the contemporary voice of the musician-poet saint Kabir. As a guest faculty of music at Snehadhara Foundation, and Spastics Society of Karnataka, he explored the healing powers of music within the context of autism.

Prior to pursuing his passion for music full-time, he was a Business Intelligence and Analytics consultant in London. As an interdisciplinary artist, he continues to collaborate internationally and share his music across cities in India, the UK, Mexico, and the US. He is fluent in multiple languages, including written and spoken fluency in Tamil, Telugu, Hindi, and Kannada, and is conversant with Sanskrit, Urdu, Arabic, Malayalam, and Marathi.

Please join us in conversation with this gifted artist erasing boundaries, as he brings forth the sacred.

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