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Music Circle's Mission Remains Unbroken

The group has showcased Indian classical performing arts for 27 years.

May 28, 2000|DON HECKMAN | Don Heckman writes about jazz and world music for Calendar

"The Ramayana" is one of the world's great epic tales. A classic exposition underscoring the vital importance of dharma (righteousness), it is also a formidable tale of kings, queens, heroes, villains and magical creatures, chronicling the adventures of Ram and the ultimate triumph of his good dharma over the forces of evil.

Usually celebrated in October and November, during the Hindu festival of Dussehra, "The Ramayana" receives a more unusual exposition Saturday, when the Music Circle presents "Ramayana L.A." at Thorne Hall in Pasadena's Occidental College. The program features dancers and musicians from four countries--Bali, Cambodia, India and the Indonesian island of Java--offering their individual cultural renderings of the classic legend.

"Ramayana L.A." is one of 10 annual programs in the Music Circle season. Now in its 27th year, the organization has been one of the Southland's primary small-venue presenters of high-quality classical Indian music and dance. This year's "Ramayana" program is the second such event--the first was in 1998--and typifies the desire of the Music Circle's president, sitar player and educator Harihar Rao, to maintain a continuing Southland presence for Indian classical performing arts.

For the tall, bearded Rao, now in his 70s, the concept of presenting Indian programs aimed at sophisticated, knowledgeable audiences actually predated the existence of the Music Circle, triggered in part by his long association with Ravi Shankar. His connection with the legendary Indian classical artist reaches back to the 1940s, when he was a sitar student, disciple and teaching assistant in Bombay and later in New Delhi.

Rao moved to L.A. in the early '60s to teach Indian music and study jazz at the college level.

"I had a Fulbright scholarship," he says, "with the option to go to either the Eastman School in Rochester, N.Y., or to UCLA. I had lots of American friends in India--I had been in love with America since I was a kid--so I consulted with one of them. He said, 'Do you like warm weather or cold weather?' and I said, 'Warm, of course.' And he said, 'Do you like women dressed in wool coats or bikinis?' Well, that settled that."

In addition to his tenure at UCLA (during which he directed the Indian studies group in the Institute of Ethnomusicology), he has also taught at Caltech, Cal State L.A. and Cal Poly Pomona. In the '60s, Rao was also active in the crossover music community, a major influence on the rhythmic experiments of Los Angeles trumpeter-bandleader Don Ellis and a member, with Ellis, of the Hindustani Jazz Sextet. Equally important, he has maintained a continuing guru-shishya (teacher-student) relationship with Shankar. And that relationship played an important, if indirect role, in the creation of the Music Circle.

In 1968, after a two-year sabbatical in India, he returned to Los Angeles to discover that Shankar had bought a house on Highland Avenue.

"He had a fascination for Hollywood," says Rao with a chuckle. "It was a large house, and when he went out on tour, I would sometimes serve as the caretaker for him. Well, during one of those absences, a very fine Indian musician came through town and some of my friends thought it would be nice to hear her. So we had a get-together at Ravi's house. About six months later, another sitar player came to town, and we did a second concert. When Ravi came back and found out what I had done, he said, 'That's a great idea. You should do more of this.' "

Coincidentally, Rao and Shankar were invited to Occidental College for a faculty lunch--where they discovered what would become one of their regular venues.

"We wandered around the campus and found the chapel," Rao recalls. "And he said, 'This is a good place for concerts.' I said, 'But isn't it too big?' And he just laughed and said, 'Let's hope that the audiences will grow.' "

The Music Circle's semiofficial beginning was in 1973, with Shankar occasionally appearing in programs to help matters along. ("He played free concerts," says Rao, "and was really our benefactor.") Since that time, it has produced about 250 events, holding monthly concerts over its 10-month-long season each year (there are respites in August and December).

It has never been easy to keep the concerts going, however. Supported by membership funding, the Music Circle now has nearly 700 members who pay an annual fee of $25, which allows them to purchase tickets at discount prices. Other funding comes from public sources. But maintaining the Music Circle has largely been a labor of love for Rao and his wife, Paula, a teacher in the Pasadena Unified School District whom he met here in the '60s. He reports that he has never taken any payment for his work and that, in fact, he has invested a great deal of his own funds to keep the enterprise going.

Still, one would assume that, with, according to Rao, an estimated Indian population of 400,000 in the Southland, audiences might readily available.

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