Writings about Music

Driving Beloved Teachers

Pandit Jasraj and Kala Ramnath

Driving my beloved teachers, Pandit Jasraj and Kala Ramnath, from San Francisco to Los Angeles on the 405 Freeway during the spring of 2000, Kala resting in the back, at midnight, a radiant full moon before us, Panditji sang a glorious raga new to me, Sohini, a rendering divine beyond any words or worlds...

Earlier that evening, stopping at a diner along the way, the other patrons, including a number of truckers, stared in mystified, silent wonder at us in our Indian clothing like visitors from another realm. Kala adoringly asked Pandit Jasraj if the whipped cream on her dessert was OK to eat. Panditji requested cinnamon for his toast - the perfect spice.

On the road again, Pandit Jasraj suddenly expressed a desire to switch routes and head to Las Vegas for a few days instead! Visions of card games with James Bond surrounded by enchantresses in elegant gowns filled my head, only knowing casinos from film, us collectively adding an element of mysterious foreign intrigue in my imagination, but I didn't know what to say, my wallet being very light at the time, and kept silent. I suppose Panditji and Kala took that as a no, unfortunately - they seemed disappointed - and we continued on towards the City of Angels not Sin City where a combination of raga and gambling had seemed a pleasingly diverting notion.

Another time, when Kala had an extended layover at LAX in 2002, I picked her up there, and we went for breakfast in Manhattan Beach. After dining, we sauntered alongside the ocean, a sunlit morning touched by gentle sea breezes. Coming upon a profusion of brightly colored seaside flowers charmed Kala, enthusing with delight - a fitting manifestation in nature of the multi-hued timbral shadings and earthy expressive flavor informing her violin playing.

At my first lesson with Kala during the summer of 1996, she appeared out of nowhere in the doorway wearing a tony powder blue sari looking like an Indian princess, a stunningly beautiful image. Myself, wearing a Golden State Warriors T-shirt gift from coach Don Nelson, a friend of Bob Longhi, together with shorts, well, it was incredibly humbling. Even so, the profound understanding and depth Kala brings to teaching was a blessing beyond what one may hope for. I see her there before me like a deity or apsara, selflessly and effortlessly sharing her bountiful knowledge, her speaking voice as lovely as her bowed music.

Learning Mian Ki Malhar from Kala, a raga steeped in legend, was especially memorable, this teaching preparing me to compose and realize one of my most intricate meruvina compositions and performances.

But above all she possessed a noble ritualistic manner while avoiding pretense, an effective way of doing things in the manner of her Guruji, and earlier her aunt, renowned Hindustani violinist, N. Rajam, whose recording of Malkauns later on helped inspire Stars Blossom from my 2019 Tunis Phantom album.

I first heard Kala perform at a 1995 Music Circle festival concert, including Pandit Jasraj and Ravi Shankar (another night), whereby she had filled in for none less than L. Subramaniam, leaving the audience spellbound and elevated by the originality and substance of her musical vision.

Richard Dreyfuss, with Alicia Witt, shows how teachers have the power to save souls and spirits in Mr. Holland's Opus.

Kala and I were fortunate to make music with Ray Manzarek in 1996, an idea I had, myself being composer, arranger and producer. I've been intending to have mastered the live performance that mesmerized an audience at the Jazz Bakery in Culver City one electrifying summer evening.

Kala Ramnath at the Jazz Bakery the night she performed with Ray Manzarek

That same summer, I arranged for Kala to give a live concert on KPFK-FM in North Hollywood. She thrilled us with a hypnotic rendering of Raga Jog. It was Kala's treatment of Jog together with that of another violinist, Vishnu Govind Jog, who inspired my composition, Earth and Rivers, based upon Jog.

Another artist, L. Shankar, brother of L. Subramaniam, who plays the double violin, helped inspire my compositions Kaunsi Kanada and Bhimpalasi.

Around the time of the radio concert, I also brought Kala to meet Nazir Ali Jairazbhoy and Amy Catlin-Jairazbhoy at their Valley Village home, whereupon she excitedly phoned her Guruji in India, Pandit Jasraj, so that he and Nazir might enjoy the pleasure of speaking to each other again, having not done so in some time.

Kala had the highest regard for my musical opinions covering a range of genres including Indian classical music, and freely confided in me inner details about the world of Indian classical music.

Pandit Jasraj once told Kala and I that he wished for us to make music together even though I wasn't playing an instrument at the time, focusing on my compositions and realizations for meruvina, and my preference has been not to mix the meruvina with traditional musicians. Regardless of whether our pathways may connect this way, collaborative instincts for my unexpected recent piano playing having focused on percussion, namely tabla and drums, she is truly part of my makeup from the priceless musical treasures imparted, not to mention arranging for me to first meet her Guruji in 1998.

At the time I had an appointment at UCLA, and flew to San Jose where I rented a car with a musical name, the Sonata, driving solo to a private home where Pandit Jasraj gave a rare afternoon performance of Bhimpalasi in momentously grand fashion for a rapt handful.

After finishing, Pandit Jasraj turned to me with his customary great humility, asking what I thought of his offering, most curious to hear my perspective. He had refused having the performance videotaped by the hosts, stating how he was singing for God. It was beyond great, of course, and I was overwhelmed, guessing now, for I don't recall specifics, I did my best to mention particular qualities and aspects that intrigued me in the form of questions. Pandit Jasraj had transitioned into his element of teacher just like that, and like the best teachers, he was open to perhaps learning something from a student despite his lofty stature.

Brothers Pandit Maniram Ji, Pandit Pratap Narayan Ji and Pandit Jasraj

Before beginning Bhimpalasi, Pandit Jasraj held to his face with both hands, eyes closed, cherished scarves perhaps from his teachers, his father, Pandit Motiram, and his elder brother, Pandit Maniram, breathing in with great emotion seeking blessings for the musical voyage about to depart.

Pandit Jasraj had wondered once if my ancestry was English, this being his best guess. Others have often mistaken me for Irish ancestry, even German. Relating how my roots are Russian, Hungarian and Polish, all Jewish, Panditji was delighted, sharing a story connecting the ancient histories of Hindu and Jewish cultures, a truly enlightened man who loved all people no matter their origins. He even traveled to Antartica and gave a concert in the Oceanus Lodge!

- Michael Robinson, December 2022, Los Angeles


© 2022 Michael Robinson All rights reserved


Michael Robinson is a Los Angeles-based composer, programmer, jazz pianist and musicologist. His 198 albums include 151 albums for meruvina and 47 albums of piano improvisations. Robinson has been a lecturer at UCLA, Bard College and California State University Long Beach and Dominguez Hills.