Reading:
Imagine Otherwise: Lakshmi Ramgopal on Postcolonial Music and the Pull of History

Imagine Otherwise: Lakshmi Ramgopal on Postcolonial Music and the Pull of History

retro
October 18, 2017
Lakshmi Ramgopal (Lykanthea) wearing a black shirt, sitting on a bench

What happens when we bring traditional Indian musical traditions together with electronic music and Riot Grrrl? How do marginalized communities use spiritual practices like tarot to envision other ways of being? How can we harness our multidisciplinary talents to imagine a more equitable world?

In episode 50 of the Imagine Otherwise podcast, host Cathy Hannabach interviews scholar and musician Lakshmi Ramgopal about Lakshmi’s musical journey through Indian classical Carnatic music, electronica, and Riot Grrrl; her research on what colonial subjects under the Roman Empire can teach us about contemporary geopolitics; using tarot to destabilize what we think we know about our lives; and how she curates art exhibits to imagine more just worlds.

Listen on: Spotify | Apple Podcasts | RadioPublic | Google Podcasts

Guest: Lakshmi Ramgopal

Lakshmi Ramgopal is a writer, musician, and historian who divides her time between Northampton, Massachusetts and Chicago. She received her PhD in Classics from the University of Chicago.

Lakshmi’s public writing covers the occult, ancient history, and South Asian experiences for publications like Jezebel, the Chicago Reader, and Broadly.

Lakshmi is also a professional musician, performing ambient electronic music under the moniker Lykanthea. In 2014, she released her debut album Migration, which incorporates literary motifs, improvisation, and classical South Indian vocal traditions and has garnered praise from Noisey, the Chicago Tribune, and more.

In addition to speaking and performance engagements at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago, Yale University, and the Wave-Gotik Treffen world music festival in Germany, Lakshmi was the recipient of the Rome Prize from the American Academy in Rome in 2014.

She is currently a visiting assistant professor of Classics at Trinity College in Hartford, CT, and is working on her first book and second album.

Lakshmi Ramgopal (Lykanthea) wearing a black shirt, sitting on a bench. Text reads: I've just never been the kind of person who's happy doing one thing. My academic interests collide with my artist work. They're different ways of creating and I use different kinds of materials to create those things.

We chatted about

  • Lakshmi’s musical journey to becoming Lykanthea (2:32)
  • Colonial geopolitics and mobility in the Roman Empire (7:08)
  • How Lakshmi negotiates her work as a scholar, musician, and public intellectual (11:31)
  • The connections between tarot and social change (14:23)
  • An upcoming performance by Lykanthea in Chicago (16:55)
  • Imagining otherwise (19:57)

Want to start your own podcast?

How to Start an Academic Podcast is a self-paced, online course that helps you go from a great idea to a published show.

Takeaways

Lakshmi’s musical background

I grew up in a household that was full from music from India since my parents are Indian immigrants. In addition to being put in flute and violin classes…my parents also had me learning classical Indian dance and Carnatic music, specifically vocal music. Carnatic music is a style of classical music that comes from South India. I wasn’t actually all that interested in learning it when I was a little kid, but I’m very glad that my mom especially pushed me to do it for so long, almost for 10 years, because it taught me a lot about music in a framework that’s different from how a lot of kids in the United States experience music. I learned a lot about the worlds that my family are from and ultimately has influenced my own music because of how I hear sound and what sounds make sense to me.

The draw of the Roman Empire

I’ve always been fascinated with historical figures, specifically figures from the ancient past. I see some of myself in some of these figures, because so many of those stories are about identity and people moving from one place to another and understanding who they were in the different contexts. That has ultimately played into my research, which deals with interactions between Roman merchants and non-Roman merchants in different parts of the Ancient Mediterranean world, in particular how those kind of interactions did and didn’t produce cultural change….People moved all over the empire and engaged each other in contexts that seem peaceful even though Rome was a colonial empire sustained through violence or the threat of violence. I think it speaks to a lot of contemporary concerns we have about colonialism, empire, migration, and identity.

The value of public scholarship and speaking

I’ve always been someone who really appreciates research and writing, so for me academia has always been a very natural personality fit. But it’s a very solitary kind of work and I don’t think it’s really helpful to anybody if academics are siloed and aren’t speaking to people who aren’t academics. So I always try to do as much public speaking as possible on my work and related aspects of my work. It’s come to influence my approach to making music as well.

Tarot and other spiritual practices

One really important feature that something like tarot has is that it is a tool for self-empowerment….One reason a lot of marginalized communities are interested in it, particularly marginalized femme communities, is because it gives you a lot of agency and gives you a lens to think about your life in away you would’t normally think about it, partly because it isn’t all that rule bound and isn’t logical or pragmatic. It’s a way of thinking around and about issues going on in your life that you don’t have control over. You pull a certain set of cards from a tarot deck and encourage your to think about the problem from this specific angle as opposed to some other specific angle or the one that you instinctively feel you need to think about it from. That destabilization helps you come to new insights about your life and that feels really empowering, especially if you’re living in a world where so many structures are designed to prevent you from being the person you can be and to prevent you from thriving.

Lykanthea’s upcoming performance

The really big project I have coming up is a performance I’m doing at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago….It’s part of their 50th anniversary celebrations, and it’s part of a lineup that includes some pretty amazing people, including Billy Corgan, Jamila Woods who’s an artist from Chicago, and Lupe Fiasco. I normally perform alone, but this time I put together, including myself, a nine-person ensemble that includes a drummer, a violinist, and four chorus members as well as two movement arts from a group called Burning Orchid. We’ve rearranged all my songs and we’re going to be performing them for an hour to the public outside the museum.

Imagining otherwise

The world that I’m currently working towards and trying to create, at least in a microcosm of where I am, is one that is more equitable than the one that we’re actually living in. In all of my classes, no matter what I’m teaching, I find a way to bring these questions to the forefront. What is the world that we’re studying look like? What is the world that we’re in look like? What happens to the people who are left behind? By focusing on those kinds of questions in the classroom, students begin to think about how their engagement with the world as citizens of the world matters and how they can do so in a way that’s more productive and positive.

More from Lakshmi Ramgopal

Projects and people discussed

About Imagine Otherwise

Imagine Otherwise is a podcast about the people and projects bridging art, activism, and academia to build better worlds. Episodes offer in-depth interviews with creators who use culture for social justice, and explore the nitty-gritty work of imagining and creating more just worlds. Check out full podcast episodes and show notes at ideasonfire.net/imagine-otherwise-podcast. Imagine Otherwise is produced by Ideas on Fire, an academic editing and consulting agency helping progressive, interdisciplinary scholars write and publish awesome texts, enliven public conversations, and create more just worlds.

Sign up for our newsletter

Get podcast episodes, event announcements, and articles sent straight to your inbox.

    Our privacy policy

    Transcript

    Cathy Hannabach [00:03]: [upbeat music in background] Welcome to Imagine Otherwise, the podcast about the people and projects bridging art, activism, and academia to build better worlds. Episodes offer in-depth interviews with creators who use culture for social justice and explore the nitty-gritty work of imagining otherwise. I’m your host, Cathy Hannabach. [music fadeout]

    [00:22] This is our 50th episode! Thank you to all of you listeners who have made Imagine Otherwise such as success and who are creating such inspiring work.

    My guest today is Lakshmi Ramgopal, who is a writer, musician, and historian who divides her time between Northampton, Massachusetts and Chicago. She received her PhD in Classics from the University of Chicago.

    Lakshmi’s public writing covers the occult, ancient history, and South Asian experiences for publications like Jezebel, the Chicago Reader, and Broadly.

    Lakshmi is also a professional musician, performing ambient electronic music under the moniker Lykanthea. In 2014 she released her debut album Migration, which incorporates literary motifs, improvisation, and classical South Indian vocal traditions and has garnered praise from Noisey, the Chicago Tribune, and more.

    In addition to speaking and performance engagements at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago, Yale University, and the Wave-Gotik Treffen world music festival in Germany, Lakshmi was the recipient of the Rome Prize from the American Academy in Rome in 2014.

    She is currently a Visiting Assistant Professor of Classics at Trinity College in Hartford, CT, and is working on her first book and second album.

    In our interview we talk about her musical journey through Indian classical Carnatic music, electronica, and Riot Grrl; what colonial subjects under the Roman Empire can teach us about contemporary geopolitics; and how she curates art exhibits that imagine more just worlds.

    [to Lakshmi] Thanks so much for being with us.

    Lakshmi Ramgopal [02:06]: Thanks for having me.

    Cathy [02:07]: You are a musician who focuses on atmosphere and texture, those diffuse qualities that make music what it is but that are often hard to focus on in and of themselves. And you’ve often described your musical style as ritual chanting for the electronic age. I’d love to hear about your journey into music and what draws you to this type of music in particular.

    Lakshmi [02:33]: Yes. I have been involved in performing and writing and learning music since I was a little kid. I grew up a little bit outside of Boston in a pretty boring town called Andover.

    I grew up in a household that was full of music from India since my parents are Indian immigrants. In addition to being put into flute and violin classes, which was something I wanted to do, my parents also had me learn classical Indian dance and also Carnatic music, specifically vocal music. Carnatic music is a style of classical music that comes from south India. I wasn’t actually all that interested in learning it when I was a little kid, but I’m very glad that my mom especially pushed me to do it for so long, almost for 10 years, because it really taught me a lot about music in a framework that’s different from how a lot of kids in the United States do.

    [03:35] I experienced music and learned a lot about the world that my family is from, which has fundamentally influenced my own music because of how I hear sound—what sounds makes sense to me. I think it’s ultimately made it more interesting. So that was my introduction to music as a kid. My parents always had Indian Carnatic music on in the house constantly.

    When I got to college, I decided to teach myself how to play the guitar and started a bunch of bands with good friends. We were all really interested in making Riot Grrrl music. That was my first foray into writing my own music and exploring my own ideas instead of singing or performing music that other people had composed, which was the kind of music I had grown up doing as a kid.

    [04:27] Over several successive projects with other people that were either guitar-based or electronic-based, I ultimately decided I wanted to work on my own music on my own. So a couple of years ago in 2013, I started a solo project called Lykanthea, which focuses on the creation of ambient electronic music. It is very heavily based in improvisation and processed vocals and relies very heavily on the music I grew up being trained in.

    Through this project, I’ve had the opportunity to do a lot of amazing things like tour Europe. I was living in Italy while I was writing my dissertation and I’m shooting music videos with really amazing international artists. As part of the project, I released my first LP in 2014 called Migration and I’m now currently working on my second LP, which will be following that up.

    Cathy [05:25]: Ritual and the politics of voice are key themes across your work. I’m curious if that comes from your earlier history with Carnatic music or if that comes from somewhere else.

    Lakshmi [05:37]: One of the reasons I wasn’t that interested in [Carnatic music] was because I don’t have what’s considered a traditionally beautiful voice, even among Indian musicians. And I felt really awkward about that for a long time. Even now I have sometimes have hang-ups about my own voice. Over time though I’ve come to accept that I’m myself and come to appreciate a lot of the qualities of Carnatic music, particularly the drone qualities of it and the repetitive nature of aspects of songs. This has really influenced how I think about song structure now and the kinds of sounds I really like and enjoy: deep, heavy drones from instruments like the sturdy box or even from the voice.

    I think that’s kind of where the ritual aspect comes into play—thinking about singing as a kind of ritual for self-soothing or for stirring up different kinds of complicated emotions. I like the repetitive aspect of [Carnatic music] and its sounds, using the sense that I grew up with, come together for me in creating an environment that’s not just one where I entertain people who want to see me perform but where I perform a set of actions that create, for me, a personal sense of stability.

    Cathy [06:53]: In addition to being a musician, you’re also a writer and a scholar, and you focus on ancient history: the Roman Empire in particular. What drew you to Rome? What do you find so fascinating about that?

    Lakshmi [07:09]: So I have a PhD in classics from the University of Chicago and my specialization is in cultural change in the Roman empire and particularly in the provinces of the empire. I’ve always struggled with this question because I don’t have a super exciting answer for it. I’ve just always been really interested in very old things. Growing up, as a middle schooler, I would go to the public library and check out every book on Alexander the Great, for example, just to read and learn about him, or about Boudica, the warrior queen in Roman Britain who resisted the Romans until she committed suicide.

    I’ve always been fascinated by historical figures and not just any historical figures but figures from the very ancient past. I think it’s partly because I see some of my own self in some of these figures too, just because so many of these stories are about identity and people moving from one place to another and understanding who we are in the different contexts that we find ourselves.

    [08:14] That has ultimately played into my doctoral research and the research I’m currently working on, which deals with interactions between Roman merchants and non-Roman merchants in different parts of the ancient Mediterranean world and in particular, how those kinds of interactions did or didn’t produce cultural change.

    The evidence for that is mostly inscriptions and some literary sources that date to between the third century BCE and third century CE. They show people moving all over the empire and engaging each other in contexts that seemed peaceful even though Rome was a colonial empire that was sustained through violence or the threat of violence. I think it speaks to a lot of contemporary concerns that we have about colonialism, empire, migration, and identity.

    Cathy [09:06]: What’s one of the most surprising things that you found in doing this research?

    Lakshmi [09:10]: I’ve always been really surprised by how mobile people seem to have been in Western antiquity. It’s easy to think of people in Western antiquity as stuck in the places that they grew up in and never able to go anywhere and meet people unlike themselves and that we are at the forefront of movement and mobility. It’s true that many people in Western antiquity didn’t leave the places that they grew up in. And it’s true that now we’re able to communicate with people on the other side of the world within a moment.

    But even so, there’s so much great evidence of people in Western antiquity traveling from the African continent to Greece to to Britain and back. It’s really incredible how people were able to get all over the Mediterranean world and engage with people who were completely unlike themselves on a regular, constant basis. This was just normal for so many more people than one would expect.

    Cathy [10:12]: Is there something that you wish folks knew more about ancient history? I know you teach, so you probably run into this with students, right?

    Lakshmi [10:20]: Yeah. For both people who study ancient history and people who don’t really study it as a career, I wish they were more interested in places other than the city of Rome and Roman Italy. I think it’s really easy for us to forget that as an empire, Rome spanned an incredibly vast region of territory.

    There were all kinds of people who lived under Roman power and so many history books just neglect Roman Africa, for example, or Rome in what we call “the East.” I think that that neglect reflects contemporary racism and discrimination and this assumption like, “Oh, well those spaces are at places we really need to learn about.” I wish that was something that would change in terms of how people who don’t study ancient history approach it and even how people who write survey books approach it as well.

    Cathy [11:17]: I’m curious how you see your work combining art, activism, and academia because they seemed like such vibrant fields in your various projects. What draws you to their imbrication?

    Lakshmi [11:31]: I’ve just never been the kind of person who’s happy doing one thing. I’ve always been someone who really appreciates research and writing and so for me, academia has always been a very natural personality fit. But as you know, it’s a very solitary kind of work. I don’t think it’s helpful to anybody if academics are siloed and aren’t speaking to people who aren’t academics. So I always try to do as much public speaking as possible on my work or related aspects of my work.

    This has come to influence my approach to making music as well. Recently I was doing research for a course that I’m going to be teaching this spring called Classics and Colonialism, which examines the reception of the classical tradition in colonial environments and even to some extent postcolonial environments. I came across a book by a British historian named Antoinette Burton called Dwelling in the Archives, which looks at memoirs written by women in late colonial India. She talks about how we need to consider these kinds of texts as archival material even if they don’t deal with the perspective of male revolutionaries in India and aren’t the kind of material that is often considered archival material.

    [12:55] In doing that research and then experiencing the loss of my grandmother earlier this year, I realized I really wanted to put together a attribute to her and to the lives of women like her in my family who have lived through and in the wake of colonialism. So I put together a sound installation called Maalai about this, which was very much informed by Antoinette Burton’s book.

    That’s one example of how my academic interests collide with my artistic work. For me, they’re really part of the same spectrum. They’re both different ways of creating and I use different kinds of materials to create those things.

    For some academics this can definitely be off putting because they expect professors to be a certain way. I’m currently a visiting assistant professor at Trinity College in Hartford and I do sometimes hear like, “Oh, you don’t seem like a professor.” But think that’s a really, really good thing! There are things that inform the things that I do that aren’t academic but which are grounded in a lot of background in research and thoughtfulness.

    Cathy [14:07]: A lot of your writing, as well as your music, engages with spiritual practices like tarot that have a long history in feminist and femme communities, communities of color, and social justice movements more broadly. What draws you to these kinds of practices and their connection to social change?

    Lakshmi [14:24]: I think that one really important feature that something like tarot has is that it is a tool for self-empowerment. I think people misunderstand tarot as fortune telling and [think that] it’s going to give you yes/no answers about “Should I call him?” or “Should I invest in this thing?” I mean, some people do use it for that and that’s okay.

    But one reason a lot of marginalized communities are particularly interested in it, particularly marginalized femme communities, is because it actually gives you a lot of agency. It gives you a lens to think about your life that is different from the way you would normally approach your life. [This is] partly because it isn’t all that rule-bound and isn’t “logical” or “pragmatic.” It’s a way of thinking around and about issues that are happening in your life that you don’t have control over.

    Lakshmi [15:17]: You pull a certain set of cards from a tarot deck and they’re [encourage you to] think about the problem from this specific angle as opposed to some other specific angle or the one that you instinctively feel you need to think about it from. That really helps. That destabilization helps you to come to new insights about your life. And that feels really empowering, especially if you’re living in a world where so many structures are designed to prevent you from being the person that you can be and that are preventing you from thriving, which is true for a lot of people I know. That’s one reason I personally make use of tarot. And I think that’s one reason that a lot of other marginalized communities have been particularly interested in it.

    [16:05] That said, it’s easy to think of the press that these practices are getting right now as indicative of a new wave in people’s interest in magic. But I don’t know how accurate that is. Communities of color and marginalized communities—for example, slave communities in Haiti and the United States—used magical practices as forms of activism. There’s a long history of that practice even within the United States and in the West, which definitely predates [this resurgence] as well. It’s important for people to remember that this is not a new thing, that oppressed people have been using these practices to empower themselves in different ways for centuries.

    Cathy: What kind of projects are you working on now? Do you have anything exciting coming up?

    Lakshmi [17:05]: I do. One really big project I have coming up is a performance I’m doing at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago on October 21st at 10 in the morning. It’s part of their 50th anniversary celebration and it’s part of a lineup that includes pretty amazing people, including Billy Corgan, Jamila Woods, who’s an artist from Chicago, and Lupe Fiasco.

    I normally perform alone, but for this event I’ve put together a nine-person ensemble that includes a drummer and a violinist and four chorus members, as well as two movement artists from a group called Burning Orchid. We’ve rearranged all of my songs and we’re going to be performing them for an hour to the public outside the museum. It’s gonna be really exciting.

    The performance is ending with some new music from a record I’m currently writing and recording that’s inspired by the sound installation I did that I mentioned earlier. Over the course of the hour, we’ll be exploring this idea of passage through different femininities and particularly south Indian femininities and using a lot of floral symbolism to do that.

    [18:11] So it’ll be a lot of flower petals and garlands. We’re ending it on a very celebratory note though the music does tend to be kind of dark and moody. We’re going to be evoking a lot of visual and sonic elements from traditional Hindu weddings at the very end to kick off the whole weekend of celebration and bring light and attention to some of Chicago’s amazing artists in addition to this great institution. I’m really excited about it.

    It’s definitely one of the hardest projects I’ve taken on. I usually perform alone or with maybe one or two other people. And this is coordinating schedules. I currently live in North Hampton, Massachusetts and everyone else in the ensemble lives in Chicago, so I’m traveling between the two while I’m juggling a full course load at Trinity. It’s a lot but it’s also amazing because the kind of ideas that I’m finding myself coming up with. Just when I think I’ve finished coming up with ideas for what the chorus is gonna say or how they’re going to move during this one song, I have this whole flood of new ideas and it’s just really exciting to experience. I’m really growing a lot, I think, because of it as an artist.

    Cathy [19:25]: So this brings me to my favorite question that I get to ask guests, which gets at the impetus behind all the work that you do. Obviously this podcast is called Imagine Otherwise and I get to talk with folks about that vision of a world that they’re working towards when they create whatever it is that they create in the universe. So I’ll ask you, what kind of world are you working towards when you create your music, when you step in front of a class, when you do these kinds of collaborative projects, when you do your academic research? What kind of world do you want?

    Lakshmi [19:57]: I think the world that I’m currently working towards and trying to create at least a microcosm of wherever I am is one that is more equitable than the world that I’m actually living in. In all of my classes, no matter what I’m teaching, I find a way to bring this question to the forefront: what is the world that we’re studying look like? What is the world that we’re in look like? And what happens to the people who are left behind? I think by focusing on those kinds of questions in the classroom, students begin to think about how their engagement with the world, as citizens of the world, matters and how they can do it in a way that’s more productive and positive.

    [20:48] In my music, something I’m always to do is create opportunities for other artists from marginalized communities. For example, when I curate shows, I’m trying to have an intersectional approach to that. That’s easy to do in some sense, but it’s hard to do if you are serious about approaching it from a standpoint that isn’t about filling quotas, for example. It’s always important to remember that there are people who are more marginalized than oneself. That can be hard to do, to live my politics as much as possible and as closely to the letter as I can right now.

    It’s really hard to be the people we want to be because the world that we’re in is designed to prevent that. I want my music and my scholarship and anything else I do to fight that in any way possible, whether it’s by reminding people that we need to think about these other things in our scholarship or in how we curate a lineup for a show or if it’s by creating moments of healing and peace just through giving people the opportunity to experience my music and in doing so, have that experience myself.

    Cathy [22:02]: Well, thank you so much for being with us and sharing your vision of imagining. otherwise.

    Lakshmi [22:07]: Thank you so much for having me.

    Cathy [22:13]: [upbeat music in background] Thanks for listening to another episode of Imagine Otherwise. Imagine Otherwise is produced by Ideas on Fire and this episode was created by Christopher Persaud,  Michelle Velasquez-Potts, Alexandra Sastre, and myself, Cathy Hannabach.

    You can check out the show notes for this episode on our website at ideasonfire.net where you can also read about our fabulous guest as well as find links to the people and projects we discuss on the show. [music fadeout]

    Related Stories

    Alyshia Gálvez wearing a navy shirt and gold hoop earrings
    January 30, 2019

    Imagine Otherwise: Alyshia Gálvez on NAFTA and Transnational Food Justice

    Alyshia Gálvez on NAFTA's destruction of public health in Mexico, the need for public intellectuals, immigrant rights activism, and why we should dream big.

    Tara Fickle wearing a black, green, and white striped shirt and glasses, in front of a bookcase
    May 3, 2017

    Imagine Otherwise: Tara Fickle on Tarot in the Classroom

    Tara Fickle explains why games and literature help us understand racial formation, how she built a video game about WWII Japanese-American internment, how emerging scholars can gain technological skills to create public, multimedia work, and how tarot and comics can get students to imagine different worlds.

    E. Patrick Johnson wearing a black button-down shirt, looking over his shoulder
    March 22, 2017

    Imagine Otherwise: E. Patrick Johnson on Oral History and Creativity Rituals

    E. Patrick Johnson shares his creative process, how he translates scholarly ideas into artistic work and vice versa, how Black gay men and women are crafting community-based oral histories, and how artistic and scholarly collaboration is a key way he imagines otherwise.

    Arrow-up