Indian music beyond Rahman?

Music, Magic, Madness and Madras!

ar-rahman-with-oscarsSo what happens now? I remember reading an essay by psychologist Cialdini in what he termed “Birging” (Basking-in-reflected-glory). I think nearly all of us are guilty of it at this point, when “our city boy” has done “us” proud and alarmingly, “ we’ve done it!”. Some of it is justified, I suppose – we have seldom had great showings at international award functions, least of all that pinnacle of all glory – the Oscars. There is no doubting that A R Rahman is perhaps the most intelligent designer of music and sound, especially in the popular genre, that we’ve had in a long time. However, all the euphoria and excitement aside, my big question remains unanswered. Where do we go from here?

There is palpable optimism in the air. Indian cinema has come of age, many movie buffs claim. In one unforgettable email I received recently, a fellow musician claimed that India has finally been given her due. This set me thinking if perhaps getting a globally recognized award was the only proof of all the sophistication and rapid strides we have made intellectually, musically and economically. If Rahman did not win, would we declare ourselves “not yet” ready for global approbation and acclaim? Surely, we have a lot to be proud about already, especially given that Rahman has been astounding us and his global fans for nearly two decades now! And I am not saying all this to sound like a wet blanket or take away from what is surely a great moment for Indian entertainment history.

In another interesting argument I was a part of, some zealous Rahmaniacs claimed that this was a good way of “showing ‘em who’s boss”. Who are we showing off to, and what are we showing off about? I do not think that a Western music listener ever decried the quality of Indian music, nor did he or she ever claim that great music only comes from the West. Having lived in the United States for a good part of the last decade, I can confidently state that the sentiment, if at all expressed, was quite the opposite. I choose instead, to draw a different set of inferences from all the brouhaha. One, we can finally admit that music is a viable career option and stop being ambiguous about how we answer people asking us musicians “so what else do you do?”. Two, we can assure ourselves, that despite infrastructural constraints (our favourite excuse for not being up to snuff at international competitions), we are capable of fantastic stuff. Three, this only means that we need to pull up our socks and start working harder to better the standards that have now been set. Finally, we need to be equally magnanimous in acknowledging some other wonderful musicians who have been making waves in international circles, creating new musical idioms, and lay the same unquestionable claim on Madras as their home town.

In previous articles, I have referred to Madras as having something magical in the air we breathe that fosters so much originality and creative excellence. This becomes obvious when I take the example of musicians such as U Shrinivas, Chitravina Ravikiran and most appropriately for this week’s essay, Guitar Prasanna. I am sure, that by now most readers will be aware of the documentary “Smile Pinki” that also won on Oscar. Prasanna composed the musical score for this documentary and has contributed in no small measure to the Oscar win.

prasannaMy first experience of Prasanna’s music was listening to him play “Ksheerasagara Shayana”, a moving composition in Raga Devagandhari on the guitar. What I loved about the effort was the fact that the composition was so complete in itself that I was least bothered about the fact that it was an unconventional instrument rendering it. There was something unique in the way it was rendered, with each note stretching itself languorously across the measure and creating a web of images in the mind’s eye that managed to be both soothing and vivid at the same time. Here is a musician who quit a cerebral and potentially rewarding career post his studies at IIT Madras, who straddles the world of South Indian classical music and jazz with graceful felicity. Prasanna seems to have experimented boldly with silences. There are pauses in his solo renditions that are pregnant with possibilities, several layers of consciousness embedded in the twists and the slides on his instrument. This is an intelligent musician who has charted a very unique path over the last two decades. It so happens that his medium of articulation is the guitar. This is made all the more obvious when listening to his soundtrack for “Smile Pinki”, where the soundscape is richly coloured with the solo guitar playing with and around the strains of a sitar and a bansuri in addition to a rich percussive template. This is contemporary excellence in addition to being uncannily traditional and classical in its melodic treatment.

Coming back to the point about musicians from Madras who are moving dimensions and crafting new paradigms, the most important take-away seems to be the rich collaborative pool we have managed to cultivate. With a plethora of studios buzzing with activity around the city, and schools for audio engineering and classical music (both western and Indian), Madras is living up to its description of being an idea framed by music. Rahman’s Oscar and Pinki’s smile may just be the beginning of a wonderful era of musical excellence to emerge from our beloved hometown. However, we need to look beyond awards and recognize each and every musician from this city who is making a difference, in his or her own way. We need to go back to the concert halls and breathe in the magic they all create, and use it to channel our collective energies towards making the social and economic climate more conducive towards propagating the city’s musical output.

Published on The New Sunday Express, Mar 1st, 2009

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