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Bringing home the piano

Last updated: 20 March, 2010
HEMA VIJAY 16:24 IST

Carnatic avatar

Tune in to this: A first set Bach prelude as harmony for the Telugu composition Sakhi Prana by Dharmapuri Subbiar; or Ponnin Oli from the Kamba Ramayanam flowing over the layers of classical piano music.

The grand piano, synonymous so far with Western Classical music is all set to be absorbed within the swirling waves of Carnatic music. Spearheading this musical movement is the talented young duo Anil Srinivasan and Sikkil Gurucharan, who have been enthralling audiences worldwide with their Western Classical-Carnatic vocal format.

Their music frames Carnatic vocals within the weaves of Western Classical music played on the piano. Is the piano making home at Carnatica?

Piano theme

But then of course, Bollywood had preceded this welcome much earlier, even orchestrating entire songs around these grand old pianos, visually atleast. And besides that, the piano had taken a silent bow on the Carnatic stage much earlier, with some Carnatic vocalists like Harikesanallur Muthiah Bhagavathar and Papanasam Sivan having used the piano in some of their concerts. But probably, it was not an idea whose time had come, back then.
But now, it looks like the piano’s Western harmonies are about to spread deep roots on Carnatic soil, going by the rapturous reception this duo’s albums have been receiving. Of course, the fact that the average Indian ear has now got accustomed to the strains of world music has helped. But creating a musical tradition was never an intention of these young musicians.

Thirty-two-year-old Anil Srinivasan, a classical pianist based in Chennai and the well-known, 28-year-old Carnatic vocalist Sikkil Gurucharan say, “We just wanted to make Carnatic music more contemporary, even while keeping its basic melody and rhythm intact.”

It began as an experiment, which ended up being received well. Especially by youngsters, even those who are not conversant with Carnatic music. The numerous blogs that are discussing their music are evidence for this.
Well, this kind of musical nexus has happened in the past. Remember that the violin, which has now become a central element of Carnatic music concerts is originally an Italian instrument which was first brought into the Carnatic domain in the early 19th century.

At that point of time, purists had denounced the concept. Thankfully, the piano’s Carnatic entry has evoked a much better response, with Anil and Sikkil’s format wowing both purists and the fans. What perhaps makes the idea work is that the piano, like the violin, comes close to the human voice — linear vocal modulations rather than harmonies being central to Carnatic music.

Some call the piano an orchestra by itself, because it produces about 89 tones, thanks to the seven-eight octaves it houses within itself. Though it doesn’t sound obvious, Anil regards the veena (an instrument he is now learning, by the way) and the piano to be musical colonial cousins in a sense, courtesy their string based music.

“The santoor is the mother of the piano,” Anil says. The very articulate Anil (who incidentally blogs, writes articles and is also the executive director of Chennai-based Brhaddhvani Centre for Research and Training in Music) trained both in India and the United States and actually took to music at the age of three! Meanwhile, Gurucharan, 28, has already stormed into the top heap of Carnatic vocalists.

Take off
It all started in New York, where Anil was doing his PhD in management. At an informal gathering of friends, Anil happened to play the piano with friend CP Sanjay singing. But the real spark that fired up this format happened in 2006 when the Anil and Sikkil met at the alumni meet of the school they had both gone to — Vidya Mandir at Chennai — and got talking about music. The result was ‘Madhirakshi’, released by Charsur, which became a hit at music festivals and the duo’s world tours such as the Fall 2008 tour in the United States, Esplanade November 2008 (Singapore), and Fall 2008 (Malaysia), besides the several performances at Indian cities. ‘Madhirakshi’ had Sikkil doing the vocals, Anil on the piano and another young man B S Purushotham on the the khanjira (the south Indian tambourine).
Then came the lecture demonstration titled ‘Harmonics’ (Voice and Piano) held at the Vinyasa Art Gallery in Chennai. Anil on the piano and Sikkil with his vocals gave a lucid demonstration on the evolution of harmonics and treated the listeners with the premises of their musical merge.

Following it up, Gurucharan sang the lullaby, “Omanathingal Kidavo” to the frame of Anil playing a lullaby composed by Chopin, and the academic foundations for the piano’s Carnatic odyssey were laid. Three other albums on this new format followed — ‘Maaya’ (Charsur), ‘This and the Other’ (TVS) and ‘The Blue Divine’ (Microsoft sponsored) — with all of them receiving not just acceptance, but a thumbs up.

Strictly classical

It is not jazz. Their format is strictly classical. “The Carnatic part is central to our format and the piano music is weaved around it,” says a candid Anil Srinivasan. The songs are chosen first and the classical piano music is used as a frame around the free-flowing classical Carnatic vocals. “We choose songs which are strong on lyrics,” Gurucharan puts in; like compositions from Bharatiar and Kalidas, rather than being confined within traditionally sung krithis.

The albums also happen to be centred around a concept. For instance, ‘Light on the path’, which was a live dance and music combo, was centred on light.
In that, they had brought in a Thayumanavar song on enlightenment Anguingunathapdi (ragam shuddha saaranga) with the piano base, of course. Occassionaly, Sikkil and Anil collaborate with others — like Murad Ali on the sarangi, John McLaughlin and U Srinivas. The album they are working on currently will have Daniel Petlow on celtic violin and Dominique Ditiazza on French base guitar. Titled ‘Monochrome’, it will be out by June.

As a musical experience, this piano-vocal duet with the khanjira support is easy on the ear, incorporating layers of music without the loudness or cacophony.
The silences are poignant too. Anil and Sikkil both know when to keep silent, and when to take centre stage. It is this lack of one-upmanship that works well for their music. Off track too, the duo share a great rapport.

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