In Conversation with Prasanna

 You’ve performed for a variety of audiences across a lot of different continents, you run your own college for music and you’ve also created a lot of award winning scores for films. So how do you manage all of this? How do you juggle all these roles?
Well, I guess the way we do everything! We go to work, we come back home, we cook food, put our kids to sleep, you understand what I’m saying. It’s just that after sometime, we all become a part of what we do. It’s not very difficult to do many things at the same time. We all have the ability to do that and because I enjoy all of these things, it does not feel daunting for me to do so many different things at the same time. So, I don’t know…for me it feels very natural. And of course, you have to be very clear about managing your time: time management in terms of keeping your time productive and keeping yourself grounded on what you’re focussing on. These are just the basic skills that all of us need to have. Beyond that, I don’t think it’s that sensationally different even here in music.

What prompted you to make this shift from naval architecture to studying music, to becoming a musician, and finally becoming an educator in music?
Firstly, I have been a musician from a very young age: I started learning the guitar from the time I was 12. So, well, I have always been a musician! It was just a question of deciding whether I am going to do this for a living or am I going to do something else and play on the weekends. When I was growing up, I also was good at academics in school, and you know, in the ‘80s when we grew up, it was traditional to think that if you’re doing well in academics, you do an engineering degree or something of that sort. So I just went through that without giving any thought to it. Music would always have me; I’d always play music. And I was also very keen to go to IIT, just because I was fascinated by going to IIT, I don’t know for what reason!
So I worked hard; I kept all these things going at the same time and I got my B.Tech degree as well. But you know, when you’re getting a little older and starting to think about what you’re going to do in life, like when you’re 19 or 20 years old, I thought my life should be in music. So I finished my degree, I worked for a couple of years as a software consultant for a company which was going to send me to the US for a job and at that point of time, I thought “Okay, well, now I have to make the decision”. And I’d always wanted to grow abroad, and study music at Berklee College of Music. So, I thought now was the time, if I could go abroad, to the US, who knew where my motivational levels would be? So I quit my job and took the plunge and went to Berklee to study music.
I had a very open mind, I didn’t really think of whatever was going to happen next. But before that, I had quite a good professional profile here, before I went to Berklee, so I knew I was doing something right. You know, all this is just a way of explaining what happened. But what really happened is that I just felt that I had to pursue music at any cost. Luckily, I had the support of my parents to let me do what I wanted and make a life for myself, having done that, having gotten a degree from IIT and then going to Berklee.
But also, I think a very strong part of my education is that of a Carnatic musician, of studying Indian Classical Music with my guru. First, I had a guru with whom I studied for 6 years, and then I was studying under a great Carnatic musician at Kanyakumari and I’m still studying with them – for the last 24-25 years. So that is a strong part of my education, the very traditional Indian guru and shishya kind of a learning in Carnatic music in India. That, and a degree in science or engineering from IIT, and a degree in music from Berklee College of Music…when I put all these three together, I thought I was one of the luckiest people who were able to get all this. And then I thought how about I put that in a form that actually brings all these elements together? For example, the approach of the Indian classical idea of a guru and shishya studying in a personal way, but also bring it in a formal college context, which is the idea which we see in Berklee, which follows a Western college format.
So I thought a lot about these things and this is my way of giving back to the society which made me who I am. Also, I’d hoped it would help open the doors for so many musicians in India who may not all be fortunate to go abroad and study, for whatever reasons. It also opened up possibilities for many people from around the world to come study in India in a setting that is truly Indian – you could say truly unique but at the same time, it’s global in its outlook – and I’m so fortunate that things took shape and the college is now doing exactly that.
As a composer or even as a musician, working with a very diverse scope of music, ranging from Carnatic music to Western Classical to jazz, how do you ensure that the integrity of each form remains intact? What do you wish to see conveyed through your music?
Well, I haven’t answered this question in many years because people have asked me these questions when I have had them in my own head but I will tell you one thing, I like to keep things simple for myself. I am one human being and one person and I have just one mind. I like to keep things very simple, I like to see things take shape on their own, it’s just a reflection of my personality and I really think it is that simple. One day you wear a kurta and the same evening, you might wear formal trousers with a tie for a dinner get-together; the next day you might wear a dhoti and go to a temple; then a few hours later, you might go for trekking and perhaps later go for a party, you see what I mean. We do all these things but we are just one person at the end of it. These are just different activities that we do. So playing Carnatic music is an activity, playing classical music is an activity, composing music for films is an activity: the person is the same, it’s just one human being and one individual. Later, when I think it’s that simple, it does not really confuse me in any way and I don’t really have to get into the details about what is the integrity with respect to this or that. I’m just being who I am, just how I look…I’m the same guy everywhere and because of this people have started approaching me!
To give you an example, I played at the Kolkata Jazz Fest and not all the people who came that day are jazz listeners and my concept there was not entirely jazz either; there was a lot of rock in it, there was a lot of Carnatic music in it, a lot of this and that. But what is what, is difficult to identify because it’s just me as a package, me as a communicator communicating to people. It was so nice that there was a 5-6 year old girl dancing in front of the stage! There were people of all age groups. And that’s what made it so special. Whether you play Carnatic music or classical or jazz or play all these things together, the key thing for me as an artist and as a human being is about connecting to people and so in that debate, all these other things don’t come into my thinking.
You were also the second musician, after Sukumar Prasad, who adapted the electric guitar to classical Carnatic music. So was there any difference between your approach and the way he approached music?
Yes, there’s a tremendous difference. By the time I started playing the guitar, I didn’t even know there was someone called Sukumar Prasad. So I kind of started studying on my own and then found out that there is someone like Sukumar. So he’s been playing longer than I have but it’s very different. We’re two totally different people. After I started playing a few years later, from around the mid-eighties or a little later than that, it’s been pretty much me in the scene and I don’t know exactly what Sukumar is doing but he’s not in the performing scene at all. So for a large part, I had my own way of shaping things in terms of how I approach the music, so yes, in many ways, it’s been different.
Is the process that you have adopted any different from the making of conventional music? And has it become easier now to think out of the box in music than it was when you first started out?
Yes, I have learnt so much from my experiences in life but you know, you can’t really create out of the box thinking; I mean, the process just happens to you. I wouldn’t even like using the phrase ‘out of the box’: I like the word ‘crazy’ or ‘mad’. To really succeed in something, I believe that you have to be mad, you have to be crazy. That’s what a child is…a child is crazy at the age of 4 or 5. Like my daughter. She’s crazy about horses, you know. It doesn’t mean she’ll become a horse rider, I don’t know! It’s just that you have to be mad about doing something that is cool for you. So playing Carnatic music on the guitar in my house at the age of 12 was cool for me. Listening to heavy metal while playing South Indian, Illaiyaraaja soul music was cool for me. So, what I am saying is that when you feel that you have a strong passion to do something and you feel mad about something, that thinking automatically takes over your life. And if I look back, most of the things that I have done, people would find a little unconventional, but for me it’s conventional. Playing Carnatic music on guitar, going to IIT and studying B. Tech and naval architecture and then going to Berklee School of Music to study jazz and after doing all that, having a college in India that opens up an international community– to me it’s all the same because it’s all crazy thoughts.
It was a crazy thought one day, to try this Carnatic Stuti that my sister was singing, on the guitar. It was a crazy thought that I had to go to IIT because I just had to go. It was a crazy thought I had to go to Berklee after a software job because I did not want to get stuck in software. So it was just a crazy thought and I took up that crazy thought. Then one fine day, I felt it’s time to start Swarnabhoomi Academy of Music. It was a crazy thought and I went to talk to someone about this crazy thought and then that thought became reality. So out of the box thinking does not happen like that. If you dream of crazy things and if you have the will to execute it, it just happens to you in your life.

You have founded the first ever Indian college for contemporary music, the Swarnabhoomi Academy of Music. So what sort of musicians do you see emerging from the academy? What are the new trends in music as far as Indian youth musicians are concerned?
The Swarnabhoomi Academy of Music has been a blessing for everyone! We have more than five hundred students now as part of our college, either in our diploma programmes or in our workshops. We’ve had great musicians from around the world, about 77-78 of them from 24 countries so far, in the three and a half years that we’ve been there, to come and teach there. It’s a very, very amazing community that we have developed, a community where people from around the world come and make music, lead a life together, live in the same little same campus. So, the lesson from that thought and that way of doing things has been stunning. Our alumni, our students have gone on to do so many amazing things. It’s difficult for me to go over them because if I say one, I’ll have missed the others. All I can say is that the Indian students who have come out of SAM are all over the place in the music industry. Wherever you go in India – whether it’s Kolkata, Mumbai, Chennai, Delhi – they’ve made a life for themselves; they have actually started pioneering new things. How often do you see musicians in India mix Cuban Music and Carnatic Music and heavy metal at the same time?! That’s what happens, in fact. That shapes your whole perception. You go to a college festival and you see these bands playing progressive rock music with Carnatic music coming in and that usually doesn’t happen. So, these kinds of things have been some of the best developments and obviously, it has a big effect on how the young people in India, the musical community, has started embracing all these things. So, I think it has really helped and of course, we’re still very new, we’re only three and a half years old and there’s still a long way to go; but we know that it’s working!
You have performed for audiences across the whole world. How do you think audiences from different parts of the world receive and relate to your music differently?
Interestingly, I see that they all relate to it the same way. For example, I did a traditional Carnatic concert at Fairbanks, a very remote place in Alaska, 13 or 14 years ago. They’d never seen any concert like that before and the hall was packed. There were around 1500 people – there were about 10 Indian families there – but they could all enjoy the music. It is no different from how someone would enjoy music in any other show. Because at the end of it, when you go see to a concert, you go see whether the artist is able to convey his or her whole persona to the audience. Then the artist and the audience become really one and it can go to many, many levels.
So, I’ve been very clear about going back to my earlier point of connecting to people. You don’t have to connect to people by talking a 100 languages or anything in a very specific way, but it is a very deep realisation that you are all there to connect to people. We are there to communicate a certain experience and take that experience back, with the vibrations that they give. It does not matter if it’s Chennai or Kolkata or Fairbanks, Alaska or Dakar in Senegal; it’s the same thing. Once that sense of comfort has come into me about having that eagerness to just share me, the whole package of me with everybody, I’ve become more relaxed about it. I used to be more nervous when I played in new places, with new audiences and things like that. Now I’m not nervous, I’m excited. But it feels the same, they are people, at the end of it and and they are there to spread their vibrations as people and I am there as a part of them. I just play my music to them! So it’s been very good, there are no questions asked.
You’ve also scored for a number of very successful movies Smile Pinki and Lagaan, both of which have made it to the Oscars. Did working in the film industry help you gain visibility for your own brand of music?
Well, I didn’t score the music for Lagaan, so I have to correct that. The music was by A.R. Rahman, I only arranged the songs, the string orchestra and all of that. But Smile Pinki? Yes, I did that. Then I did this Tamil film which won the National Filmfare Award this year. But, yes, of course it is important. Again, I think it’s because of being the same person. Like in any other pursuit, you reach out to more people. For example, by working with people like A.R Rahman – and recently I did an MTV Coke Studio episode with him– my work gets exposed to a wider group of people who might otherwise not know my work. So, in that sense it’s good. Scoring something like Smile Pinki and the fact that the film won an Oscar helped people in the documentary world who are passionate about such films know that there’s somebody called Prasanna who makes music like this. What I am really fortunate in having is that I am actually able to be somewhere in all these works in my own way and that is very, very deeply satisfying, to be able to be in all these works that are at the highest level, where you are interacting with the top most talent.
When you are talking about documentaries, to be working with someone like Megan or when you’re talking about the Indian film industry, to be doing something like what I did with Balaji, or when you’re talking about working as a guitar player, working with people like Rahman and Illaiyaraaja and then doing my own Carnatic music and then playing with all the amazing musicians coming from different places in the world– like New York, the jazz world – and then to be able to get your classical music featured once in a while, like having an orchestra to arrange for the strings and conduct it for Lagaan… I’m really fortunate to have been part of all these things. What’s interesting is that when I do something like, let’s say when I played at Kolkata, seeing all those people there makes it fun for me. There maybe people in that audience who might have known my work as far as my albums go, but then there maybe people who might not know much of that but might know about my work by reading about Smile Pinki in the papers. So all of these kind of diverge and that makes me feel quite lucky.
Lastly, to wrap up, what are your upcoming projects?
For the next few days, I’ll be in Chennai playing at the Carnatic Festival, I’m looking forward to playing all these traditional concerts. I am actually doing a couple of concerts in Belgium in January with a very interesting ten-piece avant-garde rock band called MannGold de Cobre for a special project which is commissioned by Europalia,a festival that’s going on in Europe right now featuring India as a theme. So I have been invited to do this concert with this 10-piece band and we have to write some new music for it. Then I have a couple of concerts in Slovenia in January. Then I’m doing a tour here in January in India at places like Muktaghat, Bangalore, Mumbai, with musicians like Salva Ganesh. So, these are some things that are immediate… then of course there’s the start of a new semester at SAM in January. But there are a lot of other long-term projects too: my next album featuring some really amazing world-class musicians from many places but I’ve not had time to look into it in terms of putting it out or anything. So I have to get that done and talk to some labels to get that off the ground next year.

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