For US-based Warren Senders, 60, the vocalist and bassist of the indo-jazz ensemble Anti-Gravity, as well as a Hindustani classical singer and teacher, music and environmental activism go hand in hand. For over three years, Senders has been out on the streets of north Medford, Massachusetts, every morning, doing his riyaz, while displaying signboards, come hail, snow or storm, to warn passers-by about climate change. Senders first received his training in Hindustani classical singing in Boston from Kalpana Majumdar of Kirana gharana from 1977-85, and later, got a fellowship to study under Pt Bhimsen Joshi in Pune, and finally, under his guru Pt SG Devasthali in Pune from 1986-2002. Excerpts from an interview:
What does music mean to you?
Music has brought me tremendous joy, inspiration, and a deep connection with the oral traditions. Especially in the case of classical traditions, it is a way for human beings to communicate across large spans of time. A sadarang bandish transmitted from master to disciple for 300 years is a message from his time to ours, and from ours to the future. It is this future which is imperiled by climate change, and thus the study of classical khayal repertoire is a stimulus to environmental action.
Why have you chosen music as a means for your environmental campaign?
Since I became aware of climate change as an existential threat to all of humanity, I determined to take riyaz — the ability to do something every day with consistency and rigour — and apply it to raising awareness. In 2009, I decided that I would strive to do something every day for this. After writing letters to newspaper and magazine editors for four years, I now sustain hour-long daily vigils at a busy intersection near my house outside of Boston: every weekday morning, I rise and greet the rush-hour traffic with signs about climate change and riyaz.
Are you in any way influenced by the Woodstock?
My biggest influence in the integration of music, social justice, and protest is the American folk singer and activist Pete Seeger whose life was a model of the interweaving of these threads.
Do you see yourself as a protester, or a protest singer?
I don’t actually think of myself as a protester, or of my music as ‘singing in protest’. My life in music has been one of immersion in the art form itself, whether it is the work of musical composition or the practice of Hindustani khayal, which has been my primary avenue of expression for many years. When I carry on my daily vigils, this is not really a ‘protest’, but an affirmation and recognition of a scientific truth. I describe these vigils as a ‘practice of conscience’.
One of my other activities in service to the climate is a series of concerts called ‘Playing For The Planet: World Music Against Climate Change’, which raise funds for a Massachusetts climate advocacy group, 350MA. I have been organizing these events twice a year since 2009, and have presented musicians from different traditions.
What are the major areas of social concerns for you at the moment?
I view climate change as the most important issue that humanity faces. All other issues — economic oppression, gender equity, racial justice, reproductive rights, nuclear disarmament, etc. — are contingent on our species still being able to live safely on earth. To develop meaningful solutions for other issues requires time, which is denied to us in the urgency of the climate crisis.
S Gopalakrishnan is a Dubai-based commentator on music and culture.
This article appeared in print with the headline ‘Notes From a Dying Planet’