Raagam and thaalam brings American Shankar Tucker to India
Everything about this young American screams fusion beginning with his name — Shankar Tucker. He's been playing the clarinet for 14 years, but thinks in ragas instead of chords. And, not surprisingly, his YouTube channel, TheShrutiBox, has gone viral — his music videos (original compositions and covers) have amassed over eight lakh views in just two months.
The 23-year-old American's first name has had many curious. “My family visits Amritanandamayi every time she's in the U.S. She gave me the name ‘Shankar' when I was very young, and I have gone by it ever since, both in the U.S. and in India,” he says.
Shankar graduated from New England Conservatory in Boston last year, where he studied orchestral clarinet performance. As his intrigue for Indian classical music grew, he obtained a scholarship to study with flute maestro Hariprasad Chaurasia in Mumbai.
“It wasn't until high school that I got involved with Indian classical music and started playing it on my own. Then, I was fascinated by improvisation. I made a resolution to learn Indian classical music after I graduated from college. I took lessons from Peter Row, a sitar player. He introduced me to the concepts of raagam and thaalam, and started teaching me the basics of Indian classical performance. With his help, I received the scholarship,” he says.
Apart from the clarinet, Shankar also plays the piano, bass, kanjira, tabla and other percussion instruments. And a couple of months ago, he launched TheShrutiBox. “I started the YouTube channel because I had a few new compositions I wanted to share with people. I didn't have any concert opportunities, so I thought I would record the parts myself, make it into a video and post it online. I have done eight videos on YouTube so far. At this point I see it as a way to share my music, but I'm hoping I will soon be able to turn it into a profession. The response has been overwhelmingly positive and encouraging.”
His tryst with India since September has now made him think in terms of sargams and ragas, he reveals. “My stay here has been nothing short of life-changing. It is not just an adjustment of living in India versus the West, but my musical standpoint has completely shifted. Instead of thinking Western notation and chords or counting to eight or 16, I think teentaal or aadhi taalam. Although my scholarship is only for one year, I am planning to stay on in India for longer, to continue studying, absorbing the culture, and making music,” he explains.
Did he face any challenges in infusing Indian classical music into the clarinet? “When I first started, I was frustrated by the technical challenges of trying to bend the notes to create gamakam,” he says. “But I did not want to move to a new instrument because I loved the sound of the clarinet, and leave behind my previous years of practising.”
Shankar's future plans revolve around music. “I'm planning to start production on a series of mini-albums that will only be available online. There are going to be projects with the Iyer sisters, Nirali Kartik, and a few other musicians. I'm also getting a band together for live shows in the upcoming concert season. The group will be a combination of musicians from Chennai and Mumbai, and we will be exploring some exciting new fusion sounds.”