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Making it big on the right pitch

K. Pradeep
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In conversation P. Unnikrishnan has made his mark in classical music and film music. He explains how it is a challenge to cater to different kinds of music buffs. K. Pradeep

P. Unnikrishnan is one of the rare singers who successfully straddle classical, light and film songs with finesse. For Unnikrishnan, Carnatic music came much before he made a foray in film and light music. Trained by stalwarts such as V.L. Seshadri, S. Ramanathan, T. Brinda, Savitri Satyamurthy, Calcutta Krishnamurthy and P.S. Narayanaswamy, Unnikrishnan emphasises that Carnatic music is and will remain his first choice.

Unnikrishnan, who made a thumping debut in film music with the A.R. Rahman number ‘Ennavale...’ (Kadalan; O Sakhiya Na Priya Sakhiya in Premikudu , the Telugu version ), which also fetched him the National award, feels that it opened up new vistas for him as a musician.

The singer, in an interview with FridayReview , talks about the challenges, new film projects, and more. Excerpts from the interview…

Singing a kutcheri at a crowded temple festival or at a packed venue of a film music programme must be a challenge...

As a Carnatic musician I enjoy singing before such an audience. It is a challenge. But I can read them; I see them enjoying the nuances or sometimes even expressing their displeasure. That helps me and inspires me to sing better than before.

Do you prepare for such concerts?

Normally I check with the organisers to understand what the audience generally expects from you. Based on their feedback, I plan the basic structure of my concert. Singing in a Sabha is different from singing at a remote temple where the tastes of the audience can be mixed and varied; it becomes important sometimes to give them something that is familiar with a dash of rare kritis and ragas. A brief explanation or an attempt to educate and create awareness can also be helpful. At the end of the day you must derive satisfaction from your concerts. I believe that if you are able to effectively and interestingly package a concert the audience will enjoy it. I can’t say how I do it but over the years, after singing at more than 2,000 concerts, there is something called the pulse of the audience that you feel as soon as you sit on stage. That excitement is what keeps you going.

Do you sing to please the purists or the masses?

This is what I sometimes do when there is a need to please the two diverse groups in the audience. When I take a raga, such as Thodi, for instance, I elaborate it without compromising on the aesthetics. I try to bring out all the colours and shades of the raga. The purists usually like this though the others may tend to feel a little lost. But as soon as I begin the kriti, say ‘Thaye Yashoda…’ or a ‘Kripaya palaya…’, I get an immediate response through the applause or from their smiles. Gradually, through repeated listening, the uninitiated also start appreciating the alaaps and the swaraprasthara. Many people have the wrong notion that Carnatic music is just about singing kritis of the Trinity. But there is so much to it – devotion, bhava, mathematics, aesthetics. A lifetime is not enough to master it.

Developing one’s repertoire is what a vocalist needs to keep doing. How do you go about it?

I keep going to the masters almost regularly. Whenever I’m free I go to Narayanaswamy, Janakiraman or even M. Balamuralikrishna and learn rare kritis from them. Their experience is invaluable. I, like any singer, tend to make mistakes, rather unconsciously. During these sessions I get the opportunity to correct them.

The audio industry is on a downslide these days. How do you reach out to the audience, to your fans?

It is the biggest challenge we, as musicians, are facing. Thankfully, we have the Internet, which helps us reach out to music fans around the world. Although piracy has killed the audio industry, the Internet does offer musicians the chance to showcase their music and make it available to fans all over the world.

You are a popular playback singer. But we have not heard much of your ganamelas or such ‘live’ programmes…

I do light music shows too but very selectively. I am more comfortable singing a live classical music concert than a ganamela. It’s not easy singing a film song on stage with a huge orchestra. You need a lot of practice! It’s a huge challenge.

You are the first male singer in Tamil to win a National award, the first singer to be honoured for his debut film song. What has film music given you?

I would say my turning point was singing for films because it's a very powerful medium and that led to many things – the first being the national award. It also opens up a new horizon as a musician.


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