The air was thick with expectancy. The open-air theatre at the suburban sabha was more crowded than usual. Most of the regulars were there—plus a number of new faces, drawn apparently by the novelty of the programme. The first half would be Carnatic music, while the second would feature jazz—with the lead musician playing in both styles.
Twenty-four year-old Ramaswami Prasanna, slight of build, bespectacled, tousled hair, clad in kurta-trousers, soon occupied centre-stage, accompanied by Sikkil Bhaskaran (violin), Poongulam Subramanian (mridangam) and TH Subhashchandran.(ghatam). E sat before the mike, guitar in hand, in traditional south Indian style.
He then proceeded to play punctiliously orthodox Carnatic music—full of the gamaka so difficult to achieve on the guitar. The violinist, slow to come to terms with the creativity of the soloist, warmed up as the evening progressed. The percussionists exercised restraint, yet lent imaginative rhythmic support. The ragas delineated were carefully chosen to highlight scales common to the two systems as much as to accentuate the uniqueness of Carnatic music.
At the end of the first session, the secretary of the sabha took over the microphone and dropped a bombshell. The jazz part of the concert would last no more than 45 minutes, as the residents of the neighbourhood had vetoed the prolonged assault on their eardrums. This, even though the drummer even promised to play softly!
What followed was a minifeast. The jazzmen packed into their brief programme an incredible amount of variety. Prasanna showed why he was considered special. His prowess in an alien musical system was as impressive as his ability in Carnatic music. Handling the jazz idiom with apparent ease, he embellished the music with improvisations based on ragas. He had the audience—a good half of them either grey-haired or bald—glued to their seats, at least those who were not swaying or tapping their feet.
This was Prasanna’s first jazz performance in public. After graduating in naval architecture from IIT Madras, he is now studying international music, specializing in jazz composition at the Berklee College of Music, Boston. His brilliant accompanists in the jazz part of the concert were Keith Peters (bass guitar) and Sivamani (drums). Prasanna, who has about five years of concert experience in Carnatic music, played ragas that form part of the major pentatonic scale of western music as well as at least one vakra raga to illustrate a scale without parallel outside Indian music.
Prasanna’s display raised a number of questions. How often do we come across talents such as his, proficient in more than one system of music? What could have prompted a youngster to attempt the seemingly impossible? Could it be the prospect of stardom, or the lure of wealth? What are the financial implications of studying music in an American university?
We have known some rare exponents like Jon Higgins, L Subramaniam and L Shankar who have mastered western as well as Indian classical music, and others like MS Gopalakrishnan, equally at home in the two major branches of Indian classical music. Prasanna is that rarity, an accomplished Carnatic musician, specializing in a Western instrument and a serious student and practitioner of jazz. He also belongs top a small group of musicians attempting genuine fusion as different from hastily put together hotchpotches.
In conversation, Prasanna comes through as an articulate, thoughtful person with a clear idea of where he is headed. Enjoying no formal financial assistance to pursue his expensive musical education, following a punishing academic schedule, he is driven by fierce commitment to complete his course with credit. He supports himself by doing campus jobs and performing at weekend concerts, often traveling out of Boston. “I could earn more money working at Burger King or MacDonald’s, but it is important for me to keep performing Carnatic music.” In fact, Prasanna sees his training in Carnatic music as a great asset in jazz. In modal jazz, the form jazz has taken today, the harmony is a stable, defined base pattern from where the soloist launches into an exploratory journey of altered scales much in the manner of sruti bhedam, a sophisticated usage in Carnatic music.
This is where knowledge of ragas is such a tremendous advantage. Armed with a mere 150 ragas for the course, even a debutant vidwan would be far, far ahead of his western counterpart in jazz—provided he can make the harmonic connection with jazz. Prasanna is one of those who can make that connection with the harmonic structure, ‘the cornerstone of jazz.’
It is the challenge of Carnatic music that converted Prasanna from participation in ‘light music’ orchestras years ago, via a stint playing Santana and the like with rock bands. At his mother’s initiative, he began taking lessons in Carnatic music from Tiruvarur Balasubramaniam who was teaching Prasanna’s sister to play the veena. Gradually he moved from neighbourhoods to full-fledged cutcheris.
Again a few years later it was this quest for challenges that made jazz attractive to Prasanna who was looking to study music abroad. Already an accomplished Carnatic guitarist, he was able to convince the visa authorities that learning western music was a serious pursuit with him, not a mere passport to the US.
Jazz is so complex that it does not enjoy the large following of pop or rock music. “It has such a complicated harmonic structure that it doesn’t appeal to the layman, who likes to hum the tunes he has heard. Even trained western classical musicians find it difficult to understand jazz.” Practitioners of jazz are dedicated to their art: they are not millionaire celebrities. It is the challenge, intellectual and musical, that it poses, the devotion it demands, that energises and motivates Prasanna.
“It will be so easy to give up and find a job, but I want to be perhaps the first Indian to complete what he has undertaken to study at Berklee.” This is the reference to the number of dropouts at Berklee, which is renowned music college with a tough curriculum.
Prasanna finds his teachers inspirational. “They are so giving, so interested. At school, I learn music, but my personal interactions with my teachers give me perspective.” Among the teachers are some great jazz musicians who have invested their ward with a keen sense of history and an ardent desire to explore genuine fusion.
Prasanna teaches his teachers Indian music, a major undertaking given the sophistication of our system. One of his teachers has created a jazz composition that includes a Bhairavi raga interlude, a case of well-informed fusion music.
Prasanna admires the Mahavishnu Orchestra, John McLaughlin who came to Madras to learn Carnatic music, and Frank Bennett, accomplished as a Carnatic vocalist, mridanga vidwan, jazz drummer, jazz pianist, and a classical composer! Bennett is known to followers of Carnatic music as a student and son-in-law of the late Dr S Ramanathan.
Twentieth century western classical music and the impact it has had on jazz inspire Prasanna. In Mozart or Bach, the music keeps coming back, resolving itself into the basic tonal identity of the composition, much like the sruti in Indian music. Composers like Debussy and Strowinsky led the revolution in 20th century classical music, in which conventions are broken. Jazz, a direct derivative of such influences, has been enriched by them.
Setting high standards and dedicating himself to his studies and his Carnatic music, Prasanna is determined to graduate with distinction. In the end, he knows he will be a unique practitioner of a complex art, strengthened by his rich legacy.
He will bring to jazz a capacity for variation and concepts such as gamaka, which no western musician can match. Through it all, he will continue to perform Carnatic music unblemished by external influences. Only time can tell which of these areas of specialization will bring him greater recognition.