Computers and music are different worlds, but they collide for one 19-year-old Cal Poly student. One hour, she’s hard at work in the computer lab and the next she’s in the music building, singing her heart out.
As a computer science sophomore and professional singer of Southern Indian music, Varsha Ravi Kumar is a diverse individual with a broad range of skills and interests. Each day, she dedicates at least one or two hours to practicing and perfecting her voice. She was born in India and moved to the U.S. at age four, but one particular aspect of her Indian culture never left her — music.
As a child, Ravi Kumar loved to dance, and her background music of choice was of the Southern Indian classical music or Carnatic music. At age 7, she transitioned from dancing with Carnatic music to singing it — and her family supported her every step of the way.
“They were very encouraging,” she said. “They’ve always been very encouraging about all my interests and they saw that I had a passion for it, they saw that I had a talent, so they just guided me and pushed me in the right direction.”
Ravi Kumar said singing brings her a unique sense of empowerment.
“(With) singing, it just comes from within you and you can actually feel all those tones, and when you’re aligned with the pitch it sort of vibrates,” she said. “It’s this really cool feeling. You’re just more one with your music.”
“It can be so distracting,” Ravi Kumar said. “I can’t listen to music when I study because I’d rather just sit there and focus on it and analyze it or start singing,”
To add to her already diverse repertoire, Ravi Kumar is also a lead vocalist in Cal Poly’s Arab Music Ensemble. With school, studying, singing practices and a social life, Ravi Kumar is one busy woman.
“It’s really about writing down everything that comes up and every single small meeting, allocating practice time,” she said.
Economics senior Peter Sumic plays the oud in the Arab Music Ensemble and is a friend of Ravi Kumar’s.
“She has a pretty strong work ethic,” Sumic said. “I think she’s pretty good at prioritizing because obviously when you’re balancing that much stuff, you have to make some decisions.”
But music is never far from her mind. As a Hindu, singing is strongly tied to her religion.
“It’s like a direct connection to God,” she said. “That’s what really inspires me.”
One of Ravi Kumar’s favorite singing experiences is when she gets to connect with her spirituality in temples.
In Indian culture, music is highly revered, which means when Ravi Kumar goes to a temple and sings, she gets special attention.
“Sometimes when you go to certain temples it’s very, very crowded, but the second you tell them that you want to sing, they take you all the way up to the front where no one else can go and you get to sit there and sing in front of God,” she said. “It’s amazing; you just get to connect on a completely different level.”
Not only does her vocal talent connect her to God, but it also strengthens ties to her Indian cultural heritage.
“When I go to India and meet relatives and people there, they usually look at me a little differently because I grew up (in the U.S.),” she said. “So they’re not sure how much I understand of the culture. But if they hear my singing, it’s usually a great ice breaker because they’re like, ‘Oh, she knows so much about (our) culture,’ or, ‘Oh, she actually cares.'”
“She’s very composed — it’s professional that way,” Arab Music Ensemble Director Ken Habib said. “She’s poised.”
Sumic agreed, describing her as calm and collected. He said her ethereal voice is always confident and strong and that she has extreme control over pitch and embellishment in her music. That type of control is integral in Carnatic music because of the improvisation aspect so prevalent throughout the style.
Habib said improvisation requires a type of advanced skill, one Ravi Kumar continues to cultivate through practicing both Southern Indian and Arabic music.
“It’s really scary because I’m always like, ‘Oh my God, what if I mess up?'” Ravi Kumar said. “But it also comes down to this wonderful feeling where you just create things on the spot. It’s very exhilarating.”
Her passion for Carnatic music has permeated and shaped her entire life.
“She’s a South Indian classical musician — that’s not something that you just turn off,” Habib said. “We are who we are.”
Habib said there have been connections between Arabic and Indian music historically, and Ravi Kumar’s mastery of Carnatic music has helped her grasp Arabic music stylings and sometimes even fuse them together.
It may seem strange for someone so passionate and involved in the world of music to be studying computer science in school. But Ravi Kumar wants to foster singing as a hobby, to make it a personal passion rather than a financial mean.
“A career in music is very difficult to plan, and I feel like once it’s a career, you do things just for the commercial aspect and it takes away from the artistic quality sometimes,” she said. “And I’d rather preserve that and not have to rely on it as a way to make money.”
Habib doesn’t doubt for a moment that Ravi Kumar will continue singing her entire life. Her relentless passion and incredible vocal qualities will simply continue to grow as she does.
“For the rest (of) her life, I bet she’ll be doing music,” Habib said. “I certainly hope so.”