Khurshed Batliwala and B. Prasanna have made a unique attempt in bringing out symphonic bhajans

Bangalore:There’s a Waltz for Lord Ganesha, Almost a Tango for Radha and Govinda, Lord Narayana’s Andante and A March for Lord Shiva.

If you are wondering what these mysterious combination of words that seem to bring together something intrinsically Indian and typically Western are, these are some of the symphonic bhajans composed by engineer-turned-composer B. Prasanna and Khurshed Batliwala, co-designer of the Youth Empowerment Skills Plus workshop of the Art of Living, with inputs from their companion- filmmaker Gowrishankar. These compositions are based on bhajans by the Art of Living.

“I was playing the piano one day and Guruji (Sri Sri Ravi Shankar) happened to be there. He liked it and he said why don’t you take some bhajans and give them a western classical treatment. I had also been toying with the idea in my head, wondering how it would be if instead of tabla and guitar and harmonium, there were cellos and woodwinds and brass playing in the bhajans,” says Khurshed, who is also an amateur piano player and music connoisseur. “But it was only always in my head because I’m not trained enough in theory of music to write it out though I can think of a tune. That’s when Prasanna happened.”

Khurshed (or Bawa as he is popularly known) knew that Prasanna, who had returned from Singapore after a stint in a production house, had been working independently on composing music for quite sometime. So he approached him.

“He is trained as a Carnatic musician, and his mind is sharp and agile, it picks up the nuances of music. It was amazing how he would bring out all the music I had in my head.”

Their first track, Lord Hari’s Andante, received a standing ovation from the audience of the satsang they played it in. and so they worked on the rest of the tracks, bringing out different Western styles of composition, like the tango, duet or waltz in each bhajan.

“We chose some bhajans based on their rhythms and tempos - if you listen to Radhe Govind, you know it has the potential to be a tango. When you listen to the bhajan you know it can be treated in a certain way and we chose bhajans based on their different flavours,” says Prasanna.

“These bhajans just lent themselves to what we wanted. So we knew that for the Devi we wanted something soft and melodious or for Shiva we wanted something martial, loud and heavily orchestrated. For instance, If you listen to the Ganesha waltz it brings to mind a cute baby elephant.”

Khurshed and Prasanna listened to a lot of classical music by Mozart, Chopin, Beethoven and Strauss, even some modern classical music like the themes of The Lord of the Rings, Super Man, Star Wars and others along the way. They drew inspiration from these masters, but managed to create an album which is uniquely theirs.

“Though the music sounds as if it’s being played by a 100-piece symphony orchestra, it’s just Prasanna, a keyboard and an iMac,” smiles Khurshed. He has played some of the piano in the album, along with some other musicians, so it’s “not so digital and more human.”

“The album is a very outrageous idea,” says Prasanna, who, being a trained Carnatic musician found that all it took to appreciate and explore a new genre of music was an open mind that is like a blank slate.

“It’s a very different sound. When I searched for orchestral bhajans on the net there was nothing, it is a unique attempt. I don’t think a classical orchestra would have ever thought about playing bhajans. I don’t think a bhajan singer would have ever thought of having a full orchestra backing to their singing. It was a bold marriage but somehow it worked,” adds Khurshed.

The essence of the album is devotion, he finds, though it’s simply just something beautiful and, he says, good music leads into meditation. He is now thinking of working on more symphonic bhajans and later a Broadway-style bhajans album, “like a modern musical of how Andrew Lloyd Webber would treat a bhajan.”