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The music framer
Pianist Anil Srinivasan describes himself as a creative schizophrenic. This winner of the first Sangeet Natak Akademi youth award for experimental music straddles the seemingly distant worlds of Carnatic and western classical with elan and ease.
If the idea of a piano playing on a Carnatic concert stage makes you screw up your classicist nose, Anil Srinivasan has a Duke Ellington retort for you: "There are two kinds of music. Good music, and the other kind. " It is difficult to push Anil into a creative basket. Is he a Carnatic artiste who also plays the piano? No. Is he a western pianist who can also take a shot at Carnatic music? No. Is he is an accompanist, a shadow player like the violinist or sarangi player at a concert? No, not that either. Does that make him a fusion artiste? Absolutely, no.
Anil is, simply put, a pianist who is equally trained in Carnatic and western classical music, never likely to mix the two, but most likely to play along with a Carnatic virtuoso as a creative partner in a concert. He weaves a complementary musical background on which his collaborators emboss their music. More often than not, there is no percussion to hold this free-flowing music.
"You could call me a music framer really. I enable my companion Carnatic artistes to hang their music nicely on this background, to fine focus it, " says 33-year-old Anil, who was recently awarded the first ever Ustad Bismillah Khan Yuva Puraskar in the creative and experimental music category by the Sangeet Natak Akademi.
He started learning western classical music from the age of three and loved it passionately. But, as a Tamil Brahmin growing up in Chennai, there was Carnatic music all around him and it would have taken a more rigid mind to shut it out. "You could say that my community sensibility pushed me to Carnatic music and my individual urge towards western, " he says. Anil started to learn the veena, but the fingers can only take so much. He soon moved back to his first love.
There are two aspects to Anil's musical schizophrenia : when he plays solo, he plays western classical music. When he plays with other musicians, he is a Carnatic pianist in the strictest sense of the word. On both concert stages, he is a purist.
Anil steers totally clear of delivering a pure classical concert on his own. The piano is not, he maintains firmly, meant for solo playing in Carnatic style. Many western instruments have made their way into Indian classical music: the violin, the mandolin, the guitar and the saxophone, for instance, are an integral part of the Carnatic platform today. But the piano simply cannot be modified for the shastriya stage: the gamakas (ornamented notes) will not work on it.
"The piano is as alien to Carnatic music as the santoor, " he points out. Anil plays in tandem with other Carnatic musicians: vocalist Sikkil Gurucharan is a regular musical partner with whom he has worked on acclaimed albums such as Madirakshi. Singer Aruna Sairam, mridangist Umayalapuram Sivaraman, mandolin wizard U Srinivas and gottuvadyam player Ravikiran are other collaborators.
Gurucharan, in fact, says that the music they play together could be defined as contemporary classical music. "This is pure Indian classical music defined in a new way, " he says.
The audience for their music is of three kinds: one, core Carnatic connoisseurs, two, the very young who are already hooked to world music and willing to experiment, and third, foreign audiences who find the piano a reassuring connect to Carnatic style.
Of the three, the most keen are the youngsters who see this music as an 'entry point', as Anil describes it, into hard core Carnatic music. "For the very young, who are intimidated by the idea of listening to a heavy ragam tanam pallavi format for two hours, this music provides a more reassuring insight into Carnatic music.
But despite the eager listeners, the Yuva Puraskar came as a shock to Anil. He has, after all, been at it only for around four years now. The refreshing fact about Anil is that he does not overreach. He is, for instance, not too sold on making a big splash in the the hallowed sabhas of Chennai during the winter music season. "I am not in this to prove a point. I play at selective sabhas, those patronised by purists will simply not connect with the music I play, " says Anil.
Unlike most Carnatic performances where it is imperative to dazzle audiences with pace and brilliant virtuosity, Anil's playing is slow and meditative. His musical idol is a singer who is now acquiring cult status among young Carnatic fans over two decades after his death: maverick vocalist MD Ramanathan. No wonder then that this pianist plays by his own rules.
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