‘A’ for Agam

With loose locks cascading down his back and a tendency to raise a leg while pulling off vocal feats, Harish Sivaramakrishnan, the frontman of Agam, came off like he was auditioning for the part of Shiva in the film adaptation of The Immortals of Meluha. He had the attitude too. Noticing that the full house at the Music Academy, during the fourth evening of The Hindu Friday Review November Fest 2012, wasn’t exactly raising the roof with applause, he called the audience “uptight.” By then, he’d probably earned the right, having rendered the Thyagaraja composition Bantureethi kolu in a manner never before heard in this hallowed hall, accompanied by yowling guitars and volleying drums that strafed the surface of this traditionally placid song, as if to announce a full-fledged attack on centuries of classical tradition. The music was anything but uptight.

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The Bangalore-based Agam describes its sound as a combination of Carnatic music and prog rock. Loosely speaking, this is true. The set list, Monday evening, comprised songs based on the ragas Revathi, Arabi, Saramathi and Dhanashri (the famous Swathi Thirunal thillana). And the prog rock influences were evident in the inclusion of the violin and the synthesizer, and also in the expansively psychedelic soundscapes (featuring shlokas and tanam passages, for instance, in the opening number Brahma’s Dance), the carefully judged dynamic contrasts, and the teasing time signatures. But not all music was “Carnatic.” The song that established the group as serious performers was a Sufiana kalaam with an electrifying stop-and-go rhythm and thrilling percussive phrases. This was where the vocals and the instruments attained a beautiful balance. Elsewhere, the guitars and the drums often drowned out the singing, which was perhaps not entirely unexpected given that this is music more suited to open arenas than these closed confines.

Not that the audience minded. Interspersing the numbers with biographical bits and anecdotes (the aspirational anthem, Latchiya paadhai, was written for Ooh La La La, the television music contest, judged by AR Rahman, that catapulted the band into the limelight), Sivaramakrishnan knew what the crowd wanted and even needed. At one point, he urged the audience to join in the chorus for The Boat Song. “Only when you sing will you truly know the person sitting next to you,” he said. And afterwards, he offered words of lavish praise. “Only in Chennai does everyone sing on key.” He was equally adept at handling his talented band mates – Ganesh Nagarajan (drums), Sivakumar Nagarajan (ethnic Indian drums), Praveen Kumar (electric guitar), Vignesh Lakshminarayanan (bass guitar), Jagadish Natarajan (rhythm guitar), and Swaminathan Seetharaman (keyboards) – and ensuring that everyone got to showcase their skills.

Towards the end of the concert, the focus turned to AR Rahman’s hits, which the band members “grew up listening to.” Agam’s version of Uyire was excellent, and even as the opening chords of Vellai pookkal rang out, members of the audience cheered in recognition. The song ended with an evocative flourish in the raga Hamsadhwani, and it was followed by “the eminently progressive rockable” Dil se re, bedecked with brigas. Afterwards, the singer Srinivas came up on stage to release the band’s debut album, and he lauded the band’s “independent” music – something that might have registered better had this praise not been preceded and succeeded by film songs very much from the mainstream. But the evening wasn’t about little ironies. It was about big-spirited showmanship. Aaromale came next, and then a “Madras special” dappankuthu tuned in the raga Kapi, named, appropriately, Kuthu over Kapi. The music, really, was anything but uptight.

An edited version of this piece can be found here.

Copyright ©2012 The Hindu. This article may not be reproduced in its entirety without permission. A link to this URL, instead, would be appreciated.

13 thoughts on “‘A’ for Agam

  1. I know their “music club” background and have listened to them from the time they won the ARR show. I do like their music, as long as they don’t get gimmicky. The one thing I felt strongly that was holding them back was the drummer. I thought their present one was pretty limited and they needed someone better to support them with impactful rolls and stuff for the crescendos they had in the melodies. As bands grow up, sometimes you have to find the best people in order to reach your potential…

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  2. Don’t get me wrong…these guys will get better. But as an example, check out this track by Avial…the drumming is tight. Of course, Avial is malayalam alternative but they are blazing a trail as well.

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  3. Brahma’s dance really won me over the first time I listened to it. Carnatic rock to a chennai audience is pretty hard to sell but they seemed to have wowed :) from music club to debut album, am I glad to see them go places! O PODU!

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  4. Harish was also in ‘Ragamalika’ and I have heard encomiums on his talent from people there. I think he majorly drives the choice of ragams, the tanams and the fulcrum of their songs..

    “the guitars and the drums often drowned out the singing…”
    This is exactly my problem. Don’t get me wrong, I am all for experimentation. But I have heard their Bantureethi and felt that the “Carnatic” in it was less weighty, used only to flavor what is essentially a composition in rock. And that’s not the way(my way) I want to hear a fusion in Hamsanadham. Like, if there were 10 levels for fusing rock and carnatic, this was already at level 7 or 8 while I probably want to hear a level 4 or 5, a median.

    Also, I have a minor annoyance with the way wannabe rock stars do their hair. Why oh why is long hair the thing for rock? It’s so very predictable!

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  5. Oh la la la was one of a kind TV show with the winner supposed to cut an album with ARR. Did that happen? It had some pretty talented contestants and tight judging.

    BR, have you checked out the MTV unplugged version of the first Kadal song in youtube?

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  6. Shankar: What do you mean when you say “I do like their music, as long as they don’t get gimmicky.” I find the whole premise of Carnatic and prog rock a gimmick — in a good way. You need something as a USP to make you stand out, and this is a good gimmick.

    oneWithTheH: About the Carnatic “used only to flavor what is essentially a composition in rock,” you’re right, but if the instruments also played Carnatic style (which they did at times), then it would be like listening to a kutcheri with guitars, no? The point is the mix of both — though I see where you’re coming from about the median.

    meera: “Carnatic rock to a chennai audience is pretty hard to sell” — actually no. It’s only with older purists that it may be a hard sell, but youngsters just lapped it up.

    vijay: Yes, I have. Liked it quite a bit as a blueprint (save some minor issues with the “western” enunciation), and I’m waiting to hear the real thing.

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  7. Baddy, I didn’t mean their USP as a gimmick…that’s not what I’m saying. I do like their USP…infact it’s a good sell. What I meant is within the compositions…certain stretches. Given their unique POV, they have the opportunity to be different in what they do and blow people away by almost creating a new genre. They’ve made a good start and I’m anxious to see where they go. BTW, I’m happy for their success, given their beginnings.

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  8. Also, the other aspect that works for them is the Carnatic part of their USP. It allows their melodies to be impactful, while staying eminently listenable and easily reachable to even casual listeners. So, I have no issues with their premise at all. I just don’t want them to tread similar paths that some others have done before….I want them to be different, seize the day!!

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  9. Vijay, I loved that show but not so sure about the tight judging. Vasundhara Das was terrible as a judge while Paul Jacob (I adore him though) was quite muted in his feedback. The judging was okay. Infact, as I recall, Agam got eliminated in the prior rounds and it was ARR who got them into the finals, as an executive decision. Of course they deserved it and proved it in the end. But to me, that again reflected on the quality of judging.

    The one thing that bugs me in most music shows is that in most cases, the judges are just acting their parts than genuinely helping the contestants. They all seem more in the “made for TV” mode than being useful. Of course, there are some exceptions. Also, I don’t ever want to see contestants dance, along with the Bharathiraja dancers in the back, in a music talent show. Just sing and prove your singing prowess. The show creators are to blame.

    PS: Baddy, on an unrelated note, I’m sure you know Vasundhara Das is married to Roberto Narain. Bring back any memories? :-)

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  10. @Baradwaj Rangan : Thanks so much for the review. Really appreciate your kind words about our music.

    @oneWithTheH: Thanks a lot for your feedback about our songs. We are working hard to create better experimentations and will definitely factor in your thoughts while we do our future compositions.

    An aside: There is really nothing “wannabe” about having long hair or tattoos (I have both). It’s a personal choice, actually. I tonsured my head back in 2008 for a religious reason and haven’t been to a barber after that :). (Agam played its first real gig in 2010, I started growing my hair 2 years before that)

    A counter argument – Your annoyance seeing a rock musician with long hair is the same as another person’s annoyance watching a carnatic musician where he always sports a dhoti and kurta (why oh why do carnatic musicians have to always wear silk jibbas and dhotis?) – you get the drift, right? (Sample this: Carnatic kacheri where the artist has multiple piercings, anti establishment tattoo and a torn slayer t-shirt may be hard to accept for many.) Appearance sometimes enhances the visual aspect of your music, but it does not necessarily affect the music itself. If your appearance augments the visual impact and helps reflect the style of music that you play, its not a bad thing at all, IMHO.

    @Shankar: Thanks for your thoughts and feedback. We will work hard to do better in the days to come with our music.

    @All: Thanks for writing in.

    Harish, Agam.

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  11. @Harish, more power to you guys, man. Needless to say, I’m proud of your journey from the music club to the center stage. I’m sure you understand, given our alma mater, I somehow feel more invested in the success of Agam and hence some of the forthright views. Glad to see you take it in the spirit of improvement… Enjoy the ride and keep trippin’ !

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  12. Loved your concert,agam.Nice to seethatunlike a lot of bands who think they have learnt it all, you guys are open to suggestions and learning.Your music has a lot of honesty and soul..keep belting out!-And yes, I would love to see our TM krishna tattooed and belting out hindolam in a non silk juba avatar!!

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  13. Echo Shankar’s thoughts completely. Very dignified response to criticism, taken in the right spirit, thanks for that!.

    Harish: I haven’t heard all your songs but I am a bigger fan of Lakshiya Paadhai type fusion which isn’t rock alright but a very nice fusion piece and takes me closer to the median I was talking about.

    On the hairdo thing – the annoyance comes only because of the need to “transform” to project an image; it feels irrelevant and distracting at the same time. Ofcourse, it’s a question of one’s own choice on what look to sport but this is just a perception. Anyway, it’s just minor :)

    Keep up the good work!

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