On the sixth day of Margazhi, sweet notes of a melody exploring the shankarabharanam raagam drifted out from Sathyanarayanan Krishnababu’s music studio in Chennai. Inside the room, Keyboard Sathya, as he is popularly known, glided his fingers over a small keyboard-like electronic gadget called Seaboard. Nowhere in the room were there any traditional Carnatic music instruments like the mridangam, gottuvadyam or even the veena.

The 21-year-old was playing a version of Pullum Silambinakaan, the sixth song of Thiruppavai. This is a set of 30 hymns composed by Andal, an ardent devotee of Vishnu, which are sung during the Tamil month of Margazhi. Beginning on December 15, a specific hymn is dedicated to each day of the month. In the various stanzas, Andal announces her intention to pray, leaving aside all earthly celebrations and asks her community to participate in the worship. Even today, devotees gather at temples across South India at the break of dawn to sing verses of Thiruppavai, expressing their love for Vishnu and seeking his blessings. It is a month of music and pure devotion.

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Modern Margazhi

For every day of this Margazhi season, Keyboard Sathya has been composing an instrumental version of each hymn – but with a modern twist. He has been using sounds that are, quite literally, unheard of in Carnatic music, which is dominated by the vocalist, violin and mridangam.

“There has been no purely instrumental version of the Thiruppavai recorded before,” said Sathya. “The tunes are very famous, they have existed for ages. But then I decided I should go a little further than just an instrumental version. I thought, why don’t I arrange music for the Thiruppavai, in such a way that it will be my own genre of music, my own musical thoughts?”

In his Modern Margazhi project, Sathya used the Seaboard, created by the musical instrument-making company ROLI, to provide calm interludes in many of his songs. “It has a very good feel,” he said, as his fingers skated along its dark rubber surface. “But although it looks like a keyboard, it is not like one. It is as difficult as learning a new instrument.”

Just by changing the degree of pressure on a single key, Sathya said, the tone of the sound changes. “You have to really feel the instrument and get immersed in it. It’s all about microtonals.”

In this rendition of the fifth hymn Mayanai, he uses the Seaboard to fuse different genres.

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This July, Sathya became the first musician to play Carnatic music on the Seaboard at a public concert. It has been received well, said the musician – “people are very excited to see something like this” – though it was not the first time he took up the challenge of introducing a new element to Carnatic music. Ever since he was six, Sathya had been playing Carnatic concerts on the keyboard, a concept that was not welcomed warmly by many music sabhas in the early 2000s.

“Back then, many of the very orthodox sabhas did not even know what a keyboard was,” said Sathya. “We had to describe it as a harmonium that ran on current.”

It took Sathya years to evolve a style of playing on the keyboard that incorporated the demands of Carnatic music, with all its variations and gamakas (a decoration of the notes). It didn’t hurt that, as he progressed, keyboard manufacturers were making technological innovations, such as introducing a pitch bender for smoother transition from one note to another.

AS Ram with the Keytar. Credit: Vinita Govindarajan
AS Ram with the Keytar. Credit: Vinita Govindarajan

Like Sathya, AS Ram has been bringing new sounds to Carnatic music with electronic instruments. Four years ago, Ram was the first to perform Carnatic concerts with the Keytar – an instrument that performs like a keyboard but looks like in a guitar.

In his studio in Mylapore in South Chennai, the 29-year-old demonstrated how the Keytar’s touch controller was more effective in rendering Carnatic improvisations than the keyboard’s pitch-bender. With one hand on the keys and the other sliding over the controller, the Keytar produces a distinct, mandolin-like tone. Unlike the keyboard, it can bring a mild vibrato-like sound while holding a single, straight note.

“If you are able to produce 90-95% of all the gamakas in Carnatic music, only then can you see if it is applicable for that form of music,” said Ram. “If only 50-60% of what is there in the tradition, it won’t be consistent enough to be relevant in the long run.”

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Introducing the iPad

Last year, keyboardist Navneeth Sundar brought the iPad into the Carnatic music scene. He had purchased the Apple tablet in 2012 and began trying out dozens of music applications, purely out of interest. It was then that he came across an app by Moog Music called Animoog. “It had a very interesting interface to play on. When I tried playing on it, the sound reminded me of Carnatic sangathis (improvisations of a line in the song), so I thought why not explore this device?”

Sundar’s renditions of various kritis (a kind of song format) and ragas on the iPad has attracted a lot of attention on the internet. When music composer AR Rahman shared one of his videos, the concept got greater recognition and popularity – so much so that Sundar was included in the Limca Book of Records as the first musician to perform Carnatic music live on the iPad.

Sundar is confident about the contribution of electronics to Carnatic music. “They are bringing a new sound and dimension to Carnatic music. We have touch-based technology coming in, and it is a completely new way of expressing yourself.”

Today even a person who is untrained in vocals or an instrument but who has sound knowledge of music can use these devices to produce music, he said. “It is possible to bring out the Carnatic essence – the raga, rasa and anubhava. If you can bring out all these aspects of Carnatic music, then why not? We can go ahead and experiment and explore new dimensions.”

In this video, Sundar playsDesh Thillana, composed by legendary violinist Lalgudi Jayaram, on the iPad.

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Nascent stage

But some musicians are sceptical about the idea that electronic gadgets are bringing something crucial to the Carnatic music world.

“The gadgets themselves are undergoing a revolution,” said Anil Srinivasan, a classical pianist and music educator in Chennai who is credited with introducing the piano to contemporary Carnatic performance. “The Seaboard and the iPad are in experimentation phases and haven’t been accepted yet as performance instruments. They do not always suit the aesthetic of Carnatic music. But the likes of Navneeth, Ram and Sathya inspire hope that talent and tenacity will help us keep pushing boundaries.”

Sundar also said that it will take time for equipment like the Seaboard or the iPad to be accepted in mainstream Carnatic music.

“All these gadgets are starting to seep into Carnatic music, but it will take some time for enough performers to get into the scene,” he said. “Once it convinces purists of Carnatic music that this can really take it to a different level, then we’ll make a huge leap. Eventually that will happen, it is imminent.”

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