Song of Surrender

Monday, 18 March 2013

Raghavendra Raja

Young voices
(Conversations with emerging artists)

By Sushma Somasekharan

Vocalist Raghavendra Raja (RR as he is known in the music fraternity) hails from an illustrious music family. Son of well-known vocalist Padma Chandilyan and mridangam virtuoso Srimushnam Raja Rao, he unsurprisingly won the Jaya TV Carnatic Music Idol award in its second season. RR speaks about his music with ardour, and the confidence he exudes in his answers is inspiring. A sought-after artist now, RR is creating waves in the Carnatic music world and urban youth.

Raghavendra Raja spoke to Sushma Somasekharan recently. Excerpts from the conversation.
Was pursuing music as a full-time profession a personal choice or were you forced into it?
I was never forced to pursue music; it was definitely my own decision to pursue it professionally. Many people go in search of music, but I was fortunate to have it handed down to me without having to seek it. I was surrounded by music; my mother is always singing at home. People know my father as a great mridangam artist but he’s just as talented as a vocalist. Being brought up in a musical family, it was only natural for me to imbibe that interest and develop my talent.
After graduating, I was still in two minds about pursuing a career in music. I went to Bombay to work there, but after three months, I knew I had had enough. I came back to Chennai to pursue music and there has been no looking back since.
What made you do so?
Apart from my love for music, I feel that I have a great responsibility as a musician. My parents handed this sacred art to me with much care and I feel the responsibility to hand it down to my next generation just the way it has been passed down to me. I feel a sense of duty towards people, society and the nation. There is nothing more gratifying than sharing the joy of music with everyone and knowing that you have played a role in preserving a culture and heritage.
Could you not have achieved that even if you had an office job?
There is absolutely no way I could have done it if I was not a full time musician. My father always tells me, “You have to think about your music for twice as many hours as you would spend singing.” My intention is not just to perform; it is to explore every dimension of music and that can only be done if I give it as many hours as I would give a day job in the office or even more!
What do you think of innovating and bringing changes to Carnatic music kutcheris?
If you are asking me about attempting a new approach to singing a raga, I think it has already been done before. In one concert,  I attempted a particular prayogam in Kambhoji alapana and thought to myself, ‘Wow, that was something new and it sounded great.’ But just a few days after that, I realised it had already been sung by a yesteryear stalwart. And that was not the only time something like that happened to me. Our legends have handled our ragas in every way possible.
I think it is only natural for Carnatic music to evolve over the years. A huge change took place when Sri Ariyakudi Ramanuja Iyengar introduced the present concert structure. It took a while for the listeners then to get accustomed to the change. Likewise, listeners may not embrace any change immediately now as they have been used to  a particular format all these years. Before long the listeners themselves will seek change and welcome innovation. However, as I am in the process of exploring my musical identity now, I will adhere to mastering what I have learnt before attempting new approaches on stage.
Carnatic music means ‘Old Music’ to me, and going with that definition, I am most comfortable singing old songs,  written before my time. In my opinion, there are still many old songs which have not been sung in detail in concerts, such as the 8th century Tirupaavai, and 15th century Tirupugazh. With all due respect to the new age composers, unless there is something uniquely special about the songs composed now, I would prefer to explore the works composed years before my time.
Tell us, who is Sean Rolden?
 (Laughs) Everyone seems to be more interested to know about who Sean Rolden is. Well, I have another identity known as ‘Sean Rolden’, the artist who aims to fuse classical, folk, country, jazz and other genres together to produce music that will appeal to the urban young in Chennai.
Does this side not affect your Carnatic persona?
Definitely not. Every one of us has a side that would love to break the rules, be free and create something out of the ordinary. I have directed that energy towards writing songs and exploring different genres of music. This side of me is distinct from the Carnatic singer Raghavendra Raja.
Where do you see yourself in a few years from now? Do you think you will become a successful Carnatic musician?
Carnatic music is my first love and will always be my first priority. I have no doubt that I will get to the main slot of the Chennai sabhas one day, when people will have to pay for tickets to listen to my concerts. I am already getting there. But none of that matters to me; my main aim is to ensure that the audience will feel that my music is well worth their time and has made a difference to their lives. That is when I will consider myself a successful musician.
(Sushma Somasekharan is a young Carnatic vocalist)

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