A smiling young man opens the door to a beautiful home and sings 10-12 second snippets of 73 Indian classical ragas in quick succession, effortlessly and instantaneously when prompted, while casually walking around the house. The camera follows him, shooting without any cuts, for the entire 14 minutes. Abby V’s 73 Ragas video received millions of views online after it was posted in January last year.
We might have heard of Abby V then, but he has been singing, composing and recording music for years now. He has won several prizes at the Cleveland Thyagaraja Aradhana and from Mumbai’s Shanmukhananda Sabha in multiple categories, including Best Senior Vocalist. He sings pop, R&B, Hip-Hop, Hindi and Tamil film songs, ghazals and qawwali with equal ease. In 2019, he released a solo album, First of All , featuring eight original songs in English, Hindi and Tamil. “I am all things pop and intrigued by everything consumed by the masses. I continue to follow these genres and am a fan of Chris Brown, Usher, Justin Timberlake.” Abby is a huge admirer of A.R. Rahman. “Successful combining of Indian classical aspects with Western concepts like chords and polyphonic arrangements results in magicians like him,” he says.
Born in India, Abby Venkatachalam grew up in Toronto, Canada, where he continues to live. “I was like any other diaspora kid, except that I spent a significant time singing after school,” he says. His father, Venky Venkatachalam, sang Indian film songs as a hobby and performed in diaspora functions. “He exposed me to the music of Laxmikant Pyarelal, R.D. Burman, Ilaiyaraja, M.S. Viswanathan, etc.” Abby would sing pop and R&B and do karaoke with his father on Indian film jingles. He also sang with him on stage, his first official performance being on his seventh birthday. “When a child that age sings, people are loving and accepting. That made me view the stage in a very positive manner.”
His formal training in Indian classical music began at age 12 with local Carnatic and Hindustani classes which, he confesses, he found boring and hardly assimilated. It was movie songs based on classical music that later sparked his interest in the classical genre. The fluency in the fast taans (akaaram) in ‘Kuhu kuhu’ (from the Hindi movie Suvarna Sundari ) and ‘Pattum Naane’ (from the Tamil movie Thiruvilaiyadal ) really spoke to him, leaving him fascinated.
At around the same time, he witnessed a televised concert of Carnatic vocalists Ranjani and Gayatri on Jaya TV and “was mesmerised.” He reheard each piece of their concert, beginning with the abhang (“the concluding pieces are easier for the masses to appreciate”), trying to comprehend what was happening musically. He requested the sisters to take him on as a student and they agreed. These were augmented with classes from vocalist Raji Gopalakrishnan, who visited Toronto every summer. “She made me really comfortable with manodharma. Unlike some others who might say ‘you are not ready yet’ or ‘learn something else first’, Raji Gopalakrishnan let me try and encouraged my attempts.”
Abby realised he had an inherent comfort with the concept of ragas — Hindustani and Carnatic. His father had tested him from a young age. “He would sing the strain of a raga and ask me what song I knew in it and the reverse too.” Venkatachalam would also point out intricacies — the addition of the antara gandharam in the concluding stanza of ‘Mere naina sawan badhon’ (from Mehbooba ), for example, which made Sivaranjani into Misra Sivaranjani.
Abby, who also has a degree in Music Performance and Technology from Metalworks Institute, has trained in Western classical vocals along with piano and guitar lessons in childhood. He synergises the various techniques across genres when he sings and composes. Western voice pedagogy, for example, imparts a lot of training in breath control and the source of the sound (the chest, nasal and head voices) and how to bridge them. He finds this useful when he sings Indian music too. For fast kalpanaswarams, which are all consonant sounds, lip drills, an exercise that stimulates blood circulation to the mouth area, improves enunciation and clarity. When he composes pop or R&B pieces, he often brings in different nadais , and even some alien notes, taking inspiration from bhashanga ragas.
‘73 Ragas’ was the first video where Abby showed himself online. He took his time venturing into the digital space, he says. He has since been releasing videos regularly — film, classical and more, including collaborations with many other artistes. Before the pandemic set in, Abby had performance bookings, including in India. “I am looking forward to visiting as soon as I can and interacting with the wonderful people who have reached out to me,” he says.
The author writes on
classical music and musicians.