The Bangalore-based rock band gave an exciting twist to familiar Carnatic compositions and film songs
With loose locks cascading down his back and a tendency to raise a leg while pulling off vocal feats, Harish Sivaramakrishnan, the frontman of Agam, came off like he was auditioning for the part of Shiva in the film adaptation of The Immortals of Meluha. He had the attitude too. Noticing that the full house at The Music Academy, during the fourth evening of The Hindu Friday Review November Fest 2012, wasn’t exactly raising the roof with applause, he called the audience “uptight”. By then, he’d probably earned the right, having rendered the Thyagaraja composition ‘Bantureethi kolu’ in a manner never before heard in this hallowed hall, accompanied by yowling guitars and volleying drums that strafed the surface of this traditionally placid song, as if to announce a full-fledged attack on centuries of classical tradition. The music was anything but uptight.
The Bangalore-based Agam describes its sound as a combination of Carnatic music and prog rock. Loosely speaking, this is true. The set list, Monday evening, comprised songs based on the ragas Revathi, Arabi, Saramathi and Dhanashri (the famous Swathi Thirunal thillana). And the prog rock influences were evident in the inclusion of the violin and the synthesizer, and also in the expansively psychedelic soundscapes (featuring shlokas and tanam passages, for instance, in the opening number ‘Brahma’s Dance’), the carefully judged dynamic contrasts, and the teasing time signatures. But not all music was “Carnatic”. The song that established the group as serious performers was a Sufiana kalaam with an electrifying stop-and-go rhythm and thrilling percussive phrases. This was where the vocals and the instruments attained a beautiful balance. Elsewhere, the guitars and the drums often drowned out the singing, which was perhaps not entirely unexpected given that this is music more suited to open arenas than these closed confines.
Not that the audience minded. Interspersing the numbers with biographical bits and anecdotes (the aspirational anthem, ‘Latchiya paadhai’, was written for Ooh La La La, the television music contest, judged by A.R. Rahman, that catapulted the band into the limelight), Sivaramakrishnan knew what the crowd wanted and even needed. At one point, he urged the audience to join in the chorus for ‘The Boat Song’. “Only when you sing will you truly know the person sitting next to you,” he said. And afterwards, he offered words of lavish praise. “Only in Chennai does everyone sing on key.” He was equally adept at handling his talented band mates — Ganesh Nagarajan (drums), Sivakumar Nagarajan (ethnic Indian drums), Praveen Kumar (electric guitar), Vignesh Lakshminarayanan (bass guitar), Jagadish Natarajan (rhythm guitar), and Swaminathan Seetharaman (keyboards) — and ensuring that everyone got to showcase their skills.
Towards the end of the concert, the focus turned to A.R. Rahman’s hits, which the band members “grew up listening to”. Agam’s version of ‘Uyire’ was excellent, and even as the opening chords of ‘Vellai pookkal’ rang out, members of the audience cheered in recognition. The song ended with an evocative flourish in the raga Hamsadhwani, and it was followed by “the eminently progressive rockable” ‘Dil se re’, bedecked with brigas. Afterwards, singer Srinivas came up on stage to release the band’s debut album, and he lauded the band’s “independent” music — something that might have registered better had this praise not been preceded and succeeded by film songs very much from the mainstream. But the evening wasn’t about little ironies. It was about big-spirited showmanship. ‘Aaromale’ came next, and then a “Madras special” dappankuthu tuned in the raga Kapi, named, appropriately, ‘Kuthu over Kapi’. The music, really, was anything but uptight.