Born in Trieste, northern Italy, Mahanthappa was raised in Boulder, Colorado. His parents immigrated from Bangalore, Karnataka, smack dab in the middle of South India. Although he wasn't trained in Indian music as a child, Mahanthappa's parents often listened to bhajana, the devotional songs sung in temples and there were always a few Hindustani (North Indian classical music) records lying around the house. Interestingly, Mahanthappa only came to a greater understanding of and appreciation for Indian music after he had mastered North America's musical mother tongue: jazz. "Most of what I've learned about Indian music is something I went out of my way to seek out...Okay, so you're an Indian guy playing jazz and people constantly would ask, 'Do you know Indian music? Do you understand this music?' And I think one of the hardest things for me was to deal with that music on my own terms, because I think there was almost an expectation...Oh well, I'm brown! I must understand; I must know! [laughs] And I think the turning point was when I was at Berklee [College of Music, Boston]...I was in a group that went to play this jazz festival in India and that's when I really got with it. I went and saw some concerts that just blew my mind and heard some albums that blew my mind and I was, like, whoa, alright! And I really felt like I had my own entry point into it."
Mahanthappa had a chance to express and experiment with Indian music in a short-lived trio with Canadian percussionist Trichy Sankaran. More recently he has teamed up with Kadri Goplanath, an innovative South Indian alto saxophonist who has translated Karnatic classical music to an unconventional instrument. Mahanthappa elaborated on their collaboration: "I think he [Sankaran] was really surprised that I understood so much about Karnatic music. I wrote this stuff around him, because he doesn't know harmony, he doesn't really know form in the Western sense and so I had to write this stuff where he felt like he could just keep doing what he's doing, but there's all this shit happening around him [laughs], like some crazy forms and it's going through different keys and different meters... That was the first time that I was, like, 'Okay, I think I can deal with this. I think I'm comfortable with all this, to make this happen.'"