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Rohith Jayaraman and Asha Ramesh’s Carnatic Album ‘Manam’ Questions Societal Norms

The U.S.-based mother-son duo are out with a five-track album that delves into social injustices

Tanushi Bhatnagar Jun 21, 2021

Mothers-son musician duo Asha Ramesh and Rohith Jayaraman. Photo: Studio Sree (Ramesh); Mike Spencer (Jayaraman)

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In the realm of Carnatic music, Asha Ramesh needs little introduction. Based in San Jose, she has swayed listeners across India, North America, UK and the Netherlands with her euphonious melodies. Currently, Ramesh takes online classes at her Ragamalika School of Music in San Jose, California that she established in 1992. 

The up-and-coming global artist, the Indo-American Rohith Jayaram is a vocalist, composer, and educator. Although trained in Carnatic music as a disciple of Ramesh, his mother, he has been more keen on exploring international sounds including Arabic music, Gnawa, and folk. He has lent his voice to various projects with legendary musicians such as A.R. Rahman, Zakir Hussain and Shankar Mahadevan apart from foraying into the music video industry. Currently, Rohith is the assistant manager for Berklee India Exchange (BIX) and occasionally conducts private Carnatic music classes.

Following multiple incidences of racial violence in the United States last June, Ramesh — restless and deeply touched — wrote the lines: “Pirakkumbodhu niram, jaadhi, madham thervu seivadhaar?” (When we are born, who decides our color, caste, and religion?)

After a three-hour-long conversation with Jayaraman, little did they know that this was the beginning of their debut collaborative album Manam. Addressing social evils like colorism, casteism and police brutality, this stylized five-track Carnatic composition questions the norms deeply ingrained in our life. Their remarkable debut as a mother-son duo, does not only cater to the Carnatic music audience but is expansive enough to cover spoken word poetry and experiment with jazz. The word Manam translates to ‘from the heart’ in Tamizh and is what they term as “heartspeak” from both Ramesh and Jayaraman. 

Released in earlier this month, the album not only transcends genres but languages. With four other tracks in Tamizh, “Saloni” is a Hindi poem Ramesh has held close to her heart since a young girl. Manam, for Jayaraman, is a chronology of his musical journey. It starts with “Vetri Nadai” paying homage to his roots – the beginning of the duo’s guru-student relationship. Gradually adding more complexity with instruments and vocals over the album, the concluding track “Vidhudhalai (Freedom)” signifies his global influence and features some of his musician friends from Berklee College of Music including the Malay-Indonesian Alief Hamdan dabbing a handful of jazz across the track. 

Over a telephonic interview with Rolling Stone India, Jayaraman and Ramesh speak about their experience and the making of the album. Excerpts:

This is the first time you have worked as a duo. How was your experience working together on Manam

Rohith Jayaraman: I had an interesting opportunity to grow up both as a son and a student. It was a different experience for me to sort of now be in a collaborator’s role with her… It wasn’t as jarring as I thought it would be. We still had a lot of really different perspectives on things. 

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Asha Ramesh: I did not think of him as my son when we were working together. I made myself think of him as an individual artist… Most of the time, I never remembered that he was my son and I think that helped the process. It was very satisfying and overwhelming. Writing along with him, translating and composing was a wonderful experience. 

The album centers around many pressing discussions from racism in America to social norms and gender and caste issues in India. Were you worried or nervous about how it would be received?

Ramesh: The whole process started because [the racial violence] hit really close to heart. We never really aimed at particularly reaching a number of people, we just wanted to put out what we felt… Even if 10 people think about it, great! Now we are happy that a lot of people are reacting to it in a positive way.  

Jayaraman: A small percentage of me was aware that this was going to not fly with everyone… We sort of took the approach to say “how can [the album] be less specific and not about an individual or an individual group?” The album really was about a global human community and about the fact that we have a lot of shared experiences.

The lyrics play a huge part in the album and convey the main emotion. Why don’t you tell us about your writing process for Manam

Jayaraman: I have never been a songwriter… If not for this project, I would probably not touch lyrics for my whole life. I found myself writing English lyrics. I would come up with an extremely specific analogy that wouldn’t make sense to anyone… but the only thing that mattered to us was once we had the line, does it elicit the same feeling? A lot of the English is almost translated directly but a lot of [the lyrics] put side by side, you wouldn’t even know if it was the original. 

Ramesh: The key point was whatever he tried to express in English we had to make sure that it carried that same essence, the same thought and feeling in another language. I realized how much I needed to research on Tamil as a language for that. It was a good experience.

The track “Saloni” is spoken-word and starkly different from the other tracks in your album. What was the inspiration behind doing a composition like this?

Ramesh: The issue of complexion has always been a big thing in India and I have experienced it myself on multiple occasions. It has always bothered me… The power in having said those words is much more than if I had put it in a tune. I did not want to use a Carnatic melody for a Hindi poem. 

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Jayaraman: I remember thinking that it would be interesting to have the track be recited by five different women from five different stages of their life – but not in chronological order. [We did not want to] imply that it is one person’s experience but wanted to bring a timeless feeling to it. I asked Vasundhara Gupta, who is my partner, to arrange this song and she was game. I would just be overwhelmed to see how her mind works, especially for this song. It is a big testament asking for help from people who know what they are doing. I am glad that she did it the way she did because she gave it a sense of reality. 

“Vidhudhalai” appears twice on Manam, one of the versions titled “Freedom,” which culminates the album. Why did you choose to do two tracks?

Jayaraman: When we finished (writing) “Vidhudhalai,” my mom and I internalized the song very differently. We came to the idea that my mom being a Carnatic musician can do a version that is traditional and I can call on my friends around the world to put together a more contemporary, global-ish arrangement of the piece. Not everyone may know enough about Carnatic music to sit through a nine-and-a-half minute purely Carnatic piece. 

Ramesh: The beauty of the “Viduthalai” piece is that the melodies remain intact but there is so much scope for expression with the same melody, whatever the genre may be. Music becomes the binding force there. 

What’s coming up next, as a duo and individually? 

Ramesh: Luckily things are opening up slowly [after the lockdown]. Since last week, commitments have been coming up. As a duo, we haven’t really thought about it because we are still reeling in this and trying to assimilate what is happening around us. There are some things left to be done as far as Manam is concerned. I hope we can work together again. 

Jayaraman: Yeah, we will! We are still in the thick of it. We are hoping to release a music video next week for the last piece “Vidhudhalai (Freedom). I’m sure there are things to come even if it is not a duo project… We have learned that it doesn’t have to be purely performance but there are a lot of different ways that we can collaborate now. 

Listen to ‘Manam’ below via Spotify. Stream on more platforms here.

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