Shankar Tucker on how he tuned his ‘pardesi’ clarinet to play the tunes of Hindustani classical music

Going viral means more in Shankar Tucker’s case. Being a hit online has given him the chance to compose music from an independent Tamil film by Vignarajan. What started as a collaboration with friends, a video-camera and a passion for music, Shankar’s online baby, Shruti Box has garnered more than 10 million views. Does this growing popularity scare him? He laughs and says, “Yeah maybe. I feel like there is a lot of pressure to deliver. Once you’ve set a standard, you can’t fool around after that!”

There is a certain air of mystery that shrouds this 25-year-old. You want to know who-what-when-where and how of Shankar’s life, because he is the blonde-haired clarinet-holding boy who loves Hindustani music. Shankar’s parents have always been devotees of Amritanandamayi. He was christened as ‘Shankar’ by her; he refuses to part with details of his given name, at least not on the record.

He laughs and says that his grandfather almost tricked him into taking up the clarinet. Shankar recalls how his grandfather sat him down and introduced him to the basics of music. About the choice of instrument and says, “I wanted to play the saxophone when I was young. It’s a noisy instrument, and it also helped that my family owned a clarinet. So clarinet it had to be!” In retrospect he says that choosing the clarinet over the saxophone has done him more good than harm. Trained in western classical music and with a firm foot in jazz, Shankar found himself gradually moving away and towards Hindustani classical music. “Jazz wasn’t a good fit for the clarinet. Jazz clarinet gets easily typecast; 1930s Benny Goodman style… and I didn’t want to do that,” he adds. “Jazz was limiting for me because people thought I was doing a certain kind of music. My move was gradual. I used to listen to it all the time. I explored it along with my friends at first,” says Shankar.

At 15, Shankar claims, he found a Remembering Shakti CD and discovered John McLaughlin and Hariprasad Chaurasia; he went on to study under the latter. “From there I went on to collect Hindustani classical music,” he says. What kind of freedom in music is he looking for in his pursuits? Shankar laughs and says that it’s driven by intrigue. He says he overcame the challenges that shadow the pursuit of Hindustani classical: the concept of ragam, talam and gamakas. He says that there is a crossover between western and Hindustani music. He confesses to have contemplated giving it all up, “I looked for shortcuts, but I just coaxed myself into learning. It was difficult getting around to the stylistics. Hours and hours of practice took care of that,” he smiles.

Shankar looked for scholarships to study music in India and he bagged the Frank Huntington Beebe fund. Studying in India, he says made a lot of difference. “Indian music requires you to immerse yourself in it. Either you have to grow up with it or be surrounded by it. Most western musicians don’t have the ear for this kind of music,” he says. Visibly enchanted by Hindustani music, he says that limitations come with all forms of music, “Music is limited by a certain set of notes. You’ll always have those restrictions, but the idea is to remain within and explore beyond… I don’t know if I am making sense,” he smiles and sips on his tea.

Crowd puller

Shankar Tucker performed in the city as a part of The Park’s New Festival 2012. Tucker and his troupe opened with their internet favourite Mitwa which was followed by Manmohini. You just knew the audience was sold as you could see the crowd cheering with excitement. They ended the show with Aaj Jaaney Ki Zidd Na Karo and were egged on by the crowd to sing one song more. Much to our pleasure, they sang Munbe Vaa.