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Imagine Otherwise: Lakshmi Ramgopal on Postcolonial Music & the Pull of History
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.
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.
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)
- On Lakshmi’s musical background: “I have been involved in performing or writing music and learning music since I was a little kid. I grew up a little outside of Boston in a pretty boring town called Andover. 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.”
- On her research on 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.”
- On working at the intersection of art, activism, and academia: “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, 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. I recently was doing research for a course 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 Antoinette Burton called Dwelling in the Archives which essentially looks at memoirs written by women in late colonial India and talks about how we need to consider these kind of texts as archival material even if they don’t deal with the perspectives of male revolutionaries in India and aren’t the kind of material that is traditionally considered archival material. In doing that research and experiencing the loss of my grandmother earlier this year, I realized I wanted to put together a tribute for her and the lives of women like her in my family who lived through and in the wake of colonialism. I put together a sound installation called Maalai about this and it was very much informed by Antoinette Burton’s book. That’s kind of one example of how 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.”
- On tarot and other spiritual practices: “I think that one really important feature that something like tarot has is that it is a tool for self-empowerment. A lot of people misunderstand tarot as a tool for fortune telling, like it’s going to give you yes or no answers about ‘should I call him?’ or ‘should I invest in this thing?’ and people do use it for that and that’s okay. But 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.”
- On 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 on October 21st at 10 in the morning. 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. It’s going to be really exciting. The performance is going to be ending with some new music from a record that I’m currently writing and recording that’s inspired from the sound installation Maalai. Over the course of the hour, we’ll be exploring this idea of the passage though different femininities, particularly South Indian femininities, and using a lot of floral symbolism to do that so there will be a lot of flowers and garlands. We’re ending on a very celebratory note. My music usually tends to be kind of dark and moody, but 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 celebrations and bring light and attention to some of Chicago’s amazing artists, in addition to this great institution.”
- On 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. In my music, something I’m always trying to do is create opportunities for artists from other marginalized communities. Like when I curate shows. I try to have an intersectional approach to that. That’s easy to do in some sense, but it is harder 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 by oneself. That can be hard to do. I try to live my politics as much as possible and as closely to the letter that I can. I think now it’s really hard to be the people that we want to be because the world that we’re in, that a lot of us have helped create, 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 by creating moments for healing and peace just through giving people the opportunity to experience my music and in doing so experiencing them myself.”
More from Lakshmi:
- Lakshmi’s website
- Lykanthea’s upcoming performance at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago
- Lakshmi’s faculty page at Trinity College
- Lykanthea on Bandcamp
- Lykanthea’s website
- Lykanthea on Twitter
- Lykanthea’s profile in the Chicago Tribune
- Maalai – Lakshmi’s sound installation inspired
- Lakshmi’s writing on tarot and artists of color
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/episodes. 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.