The Qs – Gundecha Brothers

Interviewed Dhrupad artists, the Gundecha Brothers, for Aalaap’s The Qs.

Gundecha Brothers, Dhrupad Artistes
Dhrupad is like the mighty Himalayas. We are literally tiny men in front of it

 

41_qs_original_7048

What is the purpose or intent of Dhrupad?

Umakant Gundecha: Dhrupad is the search of the ultimate, the search for a true sound, the eternal sound, the sound of the cosmos. Dhrupad is Nada Yoga – the yoga of sound. It is the best way to get yourself into a calm, peaceful state of mind.

Ramakant Gundecha: In Dhrupad, we sing the notes in their pure form. Both the performers as well as the listeners experience the life energy in these notes. Dhrupad is therefore really about going deep into the essence of everything, including oneself. You can see yourself through Dhrupad.

How did Dhrupad happen to you?

Umakant Gundecha: We strongly believe that destiny decides what one pursues and accomplishes. We were exposed to different forms of classical music while pursuing our Master’s degree at the Khairagarh University in Chattisgarh. We realised there that Dhrupad is a true representative of what Indian classical music stands for. By the grace of God, we then got an opportunity to learn Dhrupad under the guru-sishya parampara from the legendary Ustad Zia Fariduddin Dagar and Ustad Zia Mohiuddin Dagar, courtesy a scholarship from the government of Madhya Pradesh. We have been wedded to Dhrupad since then.

But how did singing together happen?

Ramakant:Honestly, we have always been singing together right from our childhood, be it bhajans or old Hindi movie songs. In 1969, when I was just nine, and Umakant was 11, we joined the Madhav Music College in Ujjain together. We were in the same class all the time. We trained together under our gurus, Master Ram Narayan Jina, Pandit Pramod Shastri and Pandit Ramakant Dubey.

Akhilesh, my youngest brother, also pursued his Master’s degree in vocal music but was very interested in rhythm. He took to the pakhawaj (percussion) so that we can all perform together as one unit – three bodies, one music.

So Dhrupad’s in the family! If Dhrupad were a personality, how then would you describe it?

Ramakant: Dhrupad is the emperor of music. It is omniscient and omnipresent. It has a majestic personality.

Umakant: The style of Dhrupad we sing is called “sadharani geeti” and was formulated by Ustad Zakiruddin Khan by amalgamating seven different styles of singing that existed during the Vedic period. This innovative amalgamation makes it a complete musical personality and in a sense, a fantastic representation of Indian classical music in its purest form.

What about your individual personalities? Are you, in a sense, similar by virtue of engaging with the same kind of music?

Umakant: You can say we are almost similar simply because we live, travel and sing together all the time. However, we allow ourselves the freedom to explore our individual musical personalities while performing, but within the framework of Dhrupad.

As siblings, we understand each other very well. There is no conflict of egos. We may be three bodies but we have a unified musical soul. There is only one performance. Keeping this in mind, each of us is free to explore his musical personality and perform well. In the end, the Gundecha Brothers benefits as a whole, not Umakant or Ramakant or Akhilesh Gundecha individually

How similar or different are your personalities in comparison to that of Dhrupad? Do you see parallels between the art from and who you are as people?

Ramakant: If you are true to the art you pursue, it will certainly reflect in your personality. Our case is no different. Dhrupad is our life. We are immersed in it all the time.

Umakant: Dhrupad is like the mighty Himalayas. We are literally tiny men in front of it.

Talk to us about the role of sibling dynamics during a performance?

Ramakant: : As siblings, we understand each other very well. There is no conflict of egos. We may be three bodies but we have a unified musical soul. There is only one performance. Keeping this in mind, each of us is free to explore his musical personality and perform well. In the end, the Gundecha Brothers benefits as a whole, not Umakant or Ramakant or Akhilesh Gundecha individually.

How does it work in the parts where improvisation is required and there are two people singing and not one?

Ramakant: Improvising in duets is certainly not easy, though it does have its advantages. When we sing individually, we can improvise the way we want. But when we sing together, our wavelengths have to match perfectly. Any difference can be spotted very easily. Once that synchronisation is achieved, things become easy. We complement each other. We get inspired by each other and this helps us improvise better.

What are your unique strengths? How do you draw upon them?

Umakant: Human voice is really God-given. We have different voices. Our musical personalities get expressed through our voices. We may be singing the same piece but it will appear different because our individual vocal characteristics vary. We try to use our voices in a way that results overall in the best possible musical output.
Ramakant: We introduced the concept of “swar samvaad” in duet singing in Dhrupad. In this, we converse with each other while exploiting the consonance among different musical notes.
Umakant: In addition to music, we also converse with the audiences via “hasta mudras” (hand gestures), our facial expressions and our eyes. These aspects help us further clarify our musical thoughts to our audiences.

Having performed together for so many years now, what are some key aspects you value in your partnership?

Ramakant: We value every single thing in our partnership. But Dhrupad is what we value the most. Many siblings pursue their own different paths. It is Dhrupad that has kept us together.
AniChoyingDrolma

Is there competition in your companionship?

Ramakant: Of course. There is healthy competition. We would like to term it as inspiration. Collaborations cannot go on for long unless people keep getting inspired by each other. This inspiration along with mutual understanding and lack of individual ego is what keeps us going.

What impact has Dhrupad had on your lives? Are there any qualities of the genre that have become a way of life for you?

Ramakant: We have been performing Dhrupad for about 36 years now. It has had a deep impact on us. If you involve yourself in any art form with complete dedication, it changes your life. We can certainly feel the way things have changed in our life. Our thinking, our philosophy, our lifestyle – everything is impacted by Dhrupad.
Umakant: Music has both attraction and attention value. Attraction exists for a short period of time. Attention value is what lasts long. We pursue the attention value in Dhrupad and in everything else.

Is the pace of your lives in Bhopal similar to that of a Dhrupad – slow and languid – performance? Is that why you chose that as a place to settle down?

Umakant: Yes. We originally come from the city Ujjain which has a totally different pace and lifestyle. We got a lot of opportunities to shift our base in the early days of our career to Mumbai or Delhi. Even our teacher told us to shift to Mumbai in the early 1980s. But we couldn’t bring ourselves to leave Bhopal.
Ramakant:We are totally in love with Bhopal. It is a beautiful city with less of unwanted elements like pollution and traffic and more of things we love like greenery, lakes and hills. It is centrally located in India and well-connected to other places. The ups and downs of the city’s topography are in sync with that of the music. Our life in Bhopal is in complete harmony with our inner sense for music and for Dhrupad. It is very difficult to describe this completely in words. In short, we feel Dhrupad is the best music and Bhopal is the best place to live and pursue it in the plains.

How amenable is Dhrupad to collaboration with other styles of music? What has to be retained and what, if any, changed?

Umakant:Dhrupad encompasses everything. As a performer of this art form, one should have the vision to see everything in Dhrupad and from the perspective of Dhrupad. It is your window to the world. Once you do that, you can experiment by remaining within the framework of Dhrupad. Nothing has to change in Dhrupad in collaborations. If something changes, it ceases to remain Dhrupad.

Is that how you have managed to blend purity and progress so well?

Ramakant:I think we are the Dhrupad musicians who have collaborated the most with other art forms. People may come to these collaborations with a primary exposure to some other art form. But once they get in, they experience Dhrupad and it inhabits their mind space. To do this, we do not dilute or pollute Dhrupad in any way. We interact with other art forms, but only from within the framework of Dhrupad.

Do you ever encounter a conflict between maintaining this persona vs making any tweaks for commercial success?

Umakant: Commercial success has never been our priority. We are fully aware that we have a limited audience, but one that is growing every day. Dilution or pollution of the art form may accelerate this growth and make us more successful commercially. But we will never even attempt it. We want to preserve the sanctity of Dhrupad. Dhrupad’s greatness will eventually make everyone listen to it.

You teach this art form to a lot of students. Are you able to inculcate this in your students?

Umakant: It is definitely a challenge. We have been teaching students from more than 30 countries in the residential programme at our institution, our Dhrupad Gurukul in Bhopal. We treat them like our children. We help needy students with scholarships. We strongly believe in the guru-shishya parampara and teach students one-on-one. This helps us focus, assess the quality of a student well, and bring out the best. We believe this helps us inculcate in our students, the values we stand for.
Ramakant:Our Dhrupad Gurukul is the only one-of-its kind in the world. About 50 students from many States of India and abroad learn from us under the guru-shishya parampara. We have trained about 25 young competent Dhrupad musicians from our gurukul. Every year, we organise the Dhrupad Utsav, a festival that showcases the best of young talents in Dhrupad today.

What legacy would you like to leave behind?

Umakant: All the work we do, whether we teach or perform, is aimed at passing on the tradition we have received from our gurus to future generations. Dhrupad should exist till the cosmos does, and we strongly believe it will.

Shiva Shiva Shiva Shankara – Dhrupad by Gundecha Brothers at Idea Jalsa presented by Art and Artistes

 

The Qs – Ramana Balachandhran

Interviewed prodigious veena artist Ramana Balachandhran for Aalaap’s The Qs.

Ramana Balachandhran, Veena artiste
“The veena is my second voice”
RamanaPhoto2

Did you choose the veena or did the veena choose you?

I would say the veena chose me.

What are your early memories with the veena? What about the instrument fascinated you the most?

My earliest memories are of playfully upsetting the tuning pegs on the veena while my mother played on it. I also remember calling my mother’s veena teacher by a name based on the compositions she taught. One week she would be “Shri Kanthimathim” teacher. The next week she would be “Ganamurthe” teacher.

The thing that fascinated me the most about the veena was the fact that it could mimic whatever I did with my voice.

At what point did you decide you are going to be a veena player?

I didn’t decide. It just happened.

Much before I started playing the veena, my parents observed that I was able to understand music and its nuances. My entry into music was through vocal music that I learnt from my mother Smt. Sharanya Balachandran and mridangam lessons that I started with Shri Satyakumar. I continue to learn vocal from Smt Neela Ramgopal and mridangam from Shri Ranganatha Chakravarthy.

When I was about nine, my mother discovered that without any formal veena training, I was able to easily play musical phrases that she felt required training and effort. She then decided to put me under the tutelage of her guru Smt. B. Nagalakshmi, the granddaughter of the legendary Karaikudi Subbarama Iyer. I have been wedded to the veena since.

Do you continue to play the mridangam?

I was playing mridangam in concerts till about three years back. I stopped only to focus on the veena. It’s a challenge to play the mridangam without impacting the sensitivity requirements of my veena-playing fingers. I am trying to figure out how much I can play the mridangam without compromising on my veena playing.

I continue to be very interested in aspects of layam (rhythm) though. Laya has different connotations in different aspects of music. It varies across tanam, compositions, swaraprasthara, ragam-tanam-pallavis, etc. I am very interested in the complexities of ragam-tanam-pallavis too.

Over the years of constant rigour with the veena, do you think you, in a sense, own the instrument? What is that feeling of ownership like? Can you describe it?

The veena is my second voice. It gives me one more avenue to express my music. I have never considered it a separate entity. It’s an integral part of me.

Is your relationship with the veena very personal?

I am in love with the veena and completely lose myself when I play it.

You are being touted as prodigious in your prowess with the veena. How does that feel?

I try not to give this any thought. My focus is on trying to constantly improve my music and my technique.

Being talented is one thing but acquiring mastery over an instrument, quite another. Have you had to work a lot on that?

Definitely. It needs a lot of focussed hard work.

So, what is your practise routine like?

My practice routine involves identifying specific aspects of development and working in-depth on them. I work very closely with my father, especially on the manodharma (improvisatory) aspects. He learnt music for a decade in Madurai. His last guru there was Shri Sivasailam Iyer. He then learnt in Chennai from the legend Dr M. Balamuralikrishna.

Since the veena is an instrument, the playing technique is very important and I work on that as well. We also work on developing insights such as whether the musical phrase I am articulating is in sync with the larger musical context. The overall bhava comes from both the music as well as the lyrics. Understanding the meaning of the lyrics is therefore also very important to me. Each of these areas is like a huge ocean in itself.

Do you ever get tired of practice? Or is it your escape route?

Physically, yes. Musically, never.

I listen to good music when I get physically tired.

Music is definitely one of my escape routes. But not the only one.

If you had to pick one specific area of development as the topmost priority, which one would it be?

Carnatic music has been and continues to be enriched by the contributions of great practitioners of the art form. There are aspects that are highly developed and have acquired sophistication in vocal as well as instrumental music that enrich the core musical expression. I am in the process of understanding these inspirational developments in vocal and other instruments and bringing them into the expressive fold of the veena. An attempt to produce what my dad often refers to as “rounded musicality”.

In almost all of your concerts, one sees a fearless explorer who doesn’t seem to be worried about getting into uncharted waters. The music keeps flowing unimpeded in the middle of all the exploration. How do you make that happen every time?

I train with my father to be able to do what you are referring to every time I perform. The basic idea is to create a mood on stage that enables me to keep the flow going while spontaneously discovering something new. It is important to break down specific barriers to unravel such surprises. I will be very happy if there are at least two or three such moments of discovery in every concert of mine.

I rely on my musicality to start the flow. Once in flow, the sadhana one has done ensures a seamless translation of musical intent to musical expression without any loss or impediment.

Is there an “ideal veena sound”?

There is no consensus on what the ideal veena sound is. Pluck oriented (or right hand oriented) styles differ from gamaka and sahitya oriented (or left hand oriented) styles in their miking requirements. Mine is a left hand oriented style and requires sensitive miking. Magnetic pickups provide sensitivity but at the same time make the instrument sound synthetic. Though some of the much loved tones in the concert circuit are almost fully magnetic we continue our experiments to find a balance between the magnetic and acoustic components. It was a surprise for us to learn that some experienced sound engineers even consider the “noise” from left hand movement to be “natural” and want some of it. So, there is no such thing called the ideal veena sound at this point, as we understand it.

You have been home-schooled; was that a conscious decision to let you nurture your talent? If yes, in hindsight, are you happy about it?

Music had nothing to do with my parents’ decision to home school me. The conventional way of schooling, which I pursued till my fifth standard, usually prioritizes academics and thus doesn’t help nurture any other natural talent. My parents were not in sync with the ‘herd instinct’ that gets built in such institutionalized academic platforms. They researched a lot on the alternatives possible.

Home schooling helps you spend more time on subjects you love and helps you learn them deeper. A school bell no longer decides what subject you study and for how much time. You could start with basic mathematics and reach logarithms in no time! There are no barriers!

Even on the academics’ front, we figured out that the depth and pace of learning is significantly enhanced by home-schooling and relying on one’s own devices to learn. My tenth standard results are a testimony to this. I am very happy about getting home-schooled as it has helped me focus and spend more time on the areas I love. It has definitely been a big boon to my musical pursuits.

What differences do you see in your upbringing compared to other kids of your age?

There is much to learn, even beyond academic and musical pursuits. I have had exposure to a variety of areas and have met great achievers in different walks of life. I am not sure if my peers are as fortunate.

How has this shaped your thinking and your musical abilities?

All this has taught me that internal maturity and growth is what matters. External things are incidental. One of the dangers of being in performing arts is that you could very easily get surrounded by rasikas who heap praises on the good things in your art. Though they may do so out of sheer goodwill and their love for you, you may get trapped inside a bubble.

I keep meeting people who do such great work in areas as diverse as music and afforestation. These people do not care about fame or adulation. I have been fortunate to meet sages and great souls in Thiruvannamalai. All these people are a blessing to humanity. They inspire me everyday and help me stay grounded.

Thiruvannamalai is the perfect antidote to any little ego that can ever develop inside you.

What is your day like, of late?

My day usually starts with doing sandhyavandanam (a daily ritual) and physical exercises. Academic pursuits are definitely a priority and I try to finish the day’s share first. The rest of the day is dedicated to music. I also love to go on walks and spend time pursuing my other interests like doing science experiments, watching magic videos and performing magic.

My family spends time between Bengaluru and Thiruvannamalai. When in Thiruvannamalai, I spend a lot of time at the Ramanashramam where I also chant the vedas. Sometimes, I climb the Arunachala hill, go for tree plantation or visit the local farm school.

AniChoyingDrolma

Who do you create music for?

I am trying to understand the balance between the need for an artiste to play for himself and his responsibility towards the rasikas and audience.

What do you prefer – the comfort of your home or the limelight of an audience? Why?

The stage is like a second home. Since I started performing at a very early age, I am equally at ease in both places.

Having said that, I do enjoy the unbridled freedom I get at home to try out whatever I want to.

As a young musician, what do you think are integral qualities to becoming a performer? Have you had to work on that or does that come naturally too?

The first and the foremost is to have an open mind to learn. There is something to learn everywhere. Having your parents to mentor and guide you is also very helpful. It’s so easy to go astray otherwise. It is important to also listen to and meet other musicians. You get so many different perspectives. It shapes your personality. Exposure to a place like Thiruvannamalai is very important. It makes you realize that you are never too big for anything.

How easy is it to pursue a career performing the veena?

I am 16 now and still some years away from making a career choice, though veena playing is what I pursue most seriously today. I am told pursuing a career as a veena artiste is not easy. Traveling with a fragile, unwieldy instrument like the veena is difficult. The common view is that the number of opportunities as well as the audience turnout for Carnatic classical instrumental music is less than that for vocal music.

Having said that, I am definitely encouraged by the audience turnout as well as by their involvement in my performances. I feel blessed that senior musicians and connoisseurs take the time to attend my performances and share their feedback. I am also very fortunate that my parents support me in every way possible.

Where do you see yourself and the veena five years from now?

Hopefully as a musician who has improved further after 5 more years of practice.

Also, most of the audience for veena concerts today comprises of people who love the instrument. I hope musicians and rasikas will eventually flock veena concerts not only to support the instrument or for their love of it but also for the all-round musical content they get from such performances.

Your favourite adjective to describe the veena?

My love. My life

 

The Qs – Abhishek Raghuram

Interviewed Carnatic musician Abhishek Raghuram for Aalaap’s The Qs.

 

SRI_2458

Carnatic music seems like an exhaustive encyclopaedia. Is there more to be created?

Carnatic music is a vast ocean. The body of work created by the great practitioners of this art form is like an ocean within this ocean. It serves as the perfect reference point for us, and provides us the required clarity when we are faced with any questions or doubts. We must never forget this throughout our musical journey. For me, personally, it is a big boon to be able to access their work, listen to it and get inspired.

Constructive and smart usage of this treasure – handed over to us by these masters – is very important for this art form. I am sometimes reminded of how difficult it would have been during the times of my grandfather and his peers without such resources at their disposal.

Whatever the yesteryear legends have created in those times is simply mind-boggling. I feel a majority of what we do today is discovering and exploring whatever has been already created by them.

 

As the grandson of the legendary Palghat Sri Raghu, what would you describe as the “Raghu effect” on you?

It is indeed one of my greatest blessings that I was born as the grandson of Padma Shri Palghat Raghu and could spend more than 20 years living with him.

The “Raghu effect”, if I may say, is one that has a great intensity, an unrelenting sense of involvement in any action, in-depth analysis of anything right to the very core, and effective application of one’s skill and knowledge.

What is special to you about the music created by Sri Raghu and by your grand uncle Lalgudi Sri G Jayaraman?

They were “Naadayogis”. The landscape of Carnatic music they created on their respective instruments was the most beautiful thing I have ever witnessed in my life. They were like water, turning themselves into the shape of the lead musician they accompanied, thereby creating blissful music in unison.

 

If you have to name one great master of Carnatic music in recent times whose music has impacted you the most, who would that be?

Sri U Srinivas, undoubtedly. I was privileged to attend many of his live concerts. His music impacted me every single time I listened to it. It had something godly about it. Something inexplicably disturbing and reverberating. Even the strum of a single note had so much life in it. He shared a special relationship with my grandfather, Palghat Sri Raghu. They used to enjoy making music together on stage.

 

When did you discover the joy of creating?

I was exposed to and used to listen to a lot of Carnatic music even as a toddler. I used to try and imitate whatever the great masters sang. Simply by way of listening to a lot of music, I was not only able to sing the compositions but also try improvising.

 

Everyone seems to be so curious about your creativity. Is it spontaneous or is it something you have worked on consciously?

Personally, I am not aware when creation happens and what we can label as creativity. Creativity is the perspective of the onlooker and may not really matter to the practitioner. While singing, I do not consciously think if I have done something creative. I just keep singing.

This music gives you the room for both spontaneous as well as meticulously planned creations!

 

Is being creative almost a part of your personality?

It completes every artiste’s personality

 

What inspires you to create?

Any creation is born out of inspiration. This inspiration can be anything. It can be any music I have listened to. The inspiration for a korvai (rhythmic composition) could be a film song.

The key here is to have a strong capability to listen. Listening in the true sense of the word… It is important to listen with an open mind, without any prejudice. You must not let any bias stemming from your upbringing, culture, moral code of conduct or anything else, come in the way of your listening. It is only then that you will allow yourself to get inspired.

Only when you allow yourself to be inspired will the art inside you grow.

 

Can you please take us through your creative process? How do you go about it? What is going on in your mind while you are at it?

Practice the art form and creativity will happen as a by-product.

Many great masters have spoken about practicing Carnatic music. At different stages, we may practice with specific goals in our mind like becoming stronger in the fundamentals, learning a new song, presenting a concert well, exploring certain challenging areas, and so on. But beyond all this, I feel it is important to practice the art form for the sheer joy it gives.

It is like penance. Like chanting a mantra repeatedly. There is creativity and joy in practising the same thing over and over again. The art of practising has to evolve and cannot be mechanical.

Since I am a vocalist, my practice focusses on both my voice as well as my music. Understanding your voice and discovering what you can do with it is as satisfying as understanding the music itself.

 

If the art of practising music is a penance, does it require a certain kind of immersion? Do you get lost in it?

Absolutely. Immersion in the art form is very important. It happens when practicing music becomes second nature. Great masters use the word “siddhi”. It can be attained only by immersion. And you do want to get lost in it. Don’t you?

 

What is it that you get lost in?

Pretty tough to say.

Carnatic music exists both in the realm of sound as well as content. In most cases content seems to be the after taste of sound.

 

What is your personal takeaway from creating something?

The music itself, its various contours and how it enables me to do many things.

 

Is there a limit to creativity?

Creativity and limits are opposites. Limiting creativity is an oxymoron.

 

When do you feel you can actually stop? When do you feel you have a satisfactory version created?

Never. I think what any musician aspires to achieve is to produce the optimal sound possible with the apparatus they have. As a musician you never reach an optimum.

 

What about creativity when you compose music?

Let us analyse what composing is. Don’t you think it is the counterpunch of all that you have assimilated or have been influenced by, till that moment? So where is the creation really taking place? During the assimilation or during the composing?

 

What makes a composition creative?

The sound – the most basic thing.

If I am composing a korvai, it must be good to listen to while singing or while playing on an instrument. A pallavi I compose could be complex; but it is of no use if it is not good to hear. However, what must not end up happening is one composing only simple things because they are pleasant to hear. What one composes can be complicated but good to hear as well. That is where the beauty lies. Great compositions are like that.
Abhishek_The-Qs_Story-Link

How do you plan for your performances? What goes into the song selection?

Generally, I do not plan much in advance for my concerts. In most cases, my song selection for a concert depends on factors like the condition of my voice on that day, the acoustics of the venue I am performing in and the composition of my team on-stage.

I generally like to sing throughout the day, whether I have a concert or not. What I practice may not be specific to what I plan to sing in a concert.

 

Will singing so much in a day not strain your voice?

It is an occupational hazard. If you sing, you will strain your voice.

To sing well, your mind should be relaxed and at peace. You need to manage your voice well. For example, the moment you know your voice is getting strained at some place, you have to introspect, take care and make the necessary changes. Else, your voice can get damaged. The awareness of how my voice is reacting to what I do is very important.

 

What does a day in Abhishek Raghuram’s life look like?

Each day is very different.

The most satisfactory day is when I get to sing endlessly and not do anything else, taking only the mandatory breaks, say for eating and sleeping.

The worst are the days when I have to talk a lot. Talking is really bad for a singer’s voice and strains it a lot. Messaging facilities make life easier sometimes.

 

What about the world outside fascinates you?

The fact that it can survive without my music!

 

Is music always on your mind?

No. But when music is on my mind, nothing else is.

 

Source: http://theaalaap.com/site/theqs/AbhishekRaghuram#

 

 

The Qs – Sai Shravanam

Interviewed ace sound designer and musician Sai Shravanam for Aalaap’s The Qs.

 

Over the years of dabbling in music, both as a musician and an engineer, how would you qualify your relationship with sound?

I’m afraid I find it difficult to split my personality into these halves – musician and engineer. Both co-exist within me. I don’t see them as two different aspects. I think of myself simply as an artiste; as a musician, I create music, as an engineer, I sculpt sound. Honestly, an engineer or a scientist for that matter is also an artiste. Take the microphone, for example. A great deal of passion and science goes into crafting a good microphone. For me, a microphone is like an instrument.

Talking of sound, I think all sounds have music. When sound comes in a particular harmonic order that is pleasant on the ears, we call it music. When it is not – like the sound of a machine or a rattle – we call it noise. But if I were to isolate the noise, there is music in that too. The other thing is, what we consider music or noise is based on one’s own perception, right? For me, an exhaust fan emits sound in a specific rhythm; the hum from a ceiling fan sounds like base pitch to me. To someone else, it may be just noise.

 

But because of a sound understanding of the notion of sound itself, are you almost always making music out of sound?

I guess so. When I am in a car and I hear a bump, I immediately start to think about its corresponding frequency. If we are on a road trip and my wife feels nauseous due to the road hum on the highways, I automatically think about the frequency of the hum and why it could cause this.

A few years ago, JK Tyres wanted me to train their scientists to identify noise and rumble from the tyre by using their ears instead of instruments. You see, for JK Tyres, the sound of the tyre is actually music. So yes, I think everything in life has a sound of its own.

 

What is the sound of your studio? Is there a sound within that silence?

Sound and silence are polar opposites. There is no sound without silence. It is like how we wouldn’t know the colour black if we didn’t know the colour white.

Silence is what helps us distinguish between the two musical notes. Silence, in fact, is the greatest part of music. It contributes so much to music and to sound. Silence gives us a point of reference. In engineering, silence is what enables us to understand the ratio of the signal level to the silence.

Sound and silence are polar opposites. There is no sound without silence. It is like how we wouldn’t know the colour black if we didn’t know the colour white

Has the process of creating soundscapes become easier for you because you are an engineer who has a keen understanding of music? Are artistes open to your suggestions?

As a sound engineer, I have a great responsibility of bringing out the best in artistes. An artiste may pass away one day but his or her music will live eternally. Whose responsibility is it then to make sure the music recorded lives past, beyond an artiste’s life and is in a way timeless? Whose duty is it to make sure the brilliant musicians I record sound the best to their audience? It is entirely mine – the responsibility of the person sitting on this chair of the sound engineer.

As a musician, I understand music and try to get the best out of the musician whose music we are recording. It is similar to shooting a film. An actor may be acting very naturally, but something else may not work, and we end up having to re-take. Musicians may end up recording for long hours and get tired. Sometimes, they may be inspired by other musicians and outdo themselves; sometimes, I have to be that inspiration to help them bring out their best.

My role is often to look at the content dispassionately and keep re-recording until I am convinced of the quality of the output. In the process, sometimes I end up straining my relationship with artistes. There are cases where people have advised me to just do my job of recording and allow them to do their job of performing. There are even cases where artistes have walked out of my studio.

Initially, back in the day, I’d be very involved with all my recordings. I’d offer suggestions, aplenty. Some artistes liked it, some didn’t. But by virtue of working together, over and over again, I have also learnt a lot about how to work around artistes. I have learnt to cut myself off from artistes who didn’t respond in the same manner.

 

Did that affect you?

Yes, of course. It would hurt me. But not anymore. Now, I can let go off the musician in me and simply record.

 

Have these experiences taught you a lot about people?

Absolutely. I’m human and I can’t say I don’t have any ego. But I have learnt to work around it over the years. I have learnt to understand human psychology better and I think it has helped me, personally. It has taught me to centre myself. You know life is a funny creature. I remember this artiste I worked with, many years ago, who asked me, during a recoding to simply mind my business and many years later, came back for suggestions. In a sense, we had both evolved as human beings.

 

As an artiste, is it easy for you to empathise with the sometimes eccentric, egoistic behavior of artistes?

Totally. Artistes inhabit a different world. When they are engaging with their art, they can’t think of anything else. They are emotionally very attached to their music. When they know it is not right, they may shut off and become very dull. When they are stuck somewhere, it helps I am around because sometimes I can identify it much better than they can. What I need from them is a sense of trust. If they trust me, it is often very smooth. But if they let their egos come in between, things become strained. But like I said, I’ve learnt to work around that too.

The thing is, you can understand an artiste only if you are one.

 

Does this ego stem from a personal aspiration for perfection?

Trying to achieve perfection is a problem, especially in India. We are always fighting for resources and time. My investments in the studio are in Euros and US dollars. My income is in Indian rupees. It is very difficult to manage.

The more time I spend in the studio, the more it gets expensive for me. But the passion for perfection means that I end up working more and more on a project. Sometimes I do not have even ten days for a production which is by no means sufficient for it. But I keep working in the pursuit of perfection. Even after the first premiere, I keep sending my clients fresh masters. Even after two years, if I re-visit and think that something can be done better, I update the master and send it to them. This has become natural for me. I feel good at the end of the day and sleep peacefully.

Running a good studio is definitely not remunerative. I may have the name. I may be busy all through the year. But the income I get out of this goes into buying the basic equipment I need to do my work.

 

Have you ever considered moving to the West and setting up shop there?

You know, I wish sound engineering gets recognized in India as a field that one can pursue. Many people don’t even know it exists. Sound engineers sustain musicians. But we do not have any awards for sound engineering. Only my love for my work keeps me going. In fact, if I get attention, artistes in India may not even like it. Here it is always the centre stage that matters. Who has sung the album is more important than who is the sound engineer. What is very good about the West is that they have Oscars even for the make-up artistes. The lady with a brush and Tom Hanks actually hold hands. The Roadies get the same silhouette as Mariah Carey at the Grammys. So, there is a lot of motivation for people to take up such work.

Also, there is a huge difference in the remuneration the singer and the accompanists get in a classical music concert. Sometimes, one just feels like moving to the West.

But, why am I still here? I have contributed a lot to the sound getting better in Indian music productions, especially the classical. I feel I have a sense of responsibility to do that in India rather than being commercially successful in the West. Also, nowadays you can work from everywhere. The world has become so small. Projects can come from anywhere.

 

Talk to us about the way you respond to music… Are you always breaking it down, distilling it as an engineer or experiencing it like a musician?

I am still evolving. When things are right and with the right balance, I would typically not want to think of analyzing things and breaking it down.

If I look at myself as a listener, I am almost always processing what I listen. At times, it becomes a problem. For example, I can’t listen to a concert freely. But there are instances where I stop analyzing things and just enjoy the music. Most of the old records do not disturb me because not much science is used there. Also, I listen to good symphony as a whole since it has a good natural balance.

Every time I listen to Ustad Rashid Khan, I am blown away by his voice and the way he hums. I am taken far away from the technicalities. Ustad Zakir Hussain and A R Rahman are my greatest inspirations. I get inspired by the sounds Ustad Zakir Hussain produces from his tabla. I see Rahman as a visionary. I think he is probably the only person in India who values all kinds of sounds, even the tiniest and the minutest of them. In many of his songs, there is this completeness between the melody and the sound execution. There is no division. You need so much maturity to reach that pinnacle.

When I listen to Hans Zimmer, I listen to both the sound and the music. He designs sound. I am amazed at how he goes about doing that. I am always analyzing what he would have done to design that kind of a sound.

Organic music leaves me organic. Hans Zimmer leaves me astounded about the technique of things.

 

When sound is engineered, there is technology and its intervention? Would you think that technology also in a sense takes away the very organic nature of music?

Technology can sometimes take away the organic nature of music. It is up to me to decide how much I intervene. I leave some things the way they are and correct some other things because I am responsible for it overall.

For a neighbour, the loom sound may be so annoying and disturbing. My ears perceive it as sound and music. You can find rhythm in every aspect of life and this creation

I have to be very sensitive here. Sometimes I can’t just look at perfection alone. For example, an artiste might have made a small mistake with the lyrics or with the pitching but the music overall would have come out so beautifully. It is best then to leave it as it is and not try to change anything. With artistes, an idea that comes once or the way it gets executed once may not happen again.

Thus, imperfection sometimes is very beautiful and you just leave it like that.

 

Music can be engineered to sound great; can a musician also be engineered to sound good? If so, would that mean there is scope for even musicians who don’t necessarily make the cut as musicians but whose voices sound good?

In classical music, you cannot make anything mediocre to appear great. It is impossible to bring mediocre people into the studio, get them into pitch and bring them out as great artistes. No one can do it. In film music, we have software that can align the pitch for artistes. But they can’t sustain in the long run. Technology cannot play a role beyond a point. It is a myth that you can make a non-singer sing. An average singer can be made to sound good. But a below average singer cannot be made to.

Let us take the example of actor Kamal Hassan. He may not be a professional singer. But he has music in him. He can sing. He can tell jatis (rhythmic compositions).

Technology can be an aid. But if you don’t have music in you, you cannot do anything. One thing all artistes must understand is that the music is not theirs. We don’t choose music. Music chooses us.

 

What is the difference between the processes of designing music and designing sound? Are they similar in nature?

Though they are intertwined, there is a marked difference between the two.

Designing music involves music and not merely sound. It is about designing the musical elements that are available. For example, in a production called Nadhi that I worked on for dancer Leela Samson, and where Rajkumar Bharathi was the music composer, I needed a bed of chords to be created only with Indian classical music instruments. Let’s say I have a veena. How do I get a particular chord out of the veena? I went the non-traditional route, used unconventional fingering patterns and strummed the strings to get a bed of sound. Then I envisioned playing the chord in a different manner to get a layer of a different colour. Bhavani Prasad, the veena player executed this. Then I combined the two together and worked on other musical elements like where to give a sustain, how to fill gaps and what do I fill the gaps with. I used instruments like the swarmandal and the human voice. The composer has a certain vision but somebody has to design the music and bring out the emotion.

Now with regard to designing sound, if I come across a passage that a female singer has sung, for instance, one can observe that the singer’s voice sounds a certain way in its natural state. I need to understand what is best in her voice. For this particular production, I needed the voice to sound angelic. So, I have to sculpt her voice. I have to figure out which portion of her voice is husky, which is the nasal portion etc and work on different components of her voice with the necessary delays, reverbs and other effects to create the desired output. I superimpose effects like making her sing in an empty hall. Thus, I sculpt the voice to sit on the bed of music that I have created earlier. This is sound engineering. When it comes with creativity, it becomes sound design. It involves being creative with sound and using the right tools, hardware, plugins etc.

Let us take the example of a nadaswaram. It is an instrument meant to be played in temples with stone walls and huge spaces that are required for the sound to evolve. Studio is probably the worst place it can be played. Then how do you record nadaswaram in a studio? This is where technology helps. What microphones do I use? I need good microphones that can take high sound pressure levels. What walls do I use – wooden, stone, marble? I need to compensate on the frequencies that do not occur in a studio. What room is the best for nadaswaram? I can even make him play in a cave. But I need to make it sound like it does in its natural settings. The raw recording could be screechy. I need to compensate the mid-range. This is the amalgamation of music design and sound design.

A mix of all of this is what gives you the final output.

 

What is the co-relation between noise and music? Is there a connection between the two at all?

This is exactly what I did in an exclusive piece I composed for Malavika Sarukkai’s production Thari – The Loom which is going to be premiered soon. The production is about the costume sari becoming a metaphor for life itself. It explores the interplay of the constant and the variable, the eternal and the changing – the warp and the weft. While discussing with Malavika Akka, we discussed the loom sound and what we could do about it. I said I will record the sound of a loom and see what I can make out of it. She was very encouraging.

I went to Kanchipuram to record looms in action on the site. I had to carry very specialized microphones, pre-amps and other equipment to the location. Setting things up there was not easy as the large loom would have sounds coming from different places – from the pedal, the danglers, the wooden parts, the moving shuttle, the nuts and screws and even from the thud of the feet of the weavers. I had to do the recording arrangement in a way so that I could capture all of that.

But all that I was actually capturing is what one would consider noise. In the end, I had about 2.5 hours of noise with me. Out of say 3000 odd samples I recorded, about 2000 would have other noise as well like the workers coughing and sneezing, the honking of vehicles on the road nearby and the sounds from neighbours’ television sets.

It was very scary at first to even think of creating music from this. It was so abstract. I wanted to maintain the loom sound organically and fit the melody and rhythm around that. Each loom had its own sound. Silk loom has a lot of danglers with metallic sound. Cotton loom has more of wooden sounds. I had to capture and maintain the sounds accurately. Since the production was being done in 2017, I wanted to maintain the contemporary sounds that are part of today’s loom like the noise of bus horns and birds. I didn’t want to recreate a silent loom of the 1800s. It took me five days of just reviewing the content and three days of editing to get somewhere, with each day comprising 10 to 12 working hours.

I designed music around the loom sounds. I started with the basic raw sound of the loom, had a tanpura slowly filling in, added basic mridangam syllables, tha dhi thom nam, employed a basic alaripu (a dance composition) and then gradually built up phrases corresponding to the loom sounds as it picked up speed. The gait of the loom also changed in-between. So, I had to employ different nadais (rhythmic gait) to match those. There were some sounds that were off beat and I maintained that as well.

How do I decide what to maintain as organic? It is here that my role as a musician and sound designer comes into play. I left the loom sounds organic. The music design comes into play when I have to decide where I should employ konnakol (art of performing percussive syllables vocally), where I should use the mridangam, where I should use the loom sounds and where I should use all of them together.

I steered the whole project from raw location sound to the final master.

This is a piece which I feel will stand the test of time. It is something that is very difficult to execute – to create music from noise and sounds of everyday life.

For a neighbour, the loom sound may be so annoying and disturbing. He may even get headaches listening to it. My ears perceive it as sound and music. You can find rhythm in every aspect of life and this creation.

 

Since your work is so much about listening, tell us something about the art of listening. Have you become better at it over the years?

Listening just comes naturally to me. As I listen to you telling me a story, there is almost a parallel sound story I am creating in my mind. For example, when dancer Sheejith Krishna was telling me about Don Quixote and how I have to create eerie sounds, my mind was working in parallel on how those eerie sounds will take shape. If Shekhar Dattatri needed sounds of foliage and flapping of bird wings for his movies, as I am listening to him say that, I’d be thinking of some paper strips that are flapping from which I cut out frequencies that are not paper to get the desired sounds. Thus, I create as I listen.

Does every soundscape you create have a standalone story of its own? So are you also not, in a way, a storyteller who uses the medium of sound to tell a story?

Yes. It is a matter of interpretation. The same thing can be envisioned by different people as completely different stories. Each one of us can write different stories for the first ten seconds of a soundscape. That is art. Creativity is infinite and endless.

 

What about the sound of silence? What is its role in your life?

I think silence is my life. Without that there is no sound and there is no music. I am exposed to sound for no less than 14 hours every day. Silence is what heals me. My body asks for silence. I value silence the most.

 

We also know that you are a very spiritually inclined person. What has been the role of sound and music in this spiritual quest?

On the personal front, I have been a devotee of Sathya Sai Baba. My parents were ardent devotees of Baba as well. My mother didn’t name me till I was five. When I was born, my mother was very adamant that I be named by him. We did not get an opportunity to meet him until then. When we met him, he named me Shravanam which means to listen. I had no clue why he named me so then. In 2006 when Baba came to Chennai, I played the tabla. He enquired about my work and came to my studio. He asked me if I knew the meaning of my name. He told me how my life is all about listening which is why he had named me so. This hit me like a bolt. Today when I look at my life, it is all about listening. I don’t even spend much time with my family. I initially thought this is my profession. But it seems there is something larger to it.

There is also a significant understanding I get about life through sound and music. I am exposed to amazing frequencies all throughout the day. There are so many people who come and interact with me in the studio. There are so many emotions that get displayed. Everything around me is a variable – new people, new sounds, so many emotions etc. The only constant is me. I think everyone has to be centred somewhere because everything around you is so variable. You then start feeling how this very moment is important and how we must give the best to this moment.

Also, you can find my work in so much of the music you listen to every day. But much of that is credited to someone else. There are moments when you are on stage and the credit for your work is read out in someone else’s name. It is like watching yourself being murdered right in front of your own eyes. Who will not become spiritual after something like this? There is no separate seeking needed!

As human beings and artistes, do we actually create any sounds or syllables? We are not the source for them. This teaches you so much. You suddenly get a melodic or rhythmic pattern in your mind and struggle to remember it later. If it is you who has created it, it should stay in your mind. This is the mystical thing about art. This is why one ends up surrendering to music and art. You regard it as God and the Supreme, and in Hinduism visualize it as Saraswati and Nandi.

Is your studio your sanctuary, a place where you can hide and be yourself, and be away from the external world?

On the contrary, my studio is a den that is too noisy for me. My escape is outside the studio.

Source: http://theaalaap.com/site/theqs/SaiShravanam

 

 

The Qs – Vyasarpadi Kothandaraman

Interviewed nadaswaram maestro Vyasarpadi Kothandaraman for Aalaap’s The Qs.

Over the years of the Nadaswaram becoming integral to the concept of weddings and all occasions auspicious, what has been its relationship with this space?

Nadaswaram performances have increased over the years because of the instrument and its sound being an integral part of the temple tradition, and auspicious occasions like weddings.

In the earlier days, kings used to provide patronage to Nadaswaram artistes, because of the significance given to the instrument.

Of course, the Nadaswaram must be played differently for different occasions. For example, there is a specific format to be followed when we play the instrument in temples. This format, however, differs from deity to deity, and temple to temple. What we play in a Shiva temple, for instance, is different from what we play in a Vishnu temple.

 

Because of its innate auspicious nature, has the Nadaswaram in a way become limited to the idea of festivities? Would you see this as an advantage or a disadvantage?

No, not at all. In fact, it is a privilege that the instrument is played at festive, auspicious occasions. Besides, the opportunity for performance at temples, weddings and festivities is ample, so there is no question of it being a disadvantage.

Whatever we do, must be done with dedication. We must show the same dedication in teaching, as in performance. Students should also respond to the teacher’s approach. It is only when this alignment happens that they can shine brightly

 

In the world of today, what is the place and position of this instrument and those who play it? Could you reflect a little upon its future?

The future of the Nadaswaram and its artistes is very bright. All that is required is single-pointed dedication from the artistes.

 

In the current context, experimentation is a common jargon; what is your take on this? Does the Nadaswaram have many possibilities or would you like to think of yourself as a purist?

I am a thorough purist. We may collaborate with other instrumentalists, but the way we approach and present the instrument must be within the framework of classicism. We cannot change the way the instrument is played. Whatever our ancestors and teachers have taught us must be kept in mind, and we should pursue the path without any wavering. There can be no compromise on that front.

 

How has the instrument itself evolved over the years?

In the good old days, Nadaswarams used to be shorter and used to be played at higher pitches ranging from 4 to 5.5. These were known as Thimiri Nadaswarams. The great maestro T N Rajarathinam Pillai worked with skilled Nadaswaram craftsmen, elongated the instrument and made the Baari Nadaswaram which was played at lower pitches ranging from 2 to 3.5. We now have Nadaswarams at pitches like 1 and 1.5 as well. We also have the joint Nadaswaram where the length of the pipe is split into different sections that can be joined together. But it hasn’t become popular.

 

Do you ever find yourself comparing the Nadaswaram with other instruments?

Every instrument has its own speciality. Some Sangatis or Pidis (musical phrases) are most suited to the Nadaswaram. There are some other phrases that are suited to other instruments like the veena or the violin. We should practice whatever we want to play very well on our instrument and then play it in performances.

 

 

What about audiences? You said in another interview, that at a wedding concert, even though it may seem like people are not listening, they actually are. But is that listening merely enough?

The audience differs depending on the venue and occasion. For example, the audience in a sabha concert is different from that at a wedding. In a sabha concert, everyone is usually silent and focussed on the music that is being performed. People have come there to listen to the performance.

In a wedding, they have come primarily to attend the wedding and to meet their friends and relatives. When we perform at weddings, the people who can understand the music definitely appreciate the performance. Wherever we play, we have to give it our all. We should not relax or compromise our playing because it is only a wedding concert, or because the audience turnout is less.

 

How should audiences engage with this instrument and what are practitioners like you doing towards that?

The ultimate goal is to never lose sight of classicism. However, we must play in such a way that the audience is attracted to our performance. For instance, even if they are watching the marriage proceedings, they should turn and listen to us because they are attracted by the music. This is solely in the hands of the artiste.

 

Does listening to the Nadaswaram require an art of cultivating a certain skill?

The depth with which people listen to and understand music, varies. Those who may not have had much exposure to music also appreciate good music. Those who know music well, listen to it with a greater level of depth. The involvement people develop with music increases by listening. The more they listen, the more they understand and appreciate.

With age comes experience and maturity. We learn how to present better. It is only if someone has a health problem that they face difficulties in performing. Otherwise, we only get better with age

 

Do you think its non-commercial approach and nature have also impacted the financial growth for the community of Nadaswaram artistes?

Most Nadaswaram and Thavil artistes are associated with temples located in the area they live in. They get to perform in these temples periodically, some even daily, and thus also get a lot of opportunities to practice the instrument. Playing in a temple is divine and has its own greatness. They get to perform their instrument as an offering to God.

The remuneration they earn is certainly not in proportion with their expenses. But that doesn’t mean they dilute the art.

We must focus only on the art. If we focus on the commercial aspects, we will lose out on the art. Money is indeed needed. But we have to preserve what our elders have given us. We need to thus have a non-commercial approach to art. If we take care of the art, the art will take care of us.

 

What is the community of Nadaswaram artistes like, presently? Does it comprise of only people who belong to lineages, or is it open to newcomers?

Many practitioners of this art come from lineages. Sometimes there are 10 to 15 generations of a family that have been practicing this art. Belonging to a lineage of Nadaswaram artistes also makes it easier for newer practitioners to learn and play the instrument.

However, there are many youngsters, outside of Nadaswaram families, who come to learn the art form. Anyone can learn to play the Nadaswaram. My wish is that everyone should learn and play it. Music is for everyone and within everyone.
Vyasarpadi Kothandaraman

Do young people choose to learn and pursue a career in it? What is their motivation for doing so?

It is definitely not easy for youngsters. In the past, our expenses were limited. Now they are not. You need enough money to even buy yourself a single meal.

We always tell our students to learn the art well before they begin to perform. But in the current context, students who are learning have a chance to make some money by performing. This is especially helpful for students coming from other cities and villages to bear their accommodation and food expenses. Performing in a temple or at a small function gives them some income to take care of those things. The Nadaswaram is definitely financially difficult for practitioners.

 

Apart from being a well-known performer, you are also a well-respected teacher of the art. How do you manage to do both so well?

Whatever we do, must be done with dedication. We must show the same dedication in teaching, as in performance. Students should also respond to the teacher’s approach. It is only when this alignment happens that they can shine brightly.

We must sincerely teach whatever we know. Students must receive whatever we teach. How much they receive determines how much they can shine.

 

Do students of today have the capacity to take the art form forward?

I definitely believe youngsters today have the capacity. The desire is definitely there. But appropriate effort has to be put in and I think they will definitely get there.

 

The Nadaswaram is not an easy instrument to master, right? Talk to us a little about how one gets proficient with it?

Only by practice, practice and practice… And dedication.

 

As an instrument that requires in addition to skill, a great amount of strength too, do you think age forces you to slow down? How do you preserve that strength? What is that routine?

With age comes experience and maturity. We learn how to present better. It is only if someone has a health problem that they face difficulties in performing. Otherwise, we only get better with age.

Playing the Nadaswaram itself is like an exercise that can keep your body healthy. As we keep playing, we understand which portions are being played with greater difficulty and figure out how to play them with greater ease. We also get better at handling the Seevali (the reed mouthpiece that is used to play the Nadaswaram). We definitely get better with experience.

 

If there’s any phase in your life that you’d like to return to, which would it be, and why?

Today is God’s gift and I am happy where I am today.

 

Do you have a dream career project or have you achieved all that you wanted?

My dream is that a lot of young people should take up and play the instrument. Each one of them should have a distinct style of their own. By just listening to one’s performance we should be able to say who is playing. People should develop the art like that and I am sure people will do so. If something like that happens, it will be very good for the art.

Source: http://theaalaap.com/site/theqs/VyasarpadiKothandaraman

The Ethical Vegan Mridangam

I had the opportunity to interview Dr. K. Varadarangan, creator of the SRI mridangam, for Sruti magazine. Sourcing it from the Sruti magazine blog below:

 

The Ethical Vegan Mridangam

By R. Ramkumar
In his path breaking work in the field of Carnatic percussion, Dr. K. Varadarangan, a Bengaluru-based vocalist, musicologist and wireless design specialist, has created a mridangam sans animal skin. In this conversation with mridangam artist R. Ramkumar, he explains how the “SRI mridangam” not only saves animals and trees but also provides tremendous advantages over the conventional mridangam.
What is the SRI mridangam made of? How is it different from a conventional mridangam?
The SRI mridangam is made of a fiberglass shell and synthetic drum heads. The drumhead material is a polyester film and the karane (sadham or soru – the black patch) is made using a special type of rubber. This is different from the conventional mridangam made of a wood for the shell and animal skins for the drumheads, while the karane is made using boiled rice, iron oxide powder and a few other ingredients.
How is this different from a nut-bolt mridangam?
Broadly this is similar to the nut bolt mridangam but the clumsy and protruding hooks and nuts found in the conventional mridangam are replaced by stainless steel bolts and nuts seated neatly and un-obstructively. The clamps and parts of the bolts are covered by plastic casings on both sides of the drum. This not only prevents injury to the hands while playing but also gives an aesthetically pleasing distinct look to the SRI mridangam. Also, the drum heads in the typical nut-bolt mridangam are made from animal skin.
What motivated you to make the SRI mridangam?
The main motivation was ethical. I started this work when it dawned on me that the mridangam I used as an accompaniment to my vocal concerts was made of animal skins which meant that these animals had to be slaughtered to obtain the mridangam membrane. It was hypocrisy at its best – while I tried to portray divinity and spirituality in my vocal concerts, I was actually contributing to the murder of cows, goats and buffalos. I also wanted to avoid the cutting of trees and hence I focused on alternative shell materials and fiberglass emerged as the best choice.
What does ‘SRI” stand for?
SRI stands for “Synthetic Rhythm Indian” emphasizing the fact that it is the synthetic version of the South Indian Rhythm instrument, namely the mridangam.
It looks like you had to travel an un-trodden path when you started off. What were the difficulties you faced?
When I started this work I had absolutely no clue as to where this would eventually lead me to. It was quite scary to think of doing something that had no precedent, and the enormity of the task ahead was simply mind blowing. Nevertheless I decided it plunge into this, come what may! Initially I did a lot of studies on the possible alternatives to animal skin for the drum head. I did find a suitable material for it but realized the karane was a very hard nut to crack. I needed a material that bonded to the synthetic skin, was safe for the hands, was able to give sustained tone and be moldable to take a circular convex shape. I did find a material for this but processing it was a formidable task. I overcame this problem after a lot of study, thought and experimentation. My initial work was focused on the drum head, esp., the right drumhead and I started my experiments using a wooden shell. I was able to establish a proof of concept for the synthetic mridangam in about a year’s time.
One of the major tasks was to design and develop the mounting and tuning arrangement for the drumhead. Initially I designed a hoop system for the drumhead. This turned out be highly unsatisfactory form the tuning perspective. We could never align the pitches at the rim on the mridangam head at all points. If we changed the pitch at one bolt it would change the pitches at all other points as well. So after months of frustrating experiments the hoop system was abandoned for good. Then I devised a clamping arrangement for the drumhead. I tested the clamping arrangement by subjecting the drumhead to abnormally high tensions. I also designed a beater which gave 35 lakh thuds to the drumhead. The drumhead passed all these tests without showing the slightest signs of damage!
After successful trials with the wooden shell and the synthetic clamp-based drumhead, I started developing the fiberglass drum shells. This phase too had its share of woes. Initial version of the shells showed large variation of pitch with temperature. The tone of the shell was also inconsistent from sample to sample. It took more than two years to understand and rectify these problems.
With the fiberglass shell and the new clamp based drum head, I started testing for tuning stability when the mridangam was played. During this phase I took thousands of readings. It was observed that the mridangam did not detune even under hard playing conditions provided certain precautions were taken during tuning. This was yet another much needed breakthrough
How does the sound from the drum heads of the SRI mridangam compare with that from a conventional mridangam?
The sounds are quite similar although not identical. This is to be expected as both the shell and drum head materials are very different from the conventional ones. In general, the SRI mridangam produces slightly sharper tones while conventional mridangams produce what is known as a “warm” tone. But the synthetic drum heads produce excellent sustained tones and all the strokes that are played on the conventional mridangam can be played with greater ease on the SRI mridangam. It is thus less strainful on the hands.
What about gumukis?
Most Mridangists who have played the SRI mridangam have opined that the gumukis sound exceptionally well on the SRI mridangam. The general consensus is that the gumukis in the SRI mridangam are way better than those from the conventional mridangam’s left head.
What type of mridangam is this? Kutchi or kappi?
This is the Kutchi type. Thin strips of plastic are used instead of straw in the SRI mridangam.
Do you plan to create a kappi variant?
I have not planned it at this point of time.
Are there separate instruments for male and female voices?
Yes. The male pitch mridangam covers the range from C-E and is thus suitable for male voices and for playing with many of the instruments. The female pitch mridangam covers the range from F-A. Thus, the entire gamut of pitches used in Karnatic music is covered by these two instruments. The sizes of these instruments are kept the same as the traditional mridangams of the respective pitches.
The materials used to make a conventional mridangam are said to be bio-degradable. What about the SRI mridangam?
The materials used in the SRI mridangam are – fiberglass for the shell and polyester plastic for the heads. These are not biodegradable. However, if one looks at the actual ecological impact of these materials it turns out to be really negligible. Consider this: in the US alone nearly 14 crores of PET bottles are consumed on a daily basis. That said, we will still work towards making the materials used in the SRI mridangam recyclable or bio degradable. This is not going to be easy but we will surely keep working in that direction. But most importantly the trees are saved in this process which has a huge positive impact on the environment.
Why should a mridangam artist shift from a conventional mridangam to the SRI mridangam?
Not only is the SRI mridangam ethical and environment friendly, it also offers many advantages to the mridangam players such as 1. Light weight 2. User replaceable drum heads 3. Chemically bonded karane that does not crack, fall or wither away 4. Long lasting drum heads 5. Non requirement of semolina paste for the thoppi 6. Easy tunabilty of drumheads to an accuracy of +- 1 Hz. 7. Pitch stability under changing temperature and humidity 8. Aesthetic appearance 9. Cost effectiveness and 10. Ease of maintenance.
The SRI mridangam is a state of the art instrument that completely eliminates the need for the mridangam artist to run to the repair shop. A spanner is the only tool that is required for the mridangam artist to play and maintain the SRI mridangam
What about other Indian percussion instruments like tabla that also use the animal skin? Are you planning to make synthetic versions of the same as well?
Yes. Definitely! The tabla is expected to roll out this year (2017).
Where can one buy the SRI Mridangam?
The SRI mridangam is available for sale at our works in Bangalore. Our address is: Karunya Musicals, No. 86, “Haripriya”, Temple Street, NGEF layout, Sadanandanagar, Bangalore-560038. However, we supply to any destination in India or abroad usually through speed post. For purchase enquiries, customers can contact me at kvrangan@karunyamusicals.com or call me on my mobile no. 9900095989. Complete product specifications, audio and video demos, pricing details and contact information are available at our website: www.karunyamusicals.com.

 

Source: Sruti Magazine

SRI mridangam – a path breaking work by Dr. K.Varadarangan

If it looks like a mridangam and sounds like a mridangam, it must be a mridangam. Yes, indeed it is one.

Meet the SRI (Synthetic Rhythm Indian) mridangam – an “ethical vegan” mridangam that is the product of many years of painstaking research done by Dr. K. Varadarangan, a Carnatic musician and wireless specialist based in Bangalore.

The two drum heads of a mridangam are usually made from animal skin and the body is made from wood. Dr. Varadarangan, in his path breaking work, has managed to make the drum heads using synthetic material and mounted them on a fiberglass shell, thus making sure no animal products are used in the manufacture of the instrument.

I played my first concert of this year’s Chennai December music season on the SRI mridangam. It was an amazing feeling to switch over to an ethical vegan mridangam and say goodbye to playing on animal skin! I can’t thank Dr. Varadarangan enough for making this possible.

Please visit http://www.karunyamusicals.com/ for more details on the SRI mridangam.

(Pictures courtesy Rajappane Raju)