A purist performer

A purist performer

raga regale

A purist performer

R  Suryaprakash, possessor of that amazingly mellifluous and effortless voice that has mesmerised thousands of Carnatic music rasikas for the last several years, has a personality to match. Refreshingly down to earth and friendly, he has a smile that has all the vibrance of the profusion of the red hibiscus in his front garden.

Appearances, however, can be deceptive. For all his simplicity, Suryaprakash is unswervingly purist when it comes to his music, and proud to be so. Doubtless, the musical tradition from which he comes has much to do with this.

A child prodigy
Suryaprakash had a somewhat unusual initiation into Carnatic music. His uncle, Vidwan Thirukkodikkaval Rajamani, who was a disciple of Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer, heard his nephew singing casually during a train journey and was so impressed with his singing that he started his training then and there. However, it was not by means of the usual scales that children are taught music first. Suryaprakash’s uncle directly taught him krithis, and as his nephew memorised them and repeated them fast, he began teaching him the abstract, alapanai form of the ragas.

“By the time I was 10, I could sing ragas like thodi, bhairavi and kalyani, for at least 15 minutes, without ever once moving out of the framework of the ragas,” he recalls. As for sarali varisai, janta varisai and so on, my mother bought me books from which I practised at home,” he explains. Mother Alamelu and father Ramachandran did not themselves sing, but loved music and were very supportive of their eldest son’s talent.

Suryaprakash later became the disciple of Vidwan M A Venugopalan, another disciple of Semmangudi and a friend of his uncle. “He was a perfectionist,” he says. “He provided me with a very solid base in music and also taught me the vainika style of singing. Several years later, after he had started giving small kutcheris, his gurus decided that he should apprentice under Vidwan T V Sankaranarayanan (whose voice pitch would suit Suryaprakash’s own high one), in order to study the nuances of concert singing. T V Sankaranarayanan was not only related to the late maestro Madurai Mani Iyer, but he also followed the same bhani (voice) of singing. Suryaprakash, therefore, was exposed to the highest order of Carnatic music in his formative years.

Asked whether this would not put off present day audiences who have been exposed to more popular music, even in Carnatic recitals, Suryaprakash retorts, “It hasn’t done so yet. I would not like to insult my audience by imagining that they cannot appreciate pure Carnatic music. When Madurai Mani Iyer sang at Kapali Temple, the musically elite as well as the amateurs equally enjoyed his music! Lighter music has its place in a kutcheri,  but it cannot take the place of serious renditions.”

Tutored as he was by powerful gurus, Suryaprakash admits that he was initially a little confused about how he would find his own bhani. His interaction with two musicologists, Dr V V Srivatsa and Sulochana
Pattabhiraman, helped him a lot. “They helped me to look ‘inside’, introspect and find my own style,” he says. His study of musical theory and history (he has a Master’s in Carnatic Music from the Madras University) also helped in this process.

Take his rendition of the thiagaraja kriti ‘Sarasa Sama Dana’ in kapi narayani. Listen to the rendition of the same song by the late Madurai Mani Iyer. The latter set a benchmark for this bhani and his rendition is unmatchable. But there is something about Suryaprakash’s singing that is attractively different. I decided it was his voice. Whether it is this particular kriti or a ragamalika, where he switches with ease from one raga to another with every line of the lyric, it is his voice that carries the listener with him.
Ask him how he maintains that voice, and he says, “If you sing full-throated, nothing ever happens to your voice. But if you start controlling your voice to suit the mike, singing secrets to the mike as it were, that could affect your voice.” He does follow a few dietary restrictions to preserve his voice. “I don’t eat spicy food. Acid reflux can be the death of your voice. It’s far worse than eating ice cream!”

For some appreciation
Suryaprakash teaches and conducts workshops for many students. His wife Chitra makes sure that nothing ever disturbs his musical career and has taken on the entire responsibility of caring for his family. Suryaprakash has performed extensively in India and abroad. “Performing in the US is almost like performing in Mylapore,” he says. “The mamas and mamis in the audience are just as knowledgeable and appreciative,” he says. He remembers with special appreciation the lyrics he composed and set the music to, more or less on the spot, for three Tamil dance dramas in Australia. Suryaprakash has composed many thillanas and has cut several discs of his music. The music room in his house is filled with the awards he has won over the years.

An avid traveller and trekker, Suryaprakash says he was left totally speechless by a recent experience. He and his family were visiting the Gurudongmar Lake in Gangtok. “We were at 17,000 feet height. Oxygen levels were a little low. It was sunrise, and as the sun came up, the frozen lake sparkled like a sheet of silver, and the light turned the mountains into gold. And the silence! It was like music!”

What about Bengaluru? “I love the climate and the audiences. The rasikas there are serious music fans and so knowledgeable. But the traffic? You can negotiate even a difficult raga like nalinakanthi, but not Bengaluru roads!” he laughs.