Conversation with Neeraja Aptikar – A Local Indian Classical Music Guru

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Neeraja Aptikar, a Hindustani classical vocalist, teacher, music composer and performer, knows how to win the hearts of audience with her vast knowledge and ability to sing in many different languages.

Trained in the well-known Gwalior and Kirana gharana styles under the able guidance of esteemed gurus like Sangeet Ratna Pt. Shivajirao Bharati of kirana gharana, Vidushi Jayashree Ranade of Pune. She hails from a family of Sanskrit, Science scholars, writers and music enthusiasts.

Based in Vancouver, Neeraja Aptikar has been performing in many prestigious music festivals and events across India, USA, Canada for over 2 decades. She is the recipient of many awards and has collaborated with Canadian musicians in 11 albums in world music.

In the interview with ATI Vancouver the music guru and the classical vocalist talks about her journey in Indian classical and semi classical music and its growing popularity in the West to the contributor Sanu Nair. She also talks about the importance of new immigrants from south Asian community carrying forward the rich legacy of Indian classical music

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Neeraja Aptikar

Q. How did your journey in classical music begin?

My musical journey began in Pune where I was born, a city immersed in rich musical culture guided by my grandparents, parents, and my extended family. I was introduced to classical music at a very young age. Being attending several concerts by legendary artists like Bharat Ratna Pandit Bhimsen Joshi, Pandit Kumar Gandharva, Dr Vasantrao Deshpande, Vidushi Malini Rajurkar and surrounded by music theater and art in both my paternal and maternal homes. I was fortunate enough to be nurtured in an environment very supportive to be an artist. Also, I lived in Satara and Karad Maharashtra where I got a chance to learn classical music from gurus like Shree Pendharkar Bua, Prabhakar Pant Joshi, at the same time I used to attend every classical concert by noted artists who used to perform in nearby places.

I also performed at different programs and festivals including internationally recognized Pune Ganesh festival. My family was very particular about my riyaz and balancing the same with my education in science field. These practice sessions for different musical programs used to be intense but I was enjoying it thoroughly. During this period, I got drawn to the Kirana gharana, admiring the harmonious sur maintained by its musicians. After relocating to Pune again my involvement with Gaanvardhan, a well-known musical organization, further deepened my understanding of music and the essence of being an artist through interactions with diverse artists. I basically learned how music intertwined with one’s soul, shaping their personality.

In 2000, I received my first prestigious award and soon after getting married I moved to Vancouver, Canada where my music exploration continued.

Q. How was the transition to Canada for you?

Moving to Canada in 2001 was an experience that presented both opportunities and challenges. In those days , Indians were a rare sight in Downtown Vancouver, but I was determined not to stay far from my musical passion. I soon began to attend local musical programs. Quite by coincedence, I began to cross paths with other Indian artists including Tabla Artist Tarun Nayar, who invited me to lead music workshops at Round house, Vancouver. This marked the beginning of my own independent workshops ‘Sangeet Saadhana’ in and around Vancouver. Surprisingly most of my workshop participants were non-Indians, representing nationalities such as Fijian, Sinhalese, African, Pakistani, Caucasian, Japanese, Chinese, Latin American and a few Indians. While I used to perform wherever and whenever possible, same time I was working outside music to support myself financially.

With the strong desire to promote Indian culture, Indian music and Sanskrit language I also embarked on tours across BC, participating in several music festivals and art groups. However, teaching classical music in a foreign country posed its own set of challenges, as new immigrants goes through lot of tough situations. However to encourage Indian classical music and to preserve our cultural heritage I used to conduct free music classes, free concerts, free classes to students going through hard situation like job loss, students of single parents, for those who were truly interested in this beautiful form of art.

Q. What does music mean to you?

For me Indian classical music is a journey of one’s soul towards the divinity. Our music represents the emotions of the soul in the presence of nature. The combination of compositions and improvisation is what makes Indian music very special and unique. Merely listening to different Ragas inspires pure emotions in our minds. I also find the healing capabilities of music as remarkable.

Q. Tell us about your collaborations with international artists?

I have had the privilege of performing at concerts with western artists such as Tambura Rasa- Delhi, Tabla artist – Tarun Nayar, well-known Canadian artist – Roop Sidhu, South Indian passage with Dave Heel, Jopoa with James and many more artists from Granville Island for international children’s festival, Shakespeare festival in Kitsilano, etc. These shows have been immensely successful, demonstrating the power of diversity in my art. I have done a lot of playback singing for interesting projects such as Indo-Canadian movie Sindoor, English theater, Marathi playback singing for Premachya Gaava Jave with Mohan Bhide.

Also I am a part of Air anand band with the musician Raghunath khe, I am blessed to incorporate the shlokas of Bhagwat Geeta, Upanishad shlokas, Sanskrit stotrams, also got a chance working with well known kirtan singer Harrison Sito in Vancouver. I also perform Adi shankara stotram with raga melody apart from Shabad from Guru Granth Sahib.

Collaborating with western musicians has shaped me as an artist, expanding my perspective through diversity. As a practicing Buddhist, I embrace the exploration of diverse cultural and linguistic elements. Sanskrit for instance, holds its own beauty and understanding it can provide insights into the essence of European languages. Similarly knowledge of Hindi and Urdu offers glimpses of Farsi. Literature and music share a n unspeakable connection , as timeless works like the Upanishads provide universal themes and mantras. Living in a country with a multicultural society, it is a priority to be an open minded and respectful of the other cultures and also indigenous culture of the country.

I have encountered instances where individuals from different backgrounds who have approached me seeking translations of their songs into Sanskrit, demonstrating their deep knowledge and appreciation of our culture.

Q. What are the challenges in encouraging beginners (especially children) to take up classical music?

Teaching classical music to beginners especially children presents its own challenges . Young children usually have Limited focus, language barrier, so I keep them entertained while introducing them to concepts of taal(rhythm), swar (notes), palta, sargamgeet. Listening skills play a crucial role and I have observed that Westerners often excel in this aspect. Listening carefully helps the brain cells correlates with vocal expressions. Feeling anxious or nervous are common among beginners, encouraging them , instils confidence and reduce s hesitation in front of an audience. Although every student has different confidence level.

In places like Canada and USA where life is busy and demanding, parents must consider certain factors to ensure their child’s commitment and progress. Generally a child should be 5 year old to begin with. Initially 20 to 25 minute session once a week is enough. As they grow older sessions can be extended to 45 minutes. Incorporating exercises like yoga mudra, pranayama, jaw muscle exercises, omkar, keeps them engaged and prepares their bodies and mind for music.

Q What is the outlook of Indian classical music in Canada and the US, considering the increasing number of young parents immigrating to these countries?

The future of Indian classical music in Canada, especially Vancouver appears promising. The foundation is already strong, and there is a growing awareness of this beautiful art form.

Many immigrants go through a tough time initially to stabilize themselves, adjusting with whether while many of them isolate themselves from their family and gets fascinated towards the western culture. They prioritize their financial stability and security of their children over music. For 23 years I am trying hard to accommodate them with their situations. If a student is really interested in learning I try to provide utmost support with free classes and free workshops. Single parent kids, special needs kids always have a special consideration from my end and in case of job loss of any student, I try to provide them scholarships.

These days there are many resources available like WhatsApp groups, community centers, temples providing guidance and assistance. The classical music tradition is flourishing with numerous talented artists carrying our cultural legacies far and wide. Artists like Jugpreet Bajwa, Dr.Timothy Van Cleave, Akhil Jobanputra, Robin Carrigan, Sheena Anderson, swdha chamoli, kamaljeet Kaur momi, and many more along with A few institutions like Pt Jasraj school of music, kalawani Institute, Kamal Sharma Heritage, contributing the vibrancy of classical music. It’s very important that the community support is crucial for organizing concerts, workshops, more cultural events for classical music, many Canadians are learning and playing classical music. It is also a time for successful Indian businesses to now support these budding artists by sponsoring more classical and light classical music concerts.

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If you are interested in connecting with Neeraja Aptikar, please visit her website or follow her on social media: Facebook, Instagram, & YouTube.


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