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In Conversation with Chitraveena N. Ravikiran

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The interview with N. Ravikiran was conducted by M.D. Muthukumaraswamy in Chennai on March 1, 2017.

 

 

M.D. Muthukumaraswamy: Namaskaram Sir, Thank you very much for agreeing to do this interview for Sahapedia.

N. Ravikiran: My pleasure.

 

M.D.M.: This interview is about your music, your innovations in the instrument and the music, and your efforts to globalise Carnatic music. These are the three aspects that we will cover in the interview. I would request you to do a small demonstration so that we can begin from there.

(N. Ravikiran plays on chitraveena.)

 

M.D.M.: Wonderful. Thank you so much. You were known as a child prodigy even at two and a half years of age or even earlier than that. You could identify the ragas then. You started singing concerts at the age of six. In retrospect, how do you think about growing up as a child prodigy?

N.R.: Well, my father Chitraveena Narasimhan, who was also my guru, really created a revolution in world music by presenting me at the age of two. When he did this in 1969 the whole world took notice of it. A lot of people talk about this even now but I don’t remember much about that though. Except for some vague memories I don’t really remember anything. I do remember a lot of people surrounding me and travelling a bit and being on stage and all those things but not specific things.

 

The incredible teaching methodology of my father and guru Chitraveena Narasimhan is the main reason (for this early blossoming) in my opinion apart from whatever god given talent that I had. It really needed a person of my father’s genius to pick the talent and to take that talent to unprecedented or unsurpassed heights at that age. So that really inspired thousands of parents. Let me give a small example to demonstrate how extraordinary my father’s contribution was.

 

Now a child—if it is a very gifted child—can possibly know the distinction between 20 different colours but you need somebody to point out to him what the name of each colour is. To know the name of colours: that is real knowledge. The child may have the talent to distinguish colours but somebody has to tell him that this is blue, this is grey, this is orange, this is yellow and all these things.

 

Similarly, a child could probably have the talent to distinguish between hundreds of ragas but somebody had to tell him that this is known as Brindavana Saranga, this is Shree raga, this is Madhyamavathi, this is Manirangu, this is Pushpalalitha. These are ragas which are very closely allied.

 

So that kind of genius which is about communicating hard core facts and statistics and knowledge to a boy of two years of age, that is really the genius of my father. And I had seen him teach my brother, Shashikiran and my sister Kiranavali.

 

M.D.M.: They are also known as Chitraveena players.

N.R.: Yes, he presented all of them between the age of two and three. As I was the eldest, he probably was able to focus fully on me. I was able to do more things because of that exclusive attention that I got. With respect to my siblings and cousins, especially my cousin, Chitraveena Ganesh, the way he would teach is really the key factor.

 

And then from the time I was about three or four, he started making me sing small compositions like geetams, swarajatis, varnams—all these he started teaching me pretty early on in life.

 

So by the time I was about five years old he had taught me a repertoire of several hundred compositions. Where it would take 10-12 years for a guru to teach someone 10-12 years all that, it took my father only two to three years to teach me. And it is also about how he would make me feel passionate and inspired about the music. He never made it feel like a chore or a bore.

 

So he had that ability to make the learning process such an interesting, inspiring thing. He was a phenomenal musician, a brilliant vocalist who could do anything with the voice and on the instrument also. A complete musician in all aspects. So his teaching methods as a vocalist and instrumentalist also inspired me a lot.

 

And he presented me first as a vocalist in two hour concert when I was about five years old in Coimbatore in 1972. And then of course I gave several concerts in subsequent years in other cities also.

 

 

M.D.M.: Did it affect your school education?

N.R.: Well, I was home-schooled till Class Four. So that means my entire time was focussed only on music. From four in the morning till ten or half-past ten at night we used to have fun with music. It was not stressful or anything. It all used to be just very natural, very organic, the way in which the whole thing happened. My father himself would start practising early in the morning. So I would be inspired to sit there and beat taalam for him, and many a times I would join him in singing. Suddenly he would sing something, and ask me to repeat. So these kind of things. And then there would be other occasions when I would play the tanpura or the srutibox. A manual srutibox used to be there and then I used to sing on my own. So he would sit there and teach me. So there was a lot of fun.

 

 

M.D.M.: I understand, many musicians have that kind of an environment to grow up in, but what was special about your father’s teaching?

N.R.: The basic thing in my opinion is his genius in communicating hardcore knowledge even for children of a very young age. Nobody else had done that because before 1969, the other prodigies who debuted were of five years of age or more. And in the West, you had example of somebody like Mozart who was a genius even at the age of four. In our own culture we had people like Thiru Gnana Sambandar and Andal who were considered prodigies in their early years also. But all that was more based on their own natural talent. My father argued and believed that nature had to be complementary with nurture[S1] . The combination of nature and nurture is the key. And my father really thought that any normal child would be gifted in music also, and in the late '60s he had made statements to the effect that even if he was given a child even of foreign origins or a child from the other states within India, he would able to train him in the same manner. And even if not with the same success as somebody who had natural musical talent, he still could make a reasonable progress musically.

 

M.D.M.: In your concerts and normally when you do the lecture-demonstrations, you always bring in the idea of mathematics. You say this is mathematically, this is different, mathematically, this is precise. Your father was a perfectionist. Does it have anything to do with that, being precise, being mathematical?

N.R.: Well, I think my father was a rank-holder in his academic years even though he didn’t go beyond college because of his concert commitments. He taught me maths and science also. I had a lead over my classmates when I joined school in Class Four, thanks to the kind of grounding my father gave me. He was very precise in his approach. Very well defined. It was a combination of scientific precision coupled with artistic brilliance and inspiration. So that was given to me from very early on. So I have been able to apply a lot of that plus what I gained from my own school where I studied from the fourth to twelfth standard. Then I took up correspondence course for my B.Com because I was travelling. But that scientific approach I have extrapolated into music also. So in my lecture-demonstrations and in my teachings, I try to apply a lot of scientific principles to Carnatic system, because that is probably one of the most rational and scientific in the whole world.

 

M.D.M.: Can you explain that a little further?

N.R.: Now for example if you take any aspect of Carnatic music whether it is melodic concepts like the raga principle, you have 72 melakartas. And to the 12 notes they actually added four more to make it 16 notes. And they have made exhaustive permutations and combinations of these 16 notes in a straightforward ascending and descending seven-note heptatonic scales.

 

(Demonstrating…) So this is the first parent scale in the chronological sequence of the 72 melakartas.

 

This is Kanakangi ragam. So this, they divided into two tetrachords of four notes. So the sa re ga ma (playing) will remain constant for the next six ragas (playing).

 

And in the second raga, only the ni will change (playing).

 

And the third one again, the ni will go one step higher (playing), Ganamurti.

 

And that exhausts the possibilities of the ni over there in that combination.

 

So the next possibility is to change the da (playing).

 

So the da will get higher. And when that happens, you have two possibilities of ni only (playing) and the fourth one (playing) and the fifth raga.

 

And the final combination will have the da and ni all in their highest positions (playing).

 

So you see this precision in published combination approach was propounded even 500 years back by great musicologists like Venkatamakhin, Govinda Dikshitar and others.

 

So then you can have the same combinations happen in the first part of the tetrachord also. So each time the tetrachord for the first half changes, you can have six possibilities with the same six happening. So you get 36 possibilities right there, six times six and then you have the change of the fourth note which is ma and you get another 36, so it becomes 72.  

 

And so this kind of very beautiful thinking you will not find in any other system in the whole world. And this is not an emotional statement; it is a scientific, intellectual statement. I collaborate with musicians—Chinese, Brazilian, middle eastern, jazz and rock, western classical and have deep respect for all those musical systems, everything is beautiful, but the precision of the Carnatic approach even melodically is rarely found elsewhere.  

 

What I now played are parent ragas. Look at the derived ragas or the janya ragas, any note you subtract for the parent raga can make it a derived raga. Or any kind of change in the sequence, for example (playing) sa ri ga ma pa da ni sa in Shankarabharanam, if you change the sequence (playing) you still have sa re ga ma pa da ni sa but in a different sequence, sa re ma da ni ga pa sa, then you get Kadanakuthoohalam. So the change of sequence can make it a different raga. And then sometimes you can add a foreign note. That can also make it a different raga.

 

So you can have derived ragas in so many different ways, six notes, five notes or zigzag sequences or foreign notes. So all these again, they have calculated to more than 7.2 million possibilities. So you look at the precision with which they approached music. And this is just one example.

 

Same goes for taalam. In many systems you have the beats of four and three. That is almost universally used in this planet. But in Carnatic music you also have this concept of tala which is also there in Hindustani. You have not only different sets of talas like 108 talas or 72 melakarta talas and all but you also have systems of talas like the seven talas, 35 talas, 175 talas which all work on formula of keeping certain parts of tala constant and certain other parts changing. The part called laghu which is the finger count will keep changing to make 7 into 35 talas and then you can change the pulse rate of each one into five different varieties. You can have 1-2-3-4, 1-2-3-4, 1-2-3-4 or 1-2-3, 1-2-3, 1-2-3, chaturasra, tisra and like this you can have five possibilities in each of those 35 talas to make it 175 talas.

 

So there are so many different possibilities which are mathematically communicable to any student from any part of the world. That is one part of it.

 

Then if you go back 2000 years to Bharata's times, even the way in which they approached the octaves and the way they divided the octaves into so many—22 srutis and all—is a very precise musical experiment. That is really very brilliant.  

 

M.D.M.: Haven’t you written about them in your blog?

N.R.: I have written about some of these things, yes. I have lectured, spoken about them, and worked on and developed some concepts.  

 

M.D.M.: Before we go on to that and also the aspects of the music in this system that allow for collaboration, I would like to ask you about your legacy. What do you consider to be your musical legacy?

N.R.: Number one is of course my own father and guru, and his father and my grandfather, Gotuvadyam Narayan Iyengar. He was a pioneer and took the instrument to great heights. His guru, Sakha Rama Rao was probably responsible for bringing it back on the concert scene and also for conferring the name of gottuvadyam to it. I brought back the original name—chitraveena—that is mentioned in Bharata’s Natyasastra and Sangitaratnakara of Sarangadeva.

 

But in recent times, about 100-150 years back, Sakha Rama Rao used to call the slide—those days they used to have wooden slides, nowadays I use teflon—gottu and the instrument became gottuvadyam. Sakha Rama Rao performed pretty successfully. He also taught my grandfather as well as people like Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer.

 

But my grandfather changed the design. He actually made a lot of modifications to make it a beautiful 21-stringed—sometimes 22-stringed also—instrument with three layers. On the top layer you have six strings, on the side you have three strings for taalam, and 12 sympathetic resonant strings which my grandfather added to make it very resonant and very colourful. And sometimes he used to tune it in a way that also gave it a built-in tanpura effect. So you really don’t need an extra tanpura for this instrument.

 

And there are even critics who have reviewed some of the chitraveena concerts and found it to be similar to a symphony orchestra within itself.

 

So that was the kind of contributions my grandfather did. He standardised the pitch and all that. So that was my heritage.  

 

By 18 years of age or so I was already performing actively on the instrument. I went to Brindamma (T. Brinda [1912–96]) who was a phenomenal musician and she was kind enough to accept me as her disciple. As she was considered to be one of the most inaccessible gurus I was lucky that she accepted me and also taught me for about 10 years. And taught me some of the brilliant masterpieces like Kshetrayya Padams, some of the Dikshitar masterpieces which are very typical of the Dhanammal tradition, compositions of Syama Sastry, Subbaraya Sastry, and many other composers apart from javalis and some thillanas.  

 

 

M.D.M.: Were you playing chitraveena with her or were you learning as a vocalist?

N.R.: I had a spare one which I used to leave in her house but most of the times it would be us singing unless my voice was not okay on a given day. And apart from the repertoire I picked up from her, I also learned from her quality of thinking and the approach itself because Brindamma is known as the most uncompromising traditionalist and she would never waver from her values. And she did this for more than 75 years of her career which is remarkable in any profession actually. Nowadays you compromise for no reason.  

 

As a musician and also as a guru, I have been able to bring into music the kind of approach that she stood for and the microscopic nuances, the subtleties, the grace and the details.  

 

And apart from these two I should also mention people like A. Narayana Iyer, another very good chitraveena artist in his time. He taught me a few compositions. I have been fortunate to have quality time spent with stalwarts like Semmangudi Mama (Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer), M.S.Subbalakshmi, D.K. Pattammal, MLV (M.L. Vasanthakumari [1928-1990]) etc. Many of the stalwarts of that generation who are much senior to me, but they were very generous in sharing their thoughts and perspectives with me.

 

And I have been inspired by all the other great golden era masters before that time whom we all revere—Ariyakudi, GNB, Maharajapuram Vishwanatha Iyer, Alathur Brothers, Mali, many of these other brilliant artists. Mali Sir used to visit my house. In fact, he once even wrote about me in the newspaper.  

 

So there are lot of other stalwarts whom I revered. So in truth I consider all of them as part of my legacy.  

 

 

M.D.M.: There are two ways that you can explain how you have innovated and then brought the legacy accessible and also taken them further. One is relating to the instrument. And you call the innovations or the improvement, navachitraveena. Could you please explain how this is different from your grandfather’s?

N.R.: The navachitraveena is a different instrument itself. In fact, you can see the navachitraveena here (pointing towards the instrument kept at the back). It has a totally different design. It is more like flat resonator. That is what I designed as an instrument. And it was also meant for a different pitch because when I collaborated with the Hindustani artists or even some of the Carnatic artists like Balamurali Sir (Balamuralikrishna) or Semmangudi Mama and other artists, they all would sing in a different pitch than the chitraveena which is generally played in G-sharp. So they would sing in C or B and those kind of pitches. So I designed navachitraveena, keeping in mind those pitches. And it is also more travel friendly of course.

 

Most of the innovations are really nothing but for fulfilling the functional needs actually. Now if you look at the contact mike for instance, there is nothing to be get excited and take credit for introducing it in chitraveena. It is purely functional. In those days my grandfather played mikeless concerts but in this era when the ambient noise is so much, people’s listening sensibility is much less. And so I grew up in the mike era, amplified era. So my plucking technique, everything would automatically be suited to that even though I had played a few mike-less concerts in Europe. But I introduced this kind of electromagnetic and also some of the other, the way in which I have the string arrangement in my navachitraveena, I add an extra of octaves to what the chitraveena already has. So I have introduced those kinds of things. And then of course working with some scientists in the US, I introduced alternate material like teflon for slides.  

 

 

M.D.M.: With reference to the Brindamma and the Dhanammal legacy, is there a role for imagination and individual artists’ innovations? How do you look at that?

N.R.: Carnatic musician has a lot of creativity. If you look at the Dhanammal school, if you see the way they handled raga alaapanas and all that, they would never over-develop anything whether it was ragas or swaras. They focussed and pursued only the essence. So within two to three minutes, they would finish a raga alaapna and leave even stalwarts dumbfounded as to what else could be sung in that raga after that. That sense of completeness that they would bring in to their phrasings was baffling even to seasoned professionals. So that was a completely different approach which is elusive to many people. It is not based on skill, it is not based on technique; it is just based on perception, the gnanam. And that is something very unique to the Dhanammal school. Whereas at the other end of the spectrum you have people like Rajaratnam Pillai and many of these other artists who would develop these ragas for three or four hours. So that is a macroscopic approach.

 

So as an artist I am inspired by both because I went to Brindamma only when I was about 18. Before that I had been listening to a lot of stalwarts. And I was performing a lot too. So I have been inspired by both these approaches. I just go with the flow of my mind when I perform. So probably there is a subconscious influence of all these things in my playing.

 

More than that, how to get some of those thoughts on the instrument is a challenge. So if I were to really take credit for something as my specific imprint on the instrument, it would be for the kind of techniques I have developed on the left hand which enable a much closer expression of certain things which are not normal on this instrument. Now for example, some of the technique with my left hand, the force that is given on certain phrases will have to be different if it has to sound vocal (playing).

 

So for that kind of phrase you need a different kind of force on the left hand to be able to give that same vocal crispness to it.

 

(Playing) This will make it slightly more soggy.

 

(Playing) That kind of things I have developed some of those things, it is more like the natural evolution of the body trying to keep pace with the brain. And then long phrases, sustained phrases which are easy on the voice but then not that easy unless you have breath control (​playing)… These kind of sustained phrases on the instrument are possible partly due to the amplified mike but are largely because of the technique of the left hand.

 

I can do much of this without the mike also.

 

(Playing)

 

So that needs a lot of energy as you can obviously see. It is demanding on the chitraveena  because with all other instruments you use multiple fingers—with flute you use eight, with violin and veena you use at least four—but here the one teflon has to do that. It means the hand speed has to be the highest among all the instruments for chitraveena. It is also because of the length that you have to cover with just one single teflon. So those kind of things evolved after I started trying to bring out more effect from the instrument.

 

And another thing is, the right-hand technique. When you play the lyrics or kalpanaswarams with your right hand, a lot of artists use index finger and the middle finger and also the small finger. But my speciality is in using the ring finger to bring in a little bit of force and also hold down certain things which are not needed. So when I do that in fast speed, it gives a much crisper, tighter feel. The tautness that is required in those sections could be augmented by that kind of technique.

 

(Playing the traditional way with index finger and middle finger).

 

This way it will sound soggy.

 

But if you play with the ring finger like I do it will have a nicer effect.  

 

(Playing)

 

We don’t use it all the time. I use it mostly in symphony but still that is a very important part of chitraveena and I would really recommend it even for veena artists to make the sound tighter.

 

(Playing)

 

The little finger is used for taalam. This is the standard practice followed by a lot of artists. And then to bring the articulation in lyrics, that is something that I am very passionate about also.

 

(Playing 'Mahaganapathim'….)

 

So in 'Mahaganapathim' ……ha is the elongated part; the rest of it has to be damped using the ring finger to make it sound clear.

 

(Playing)

 

These kinds of techniques enhanced the reputation of the chitraveena as a singing instrument with a lot of vocal capabilities. So listening to the chitraveena is almost similar to listening to a vocal concert. That is the beauty of the instrument. It gives that kind of scope. We have tried to draw more from the instrument to make sure that we are as true to the music as we possibly can be.

 

 

M.D.M.: Can you tell about your repertoire? It is obviously very large. It is amazing. But how much of it you get to play, how much of it you get to experiment and what kind of legacy you pass on to your students?

N.R.: Well, I personally think that any good musician in Carnatic should have a very good repertoire of master composers, be it Purandaradasa, Thyagaraja, Dikshitar, Oothukkadu Venkata Kavi, Syama Sastry and some of the later composers like Maha Vaidyanatha Sivan, Mysore Sadasiva Rao, Vasudevacharya and others. Even Arunagirinathar and some of the Alvars, I would say even a bit of Nayanmars’ works and all that.

 

I personally think that it is better if you build your repertoire with legendary composers’ works drawn from authentic sources. The pedigree of your repertoire also matters. So if you have that, if you learn core compositions which are really rich, classically evocative or weighty ragas, then a repertoire of about 500 to 600 compositions is very good. Be it the ragas like Sahana, Kambhoji, Nattakurinji, Devagandhari, Ahiri etc or the ones like Sankarabharanam, Todi, Kalyani, Bhairavi, Kamboji etc. Especially if that is your anchor, then you know the superstructure can be a lot of brilliant ragas, colourful ragas, popular ragas, all these kinds of things that Carnatic music has in abundance.

 

In my case, my father, whose repertoire is very extensive, taught me at least 500 compositions by the time I was about five or so. He taught me almost 55-60 varnams which is substantial in general terms. And then from the time I was like six or eight years of age, I started learning from other great sources also. Till then I learned from only one style. This is also another very important thing. You have to learn your core repertoire from one style. For at least for five to seven years you should be exposed to one style only; only then your own style will get formed.

 

And then after that whatever you draw from other sources will only augment it and not confuse or dilute or pollute it. So in that case, then I started learning from other great masters like Ariyakudi (Ariyakudi Ramanuja Iyengar, 1890–1967), Madurai Mani (Madurai Mani Iyer, 1912–68) and G.N.B (G.N. Balasubramaniam [1910-1965]) and also so many recordings from which I was inspired. So those also added to my repertoire. Today if you add my own 700 compositions or so, then of course, my repertoire will be somewhere close to 1800 or something.  

 

But more than that, the kind of quality repertoire that I receive from those great composers opened my eyes to not just musical and rhythmic appreciation but also lyrical appreciation, and gave me great insight. I was fascinated by Oothukkadu Venkata Kavi’s compositions. I was in a position to be able to assess the quality of the compositions mainly because of the weight of what I had learnt already because I didn’t get exposed to the poet till I was almost 18, but of course, that is another story.

 

 

M.D.M.: You have published a book on Oothukkadu Venkata Kavi, haven’t you?   

N.R.: I have actually published a book on Oothukkadu Venkata Kavi’s life and contributions, it is more like a study of his works. I just shared some of my findings. I have produced books. My Appreciating Carnatic Music is probably one of the very first books on Carnatic music appreciation, and for this, R.K. Narayan was kind enough to read the proofs, and his brother, R.K. Lakshman did the cover design.

 

Then of course, I also wrote books for music students called Perfecting Carnatic Music. It is part of a series of books which I have been authoring and also a series of video lessons. I pioneered this tele-teaching concept in 1996 because I found so many passionate students across the world who didn’t have access to quality guidance. They had passion and talent, so the third thing that is needed is direction which I was able to give through my concept of tele-teaching.

 

And then of course now a lot of other musicians and gurus also follow that model and teach on skype. When I started, there was no skype. So my books are generally now also complimented with video lessons which I have taught in different workshops. Students all over the world are using those lessons.

 

 

M.D.M.: You collaborated with Thavil Bhajana Mandalam and held duet concerts. Isn’t that an unusual combination?

 

N.R.: Yes, chitraveena and thavil is a unique combination. You don’t generally have that.  Thavil accompanying a veena family is not common at all because the latter is a much softer instrument and the former is a much louder instrument by nature. Thavil is a more outdoors kind of instrument.  But of course nowadays with amplification, the performance can be audio-balanced to make it work but only if the artist is a quality artist. Palanivel Sir (Haridhwaramangalam A.K. Palanivel), of course, is a legend in his own right. So performing with him opens up scope for exploration for all the artists on stage.

 

 

M.D.M.: How do you see those possibilities in collaborations opening up?

 

N.R.: We have seen certain possibilities in the concept of melody itself in Sangam literature. Those people had a lot of different concepts—musicological concepts—that probably were a little ahead of the Aryan Sanskrit culture in some ways. The rhythmic possibilities in thavil are very different because in some of the ways in which they approach rhythm, they really go more by the time spacing rather than just by fractional thinking of whole numbers.  

 

For example, take tagadhimi tagadhimi…….1234 1234 1234—everything happening per beat. 123 123 123 123. Here also it is happening per beat. So you are having three in the space of four. If you are doing 1234 1234 1234 12 12 123 123 12 3 12 3, that means you are doing three over two beats, that means 1½ per beat, and so now if you extend that, in the thavil they will keep extending these. So 1234 1234 1234 1234 123 123 123 123 1234 1234 1234—upto this everybody can be with them. 1234 1234 1234—again you are having three per beat but you are saying four. Instead of 3x4, you are saying 4x3 but it is still 12 units only over the four beats, which is precise.

 

But in the thavil within the space of 1234 1234 1234, they will start saying 5, 7, 9 in that space. So their concept is more based on spacing. 1234 1234 12345 12345 12345 12345—if you start saying it like that, that means 15 over four beats, which means 3¾ for every beat which is not a precise number that you can have a repeat.

 

They will work within that space of four and then they will take everything forward from there. That is a different approach. I know both these approaches, the precise—fractional or whole number-based—approaches, as well as the thavil's time-based approach. So when I play with any thavil artist, sometimes I may just demonstrate the possibility just as a sampler.

 

M.D.M.: Could you elaborate on your efforts to globalise Carnatic music?

 

N.R.: The first global collaboration I did with international artists was in 1987. At that time I had been invited to the Festival of India in Switzerland. Dr. L. Subramaniam who was the art director of that festival told me that an American pop musician was coming to Switzerland at the time and he was planning a fusion album with him. He asked me if I would be able to play for it. So I played a bit for the album. The American musician played clarinet. Palanivel Sir was also in that tour with us. And then we had Subash Chandran, Vinayakram sir (T.H. Vinayakram) and so many others in that album apart from L.Subramaniam Sir. And so that was one of my early collaborations.

 

And then again I collaborated with several jazz blues artists like Taj Mahal who is a brilliant musician. And then with several other artists like Martin Simpson, and artists from Persian culture like Hossein Alizadeh and all. But even when I was actively participating in such collaborations all the while I was thinking how different the eastern and western approaches to music are.  

 

Now if you listen to western music with an Indian ear, then you have this reservation in your mind all the time. When you listen to Mozart or Beethoven or other such composers, you really appreciate the beauty of it, but then you cannot really anchor it on any one particular raga. They sing the keys and the chords change and so everything change. So just because you think that the major scale is Sankarabharanam or minor scale is Keeravani, it doesn’t mean that the whole piece will be based on the same raga only. It will keep changing from our musical perspective. But if you are looking at it from western standpoint, it is perfectly fantastic in harmony. 

 

So I wanted to create a system called Melharmony which will explore harmony with melodic progressions. Western music explores harmony with harmonic progressions because they have what is known as thought progressions, but here I wanted to bring the Indian raga rules and create new types of harmony. The melodic progressions of our ragas are extremely well-defined and rigorous in their approach. So this is something which I have been doing in the last 15-16 years.

 

I started with Melharmony in the year 2000 with a collaboration with the artists of the BBC Philharmonic in the UK. Luckily they were open to it. But whatever I did then was very rudimentary.

 

Later on I developed it more. It is still an evolving field as there is no end to this. So far I have been able to explore ragas like Nattai, Kharaharapriya, Kalyani, Kapi and Saraswati. And then I also worked with compositions of great composers like Dikshitar, Oothukkadu Venkata Kavi, Thyagaraja, Karur brothers and all. So I have been able to arrange some of those compositions and introduce them to the western orchestras like BBC Philharmonic or the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra and others.

 

I work with jazz and rock artists also. So I am trying to bring different ragas and different composers into the western repertoire. And so we have had festivals like Thyagaraja-Mozart festival, Oothukkadu Venkata Kavi-Bach festival and Dikshitar-Beethoven festival. So the repertoire of both the composers in the title are presented. So for the first time the compositions of these great composers are being performed globally by non-Indian artists and orchestras.  

 

So my idea is to arrange these compositions melharmonically so that any traditional western artist or even classical artist should be able to handle these pieces just like they would be able to handle any other composition.

 

I believe that the melodic quality of our composers is phenomenal. So if you just augment it with some harmony without changing the melodic beauty and structure or the integrity of the piece and with no compromise on the values of the Carnatic system, then I think it can really enrich world music.  

 

And similarly for our Indian listeners, they will be able to listen to Dikshitar or Thyagaraja in a grand orchestra setting other than the solo structural way of recitals. So I think it will enrich both the systems. I collaborate with western composers to make sure that what I am doing is also palatable to the western ears.

 

 

M.D.M.: One last question, tell us something about your disciples.

N.R.: Well, I started teaching from very early on. In fact, my very first disciple was my own mother. She used to take some lessons from me. She was very passionate about music. But of course I was only five or six at the time and if she made any mistake, I used to tease her so much that she would be offended. I started to teach a lot more seriously since my teens. Some of my disciples have been doing reasonably fine. A lot of talent across the world.

 

I believe that if they want to consider themselves as having contributed to the art, they should get to the top and stay there for at least 30-40 years. Only then I will be satisfied as a guru. Many of them show lots of promise whether it is in vocal or in instruments like chitraveena, violin, flute, guitar, keyboard etc. I have students from states like Gujarat, Punjab, Bengal etc. That they are all interested in learning Carnatic music is very heartening.

 

And then of course people from other countries like Slovenia, Canada, the US, Japan, Korea etc, also come and learn Carnatic music. It is very nice. Some of them are professionals in other musical systems but they come here for more insights into music. So that is also very nice.

 

I think the same things that apply to students of any other art form are applicable to my disciples too. They have to have passion, consistency, focus and discipline and also they have to work hard and perform well.

 

M.D.M.: Thank you so much.