Carnatic keys

Carnatic contemporary: Five genre-bending tracks that are rooted in classical music

Mixing and matching flavours with Carnatic music.

This week I am at the Esplanade concert halls in Singapore for the annual music festival, where several world artistes are presenting their interpretations of Indian music. Many of these acts take Carnatic music as their base, but then mix and match flavours, creating new sounds. Not all of them are easy on the ear, yet each represents a journey using traditional music.

A fair number of these ideas have, at some point or another, made an appearance on Chennai’s concert calendar. Some of those acts faded with time, while others became more polished, turning into a contemporary sound all their own.

Here are five acts or artistes who took the Carnatic idiom and then shaped it using vocabularies from other genres.

Agam – The Dhanashri Thillana

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A thillana is a traditional rhythm-intensive composition, widely used in dance. It combines sahitya (or lyric) with percussive syllables and phrases, and is a highly dynamic form.

The Dhanashri thillana, with words by the late Maharajah of Travancore, Swathi Thirunal, and set to tune by Lalgudi Shri Jayaraman, uses lyrics in Hindi, which was a speciality of its highly erudite and aesthetic composer.

The Bangalore-based contemporary Carnatic progressive rock band Agam add a flavour to this, with a moving bass line, highly impressive vocals by lead man Harish Sivaramakrishnan, and a sound that comfortably manages to transcend either genre of presentation and create a third space altogether.

Poorva ‘Santhatham’ – Arunagiri Perumale

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The Thiruppugazh is perhaps one of the most seminal sacred texts in all of Tamil history and practice. Composed by Arunagirinathar, a Saivite saint-composer of the 15th century, these hymns in praise of Muruga (or Kartikeya) are familiar to most Tamil speakers. It was the performance of these hymns in concerts and temple festivals that made them immensely popular.

Poorva vivified these verses in a way that was as unique as it was delectable: it used crowdfunding to create a work of art with a symphony orchestra in the US. Poorva normally brings together diverse musicians, most of whom are trained in the Carnatic idiom. These are some of the brightest minds in the Carnatic and South Indian music firmament today.

Brooklyn Raga Massive – Nagumomu Ocean 

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Founded by a few young Indian classical music fans in New York, the Brooklyn Raga Massive has risen from strength to strength to become one of the Big Apple’s most popular community movements. It regularly features established musicians and acts, but its great achievement has been to drawn a diverse young audience into listening to Indian classical sound.

In this track, Brooklyn Raga Massive do a contemporary take on the traditional Nagumomu, a composition of saint composer Thyagaraja, with eclectic influences that borrow liberally from other genres, as leadman Arun Ramamurthy plays the composition on the violin.

Jyotsna Srikanth – Sama

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Over the past few years, Jyotsna Srikanth, a Carnatic-trained violinist, has been creating a loyal following for her tradition-inspired compositions in the United Kingdom. She has been prolific in her output, and as the key organiser of the London International Arts Festival, has helped find a voice for Carnatic sound in Western Europe.

Here she presents her take on the traditional “Manasa Sancharare”, a deeply reflective composition of the saint-composer Sadashiva Brahmendra set in the lilting Rag Sama.

Bombay Jayashri and Ustad Rashid Khan – Katyayani

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The only reason I have included this as the last entry in this list is that it is a one-off collaboration and not an “act” in the strict sense. Both artistes are well-established in their respective genres, and this Coke Studio offering was a refreshing experiment.

The coming together of so many diverse sounds, including the incredible Veena playing of Punya Srinivas marks this out as one of the most interesting ideas based on the Raga Mohanam.

Anil Srinivasan is a well-known pianist and music educators based in Chennai.

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