An Indo-Australian draws the bow on violin strings to bridge a cultural divide

Indian-Australian violinist Bhairavi Raman flits between Carnatic and Western Classical music forms to navigate two cultures.

ByPrutha Chakraborty

Published May 01, 2023 | 11:00 AMUpdatedMay 01, 2023 | 11:00 AM

Indo-Australian violinist Bhairavi Raman

There was a fiddler under the roof but it took the family a while — and lot of persuasion — to take her seriously.

As an impressionable four-year-old, Indian-Australian Bhairavi Raman, 31, became “obsessed” with the violin after watching her mum play the instrument at home.

But it was not before another two years of pestering her parents to get her enrolled in violin classes that they realised the little girl’s interest was genuine, and they relented.

Today, after having spent nearly three decades training in South Indian Classical Carnatic forms and Western Classical music, Raman has established a name for herself in this art form.

Perhaps it was meant to be; music runs in Raman’s genes; her great grandmother played the violin, while her grandmother and great aunts learned vocal music.

Indo-Australian violinist Bairavi Raman

Indo-Australian violinist Bhairavi Raman. (Spectrum Kreativ Photography)

Raman now has over 15 years of performance experience in both Australia and India, and has played at some of Chennai’s oldest and finest music venues: The Madras Music Academy, Parthasarathy Swami Sabha, Indian Fine Arts, Mylapore Fine Arts and Narada Gana Sabha.

And she readily accepts that her performances in India so far have only added to her development as a musician.

“My Guru, Sri S Varadarajan, once said to me that as an accompanying violinist, a large part of your learning happens through playing kutcheris, or an ensemble of Carnatic musicians,” she says.

According to her, the Indian musical ecosystem and cultural landscape enabled exactly this.

“There are always festivals and concerts happening throughout the year at different venues, including temples,” Raman says.

“My performances at Indian venues helped me grow as an artiste.”

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A tale of many cities and music forms

Raman’s parents grew up in various parts of Tamil Nadu and moved to Bahrain shortly after getting married; she was born in Bahrain.

The family moved to New Zealand when Raman was three, and finally to Melbourne when she was eight.

Indo-Australian violinist Bhairavi Raman

Violinist Bhairavi Raman. (Spectrum Kreativ Photography)

Raman was introduced to Western Classical violin while in New Zealand, where she was trained through a discipline known as the Suzuki Method.

“It’s a music philosophy that is grounded in teaching a child to learn sensitivity, discipline and endurance, with a focus on learning through listening and developing a musical ear,” she explains.

“Basically, it’s an aural learning tradition that has a lot in common with how Carnatic music is taught.”

There were no Carnatic violin teachers in New Zealand at the time, and the Suzuki Method proved a helpful stepping stone to Raman’s eventual introduction to Carnatic music.

But it was only when she moved to Australia that her formal learning in Carnatic vocal music began, with Sri Gopinath Iyer, an exponent in veena, training her.

And though she continued training in Western Classical violin on the side, it wasn’t before another year had passed, when she was nine years old, that Raman could finally commence lessons in Carnatic violin under her first guru, Sri Murali Kumar, who had recently moved to Australia.

During a trip to India in 2005 she was introduced to Sri S Varadarajan, a leading and inspirational violinist from Chennai.

Three years later, she started formally training under him.

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Love for Carnatic music flowers

The year 2014 proved pivotal for Raman in several ways. First, she earned a university degree in psychology and next, she took the plunge and booked a one-way ticket to India.

Indo-Australian Violinist Bhairavi Raman.

Bhairavi Raman at a performance at the Melbourne Recital Centre in June 2022. (Supplied)

“My family members have been nothing but supportive at every step of the way — if anything they probably wanted me to pursue music even more strongly than I have allowed myself to!”

In India, Raman met many musicians and spent a lot of time with her guru.

“One thing led to another and I found myself starting to perform more concerts in Chennai,” she recalls of her time. “By the end of the year, I was playing at least two-three kutcheris a week.”

But the following year, in 2015, Raman decided to move back to Australia. This decision, she says, wasn’t an easy one.

“It was so tempting to just stay and ride the wave — and I know that if I had stayed in India, my music career could have looked very different,” she confesses.

“I would have had access to different opportunities, and would have built a profile as a Carnatic musician in a very different way to the way I have now.”

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But despite moving back to Australia, she maintained her connections with Chennai.

“I made a promise to myself that I would come back at least once a year to listen to, learn and engage with Carnatic music in Chennai,” she says.

Since then, Raman has forged a career as a musician in India and Australia — both of which are home to her now.

But she could start investing in creative capacity-building within the Australian arts landscape only during the pandemic.

In the past two years, Raman has started to collaborate with artistes from other musical genres — jazz, Western Classical, etc — and other art forms as well, such as theatre, dance and poetry in Australia.

“Before 2020, I was exclusively fixated on building and maintaining a profile as an artiste in India and travelling to Chennai to perform,” she says.

“Now I realise there are many ways to pursue a rewarding creative career, and location need not be a barrier either.”

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Straddling cultures, finding an identity

Growing up experiencing two different cultures was exciting yet hard.

Indo-Australian violinist Bhairavi Raman

Violinist Bhairavi Raman. (Amar Ramesh)

When Raman was younger, the difference between her “Australian” and “Indian” selves was starker, and she would make an “active effort” to keep each separate from the other.

“For example, I didn’t speak much about my cultural activities to my school friends, I would be embarrassed to speak Tamil or wear ethnic clothes in public,” she explains.

“When in South Asian community settings, I would play down aspects of my identity that appeared more Western.”

Raman says this was both “challenging and exhausting”, and made her feel she was hiding a part of herself in any given context.

As a result, she says she kept her Western Classical and Carnatic art forms separate for 24 years.

“I pursued Western music through private lessons and through school, getting involved in orchestras, choirs, etc,” she says.

“By evenings and weekends, I was a Carnatic violinist — performing in community events and travelling to India during holidays to learn more intensively.”

This got in the way of forming meaningful relationships with friends and family, she says.

Today, having grown older, Raman has become less inclined to compartmentalise her identity. And this shift has flowed through her music, too.

In fact, she says, she has started “exploring the spaces in between” and “weave threads from both styles” in the last three-four years.

Despite having achieved so much, Raman sometimes feels a sense of loss for not having grown up in the land of her ancestors.

But she has kept her promise of visiting her homeland to stay close to Carnatic music scene and keep a connection to her Indian roots.

“I want my music to express my whole identity, and that means accepting and expressing the various parts that make up the whole,” she says.

“Music helps me to communicate this without words.”