‘I’d rather be bacterial’

‘I’d rather be bacterial’

Pianist Anil Srinivasan, known for his collaborations with Indian classical musicians, is appalled at ‘lazy fusion that goes viral’

Born in Chennai, Anil Srinivasan grew up in an environment steeped in Carnatic music. He later studied Western music at the University of Southern California and Columbia University, New York. He performs with a host of Indian classical musicians, including Sikkil Gurucharan and Jayanthi Kumaresh, playing raga music on the piano.  

Anil is annoyed at the loose use of the term ‘fusion’. It rightfully belongs in physics, he says, preferring to describe his collaborations with Indian musicians as ‘classical’. He discusses a host of ideas in an exclusive interview with Showtime.

You have been talking about how Indian composers, such as Ilaiyaraja and AR Rahman, should be incorporated into the Western music curriculum. Have you made any progress in that direction?
I have created a course in comparative musicology for Liverpool Hope University. In it, I have created a juxtaposition between Dikshitar and Bach. It is one of the courses all BA Music students go through. Ilaiyaraaja, for me, is God. He will take a more involved and embedded approach. Rahman is comparatively easy to analyse for a student not exposed to Indian music. One of the courses I am offering at KREA University (Sricity, Andhra Pradesh) is the design of music. I am looking at everybody from Purandaradasa to Rahman to see how they have incrementally added to the design of sound. 

What are the challenges for you as a pianist when you have to play with Indian musicians? 
The answer to that should form at least three volumes of a well-researched book. The fact that I have trained in Carnatic music helps a lot. It is important to understand the intent of the music one is playing. You need to understand not just the raga structure, but also bhava and sahityam. You need to understand the language. A set of notes does not make a raga. Music needs to be understood at visceral, spiritual and intellectual levels. Western classical music has a contextual, textured history. Neither Jayanthi nor I call what we play Carnatic. We call it classical since every single part of the vocabulary is from one or the other tradition. Sonically, it sounds different because you are not used to hearing it being played on a piano.

How do you look at the diverse collaborations now becoming popular?
It’s all hit or miss. I’m not saying everything should become intellectual. But when you are putting yourself on stage, you are representing so many centuries of development. It’s a beautiful architectural marvel like the Brihadiswara temple. You can’t go and just put a poster on the wall. If you play Nagumomu and put a bass guitar and some chords and rap in it, and it becomes cool and viral… I come from a time when anything viral was considered a disease. I’d rather be bacterial. Slow and lethal. I am not a great fan of easy fusion.

So, much of what is called fusion is thoughtless?
That would be mean. I don’t want to dismiss it. What I am saying is that the music needs to be studied better. When I heard Nagumomu by Susheela Raman, I was appalled. You can’t just use it as a set of words... it represents the deep spiritual experience of Tyagaraja. If you want to experiment with raga Abheri, go ahead. If you’ve understood and loved the composition, you wouldn’t have taken those lyrics. You could have taken the raga and created something more exciting. You can’t put sensuality into a composition that isn’t about it.

By the same logic, would you say metal bands taking up Bach or Mozart and doing it their way is problematic? 
Again, it totally depends. Take the example of Agam. I am convinced Harish Sivaramakrishnan (lead singer of the Bengaluru-based band) knows his stuff. I am not worried. I know at the spiritual core of it, there is tremendous soul. Manavyalakinchara is Manavyalakinchara. 

But aren’t all great art forms vulgarised to some extent, and adapted by popular culture?
I can take raga Kafi and put it in a movie. It is performing a particular function there. Let’s respect that. If I bring that into a katcheri stage, the mistakes  begin to happen. Just like I can’t take a ragam-tanam-pallavi and put it in a Vijaya Devarakonda rom com. There’s form, there’s function, and there’s structure.