Carnatic goes Jazz and feels Blues

One of Vishnu's acoustic guitars. Picture credits - Pawanjot Kour, TV stream

Exploring the potpourri of music that musician Vishnu Ramprasad of Vishnu R Collective creates in Chennai. BY SHAMINDER KOUR

“There are plenty of wannabes and the industry is full of them…they think by mixing a traditional Indian song with electric guitar and drums creates fusion music…it requires a very serious approach – to create original fusion music… it’s not a joke to mix cultures…it’s music not a cacophony.” – Vishnu Ramprasad

I first saw Vishnu perform for Justice Rocks – Unmaking India concert at Spaces, Besant Nagar. His performance was collaboration with other independent artists who brought their individual styles to create remarkably different sounds.

He is popular and a single Google search would prove it but he thinks otherwise. “I like how people react and respond to my music but I don’t want to get caught in the moment…if I do then I will need constant validation…and it will impact my music because then I would play to illicit response and that’s not natural.”

Unlike any 19 year old, Vishnu oozes oodles of confidence and ease with which he handles himself.

“I am an independent person and I don’t try to be someone else. My music has been a unidirectional path for me and it happens as and when you get extremely deep in your path, it becomes a meditation. Your daily routine becomes an act of awareness.”

The Beginnings

While having tea in Vishnu’s room on a Saturday afternoon I asked if he has always been this calm and composed. His response is a hearty laughter followed by a mischievous glint in his eyes. “No!” he says.

Supriya Kherat cheekily calls him “Stubborn.” Supriya and Vishnu have been friends for last six years. She is a Bharatnatyam dancer. She got to know Vishnu through his mother, who is a Bharatnatyam dancer and a choreographer.

I prod a little more on the “Stubborn” part and Supriya says, “He wouldn’t listen to anyone. He wanted to quit school and study music full time and at such young age, it wasn’t a popular decision.”

Vishnu doesn’t stay quiet and quips, “Both my parents are artists of traditional art forms and they were scandalised because I had long hair and I was playing rock music.”

In a 2011 interview Vishnu seemed undecided about his career path. Today, sitting cross-legged across me on the floor in his blue jeans and black T-shirt, Vishnu paints a different picture; not only he seems tranquil but his confidence shines through as he looks me in the eye while speaking.

Karmic Blues initiated my interest in Indian music and to combine it with various music influences but it was the car journey to Bangalore with my dad where I was overwhelmed by listening to Nikhil Banerjee, a sitarist, I found his music expressive and evocative. I had listened to Neil Mukherjee play Hindustani classical on guitar so, that was it!”

He lifts the corners of his mouth in amusement and says, “In the beginning I tried imitating playing sitar on the guitar and it was bad.”

The Student

Vishnu calls himself “a student of music for the rest of my life.” He thinks he has a long way to go in western classical because, as per him, “Unless you thrive in that culture you cannot do their music.” He thinks that western music will remain alien to him because he doesn’t have the experience of their daily life.

He reckons that listening is an important exercise for musicians because it helps them build a repository of sounds in their mind which they can unlock while improvising their own music.

He loves the guitar and wants to explore its capability. Along with that he would like to train in Flamenco but at the moment he just wants to focus on Carnatic music.

His father and guru T V Ramprasadh says, “As a student it is good to have him so demanding and ever hungry. He follows what I say diligently and I have to keep recalibrating what I need to teach him, as he is progressing fast.”

The Teacher

I sit through one of Vishnu’s classes with a jovial young engineering student. His name is Rohit. He has played keyboard for two and a half years before taking up the guitar. Rohit says,”Vishnu is an excellent teacher and I enjoy our one on one classes. The best thing is that he is very patient with me.”

Today Rohit is learning a composition by Mauro Giuliani; it’s called ‘Allegro a minor’. Rohit is having difficulty with playing the notes, so he is hurrying to finish the tune. Vishnu on the other hand, wants him to take it slow and explains the placement of fingers on the guitar strings to get the notes right.

“Each finger has its own role cut out…just focus on each chord and don’t try to play the whole song at one go.” Vishnu is a visual person and he draws the notes in air as he explains the movement from note to note and beat to beat.

Vishnu has been teaching music for past several years to students of all ages. He not only works on the physicality of playing music from the posture to the placement of guitar but also breaks down music jargon for novices like me. “Scale is a sequence of notes. Scale in western music is same as Indian music,” he says while looking at me because I must have looked perplexed at the exchange going on between him and Rohit.

He turns toward Rohit and says, “There can never be two of the same notes in the same scale. Nomenclature in music is very important.” Vishnu insists “through singing you connect with the instrument and it’s not just about technicality of playing the instrument.” He also says that most of the music forms expect you to sing because it is natural for human beings to hum. He enjoys teaching because he gets to learn a lot while sharing the knowledge that he has.

He plays a custom-built guitar so that the movement of his hand is effortless while playing the music. I am curious how Hindustani classical music is different from Carnatic music so, while we are sampling his musical instruments I ask him to explain the difference.

“It is an opinion that Hindustani music is melodic, expressive, and easier on the ear while Carnatic music is technical and is considered to be intellectual, intricate and it takes time to get used to it” and immediately guffaws, “I’d be lynched for saying that about Hindustani music.” “Indian classical music depends on momentary improvisation, in that moment you need to have that music internalised,” he adds thoughtfully.

Supriya thinks that for his age he composes “extraordinarily” and she is not alone. Soundar Rajan , who is a musician and has collaborated with Vishnu for last three years, calls him a “Child Prodigy” and says that Vishnu has the capacity to learn from anyone and everything.

Our hour long chat is interrupted by Vishnu’s mother who asks us to join her for lunch. They are vegetarian and while having some nice home-made ‘rasam’ and ‘rice’, I ask Vishnu whether the female attention bothers him? I expect a shy response but I am surprised that he opens up about it in his mother’s presence. “As a guitarist I have got a lot of female attention and a few years ago I used to love it.”

He ponders for a bit and adds, ”At that time it might have defined me and given me that confidence but now I really don’t know.” Ms. Kadambi who has been listening to every word intently has the same mischievous glint in her eyes as that of Vishnu, says, “It is nice to get attention. I as a dancer have enjoyed it and it shows people appreciate your art.”

He thinks fusion is taking a strong form in India as many revered artists are collaborating with younger artists to make new sounds.

“I would be doing this (fusion) to really bring the cultures together… I would love to be a vehicle to bridge the cultures.”

He is a pragmatist and knows that public’s great response to his music doesn’t necessarily mean it’s educative. He likes the challenge of creating impromptu music and thinks that takes real craftsmanship. He repeats that juxtaposing one genre onto another isn’t “fusion music”

His family is very discerning so; to hear them praise his music definitely feels good but “I take all feedback with a pinch of salt,” he adds humbly. He thinks social media websites require a lot of time and attention and he cannot be away from music for too long. He is active on Facebook and YouTube though.

To him it is a “performance” even if he plays for a single person. That prompts me to ask him, can a musician really make money like that? “I mainly perform solo but collaborate too. Teaching music at home and at Mahindra World School also supports me,” he adds casually.

The person

As he is exposed to so much art, I ask him how it feels to share space with artists such as his parents. Vishnu flashes his megawatt smile before answering, “Artists are very sensitive and so many of them living under the same roof is fascinating…a lot of interesting discussions happen which can bring a lot of chaos because we agree to disagree on so many things…we call them ‘artistic disagreements’,” he says playfully.

He too has had star-struck moments like the time he was gobsmacked to witness Mike stern and Eric Jonson perform live in NYC… or when he had to perform with Sivaraman and Shankar Tucker.

He was apprehensive about audience reaction to his music at Spaces but was pleasantly moved by their involvement and encouragement. He says that people often come over to him to tell how his music made a connection with them.He believes that it is true but it is not just the artist who sends out the vibes for connection.

“unless a mutual space between audience and a performer isn’t created by both parties, the Connection or the emotional pull toward songs cannot be felt. So to create that experience, both the artist and the audience play a very important role.”

His final thoughts are that “everyone’s core is same, irrespective of their caste, colour and nationality and when a form of music touches that, it can create real transformation…a real change and that’s my aspiration.”


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