In the quiet of his room where instruments—both percussion and string—find freewheeling bouts of expression and the possibility of invention, Tanjore K Praveen Kumar, a 23-year-old from Chennai, writes his own music. While he is doing that, and as the music finds form and shape, he is Praveen Sparsh. His last name, which denotes his dual identity, was formed when he was about to finish class ten. “A friend’s brother was getting married,” Praveen says, “I remember still, he just casually said, ‘Hey, why don’t you perform some cool music at the wedding reception?’” It was a mere experiment; Sparsh was born as a Carnatic fusion band and has since grown to create a sound that draws from Praveen’s own foundation as a classical percussionist— mridangam, to be specific—combined with his own personal influences from across the world. The song of the moment is a composition in Tamil, Neram Parandu Poga (‘ As Time flies away’); it is out on SoundCloud and will soon be released online as a video. Its melody is Indian, its riff, acoustic funk with a bit of pop and blues.
A few kilometres from where Praveen lives and makes music, yet another young percussionist, Akshay Anantapadmanabhan, who was born and raised in New York and who made Chennai his home three years ago, is just back from a two-week trip to Abu Dhabi, where he worked on recordings and a project to present a collaboration at the Jazz Presents series in The New School, New York, on 11 March. The project, Akshay says, will feature the konnokol and mridangam in “the context of Jazz instrumentation led by Arun Luthra on saxophone and his team on the piano and the drum set.” Akshay left for Abu Dhabi after a hectic and rewarding ‘Season’—as the annual Margazhi Music and Dance festival in Chennai is referred to— where he accompanied (on the mridangam) as many as 30 vocalists, both experienced and novice, at prestigious venues across the city.
Travel a little north into the commercial hub of Chennai, in T Nagar, where Subiksha Rangarajan lives when she is not in Toronto, her other home, and there is a classical and contemporary story brewing. Subiksha, or Susha as she is known, has been away travelling to select temples in South India, shooting a docu-feature about the life of Arunagiri Nadhar. Her involvement, both artistically and as the artistic director of the film that is running a crowd-funding campaign, is collaborative in the true spirit of the word. Along with two other city-based musicians and Kalyani Nair who is the arranger and conductor, the band’s music is performed with a 16-piece ensemble from Boston. The film is a project with a vision. “We hope,” Susha says, “to make this a worldwide platform to share ancient wisdom and culture available to us, and throw open doors for more cross-cultural, cross-disciplinary collaboration.”
In Chennai, considered the Mecca of classical music, there is a parallel churn of ideas and sounds in the air. Its creators are a breed of young, spirited musicians—all of them with a firm grounding in the classical form— who are keen to go beyond the realm of the classical framework, letting their talent and imagination take them places. “You see,” Sumesh Narayanan attempts to explain when asked how he juggles his two roles as a traditional mridangam artiste and a contemporary percussionist who jams with different bands where he plays the cajon as well, “I’m speaking the same language, but I’m using another vocabulary. When I collaborate with contemporary bands—Karthick Iyer Live and the Crossroads, for example— there is room for innovation. The idea is to create an interesting sound.”
Both, Praveen says, are “meditative experiences”: “I think at this point, both are a part of me. I’m trying to sync into what is happening and interpreting music—my own and the music of others—in many ways. And each time, a new perspective comes by.”
Coupled with the freedom to let go and do his own thing, that’s what gives Sumesh a sense of liberation. “While collaborating with a contemporary band, you can go ahead and stretch your imagination and break the limit.” But, mind you, the genre’s integrity still holds. “I’m a purist but I don’t restrict my role to only always accompanying a classical musician,” he clarifies.
Karthick Iyer of Karthick Iyer Live fame, whose SoundCloud gets about 700 hits a day and whose band Sumesh is a member of, is busy piecing together the many, often complex, elements that go into the release of an album. This 12-track album, titled IndoSoul (“Indo drawing from the idea of an Indian civilisation and Soul resulting from a deep, inward experience”), will also serve as an identity marker for the band and its music. “We are envisioning the album holistically,” Karthick says, “When we launch, you will get a sense of what IndoSoul is about. There will be a lot of videos on the making of the album; we are also currently creating a distinct look and costume for the band, and in all, enhance the visual and aural appeal.”
Karthick is a formally trained Carnatic violinist. His straying away from the classical performance circuit also marked the beginning of an experiment that involved mastering the electric violin. Having toured the world with the famous Raghu Dixit Project and being part of the music- making process of cinema, Karthick is committed to creating music that is a true amalgam of genres. “Music doesn’t operate in a vacuum,” he says, “It is a meeting of many cultures, and musicians, and minds.”
Needless to say, exposure usually has a keen role to play. Some are lucky to have grown up in a multi- cultural atmosphere, while others seem to make an effort in that direction. California-born and brought-up Aditya Prakash had both in generous amounts. Spending equal lengths of time in Chennai and Los Angeles, where his mother and sister live, dance and teach dance, Aditya was initiated into the Carnatic classical form of singing as a toddler. But all around, the city resonated with eclectic sounds. “Honestly, though,” he says, “up until I got into college at [University of California, Los Angeles] to study Ethnomusicology, I didn’t really have that much access and first-hand exposure to music of different styles. In my class, to give you an example, I was the only Carnatic musician among a group of young, very talented musicians of varied genres— Jazz, Hip-Hop and Blues.”
What began as informal jamming sessions which lasted into the wee hours of the morning found a formal coalition of Carnatic and Jazz sounds that led to the formation of the Aditya Prakash Ensemble. “I realised, as we spontaneously improvised, that Carnatic and Jazz blended so beautifully; that they were so compatible and that the possibilities of making music were aplenty.” Aditya began taking classes in Jazz composition and began composing music that saw his group attract interest enough to perform across varied venues in the US (it is set to make a debut in India this September as part of The Park’s New Festival). Does he see himself as straddling two worlds? “Yes,” says Aditya, “No doubt I’m straddling two worlds, trying to find my own sound. I think I’m using my classical grounding to discover stuff that allows me to explore the sounds that I heard while I was growing up; sounds that are, in a sense, imbibed within me.”
Praveen, Akshay, Susha, Sumesh, Karthick and Aditya have one thing in common: they acknowledge and are proud of their classical roots. “It has become clear to me,” says Akshay, “that the rhythmic depth of Carnatic music is so great that it allows me to easily analyse and understand other sounds, instruments and genres.” Having honed his skills in rhythm under Vidwan TH Subash Chandran, Akshay, much like Aditya, had the advantage of exposure to the diversity of music in New York City while pursuing his undergraduate studies in engineering. “That was a defining phase,” Akshay says, “It was when I started to shape my appreciation of different sounds; it also coincided with a stage in my Carnatic training where I could apply my understanding to other genres of music.” Akshay has travelled a long way since and been part of manycutting-edge contemporary creations. Last October, he collaborated with the Computer Musicians, a venture he calls “a true 21st century musical experience for me”. Yet another interesting experience for him was working with Latin Jazz pianist, Luiz Simas, for whom he composed rhythmic compositions that Luiz in turn translated to melody. “We collaborated to decide on the structure of the performance,” Akshay says, “but it was exciting to see how direct applications of Carnatic rhythm can create new sounds.”
Part of the charm is the opportunity it presents to work with musicians of diverse backgrounds. “It was incredible fun,” says Susha, recalling her first experience, Yodhakka, a contemporary- classical group that was born five years ago. As a band, it doesn’t exist anymore, “but we have an album and its music is very much alive”.
For Susha, who was formally trained to sing Carnatic music, the curiosity that led her to “leave the nest and explore” was a natural part of her evolution as an artiste. “I met many musicians along the way who inspired me and shared this development with me,” she says. That interest also resulted in a Master’s degree in Jazz performance at the University of Toronto, where she worked on “improvisation and composition with a talented group of teachers and musicians”.
In the ‘Season’ that went by, Susha had a handful of concerts at some of Chennai’s leading institutions. Since then she has been busy with the docu-feature. “I am always quite unconsciously just being myself,” she says, musing over which side of the fence she belongs to: “My training in the Carnatic style has given me a specific skill set that I feel has prepared me to understand and innovate in any creative style or form of art. After all, everyone is a contemporary musician of their time, right?”