Between Reviews: Accolades and Angst

Posted on March 14, 2009


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MAR 15, 2009 – THE FIRST TIME “GUITAR” PRASANNA LAID EYES on Megan Mylan, the director of the Academy Award-winning documentary short Smile Pinki, it was on a television set that was telecasting the Oscars. Otherwise, he was in Boston composing the music, while she was in New York, evaluating the efforts of her newest collaborator. “At first, she had no plans for an original score,” Prasanna reveals. The idea was to license existing tracks with “familiar Indian sounds.” But when Mylan realised Prasanna was a composer and a musician, she gave him a cue sheet and set him free. Well, not quite. “I did exactly what she wanted. If she had a sitar piece on a sample track, I used a sitar. But elsewhere, where she indicated a sarod, I used my acoustic guitar, which has a certain level of grittiness that the electric guitar doesn’t have.”

This grit, Prasanna points out, is apposite to a story set largely in the rural belts. “I wanted to make it folksier than pure Hindustani. Even the solo flute passages are breathier.” (The score employed just four instruments: guitar, flute, sitar and tabla.) Through large swatches of the film, Prasanna speaks of his attempts to become one with the narrative – for instance, embedding the soundscape with minimalistic motifs (Prasanna cites Steve Reich and Philip Glass as influences) that add colour to the story in invisibly incremental strokes, or closing a passage at a pitch that would segue seamlessly into the whistle of a train. And as a reward for his reticence, he broke loose during the end credits. “I got away with using a very strong Carnatic raga, Kambodhi, in the context of a film set in the North. It’s like something I’d play in a classical concert. It’s all me.”

Like all voyagers into the self, Prasanna struggles to reach an all-encompassing definition of “me.” He realises that the very mention of his name, prefix and all, paints a picture of a gentle Jekyll seated cross-legged on a Chennai stage during the December season, playing Carnatic music on the guitar. But there’s also the unfettered Hyde, the unbridled jazz musician who barrels past boundaries with little compassion for tradition or convention. “I know jazz as a language, not simply as a style” Prasanna says. “You’ve got to straddle the world of bebop, which goes into the Coltrane and post-bop era, and then into the avant garde world of Ornette Coleman and the Art Ensemble of Chicago. Just as I use Carnatic music, there are people who bring in elements from I Ching and speech patterns in African dialects. Amazing things are happening under the umbrella of jazz.”

And it is from this position of vantage that Prasanna lobs a casual ten-ton bomb into the midst of our conversation. “Jazz is constantly evolving, while Carnatic music is static. That is the reason Carnatic music is in such a pathetic state today.” His point is simply that Carnatic musicians get caught up in expressing everything except themselves. “There are very few who play in order to express their personality. We don’t have radicals like Balamuralikrishna or GN Balasubramaniam or ‘Veena’ Balachandar anymore. Carnatic music was founded on the basis of bold innovators, dynamic thinkers, visionaries like Thyagaraja and Dikshitar and Syama Sastri.” And to listen to Prasanna, all the musical thinking today is done within the safe confines of an ironbound box.

“Everyone follows the Ariyakudi kutcheri format, which he formulated for reasons that suited him. He wanted to clear his throat by starting with a varnam. But I don’t have to warm up my throat. I only use my fingers.” During the last couple of seasons, therefore, these fingers opted to delineate some of Prasanna’s own compositions from Electric Ganesha Land, his Carnatic-rock tribute to Jimi Hendrix. “And I didn’t play a single tukkada.” This isn’t just a petulant child throwing a tantrum from a corner of a room, upon being warned what he can and cannot do – standing back, there’s a larger perspective. “In the US, performances aren’t advertised as ‘a jazz concert by Wayne Shorter,’ or ‘a classical concert by Elliot Carter.’ They merely say: A concert by Wayne Shorter or Elliot Carter.’ It’s the artist who’s the draw – and besides, everyone knows Wayne Shorter plays jazz.”

But here, come December, the ads admonish: A Carnatic concert by Prasanna. “It indirectly tells me to be only one part of me. I’ve done that for many years, but today I’ve come to a stage where I want my audience to connect to me through my entire being. I still use the mridangam and the ghatam – but I don’t want to define my concert as Carnatic.” Perhaps Also-Carnatic would be an appropriate appellation, for Prasanna employs Indian ragas and Indian aesthetics in everything he does. The best jazz musicians have embraced the wholly exotic and rich Indian tradition he infuses into the mix. “But here, when you start bringing in other influences, people get guarded. I have lived in Mylapore. I’ve been around the world. I have seen the interconnectedness of things. Why should I not reflect that in a concert just because somebody else picks a format for me? When I play Carnatic music, why should I reject everything else about who I am?”

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