Guitarist Prasanna presented an RTP in one single scale all the way, something unique indeed!

The vibrations you feel with your audience counts as much as the virtuosity you exhibit on stage, suggests guitarist R. Prasanna, and says the reason why he has come to be identified with this (rather than any other) musical instrument was accidental. He grew up in Ranipet listening to a neighbour practise the guitar to play at the local church. That caught the little boy’s fancy. He subsequently trained under Tiruvarur Subramaniam and has been tutored for 25 years by the eminent violinist A. Kanyakumari.

Today, the New York-based Prasanna is the president of the Swarnabhoomi Academy of Music, located on the East Coast Road.

“I am not a big fan of playing ragamalika when I play a RTP,” observes Prasanna, after his recital. His preference would be to present RTP in one single scale all the way. “But I like the idea of a ragamalika because it is an interesting concept.” In the event, he performed an RTP in ragamalika fashion, not just in the pallavi as it is customary with artists.

What Prasanna termed the ‘Four-on-Five’ RTP comprised Revathi, Hamsadhwani, Hindolam and Mohanam. Each one of these four scales is, as readers would know, based on five notes; hence the name.

Prasanna dwelt at some length on each of these scales in the initial exposition, in the tanam and pallavi. Each of the four phrases in the pallavi represented a different raga. ‘Anandam, Satchidanandham, Paripoorna, Brahmmosmi,’ were assigned to Revathi, Hamsadhwani, Hindolam and Mohanam, respectively.

Thus, here is one pallavi composed in different ragas. Quite unlike the regular pallavi which is tuned and presented first in one raga and subsequently repeated in a sequence of several ragas one after another.

Prasanna then alludes to a one-time famous pallavi to stress his point. ‘Sankarabharananai Azhaithodi Vaadi’ that Ariyakkudi is said to have sung often. But then, says Prasanna, with ragas such as Sankarabharanam and Thodi, it calls for some effort on the part of listeners to grasp the swift movement from one scale to another. On the contrary, Revathi and Hamsadhwani involve opposing rishabham and nishadam. Hindolam and Mohanam give prominence to rival gandharam and dhaivatham. The contrast in either case is too striking and with little effort, listeners can notice a marked change of mood.

You get some idea about the complex nature of his own composition while talking to him, even if you did not appreciate it in all its intricate details, when Prasanna presented his pallavi on stage. Since it was made up of four ragas, readers may be right to surmise that the pallavi (and even the RTP for that matter) was in itself a ragamalika.

Then, when he played a ragamalika proper – ragas in sequential order - Prasanna was per force committed to pick up each of the four ragas at different points of the rhythmic cycle. This was because, as we noted earlier, each raga had one of its own corresponding phrase in the pallavi. You might as well infer that each raga had its own pallavi, distinct and different from the rest; even though they were all part of one larger entity. In the case of Mohanam for instance, the pallavi meant ‘Brahmmosmi,’ for Hamsadhwani, it was ‘Satchidanandham. And so forth.

Accordingly, when Prasanna returned to the pallavi after a spell of improvisation in each raga, the point of reference in the rhythmic cycle was also necessarily different. Revathi commenced on the 4 mantra, Hamsadhwani appeared on the 16th, Hindolam showed up on the 46th and Mohanam surged forth on the 58th mantra (or aksharam as it is known in Telugu) in the 64 maathra count of Adi tala. The exercise was thus both an intellectual and an aesthetic challenge.

By contrast, in a regular pallavi, matters are far more straightforward. First, the entire pallavi is presented separately in each single raga that comprises the ragamalika. Second and related, the point where the pallavi commences is common to them all - the beginning of the rhythmic cycle – no matter which raga the pallavi is played in.

Explaining his other reason why the idea of a ragamalika appeals to him, Prasanna says, “I explore the shades while playing the pallavi. I like to present sonority, texture, colour and shades in my music. You can display enormous amounts of visual imagery in a pallavi like this.” Revathi and Hindolam carry a dark mood whereas Hamsadhwani and Mohanam embody a brighter appeal. Prasanna probably implies that we visualise a colour appropriate to the mood a raga creates.

Substantiating this aspect, Prasanna says that most often in Carnatic music, the imagery is already a given because of the nature of the composition. (He presumably implies that the lyrics in a composition necessarily presuppose a certain image – say appropriately of a deity or a temple, considering that the kritis are devotional in their essence). But then, the musician in Prasanna emphasises that ragas are abstract and eminently capacious to convey more imagery than that.

At this point, the conversation shifts altogether to another plane - the place of virtuosity and vibrations. In effect, “the aspect of playing the pallavi is just a craft,” says the artist. “But what I would like to give listeners must be something unique to me being there and they being there. It should be a moment that they can take back with them that is not there in other concerts. Because I am a different human being and so are they.”

Preceding the RTP was the Abhogi song ‘Srimahaganapathe’ of N.S. Ramachandran. Readers must take this reviewer’s word for what it is worth when he says that he could guess these opening lines simply from the sounds emanating from the guitar. This says a great deal about the close alignment between the tune the artist plays and the lyrics of the song.

Dikshitar’s kriti in Kamalamanohari followed next. The short essays in both the above scales and improvisation were outstandingly fluent, also occasioning comparisons with different variants of instruments of the veena family.

Syama Sastri's swarajati in Bhairavi and ‘Marivere Dikkevaru’ of Patnam Subramanya Iyer in Shanmukhapriya were kritis that depicted difference in tempo and mood.

Looking back on the recital, you wonder if Tyagaraja’s ‘Vandanamu Raghunandana’ was presented immediately prior to that towering RTP with a view to propitiate the Almighty to accomplish what seems like an almost impossible pallavi.

Prapancham Ravindran on the mridangam, N. Amrith on the ghatam and S.V. Ramani on the ganjira made the most of the additional space an instrumental recital allows for the percussion display.