Saiganesh Sairaman: From Indian Classical Singing to the Music of Swami Kriyananda

Saiganesh sings at a Christmas service at Ananda Sangha in Palo Alto, CA.

Saiganesh Sairaman grew up in a traditional family in India. Trained as a singer in the Indian classical tradition, he is a frequent soloist at Ananda events. Saiganesh serves as a teacher at Ananda Sangha and manages the group kitchen in the Ananda Mountain View community. Additionally, he applies his artistic talents and Silicon Valley tech smarts to many creative service projects.

Asha: I’m aware that you began singing when you were growing  up in Chennai, and that you started training at a very early age in the Indian classical tradition. How did you become interested in music, and how did you study when you were a young boy?

Saiganesh: I was fortunate to be born into a family where my mother and grandmother were interested in music, so there was always a lot of music around as I grew up, and when I think about it, I imagine there was also a carryover from past lives, because I was born with that interest as well.

Even as a small child I was thrilled and absorbed and fascinated with Indian music. I started taking lessons when I was five or six years old, which is considered normal and ideal in Indian music, because it’s a time when your voice can be most easily molded into the right patterns.

So that’s where my journey with Indian music began. And until I came to the US when I was twenty-four, my exposure to music was strictly limited to Indian classical music in all its forms, and I never studied or listened to much of any other kind of music.

Asha: Your Indian peers here in the US and in India are probably a lot more aware of American pop culture than you are, because you lived completely outside of those influences.

Saiganesh: Yes, the music training in India is not very different from attunement to a guru or a spiritual path, and it’s considered very important to be careful what music you listen to, because you can subconsciously start imbibing the traits of the other forms and the way you would use your voice, and the way you would place the notes. It’s emphasized to an extreme degree that you shouldn’t even listen to music from a different teacher, because you’re trying to tune into the particular aesthetic from a particular lineage, and it’s a guru-disciple relationship with your teacher.

So I wasn’t unique in tuning everything else out, and it was natural for me because I wasn’t all that drawn or interested in it. But it’s also a fact of how the classical traditions train you.

Asha: Did you stay with the same teacher the whole time?

Saiganesh: No, actually. I was a very picky child. [Laughs] But no, I learned vocal music from multiple teachers. I don’t have strong memories of the relationship, or the aesthetic, or the essence of the music until I was about twelve or thirteen. As much as I was learning before then, I wasn’t absorbing it with the same depth as I was later. Or maybe I was, but I’m not able to recollect it in detail.

At that point I actually switched to violin for four or five years, although I never tell that people about it, because if you haven’t played violin for five years it’s like you’re starting over. So it’s now just a part of my distant past.

After the diversion into violin I sought traditions and musicians that were in tune with the styles I wanted to express, which were more delicate and inward, and where there was less of fireworks. [Laughs] Because Indian classical music tends to have a lot of that, too. But I was more interested in the gentler, subtler, finer aesthetics.

In college I continued to learn from two or three teachers, and I was making very conscious choices about what traditions I wanted to be part of.

Asha: Give us an idea of what the vocal training was like when you were five. What did you do then and in the years after? How did you train your voice?

Saiganesh: It’s really not very different from Western music, in the sense that you do take lessons. I don’t know what they are called in the Western classical training, but you go through lots of exercises that aren’t compositions, or music that you would perform, because they’re intended to mold your voice and teach you different ways of singing.

The biggest difference between Indian and Western music is that you have to imbibe Indian music from a guru. It’s not written down on paper, so whatever I’m singing, there will be a skeleton on paper for me to refer to and to know what’s coming next. But how it’s exactly going to sound, only my teacher can tell me. And it becomes all the more true when you start studying raga music, because the ragas have moods. The ragas have such subtle shades of emotion and human expression that you have to understand it by listening to somebody express it, and tuning into what they’re feeling.

So that’s how you are primarily training as a child, and it’s what I did for many, many years. Certainly the biggest aspect of it, which is different not just from Western music, but I think from how the arts are seen all over the world today, is that when you train as a child, you aren’t training toward the annual concert in your school that’s going to take place in March. [Laughs]

In India these things are shifting, because India is now a fairly westernized country and there are lots of cultural influences from the West. So there are annual concerts in schools that young people are training for, but when I was learning that wasn’t the case, which I feel very grateful for.

The training is not performance-oriented. It’s for you to discover something within yourself, to express yourself in ways that you’re not used to, to feel things that you are not accustomed to feeling, and then have that naturally grow and blossom into something beautiful. It is not necessarily about, you know, on March 18 I’m going to perform in this hall with this group, and I need to be training for that performance.

Asha: Can you give examples of some things you wouldn’t normally feel, that you might be asked to feel and express?

Saiganesh: Music is such a powerful medium for the expression of feeling. And it’s not that we can’t feel a certain emotion when we sing, or at anytime, but our awareness of what we’re feeling and what we’re expressing may be limited – for example if we’re preoccupied.

In Indian music the meaning of the word raga is “essence” or “feeling.” It’s the shades of how you express yourself. So every note, every tune, every melody has an emotion and a human feeling that it is expressing. And when you channel it through yourself, and when you channel it through your voice, you start to become aware of sorrow and happiness and joy and peace and calmness, and all of these shades of various emotions and feelings that are part of you. But the mental preoccupations that we are caught up in most of the time keep our senses pointed outward. Singing is a tool for self-awareness, in a sense. But it’s also a tool for self-discovery, because you’re working with your feeling nature in a very powerful and deep way.

Let me share something with you. I’m going to sing a melody that expresses the feeling of joy, or contentment and happiness. [sings]

I don’t know if that came across.

Asha: It does come across. Do it again.

Saiganesh: [sings]

Asha: When you came to Ananda, you began singing Swami Kriyananda’s songs. How did the experience of singing his music compare?

Saiganesh: I think it might be a unique trait of mine, because I wouldn’t say that all classical musicians are this way, or that Indians are this way, but I was so accustomed to tuning out other music. As I explained, I’m generally not looking to take it in, for example if I’m in a setting that I’m not familiar with. So I entered Ananda that way, and in my first few days and weeks I had no idea that Swami Kriyananda even composed music.

But in time the words and poetry and feeling of the singers invited me to start tuning into the music, and that was my first impression. But I think that anybody who’s heard Swami Kriyananda’s music will perhaps agree with me that the power of the music, and more importantly, the simplicity of it, the simplicity of the melody, the simplicity of its expression, the simplicity of how we perform and bring it together, is rather stark.

To me, it’s rather unusual for music to have so much power and be so simple. And when I began to realize what was there, and I started singing the music, I was able to open myself to it immediately. And because I was unaccustomed to music other than Indian classical music, the poetry was stunning to me, and that in itself was honestly such a warm invitation to tune into the music, because it was so deep, and also so meaningful to me.

One of the first songs I heard was “Life Is A Dream.” And I was deeply moved in a way that no Indian music, perhaps, had ever moved me.

Asha: Can you give us a verse of that song.

Saiganesh: [sings] “Life is a dream, time like a stream carries our burdens away. Never despair, joy’s everywhere. Love can befriend you today.”

The simplicity of it I think is the complete essence of Swami Kriyananda’s music, because Indian music, as powerful as it is, and I’m saying this as an Indian musician who enjoys Indian music intensely all the time, but Indian classical music is very, very stylized. It’s very complex.

Asha: Stylized – what does that mean? That it has to be sung a certain way?

Saiganesh: Yes, there’s a long tradition and a style and a learning process. There’s an aesthetic. There is a form of expression. And there’s so much grammar. And maybe for the audience it feels like I’m just oscillating my voice, or I’m just going up and down with a lot of freedom, but as a musician I know that there’s so much grammar behind what I’m doing, and it is freeing once you’ve learned the structure and you’ve trained yourself. But I do function within the confines of that style.

Asha: And when you came to Swami’s music, how did it compare?

Saiganesh: There is a certain style to all music, and I think Swami’s music also has a style, but it’s not at all intricate or complex. There’s a simplicity to it that, to me, is actually outside of any particular culture.

I have to share this with you because I sing a lot of Swami Kriyananda’s songs that have a tamboura accompaniment.

People would sometimes tell me, “You’ll sing that song really well because you’re an Indian musician.” And I would tell them, “Yes, I am an Indian musician, but I have to say this particular song has its own reality.” Like, for example, “I’ve Passed My Life As A Stranger, Lord.”

Asha: Now you have to sing it.

Saiganesh: [sings] “I’ve passed my life as a stranger, Lord, roamed far in foreign lands.”

It’s sung with a tamboura accompaniment, and the voice and the instrument blend as if they were made for each other. But it’s not Indian music. It is original music. You cannot fit Swami Kriyananda’s music into a single style, because every song stands by itself.

There are certainly a lot of elements that are common in this music. There are phrases or notes or ways in which he composes that you can see as patterns in most of the songs, but everything is original.

Asha: Earlier you said that you came into an all-sing – please finish that thought, because we lost it.

Saiganesh: I was remembering how I was being moved more deeply than any piece of Indian music had moved me.

Asha: Why did that happen?

Saiganesh: I think it was partly how deeply everybody was feeling the meaning of the words as they were singing them together.

Asha: So part of it was the experience of community?

Saiganesh: Part of it was the experience of community, but also the depth that the artists brought to it. By artists, I mean the hundreds of people who were gathered, all bringing a depth to it because it was personal and meaningful for them individually. It wasn’t just the beauty of the melody and the notes that they were entranced by, but the depth of the feeling that came from inside.

And, more important, the simplicity of it, and how accessible that vibration was, in that simple melody. Which might have been more difficult to access if you’re not an Indian person – if you’re from Japan or Korea.

It’s the same as if I sing an Indian song to you, and it’s exotic for you, but there’s so much going on in your mind that it’s standing between you and the essence of that feeling that I’m trying to express. Whereas if you’ve grown up with me, or you’ve grown up with this tradition, that structure or style will not be a barrier but a conduit for carrying that feeling to you.

And I think that’s where Swami Kriyananda’s music is extremely powerful, and where it belongs uniquely to this age, because I think it stands outside those barriers. It stands outside of those styles and forms that we are used to because we come from a certain culture.

Asha: Swami Kriyananda was classically trained and deeply aware of Indian music, and he sang beautifully. But he deliberately wanted to write music that would be, first of all, accessible to everyone. He wanted the music to be part of the community, and to unite the community. So he wanted everybody to be able to access it. And in this regard the cross-cultural aspect is interesting.

When Swami moved to India in 2004, he was curious to know if the Indians would like the music. I remember the first time a group of us sang for a small group of Indians in 2003, shortly before the work started, and how much they liked the music. And Swamiji was relieved, because he realized that if the music would speak to the Indians, the vibration behind it would come with it, and it would unite us. So it’s fascinating to hear that you’re saying exactly the same thing, having crossed the cultures. Have you developed favorites of Swami’s songs?

Saiganesh: I sure have. I think all of us have. I always ask people about their favorite song of Swami’s, and I don’t think anybody has named the songs that are my favorites. [Laughs] I like the songs that are deep and have a little bit of a grave note to them. It’s hard to name a single absolute favorite, but some of them are “Life Flows On Like A River” and “To Death I’m A Stranger.” And I really enjoy the song that we sing for Good Friday, “Let This Cup Pass From Me.”

So the depth of it, because I’m very accustomed to bringing a lot of feeling to music, and songs that have that intensity to them appeal to me. I was thrilled when I heard “Life Flows On Like A River” for the first time, because it felt so anciently familiar. There was no part of me that was thinking I was hearing it for the first time.

Asha: Can you sing a few lines so people will get the feeling.

Saiganesh: [sings]

Life flows on like a river

That homes to the sea.

One hour bounding through mountain vales,

One hour winding through a lea.

None may linger on the way.

None may coax time to stay.

Fleeting scenes move by us like a dream.

Cling not, none will be your own.

Never grieve to be alone.

Go within you, there’s your home.”

Asha: Oh my. Swamiji said that the music that came through him – because he never called it his own – was a new vibration of consciousness expressed as music. What do you think about that way of describing it?

Saiganesh: It is a little beyond me to know exactly the gravitas of what he’s describing, but it makes perfect sense, because I’ve always felt there is nothing like it.

To think of the tremendous quantity of music that has been composed for untold millennia, and to think of the tradition in which I was trained, where some of the music may be hundreds of years old, and to realize that there has been nothing like this music before, is mind-boggling. And I think there’s a lot of truth in that.

Asha: Everything that Swamiji did was to serve Master’s work of ushering in a expression of eternal truth for an age of energy-awareness. And while this music may not have taken over the planet, it’s there for people to be uplifted by it. And what do you think the effect of it will be?

Saiganesh: This is how I describe it to people, and to myself, so that I can make sense of it. It’s actually a quote from Nayaswami Devi, from one of her talks. “Swami took the deepest aspiration of our hearts, the highest and the deepest aspiration, and gave it tangible expression as music.”

When we tune into his music, we are tuning into an aspiration that already exists within us. When I said earlier that music is powerful, it was in the context of your asking me about my training in Indian classical music. And I bring it up now because I think the same way about Swami’s music.

When I said it was powerful, I meant singing it. I meant vocalizing it. And while I do think there’s a lot of power in listening to it and living in the vibration of his music all the time, I believe there’s even more power when we are able to vocalize it. Because then you realize that it’s vibrating with the aspiration that’s inside you, and it brings you back to your center and aligns you with that aspiration in a moment.

I sing Swami’s songs a lot when I’m driving by myself. David Eby tells how he was singing one of Swami’s songs while he was driving, and how he was thinking how simple it was, but then he realized that his consciousness had shifted so dramatically that he had to pull over and stop and think about what had just happened.

I started singing his songs organically while driving, and I would always notice after thirty or forty seconds, “I’m different. I’m thinking about things differently. I’m feeling differently. I’m not thinking about the things I was thinking two minutes ago.” And I believe Swami’s music is a doorway for us to connect with our own higher aspirations.

Asha: That’s a wonderful thought, because it is a vibration, and we are vibration. In his book A Tale of Songs he urges us to sing or play this music. Do you still sing Indian classical music?

Saiganesh: I sing Indian classical a lot. Indian classical music is also very powerful; it’s just different. And just as we all have interests, Indian classical music has always been mine. A unique feature of Indian classical music, at least in the kind of training I had and how we present it, and in Indian art in general, is that the arts are seen as a very natural way of expressing human emotions, and then we’re always using it as a tool to direct our consciousness toward the Divine.

There are Indian songs that express poetically how you’re angry with God, or you’re sad, or you’re yearning, or longing, or you’re joyful. So it’s dealing with all of the human emotions, and I think that’s a serious missing link in popular culture today. Because all of those human emotions are seen in the West as only relevant in human relationships, and the music doesn’t elevate or lift that feeling toward God. Whereas Indian music expresses all of those human feelings with such intensity, but every song is a conversation with God, and everything is lifted to a higher plane.

So Indian music I find to be very devotional, and because of my meditation practice, and my time on the spiritual path, and my experience with Swami’s music, when I sing Indian music now, it has a very different kind of depth and feeling than it did eight years ago. I might have sung the same songs, I might have had the same level of control over my throat or been able to sing the same phrases, or perhaps even sing better – it doesn’t matter. I don’t get to practice or perform the same way these days as I did eight or nine years ago, but I’m sure my Indian music has also transformed because I’m feeling it differently, and I’m just so much more aware of its purpose and goal.

Asha: Thank you very much for sharing your story. I’m grateful that you’ve been so forthcoming with your very interesting journey.

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