SAN LEANDRO, Calif. — In a world saturated in pop, hip-hop and rock ‘n’ roll, Rohan Krishnamurthy found himself gravitating more toward the ancient sounds of India than the modern sounds of MTV.
Coming from a music-loving family, the Indian American musician, professor and entrepreneur first became fascinated with the mridangam, the wooden double-headed drum of South India, and Carnatic music at the age of eight.
Now, after performing in both the U.S. and India since he was nine, the young percussionist is using the advances of the modern age to revive and refresh the 2000-year-old ancient South Indian musical tradition.
“It’s one of those things I think about a lot… when you’re sort of the next generation of a 2000-year-old tradition,” Krishnamurthy told India-West. “You’re handed down all this artistic wisdom, an incredible body of knowledge.”
Not only has he patented a new mridangam design that he’s in the process of manufacturing, Krishnamurthy has also been leading the charge in online music education with his award-winning RohanRhythm Studio.
The 27-year-old music professor, who also teaches Indian percussion at Ohlone College in Fremont, Calif., said the studio gives him the “opportunity to develop dozens of students across four continents,” ranging in age from 4 to 75-years-old.
Krishnamurthy even went to Chennai to study the musical, social and cultural impact of online music education for his Ph.D. dissertation in musicology, a field that has been mostly ignored academically, he said.
Though studying Carnatic music traditionally requires the student to live in his or her teacher’s home with a master-apprentice kind of relationship, Krishnamurthy said this kind of music is also easy to teach online because it “doesn’t really use notation, especially with drumming.”
This is because Carnatic music is heavily vocal and even compositions prepared for instruments are meant to be played in a singing style, he explained. Krishnamurthy himself learned how to play the mridangam partially over the phone when the only mridangam teacher in the area moved away.
As an instructor he can’t reach across the digital void to reposition students’ hands or legs, but he told India-West that “the pedagogy itself hasn’t changed.”
“It’s kind of a logical sequential development,” Krishnamurthy said.
He recalled being asked by an audience member at a concert how he became an ambassador of music. The percussionist responded that though Indian classical music is his main source of inspiration, he has studied many other styles, including Indonesian and West African music.
“It’s a reflection of being a professional artist in 2015,” he told India-West, “especially here in the U.S. in a multicultural cosmopolitan environment like the (San Francisco) Bay Area.”
Preserving the tradition is not only about spreading it to others, it’s also about updating it so that it doesn’t become a “dying tradition,” Krishnamurthy added, which means “finding new connections in different styles of music.”
For Krishnamurthy, this means collaborating with other artists from various genres, including Grammy-winning drummer Glen Velez, when he was still in college.
Velez told India-West that the two did a duo concert together, and he “was happy to get to experience Rohan’s expertise,” having been significantly influenced by South Indian music himself.
Velez also said he had a passion for frame drums, including the mridangam, from around the world for decades.
“You never know what the next collaboration is going to be,” Krishnamurthy said, “what kind of new meaning that would create to enrich people’s lives.”