The large round face of Parameshwar Hedge is a study of animated concentration. Eyes squeezed shut and mouth contorting into various shapes, Hedge appears to be searching for the right note, foraging for a raga composed three centuries ago.
As sounds begin to emerge in long thin lines, his quest continues. His eyebrows dance along his forehead like a sound frequency. His head moves like a seesaw off balance. He looks as if he is about to sneeze; a moment later, like he will break into tears, or laughter.
When his eyes finally open, wide and bloodshot, they appear battle worn. It is just the warm up.
For the next hour and a half, the celebrated Hindustani vocalist and two accompanists offer a concert of 18th century devotional music held at the Sangati Center at the intersection of 22nd and Shotwell Streets.
“You want to listen to Indian music in a chamber setting? This is the only game in town,” said Aahlad Yeturu, a regular, who sat so close to Hedge at the Friday night show that he could see the singer’s uvula waver.
Since discovering the venue two years ago, Yeturu has made a Friday night habit of driving from his office in San Ramon to the show at the Sangati Center before returning home to Foster City. “Nothing compares to listening to music from the instrument,” said Yeturu, “the way it’s been heard for centuries.”
Gautam Tejas Ganeshan, a musician and director of the nonprofit venue, said it was exactly that shared belief that motivated him two years ago to open Sangati, named for the Sanskrit word for “coming together.” But when he began, not all fans of the music were so enthusiastic.
“The primary skepticism came from people already invested in Indian music,” said Ganeshan, sitting in a café near his Berkeley home the morning after the Hedge concert. Those skeptics found his art house presentation—at a small venue with no amplification—vastly different from the grand concerts of famous classical musicians in both India and the United States, and unprofessional.
It didn’t help that Ganeshan was just 23.
With a curly mop of hair, he looks startlingly young to be the director of his own nonprofit organization–and one devoted to conserving an ancient art form, no less.
But it was the rebellious attitude—he too slipped off his shoes for the Friday evening concert, revealing painted blue toenails–-of this second-generation Indian American that gave Ganeshan the confidence to go against the grain.
After graduating from the University of Texas, he moved to the Bay Area to pursue his passion of performing and teaching Indian classical violin and singing. But the options were limited.
“Typically,” he said, “Indian classical music concerts fall into one of two categories.” The first he calls the “superstar concert,” where someone like Ravi Shankar is brought to a big venue, tickets cost over 50 dollars, and most of the audience can barely see the performer from their seats.
In the second category, Indian community organizations invite an artist, rent out a high school auditorium, and promote the show within the South Asian community. “You,” Ganeshan says to a non-Indian reporter, “probably wouldn’t find out about those.”
As a musician, Ganeshan finds both of those settings imperfect. “I am most interested in chamber concerts: unamplified, no sound system, everybody’s right there in the same room.”
“It’s a really really pure, beautiful art, so I thought I should do something to create a space that makes the concert experience reflect the depth of the music,” he said. “Simple but beautiful.”
Comprising the front room in a corner building on 22nd and Shotwell Streets, the Sangati Center projects an aesthetic at once refined and unpretentious. Persian rugs cover the floor, where musicians and guests sit on cushions. Gold and wine colored walls host art exhibits—currently, black and white photographs from India—and houseplants, candles, and a wooden bench round out the organic feel.
Several Indian Americans–who, like Yeturu, came from the South Bay–as well as Mission District locals attended the Hedge concert. “I forgot where we were,” said Vidya Ventress, who lives up the street, after the concert. “And we’re on 22nd and Shotwell. Who would’ve known?”
A growing number of people do know, in fact. Today, Ganeshan answers calls from touring Indian artists. The Sangati Center is often the smallest venue on their itinerary.
Ganeshan, imitating a Bengali accent, recalls the speech one prominent sitar player made before his performance. “So many of my concerts, half the people who are there, they dress up in their fine costumes, they’re there to see and be seen,” he said. “Sangati Center, I can assure you nobody is here for social status. You have all come to listen to music and I appreciate it very much.”