Musical combiner

Musical combiner

Ace instrumentalist  Prakash Sontakke endeavours to make classical tunes more people-friendly, and his experiments with the Hawaiian guitar are proof enough, writes Arundhati Pattabhiraman.

The strings of his uniquely-crafted instruments produce the most astounding lucid tunes. Close your eyes and you’ll find it difficult to discern that these free-flowing classical tunes are actually being played on a Hawaiian guitar. And that is exactly the kind of magic ace instrumentalist Prakash Sontakke aims to create with his unusual take on Indian classical music. 

“Any music in the world can be just seen as a raaga,” Prakash says, explaining his mission to make classical music more audience-friendly. “In India, we haven’t understood that even classical music requires equal fanfare and patronising. I disagree with the misconception that classical music is meant for a select audience or a few connoisseurs. Anybody and everybody should get an exposure to classical music. It will actually open up doors for understanding other musical forms.”

This is precisely what the Independent World Music Award winner has been trying to do since his induction into the world of music at a young age. Born into a family of musicians, Prakash is the seventh generation disciple of the Gwalior Gharana. His father R B Sontakke was one of the seniormost disciples of Pandit Omkarnath Thakur, and his mother Mani Sontakke was the disciple of Pandit Lalmani Mishra.

Speaking about his musical childhood, Prakash says, “I think it is a blessing in disguise to have parents who are musicians. You learn most of the music like you learn how to walk. Training with my parents was not strict. They would give me small challenges. Like my father, who was blind, would walk after dinner. The challenge was the longer he walks, the longer I had to practise a certain phrase on the violin. He would just keep walking to see who gives up first.”

Musical sampling

His unconventional training and open-minded approach to classical music is what inspired Prakash to dabble with instruments. “My mother was a collector of instruments. We had over 300 musical instruments in our house. And she was the one who gave me the taste of instrumental music. An instrument is basically an outlet for your feelings. The instrument you play becomes your soulmate that understands what you want and how you respond,” he says with a smile.

Prakash has innovated an instrument called ‘swar veena’ on which he can play Indian raagas as well as western tunes. “I customised the instrument according to my needs. I didn’t want to give it my name as it would limit its reach then. Which is why I decided on the name ‘swar veena’.” He also performs on his customised Tear Drop Weissenborn, a Paul Beard signature Dobro and the slide guitar. “People think playing an instrument is all about technicality, but it is more than just being technically correct. A musician soon reaches a stage where he has mastered the technique and expression. At one point, the technique becomes sidelined and his expression becomes most important.”

Forever experimenting with sounds, Prakash soon took fancy to the Hawaiian guitar. “This instrument is close to Indian music as it supports singing between notes. It has a lot in common with instruments like sarangi, sarod, dilruba etc. I soon realised that Hawaiian guitar is the closest instrument that can produce exactly the kind of effect vocals produce,” he elaborates.

Although his compositions have garnered praise abroad, Prakash’s challenge is now to gain acceptance for his socially-consumable classical music in India. But the maestro remains unperturbed by this huge challenge. “In our musical tradition, people are used to listening to the twang of the sitar for so many years that they are not used to new sounds. It takes time for them to understand.”

And it is this out-of-the-box thinking that made him forge several collaborations that have produced some spellbinding sounds across genres like jazz, sufi, neoclassical, fusion and so on. Prakash is a part of troupes including The Prakash Sontakke Group, Lehera, Moonarra, New Life with ace drummer and percussionist Sivamani and noted Sufi vocalist Runa Rizvi, and FOOD, with British saxophone maestro Iain Ballamy and Norwegian drummer Thomas Stronen. “I have always believed in seeing how we can correspond and communicate through music. I don’t play with an ensemble of artistes just to make my presence felt. I want to play to add more value to the musical collaboration,” he says. 

Entry into jazz

Incidentally, Prakash is the third Indian artiste to be featured on ECM, a niche jazz segment. “I was never trained in jazz. I was pretty confused as what I could do if these musicians played in scales I didn’t recognise. Then I started relating jazz tunes to our Indian raagas. And that opened up a whole new world for me.”

Speaking about his award-winning composition Devi, Prakash says, “Devi is composed in Bhairavi raaga. Since Bhairava is Shiva, in Hindustani music we say the end of everything is Bhairavi. Whereas, for this particular composition, we start with Bhairavi. When you say something is the ending, it is also a beginning of something new. That was my motivation behind this composition.” Meanwhile, his other compositions Heart’s Sky, Kalyani Blues and many more can cater to any kind of audience.

Prakash’s genre-bending style and liberal approach is not only reflected in his music, but also in his teaching techniques. Unlike the panditjis and ustads, this maestro dons a friendly teacher’s role with ease. “In my style of education, it’s not about music flowing from a higher source to a lower source. I believe it’s sharing. I have had all kinds of students. There are students who keep asking me strange, impossible questions. And every question they have asked me has enriched my knowledge.” 

Apart from teaching and touring, Prakash is working on his upcoming album, Perceptions. “With this album, I want to tell people that music is how we perceive it. I want to dispel the thinking that guitar is only for Western music and sarangi for Indian music. And my music speaks for me.”

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