‘The Film Industry has killed the Art of Performance’
One of India’s best guitarists opens up about the sad state of non-film music in our country today
It’s an underdog story that rivals Slumdog Millionaire: the tale of a little girl with a cleft lip who underwent corrective surgery and learned to smile again. But the tiny triumph of Smile Pinki ”“ a solitary Academy Award for Best Documentary Short Subject ”“ was crushed underneath the avalanche of press accorded to Danny Boyle’s eight-Oscar-winning juggernaut. “It’s not everyday that an Indian composer works for an Oscar-winning film,” says R “Guitar” Prasanna. “If Slumdog hadn’t happened, Smile Pinki would have been the biggest news ever. I would have been embarrassingly splattered all over the papers.” Unfortunately, most people found out that Prasanna had composed the music for the documentary only after he dispatched his e-newsletter ”“ a turn of events that has understandably left the musician leery of the fourth estate.
Amidst larger reflections on the tabloidy leanings of the press today, Prasanna points out that, like Rahman, he is from Chennai. “We have worked with each other. We are both lucky to have gone around the world. We have seen how things are done elsewhere, and we have been able to reflect that in what we do,” he says. And both have connected to audiences worldwide through their work, rallying listeners through the medium of music. “Of course, the scale of Rahman’s achievements is much larger, considering he works in a mass medium. But how often does a coincidence like this occur? When will people understand that there are some of us who do artistic work because we have chosen it, and that what we do can coexist with accomplishments in a mass medium like the cinema?”
These meditations, inevitably, transform into musings about the state of the performing arts in the country. “That’s why everyone here wants to be in films. I don’t know jazz or classical musicians in the US who think like this. Not everybody wants to play with Madonna,” says Prasanna, who teeters between calling himself a Carnatic musician who also plays jazz and a jazz musician who was weaned on Carnatic music. (“I redesign ragas in different contexts.” Hence, he prefers the neologism Raga-morphist.) “By pandering to how the West looks at India, we trivialise our potential for innovation in the arts. That’s why, for all the advances we’ve made in science and technology, nothing comparable has been accomplished in the arts.”
“Art has been confused with Bollywood. Culture has been confused with Bollywood.” And that, Prasanna admits openly, creates problems and barriers for artists like him, for people who want to practise five hours a day and play an instrument. But it’s not just about him ”“ for Prasanna will soon leave this Oscar hoopla behind and perform at the Jakarta International Java Jazz Festival. His concern is that this state of affairs sends wrong signals to youngsters. “It comes in the way of them taking up something simply for the sake of excellence. Instead of striving to be as good as they can possibly be on the piano or the guitar, they will become content picking up just enough skills to play for a few seconds on a film soundtrack.”
Things were different when Prasanna was a youngster. He first picked up a guitar at the age of 10, and his friends said they would know he’d arrived when he could play Boney M’s Rasputin. Fortunately, he set his sights much higher, and today, 28 years later, despite the stepsisterly affections of the Indian press, it’s safe to say that Prasanna’s arrived. After graduating from IIT, Madras, with a degree in Naval Architecture, he went to Boston’s Berklee College of Music, the world’s largest independent music college. Prasanna has since stayed on in Boston, though he’s also in India a lot. “I have several projects in both countries, so I juggle my time between here and there” ”“ and between live shows and studio albums like Be the Change and Electric Ganesha Land (a tribute to Jimi Hendrix).
If there’s someone similar today, straddling these varied worlds, they remain invisible to Prasanna. “The joy of playing as a band is gone. Indian popular music is the only popular music where musicians don’t make music together as a band. The film industry has killed the art of performance today.” Prasanna points out that, outside of the classical realm, we haven’t produced world-class artists of the stature of Yo-Yo Ma or Lang Lang. “You can’t be there, on the global stage, unless you’re that good. And don’t tell me that it’s because we don’t have an interest in Western music. Western sensibilities have seeped into Indian culture. In fact, that is the Indian culture now. And yet, why is everyone non-performance oriented? Why is everyone content to be cloistered in a studio?”
At least on a personal level, Prasanna’s frustrations will certainly be alleviated when he returns to Boston. “I get to play Carnatic music with some of the best artists in the world. And I work with the absolute best in jazz,” he says, referring to the other members of Tirtha, the trio that also features pianist Vijay Iyer and tabla player Nitin Mitta (who played on the soundtrack of Smile Pinki). In addition, Prasanna plays with musicians he considers his heroes ”“ drummers Omar Hakim and Steve Smith, and bassists Anthony Jackson and Victor Wooten. And as respite from jazz and blues and rock, every December, Prasanna plays Carnatic concerts on his guitar during the music season in Chennai, teasing out the gentlest of microtonal quivers for a handful of old faithfuls who still delight in the art of live performance.