AAPI Voices: Ritika Ganguly

This May is Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month! All month, we’ll be highlighting the incredible contributions of the AAPI artists in our community. Recently, we sat down with several AAPI members of the MN Opera family to talk about how their AAPI identities have impacted their opera careers and what they would like to see change in the opera industry with regard to AAPI representation.

Ritika Ganguly, PhD., is a Minneapolis-based composer, anthropologist, and grants consultant, born and raised in New Delhi, India. Her consulting practice and artistic practice both strive for an equality based on difference, rather than on the similarity of things, people, and knowledges.

Ritika was commissioned as a composer by The Cedar Cultural Center in 2016, received the Naked Stages award in 2017, and an MRAC Next Step award in 2018 for her research and new musical work in Baul (Bengali Sufi music/poetry). She has trained in multiple genres within Bengali music and in contemporary Indian musical theater. She recently received a Minnesota State Arts Board Creative Support for Individuals Award, a 2020 Jerome Foundation Finalist Award and was commissioned to create a mini opera in Bangla by the Minnesota Opera in 2021. Her vocal and compositional work bring disparate musical styles, literatures, and disciplines together. In her performances, she invites adventurous audiences, and her music pushes the boundaries of genre. Her methodology is deep listening, and in her compositions and voice lessons, she focuses on developing aural skills and deepening the aptitude to hear.

1. In what ways has your AAPI identity impacted your career journey in opera?

I feel fortunate to have witnessed both Western classical opera and South Asian opera growing up in New Delhi, India. South Asian musical theater and opera is a combination of music, drama, stylized speech, and spectacle, and different regions often follow different formats in which to present their opera, depending on the region’s artistic and oral histories. In this sense, opera in South Asia is not a singular word. Among these, the Pandavini and Yakshagana performative styles from the North and the South respectively, and the Rabindric dance drama style from Eastern India has deeply impacted my opera journey. These opera forms sing the piece from beginning to end and articulate the body in multiple different ways. The music is complex but is expressed via minimalist instrumentation.

I’m also very committed to exploring different musical forms and disciplines in my first language Bangla, and to understanding how audiences in the West ‘listen’ to these works in Bangla. I could not be happier that MN Opera commissioned a piece in a language that is wholly new to opera-going audiences in the West! I ended up writing the story for my first opera and collaborating on the music with Shinjan Sengupta who is also similarly influenced by the musical narration formats of epics and urban stories. I use the drone instrument – the Tanpura – in all my musical work. It helps me to both anchor myself to the soundscape of my home, as well as create an other-worldly texture for my music.


2. Did you have any AAPI role models or mentors when you were starting your career? What qualities did you admire about them?

I am told that my first words were lines from this play that my parents were producing when I was two years old! They were at the height of their own careers then, and their theater outfit was one of the most loved in the country. I have been an ardent fan of my dad as an artistic director who made the most profound plays with the most meager budgets. I remember his direction of Badal Sircar’s Michhil (Procession). It was a low budget play, and entire transit buses and pavements were invoked through the sheer use of body suggestion. I watched them prepare – for a whole year – their bodies in order to mimic our everyday mechanical movements. For example, rendering the gentle rocking of the body when it rides a bus, or rides a big wave. Some of these images and preparation strategies have laid the foundation of a lot of my artistic ambition for detail. I learned from him how to infer from the situated, everyday experience of the body, and incorporate these into performance.

More recently, I have been intently following and learning from the work of local movement artist and choreographer Pramila Vasudevan, artistic director of Aniccha Arts. Her artistry dares to dream beyond industry expectations from ‘POC artists’, and she is constantly and boldly pushing the boundaries of experimental dance. I am inspired by the co-existence of warmth and intensity in her work. And I especially admire her methodology of working democratically with large numbers of artists and non-artists from myriad backgrounds. Her works pre-suppose a thinking, critical, analytical audience, and for me, that makes her art stand out and approach it with that much more responsibility.


3. What changes would you like to see in the opera industry, specifically in relation to the AAPI community?

I would love to see a shift in the lens through which we view ‘non-Western’ opera in the West. I would like to see a shift in the reasons why we value it, value Other / ‘folk’ opera. I think that the movement for diversity and inclusion that we’re witnessing today in the US is a very good thing, but we need to keep re-attaching ourselves to the question: what is diversity bringing to this context; what is the value that diversity is adding to this discipline or to this organization? It can be easy to slip into practicing diversity as a ‘thing’, as something that we can mechanically add on or throw into the mix to appear to include and welcome everyone. But, as diversity theorist Sara Ahmed notes, “to speak the language of diversity is to participate in the creation of a world.”

I would love to see the world of opera include other forms of opera from the perspective of learning from them. Rhythmic patterns, melody types, call-and-response improvisational patterns, voice timbres, language, scales and intervals, aural methodologies of music composition and communication used in opera forms in different parts of the world can help to shape and grow how opera audiences in the West hear and see opera. These frameworks have profoundly shaped opera in what may be understood as AAPI communities. Incorporating these by commissioning artists with knowledge of these different methodologies would also inevitably mean a shift in opera reportage. I feel that the field of Western opera, like every other field of knowledge and practice, deserves much more than it currently feels entitled to.

To learn more about Dr. Ganguly, please visit her website and follow her on Facebook. You can also check out a performance of her and Roshan Ganu‘s opera Xylem, commissioned as part of MN Opera’s MNiatures below, as well as a performance of her piece “Hacia Adentro.”

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