A tête-à-tête with guitar maestro R Prasanna who played here at NIT Trichy’s Festember this week.
Let’s start with Trichy
Oh I’ve done many concerts here, but I guess the first one dates back to probably the 80s when I was here for the very same Festember. I had to lie and sneak out of the house to play with my band in my eleventh grade. So that’s quite memorable
Delving into your career, the Academy award winning documentary Smile Pinki had your score.
When I was based in Boston, the director Megan Mylan was looking for an Indian musician and stumbled on me through her contacts. She was just planning on featuring multiple Indian recordings from CDs as part of the score and that she needed some help from me. So I asked her to send me the film, and it was really beautiful. I insisted that the movie would benefit from an original score and offered to do it myself. But it came with quite a deadline. That’s how Smile Pinki happened, in three days. The interesting fact is I still haven’t met her.
You couldn’t catch her even at the Oscars ceremony?
I had a baby just a few weeks before that, so I couldn’t make it to the event that year. And quite ironically, I was performing here in Trichy on the eve of the D-day. And right when I landed in Chennai, there was this big news.
There’s something quite unique about your first Tamil feature, Vazhakku Enn.
Vazhakku Enn is quite a raw beast of a film. I composed the song and score on the completed film, so it just fits well I guess. And it was recorded entirely live, like how you would do with a band in the 70s.
The song from the film ‘Oru Kural Ketkudhu’ featuring Karthik is quite something. It has just these vocals and a splendid tune set to visuals, and it really worked. Riveting stuff.
Well, it was originally set to music, but Balaji (dir. VE18/9) it would be better to foray the lyrics which encapsulate the visuals. And since he felt the tune could stand on its own, he dropped this surprise to me in the end. And that was the best thing.
Some more films in the pipeline?
Ah It’s always a yes-no situation. I get quite a number of requests, but it’s a little tough on my schedule. I had started work on one of them. A big production venture, that’s been halted for a while right now.
But you have played for other composers a lot right? Your collaboration with AR Rahman for Coke Studio turned out amazing.
I don’t play so much guitar for other composers now, it’s been really long since I’ve done that, but with Rahman, it’s a different relationship.
You’re one of those people who’ve worked for both Rahman and Illayaraja
It all started with a call from Rahman for Pudhiya Mugam, the song was ‘July Madham Vandhaal’ and I went on to play a lot for him in the 90s. My first song for Illayaraja was around 2000 for this film ‘Kizhakkum Merrkum’. I played in the early 2000s for a lot of Rajas, notably for ‘Moods of Illayaraja’ and ‘Mumbai Express’.
So the jazz influence in Mumbai Express..?
<laughs> Part of it probably came from me. Just a little part of it, I had played in the theme song. Anyway, I’ve played a lot more for the other two Rajas actually, Yuvan and Karthik. But later I got worked up with my own projects. There was ‘Algorithms’, a documentary on blind Chess players from India, a biopic on the great painter ‘SG Vasudev’ and a whodunit ‘Framed’. This one was entirely scored on the guitar (including percussions, done by tapping). Vazhakku Enn was the first Tamil offer where I could try something edgy like entirely live music, so I lapped it up. Fewer projects with more focus is what I like.
You have a soft corner for acoustic music?
Forget even VE. Take Balaji’s Kadhal. No one would go and ask the DoP why it was entirely shot with natural light. That’s because it is what the film needed. So a very raw film like VE mandated a different flavour to it. Hence we used a lot of instruments, quite rare acoustic ones that might even sound electronic, and the didgeridoo plays a central theme in the score. If I get a film with three songs and kids dancing at the discotheque, I would definitely do electronic music. There’s no bias here.
You have your international collaborations with the likes of Dream Theater, and your classical concerts in India taking most of your time. What’s the best part of each?
The differences get lost in all the multi-tasking <laughs> One moment I am working with the cream of New York’s jazz musicians, and next there are European festivals and there are a few bands I play for, then my Carnatic concerts and film projects. When I think of it, I really do wonder how I get away with it.
And there’s your music school as well. What inspired you to get on to it?
The score for my films including VE were mostly done at Swarnabhoomi Academy of Music, and the talent of the students really inspired the directors; Balaji insisted on having our 15 piece student choir for the climactic theme. And then there are people from so many countries here, with eclectic forms of music. I guess that explains where the idea began, there’s so much of raw talent in the country waiting for guidance. And I felt we had looked outside the country for too long.
Okay, who inspired you to take up the guitar?
Honestly I don’t remember <laughs>. Probably this neighbour of mine as a kid in Ranipet, who played it. I would go sit at his place, and watch him play. So that was the first instrument that struck a chord in my head, it’s one of those things a kid sees and likes. That’s it.
There’s probably nothing you haven’t done yet with the guitar, what still keeps you driving?
<laughs> Really? I haven’t done anything. I’ve just done what I wanted to do and that’s all it is. What keeps me driving is the ability to lead a life that finds these connections everywhere. I am able to connect myself with people across cultures through the language of music, that’s universal. It’s not as simple and stupid as just entertaining people I think. With SAM, the whole world gets intertwined, and I am one of those who like the connection more than the music itself. And I am lucky enough to be in a position where I can pursue that.
Two cents for someone who would want to take up music as a career?
Music as a career is quite an exciting thing; a happy coincidence where what you enjoy is what the people around can enjoy, and could also be your breadwinner
But you are an IIT grad..
<laughs> You know, we don’t make all decisions when we’re that young, we just try different things. Then one speaks better than another. It may be because of what I studied, Naval Architecture. I was very bad at drawing anything; I couldn’t even draw a dog, a man and suddenly I had to draw these cross-sections of ships. Not for me <laughs> Nevertheless I did study, but I knew I wasn’t going to become one of those Naval Architects. Most others who study end up doing an MBA and land up somewhere else anyway. I took up music, what’s the big deal?
This article first appeared on Trichy Times (The Times of India) edition dated 11th of October 2013.