Musician Amalraj owns unusual string instruments from around the world and also plays them skilfully. He believes every instrument has a soul that can be invoked only by appropriate backing sounds.
His fingers gliding over the long fret-board of a bouzouki, R.A. Amalraj strums out ‘Ilaiyaneela Pozhigirathe’, an Illayaraja song replete with guitar riffs. Next, a new set of sounds governed by Carantic raga Hamsadhwani flows from this stringed instrument of Greek origin. He finishes the medley with a famous Don Moen song. He plays similar sequences on an oud, a chinchin, a ruan, a ukulele, charango, a taruvan and an ehru. In other words, 40-year-old Amalraj displays a part of his collection of less-known stringed instruments as well as his mastery over them.
Skilled at playing all guitars — including electric, acoustic, classical, dobro and the 12-strings — the violin and the viola, Amalraj perpetually seeks to extend frontiers. “At present, I can play 32 stringed instruments,” he says. “Whenever I travel to a country for shows, I check out the string instruments popular there — most of the time, that’s the only shopping I do,” he says. Amalraj works for music directors and also undertakes gospel music projects and, wherever possible, he uses these instruments which adorn his swanky recording studio off Harrington Road.
He believes every instrument has a soul that can be invoked only by appropriate backing sounds. Self-trained in percussion, he uses wood body rhythms and shaker sounds to complement the music from his unusual stringed instruments. He also meets the bigger challenge of playing music that goes beyond their known resonances. “The instruments vary widely. Some are fretless, others have longer or shorter fret-boards, they come with holds of different sizes and the lengths between frets differ too. An understanding of their varied orientations is necessary to be able to play them skillfully,” says Amalraj.
As his father R. Anandharaj served as choir master of Sacred Heart Catholic Church (Egmore) and could play eleven instruments, Amalraj grew up with music around him. “As a five-year-old, I learnt violin the Carnatic way from Shanmugavadivelu and my formal training lasted two years. I taught myself to play the guitar and all the other instruments that I have — music is a gift from above.” As a teenager, he was part of a violin group. Following a humiliating rebuff from an assistant music director at a recording session in Bangalore, he decided never again to play the violin and switched to the guitar. His resounding return to the bow and the strings happened in 1994, during an international tour with Gangai Amaran and his troupe. On Amaran’s insistence, Amalraj played the violin for S.P. Balasubrahmanyam as the legend sang ‘Vaan Nila Nila Alla. “SPB praised me on the stage,” says the musician and recalls how much it boosted his confidence.
From that moment, Amalraj saw more successes. “I have worked with around 200 music directors from the Tamil, Malayalam, Telugu, Kannada and Hindi film industries and done over 6000 stage shows.” All these achievements have, however, not made him content — he keeps looking for new strings to add to his hat.