Music Circle continues historic performances of Indian music at Oxy

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"Taiko drummers in front of Thorne Hall during one of Occidental's multicultural festivals." Photo courtesy of

Occidental hosted a performance in Herrick Chapel by Indian musician Tejendra Majumdar April 15. Majumdar, a sarod player, performed at Occidental as part of a series of concerts planned by Music Circle, an organization started by famous Indian classical musicians Ravi Shankar and Harihar Rao in 1973. Since its founding, Music Circle has organized concerts in Herrick Chapel because of its unique acoustics, making it one of the most prominent venues for Indian classical music worldwide. Paula Rao, a former teacher and wife of the late Harihar Rao, said that Shankar and Harihar Rao came across Herrick during a campus tour and saw its potential as a venue.

“It started because Ravi Shankar’s son was applying to Occidental, so my husband went with Ravi Shankar to look over the campus,” Paula Rao said. “They got to the chapel and Ravi Shankar peered inside and he said ‘Oh my god this is perfect for Indian music.’”

Paula Rao, who lives in Pasadena, now serves on the board of Music Circle. Harihar Rao helped run Music Circle as its artistic director until his death Jan. 13, 2013. Occidental College hosted a memorial in Thorne Hall honoring both Harihar Rao and Ravi Shankar, who died Dec. 11, 2012, following their deaths. Professor Dale Wright of the religious studies department was also a member of the Music Circle board and helped to organize and promote their concerts. According to Wright, Occidental College is widely known as a prestigious venue for Indian classical musicians.

“Ravi Shankar and Allahrakha in a concert during the early 70s in Herrick Chapel. Tickets for that concert were $3.00!” Photo courtesy of Paula Rao

“I was amazed at the quality of the music, and it’s been considered for a long time the foremost venue for Indian classical music outside of India, happening right here at Occidental,” Wright said. “It is so prestigious because it was started by Ravi Shankar, then all great Indian musicians wanted to come here and play.”

Ravi Shankar is credited by the New York Times with popularizing Indian classical music in the West and was known to be a close friend of George Harrison, a member of the Beatles. Shankar exposed Harrison to Indian classical music and instructed him on the sitar, an Indian string instrument. According to Wright and Paula Rao, Harrison frequently attended Music Circle performances in Herrick Chapel and even presented an Indian classical musician with a Grammy award in Thorne Hall.

“One time, one of our artists won a Grammy and he wasn’t able to go to New York to get it so my husband asked for it to be sent here,” Paula Rao said. “[Harihar Rao] asked George to present the Grammy to him and George said ‘Finally the Grammy goes to a proper musician!’”

Wright also said that despite Herrick Chapel being well-known in the Indian music community, students are mostly unaware of Music Circle’s concerts and history. Occidental students can attend the concerts for free, but according to Wright, student turnout is low. Hope Roehrs (sophomore), one of Wright’s students, attended the April 15 concert. She said she was frustrated with lack of student attendance.

“Taken at a concert in Thorne Hall when a Grammy was presented to Vishwa Mohan Bhatt by George Harrison. Harihar Rao is on the left with the white beard, George in the middle and Viswa Mohan Bhatt on the extreme right.” Photo courtesy of Paula Rao

“It was so weird, there were only two other students there who had heard about it from [Professor Wright],” Roehrs said. “Why isn’t Oxy hyped about this?”

Wright also said that the Music Circle performances are not well advertised on campus and Music Circle organizers have started to hold events at other venues such as the Pasadena City College Theater and the San Gabriel Mission. According to Paula Rao, Music Circle has been receiving offers to partner with other venues but its members still feels a strong connection to Occidental.

“Our heart really is at Oxy because there are so many wonderful memories there over the years of wonderful things that have happened,” Paula Rao said.

Lori Fiacco, director of Conference Services & Campus Filming, acts as the liaison between Music Circle and Occidental when Music Circle plans concerts in Herrick. According to Fiacco, Occidental provides extra support to Music Circle by waiving some fees that most outside organizations have to pay in order to host events on campus. Fiacco said that the concerts are financed using the Community Outreach Fund, a fund established by the President’s Office to support the presence of community events on campus.

“Oxy wants them to be here,” Fiacco said. “We make accommodations for [Music Circle] that we normally wouldn’t make for the outside world.”

Taken in Thorne Hall, 2013, during the Memorial for Ravi Shankar and Harihar Rao. Photo courtesy of Paula Rao

Music Department Chair Professor David Kasunic, who studied Indian classical music in graduate school at Princeton, said that the music department has been interested in collaborating with Music Circle and has made attempts to do so in the past. According to Kasunic, the music department can co-sponsor and promote events on campus that are attached to the department’s curriculum. At the moment, there are currently no courses involving Indian classical music, although Kasunic attempted to start one when he became department chair in 2014. A course titled “Introduction to Indian Classical Music” was offered Fall 2015, but only four students signed up for the course. Kasunic said that he is hopeful that student interest in Indian music increases in the future and that students would be willing to partner with him to support future curricula.

“For me, [Indian classical music] is one of the world’s great musical traditions. A very elaborate, complex, refined, nuanced tradition and music,” Kasunic said. “It would be a shame if [these concerts] stopped happening.”

The next Music Circle concert in Herrick Chapel will be May 12 and will feature vocalist Uday Bhawalkar.