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All life is learning: How ganavya found the wisdom to stand still

18 March 2024, 08:45
Words by Alan Pedder
Original Photography by Ricky Weaver

From recording with Shabaka Hutchings to performing with Sault, New York-born and Tamil Nadu-raised ganavya has momentum on her side with new album like the sky i’ve been too quiet. She talks to Alan Pedder about her incredible journey.

Growing up in the US and southern India, ganavya felt conflicted about her rare and unusual name. For years she was convinced that her mother had simply made it up, combining her own name Vidya with that of her husband, Ganesan, and claiming that it meant ‘one who was born to spread music’.

As it turns out, her mother was in the clear. A cousin confirmed it after finding the name ganavya in an old Sanskrit scripture while studying for a language exam. Her mother was right, too, about ganavya’s destiny, and went to great lengths to give her daughter every opportunity to become “the child with the heavenly voice” she’d divined from a star chart while ganavya was still in the womb.

Vidya’s faith in her daughter’s future was so absolute that it would define not just ganavya’s life but the lives of her whole family. Music was the reason that they moved away from New York, first to Florida and then, when ganavya was seven years old, to Shenkottai, a village of only seven streets close to the ayurvedic waterfalls of Kutralam on the pilgrimage trail of southern India. A year later, the family moved again. Her father returned to the US, while her mother took ganavya and her older brother to the city of Chennai, where ganavya began her formal training in carnatic music and the ancient Tamil dance form of bharatanatyam.

Speaking to Best Fit from California, where she’s just stepped out of a rehearsal, ganavya admits she still struggles to comprehend the enormity of the sacrifices made by her parents. “I think my family did suffer from that arrangement,” she says thoughtfully, closing her eyes. “To me, at the time, my mother was making all these strange, risky choices just so I could learn music, and I did resent that a little bit when I was young. I was worried. And to this day I don’t know if I summoned a voice out of me just because I wanted her to be okay."


It's a voice that the wider world is finally waking up to with ganavya’s enthralling new album, like the sky i’ve been too quiet, a largely improvised collection recorded over three days in London last January. Two weeks earlier, she had been in New York feeling crushed after a rough bout of Covid and a run in with the unfeeling juggernaut of academic bureaucracy. Nearly in tears, she called her spiritual “older brother” Shabaka Hutchings, who, in typically phlegmatic style, flipped the situation around, turning ordeal into opportunity. “He was like, ‘Yeah, sorry that happened, but that’s the world. Do you want to come and make an album in two weeks?,” ganavya recalls. “And that was that. I flew to London and started recording the next day, jetlagged, with no preparation or pump.”

With no time to sketch out a concept for the sessions, ganavya’s unspoken hope was to find a way to combine many of the different prayers that she’d taken to heart throughout her life. As well as Tamil and English, like the sky… has passages sung in Spanish, in Marathi, and in no language at all, just ganavya’s rapturous voice calling directly to the heavens.

It’s all lovingly supported by the sensitive backing of some of the contemporary jazz scene’s MVPs, including guitarist Shirley Tetteh of Nérija and seed., Carlos Niño (co-producer of André 3000’s New Blue Sun) on percussion, and Senegalese kora player Kadialy Kouate, among others. Hutchings also brought in electronic musicians Sam Shepherd and John Burton, aka Floating Points and Leafcutter John, to give like the sky… some of its more whimsical textures and tense atmospherics. Besides producing the album, Hutchings himself appears in his Kofi Flexxx guise, playing the shakuhachi (Japanese bamboo flute) and other woodwind instruments, as well as synths on recent single “our mother is our daughter is our mother.”

Ganavya RICKY WEAVER beach

The use of lowercase across the album is a story in itself, assures ganavya, pointing out that only the last word of the last song title is capitalised: “i walk again, eyes towards the Sky”. It’s her way of acknowledging the words of spiritual jazz pioneer Alice Coltrane, who, in her 1977 self-published manifesto Monument Eternal, “recounts something that god told her, which was ‘In the morning, be this way. In the afternoon, be that way. And at eventide, be so big that sky will learn Sky.’”

In capitalising the Sky of the final song, ganavya is marking the punctuation of a journey, a spiritual arrival of sorts. “For me, it’s not just the encounter but how life continues after the encounter,” she explains. “I would say that those three days of recording was sky, and what continues will show me what Sky is.”

Reflecting on the experience, ganavya connects the enveloping care and community she found among the group to the village way of life she’d had as a child. Arriving in London, all she had to do was sing, and once she started she could barely stop. “It wasn’t until the third day that someone pointed out that I’d been singing almost non-stop since we started, and that’s when my voice started to crack,” she says, recalling the observer effect seen in physics experiments. “I think that’s why sometimes I close my eyes, because I feel like if it is difficult for me to be observed then the world must feel the same way. I can just keep my eyes closed and let it be.”

More and more she’s trying to fight that temptation, she says. As a practising Nichiren Buddhist, “among many other things,” she’s supposed to keep her eyes open while chanting to the Gohonzon, counter to the idea that meditation is about going into your own internal landscape. “That’s the beautiful and difficult thing about it, for me,” she says. “I’ve spent a fair amount of time in the temples that I’ve built in my heart, but I’m just trying to open my eyes and be in this external world now,” she says. “Though, I have to be honest, I’m not sure what we’re doing out here. We live in a world where we can see a genocide on our phones, and I don’t think I will ever understand it. How did we fuck up so badly?"


In conversation as in her music, ganavya asks a lot of questions with no neat answer. Along the way she ruminates on the human tendency to make dangerous abstractions when faced with hard-to-handle information, expresses discomfort at being “turned into an object” as a musician in the age of social media, and is keen to talk about the ways in which queer identity intersect with our religious backgrounds. When I tell her I don’t really have a religious background, she wants to know what that feels like. “You must be so much healthier than most people I know,” she says, laughing. “For me, the world kind of split into two genders when I was very young. There was god and then there was everyone else, and the partners I’ve had walk closer to that line.” What she means by ‘god’, she adds, is not so much a person or being but simply the force of unconditional love, or sky with a capital S.

“To me, being queer is not about who you are sleeping with or who you are not sleeping with. It’s about a willingness to think against and away from, and sometimes alongside, the patterns that are handed down to you.” Asked if being queer has influenced her music, her answer is, emphatically, yes. “When you choose the difficult but courageous path to accept the queerness in your sexuality, accepting all the other queerness in music, in language and in thought becomes easier, so it has absolutely affected my ability to sing.”

For many years, ganavya felt unable to reconnect with the environment in which she was raised. Being a queer woman in California is quite different from being a queer woman going back to rural Tamil Nadu, and there’s a grief in that contrast that she is processing on like the sky i’ve been too quiet. Though it’s borrowed from the first line of a poem written by queer Iranian–American writer Kaveh Akbar, the phrase is loaded with ganavya’s own meaning. The ‘quiet’ is the loudest part in many ways, relevant not only to the separation she’s felt from the lively village life of her childhood, but also the to several year gap between this record and her difficult firstborn (more on that later).

Although ganavya only lived in Shenkottai for a year and spent the first part of that time “kicking and screaming” to go back to Florida, it’s where she says she’s felt most at home. There, she could sing purely for the joy of using her voice, whether participating in the sampradaya pilgrimage tradition or singing folk narrative poems passed down through generations, some in languages that are now rarely spoken. Torn away from the village at eight years old, not to mention being separated from her father, ganavya vowed to finish her music and dance training as quickly as possible so that the family could be reunited.

The impact on her brother isn’t lost on her either, though apparently he never complained. “It’s very annoying, actually, how perfect he is,” she says, jokingly rolling her eyes. “He could have been so hurt by all of this. I would have been. Our life was constantly being uprooted all because some star chart told my family that I was going to be a musician.

In some ways, it’s hardly surprising that her mother had such faith in what the stars had to say. There’s a long line of singers and performing artists on the paternal side of the family, including ganavya’s aunt Visalam and grandmother Seetha, who was honoured with the Kalaimamani – the highest civilian award of Tamil Nadu – in recognition of her pioneering musicianship. But, as ganavya sees it, it has just as much to do with the ambitions her mother once had for herself.


“She thought she couldn’t be a musician because, although she knows how to memorise intonation and play it beautifully the same way every time, she lacked the ingenuity to improvise, which is such a large part of Indian music. If only she knew that every single thing she did to make my life possible was exactly down to her ingenuity.”

“I’m not only realising my dreams, I’m realising many dreams,” she adds. “It’s one of the reasons why sometimes, when I get in my head, it’s very easy to walk straight out of it. None of this make sense.”

Neither of ganavya’s parents came from particularly well-off families, and, in one particularly tight spot financially, she gave up the idea of becoming a professional musician. Undergraduate degrees in theatre and psychology followed, and by the age of 19 she was working a full-time job at a men’s correctional institution in Miami, coaching the inmates to envision what their lives might look like post-release. She loved her work, finding inspiration in her discussions with the men on, among other things, spirituality and creativity, but a snap decision to unofficially audition for the Berklee College of Music brought her destiny back on track.

“I stopped by and sang them a song and then basically got a call from the admissions office who said, ‘You’re in if you apply,’” she says, making it seem like the easiest thing in the world.

“I’m not only realising my dreams, I’m realising many dreams"


Rather than studying at the main Berklee campus in Boston, ganavya became one of the first postgraduate fellows to be accepted to the College’s newly opened campus in Valencia, Spain, where she taught a short course on Indian music. It’s also where she recorded her first album Aikyam: Onnu (Harmony: One), almost signed to the now-defunct OKeh Records, and watched as bruised egos and resentment tore the dream apart. “The best way I can describe it is that some kindness was lost in the process,” she says carefully, eyes closed again. “When it looked like we were getting closer to the sun, suddenly behaviour started changing. I can’t explain it, and who am I to judge people? In the end I just stepped back, like ‘I don’t need this. All I need is a people to belong to and sing music with them. If the label helps, fine. If it doesn’t help, let it get out of the way.’”

The album was later “bounced around a few other major labels,” but by that time ganavya had lost interest. Moving to California, she enrolled into a PhD programme at UCLA studying ethnomusicology, and continued in academia thereafter. “I didn’t want to go back to Europe and things [with the team behind Aikyam: Onnu] started to get more and more strained,” she explains. “At the same time, I was getting disillusioned with academia. Because I hadn’t studied anything but music and dance as a child, I had this internal idea that I had missed out on some great lesson on how to be a better, more loving or kinder human through academia. But quite quickly I realised that this was not a place to learn shit.”

Through her LA connections, ganavya started working with Quincy Jones Productions (“As usual, I didn’t know who he was,” she says, laughing), building a name for herself through performing, touring and recording with what reads like a Who’s Who of the jazz and contemporary classical music world, including esperanza spalding, Wayne Shorter, Danilo Pérez, Vijay Iyer and Wadada Leo Smith. “Things don’t make sense in a linear way,” she says, trying to join the dots for me. “I was doing my best, but it did feel that something was lost with that first album.” In the end, she decided to release it herself, using Kickstarter to raise the funds to make things right, and finally be able to move on.


For ganavya, moving on meant going to Harvard to do a PhD in Creative Practice and Critical Inquiry, a phase of her life she dismisses as largely “a means to an end.” Although she strengthened some very important connections there – among them esperanza spalding, who was her thesis advisor, and fellow queer artist Rajna Swaminathan, who became one of her closest collaborators – the Harvard obsession with prestige wore her down. “It is what it is,” she sighs. “I was just following the signs of where I was supposed to go next. And, you know, the water that you find in the desert feels that much more precious.”

For a short while, the signs seemed to be pointing ganavya in the direction of a fellowship at another Ivy League university, and that’s where Covid and Shabaka stepped in to show her another way. In truth, though, the seeds had already been sown by someone ganavya describes as “a sister–friend–teacher,” who somehow found the words she’d been needing to hear since her miserable experience with Aikyam: Onnu. “She said something to me that made my back straighten and decide that I wanted to try again,” she says. “And all of a sudden, two years later, I’ve already recorded three albums and it looks like I’ll be recording my fourth and fifth later this year.”

Reciting part of a prayer she sings every day with her family, ganavya points out that the rhythm sounds almost like a war march. “The essence of the prayer is that there’s always a war happening in some spiritual plane on our behalf, and sometimes we can feel it,” she explains. “There’s an image of a god in a mountain who is going to send down fire to burn all the excess in your life, but to not get hurt in the process you have to have the wisdom to stay still. That’s what this all feels like to me. All I had to do was to stop shifting around, trying not to be captured by anyone or any entity. All I had to do was say okay, and things started moving very quickly.”

Ganavya RICKY WEAVER water

With last week’s three London shows all selling out within minutes, ganavya’s days of being too quiet are almost certainly over. It was only a few months ago that she made a splash as a guest vocalist at Sault’s now-legendary live debut at Drumsheds performing an improvised version of Sheila Chandra and Monsoon’s “Ever So Lonely”, accompanied by Rajna on piano. She’d originally said no because of recording commitments and, coming straight from a studio in the US, they only just made it to the venue on time, but every okay eventually reveals its purpose. “The Sault show was immensely life-affirming, for me” says ganavya, making her voice even softer. “It healed me in a million different ways, just to know that it is possible to be in the commercial world and still be connected deeply to the principle of love. I believe that’s why I was brought there.”

Until now, ganavya has had the sense of her audience existing on many different islands, each with their own context and musical dialect. Her hope, she says, is to transcend these islands, inspired by an ongoing project with director Peter Sellars to develop an opera based on Chapter 1 of the Vimalakirti Nirdesa Sutra (first translated by Robert Thurman, father of Uma, or as ganavya calls him, Buddha Bob). Among the teachings in the chapter is the lesson that, while a good student learns to speak many different languages so that they can communicate with others in their native tongues, Buddha needs speak in only one language that’s understood by all. “He knows how to make a sound and have that sound change so that it arrives in the heart of every person who hears it in the exact shape that they needed it to arrive in,” she explains.

“For me, that’s the ultimate hope. Right now I am still learning how to speak as many languages as possible, but god willing, before my last breath, I would like to learn the way of the sound that transcends language. To be able to speak the barest and most simple truth of love that we can all know in the way we need to know it.” For lifelong student ganavya, only then will the Sky be the limit.

like the sky i’ve been too quiet is out now via Native Rebel Recordings.

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