Carrying a Carnatic tune

Classical Flair

Carrying a Carnatic tune

As if to defy the doomsayers of Carnatic music, young artistes of astonishing promise and ability have arrived on the scene these last few years with cheerful regularity. At the forefront of this youth brigade is the versatile Abhishek Raghuram, who, though only 27 years of age, has a rich concert experience of 15 years and counting.

“I always loved to sing, and music practice was never imposed on me,” he says, recalling his initial training in music. Not very surprising, given the ecosystem in which he was nurtured. Abhishek’s grandfather was the mridangam stalwart Palghat Raghu, his mother the legendary Lalgudi Jayaraman’s niece. He began by learning the mridangam from the former and vocal music from the latter. Speaking of his grandfather’s influence, he says, “People recognise my grandfather as the mridangam exponent. But his knowledge and insight into music went beyond that instrument. As a grandchild, I was fortunate to have his mentoring for 20-odd years.” Learning from such eminent musicians and listening to great masters as a child meant that before long, he was smitten by music.

True calling

Abhishek gave his first concert in 1994 at Percussive Arts Centre, Bangalore. It was during his pursuit of  Masters in Computer Science that he found his calling. Unable to get enough leave from college to fulfill his concert engagements, he quit his studies midway and turned a full-time vocalist. “Music is a 24-hour thing. Even when you’re not singing, you think about it. Ideas run in your head all the time. There’s no escape,” he says with a chuckle.

He reminds us that by the time he decided to go pro, he had played the khanjira (the Carnatic music tambourine) alongside many senior percussionists like Umayalpuram Sivaraman and T K Murthy, besides his own grandfather. Why the khanjira? He says he was inspired by the legendary Harishankar, whose name is synonymous with the instrument and whose concerts Abhishek attended as a young boy.

Three years after his debut performance, his grandfather entrusted his vocal training to Guru P S Narayanaswamy in 1997. PSN sir, as he is widely known, adopted a hands-off approach and encouraged Abhishek to explore the world of Carnatic music and figure it out himself. Abhishek says this not only broadened his horizons but accepted mistakes as part of the exploratory process, which in turn enabled him to overcome stage fright completely.

Abhishek has a charming nonchalance about himself, even as he executes complex melodic and rhythmic patterns with the felicity of a budding master. Sometimes, even he appears surprised by the lightning phrase he’s just sung. But, behind it all is tremendous hard work and introspection into the mysteries of music. Abhishek has delved deep, not just into the science of sound, but also into the science of voice culture and production. He says that the non-standard acoustic systems at some of the concert venues in India, coupled with the way in which mikes are arranged, present a big challenge to him. Each venue speaks to him and suggests the pitch and songs he must choose to make the programme a success. ‘Sonic perspective’, as he calls it, decides everything. He says, “We have to figure out our singing just the way we figure out our music. What his voice can do, and therefore what kind of singing suits him best, each singer must figure out for himself. In fact, whenever I think of any singer I admire, the first thing I remember is the technique of singing that he has devised for himself.”

Abhishek’s musical tastes are eclectic and include musical forms like Sufi, Rajasthani folk, ghazals and Western classical music. He draws inspiration from yesteryear greats of Carnatic music and artistes like Shankar Mahadevan and Hariharan. Hindustani music has also been a significant influence. “You must listen to the Pakistani brothers Nazakat Ali and Salamat Ali,” he urges.

Abhishek’s understanding of music is reflected not merely in the choice of his concert items, but also in his role as a composer. His tillana in Raga Behag involves octave skips, a composition that can only be played as an instrumental piece. Abhishek has worked closely with his aunt and veena maestro Jayanthi Kumaresh in her album Mysterious Duality, which features a piece he has composed specially for veena solo, without any percussion accompaniment. He also composes for The Indian National Orchestra, an ensemble brought together at her initiative. Not surprisingly, his inspiration for composing comes from the peerless Lalgudi Jayaraman.

“How to sing — that is the question I asked myself after I gave up my studies. I continue to look into it now and I’ll do so all my life,” says Abhishek Raghuram. The music world will follow him closely for many years to come.

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