Written by 12:06 PM Music

The Connecticut Yankee who came to be known as Higgins Bhagavathar!

Imagine leaving behind everything known and plunge headlong into a different culture, language, lif…

My last blog was about how some Indian musicians were influenced by the music of the Beatles, Rolling Stones, and Led Zeppelin, among many others, and became rock stars.  

Jon Higgins and his attraction to music

This is about an American, Jon B. Higgins. South Indian music, known as Carnatic Music, fascinated him. He moved to South India to study Carnatic music and the compositions of Thyagaraja SwamiMuthusamy Dikshitar, and Shyma Shastri. For this, he had to overcome language, culture, and a race barrier that existed (it probably still exists as a form of subtle racism). He overcame all this and sang at the Thyagaraja Aradhana, a festival where the best of the best performed. Not only was he accepted as a front-ranking Carnatic musician, but he was also given the honorific title of Bhagavathar or maestro. 

How I heard about Jon Higgins

Carnatic music, to me, was primitive and boring. Despite this, I do remember the name Jon Higgins. During my first listen, I think his exposition of the Raga Bhairavi (Bhairavi varnam) made me slightly curious about Carnatic music. It was probably the tinge of the American accent, the lack of rusticism or guttural vocalization that the average Carnatic musicians had in those days, and the revelation that this art form was not cloistered strictly for the Brahmanical community. In my later years, I began to learn and devour Carnatic music furiously. I had some fantastic gurus who were very kind and patient with me.

Early Days

On September 18, 1939, Jon was born in the Massachusetts village of Andover. Philips Academy provided his early education, where his father taught English, and his mother taught piano. Jon later earned three degrees from Wesleyan University. A B.A. in History and Music, an M.A. in Musicology, and a Ph.D. in Ethnomusicology. John Higgins is a prominent Wesleyan, and the most famous American interpreter of Indian classical music. In 1973, the distinguished musician earned his Ph.D. in Ethnomusicology. He founded the Indian Music Studies Program at York University, Toronto. He probably was the first Westerner to carve out a niche for himself in South Indian classical vocal music.

His first forays into Carnatic music

Higgins began studying Carnatic music at Wesleyan University under the tutelage of Robert Brown and T. Ranganathan on a Fulbright scholarship. He began studying music with Dr. T. Viswanathan in Chennai. Higgins was so enthusiastic about Carnatic music that he was ready to sing at the Thyagaraja Aradhana held at Thyagarajaswami’s Samadhi. He received much praise from stalwarts and scholars. Not many people seem to be aware that this distinguished musician had also studied Bharatanatyam music under the famous danseuse T. Balasaraswati, sister of T. Viswanathan, his guru, and had even written a thesis on dance music. Later in his career, he worked as a senior research fellow at the American Institute of Indian Studies. 

While most non-Dravidians find microtonal modulation in Carnatic difficult, this outstanding musician overcame this cultural barrier through sheer dedication. He continued to perform Carnatic music and recorded a few albums. 

His return to the USA

He returned to Wesleyan University to teach music and later became the University’s Center for the Arts Director. Wesleyan University still teaches Carnatic music.

Jon had put in countless hours of practice. He had mastered all aspects of a concert presentation, including appreciating accompanying artists such as the violinist’s ‘shabhash’ (bravo) and the mridangist’s (drummer) ‘bhale.’ (wow). 

Stage performances

When he was on stage, he wore a crisp white suit. During one of his concerts, when Justice K. S. Venkataraman acknowledged his musical knowledge and called it the “merit of a previous life,” Jon, ever smiling, humble, and passive, called it the “merit of this life” and attributed it to his knowledgeable guru. Here are some recordings of Higgins Bhagavathar.

Dinamani Vamsha – Raga Harikamboji – Thyagaraja Kriti

The end of a musician

Dr. Jon B. Higgins tragically died on December 07th, 1984, at the age of 45. While walking his dog, he was hit by a drunk hit-and-run driver near his home in Middletown, Conn.

He planned to do a protest concert against apartheid in South Africa but was snatched away too soon. Connecticut state police arrested Thomas Knight of Middlefield, Conn., and charged him with second-degree manslaughter by intoxicated driving.

He is survived by his wife, the former Rhea Padis. His two sons, Luke and Niko, and a brother, Hayden, a jazz pianist known professionally as Eddie Higgins, survive him.

Cultural ambassador

Jon Higgins will be remembered for his role as the cultural ambassador. A person who demonstrated to the world that music has no boundaries. To achieve the highest levels, one must have immense devotion, persistence, passion, and engagement. He was planning a South African concert to protest against the apartheid regime, but it never came about.

Namaskarams, Jon Higgins Bhagavathar, my namaskarams to you.

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