“My studio is like an MRI machine that shows the sonic health of artistes,” says Sai Shravanam. “It is a lab for sound and music — we can make out the quality of sound, music, voice — a kind of litmus test, you could say,” he adds.
It is understood then that the minute flaws that are overlooked (or go unnoticed) by the ear in a concert hall are exposed with alarming clarity within the confines of a studio. So it becomes a huge responsibility to work with a deep sense of understanding and a keen ear for music to bring out the best. Also it requires patience and a certain courage to deal with artistes. Both of which Sai Shravanam has, to make ‘Resound,’ the studio he founded ten years ago, a place much sought after by artistes.
Sai Shravanam shares memories and experiences from a journey, he was destined to undertake. For a few years until the Baba of Puttaparthi actually named him, he was just a baby without a name. His mother would have none else but the Baba christen the child and when the Baba finally did, He called him ‘Shravanam.’
Shravanam literally means ‘listening.’ And Sai Shravanam has lived up to his name, making a successful career of listening.
“Music is my heart, tabla is my passion and music arrangement and technology came naturally to me,” says Shravanam, whose journey in music began when he grew up listening to his mother sing Sai bhajans.
The ‘Wah Taj’ ad made famous by the inimitable Zakir Hussain captured the imagination of the six year old and he got drawn to the tabla.
One incident remains etched in his memory — at a concert featuring Zakir Hussain, the organisers decided to present the young Shravanam as a time-gap filler. He was surprised to see the maestro looking from the side wings to congratulate him. To Shravanam, it was a dream come true.
He was next noticed by santoor artiste, the late Visweswaran and his wife, Bharatanatyam exponent Chitra Visweswaran at a school programme. Soon, he not only started accompanying Visweswaran in his concerts, but also became a member of the dance orchestra, which to him was an enriching experience. In fact, the very first lesson from Zakir Hussian’s brother Fazal Qureshi began at Visweswaran’s home.
In 1996, Shravanam won the Child prodigy Ugadi Puraskar for Tabla. And he never lost an opportunity to learn, whenever he came in touch with masters and legends.
He tackled academics alongside and his project with IIT for his Masters (MU) — Music Synthesis And Production using Computers — won him acclaim and a gold medal in 2004.
For three years, 2003-2005, he was Project Associate for IIT — developing and designing a recording chamber. He initially began recording for musicians and music companies by hiring space, but after he quit IIT, became aimless and dejected. He then went to the Baba and on his advice founded a studio at home.
Musicians and dancers sought him and Shravanam soon won the affection and support of the fraternity. He was able to guide them in music arrangement and which instruments or what music would work for a piece. His ability to bring out the best in every artiste, young or senior, was the deciding factor. He sees himself as the catalyst between the music composer and musician.
“Artistes have always heeded my suggestion,” says Shravanam. Legends like Balamurali would ask him: “Unakku correcta irukka?” (Does it sound right for you) Lalgudi Jayaraman told him: “Why were you not born when I was playing?” “These responses by the greats have been humbling.”
He feels that every musical creation that goes out of his studio must be perfect enough to be preserved for posterity. In a studio recording, the ‘minutest’ detail gets magnified and Shravanam lends support not only during the recording, but also during the post-production phase (where intense work goes on), just so that every little note and nuance fall in place.
He shares several behind-the-scenes stories — some like what he described earlier and some that made him realise that he has to push aside his pride/ego if he has to get results.
Once, the renowned mridangam vidwan Karaikudi Mani had come to his studio with one of his students. The mike was all set for the performing student, who had his headphones on and began playing. There were many takes, but Mani sir was not happy. What happened next was an eye-opener for Shravanam. Mani sir exchanged places with the young performer and began playing without the headphones. The sound was brilliant. Says Shravanam, “It was the same microphone, same mridangam and the same studio. It punctured my ego because here I was with the state-of-the-art equipment but that was no match for the instinctive naadam that great artistes bring with them — that are born from their tapas.”
Again, on another occasion, Mani sir was playing Sankeeranam solo to a metronome. There was a power failure which disabled the feedback. I had a back up for my console room recording and found that he was in perfect sync with the metronome while I was unaware of his muted feedback. Mani sir prompted after the take that he couldn’t hear the metronome. It was a revelation to me that artistes like these are superhuman metronomes who are born with a clock in them.”
This one is about Balamuralikrishna. “Whenever the artiste sings, we have to loop the tambura and the sruti reaches the artiste through the headphones; but the tambura plays for a brief while and we need to reloop,” explains Shravanam. The legend began ‘Ksheerasagara,’ and was soon immersed in it. The tambura had stopped, but there was no way Shravanam could alert the legend. He waited until the song ended and looped the tambura to his recorded music and when he played it, not a note was out of pitch. Balamurali was in his 80s then. “Sruti box ‘sa’ kaatarthuku dhaan, koodave irukkanam nu illai” (The sruti box is only to indicate the basic note; it is not necessary that it must stay on with us). Shravanam understood the true meaning of the saying, ‘sruti maata, layam pita.’
Shravanam had always been inclined towards Hindustani classical and this changed when he met Rajkumar Bharati. “After I was exposed to the depth of knowledge that Bharati had, a new world opened up to me.” When Rajkumar Bharati lost his voice, he was devastated. Yet, his potential as composer, music director and singer was tapped with the help of technology. It was the studio that became his altar where technology enabled him to sing as and when his voice cooperated and revealed a new dimension of his talent.
And there are some discordant notes too. Like when this senior musician came to his studio to record and Shravanam told him to pay attention to pitch and tempo. After a few takes, the musician told him: “You mind your job (which is that of a sound engineer) and I will mind mine!” Sai realised that artiste-maintenance was important and that he had to be tactful. A violinist left his studio when told to tune his instrument before every take. He realised that he had to find a balance between quality of music and sentiments of artistes.
His experience makes Shravanam compare musicians of different generations. “Yesteryear artistes can produce volume, which is twice or three times that of the current generation of artistes — at least most of them — and they can/could reach a range from the lowest octave to the highest with ease. They concentrated on their music and surprisingly it had all the elements — they did not worry about voice culture, texture or finesse because all these are by-products of music. I have had the best of Nedunuri sir at 82, Balamurali sir at 85 and it made me realise that music in its purest form is like honey (original) and it really needs no refinement.”
In 2015, Shravanam was credited as music producer, arranger, musician and sound recordist for the movie, The Man Who Knew Infinity , directed by Mathew Brown. More recently, it was in Malavika Sarukkai’s production ‘Thari’ that his keen sense of understanding of sound came in for praise. He created a soundtrack using the sounds and rhythm of weaving and the looms.
Sai Shravanam is in his studio 24/7. Well, almost. This sound engineer of Life of Pi fame has completed ten years in his aesthetically done up studio space in Chennai. It will be worth the wait to see the sound tales he spins in another decade’s time.
The ARR magic
Among the musicians Sai Shravanam admires, two names stand out — tabla maestro Zakir Hussain and Oscar winning composer A.R. Rahman, whom he feels has changed the world of sound engineering in India. Of course, his favourite singer is Bombay Jayashri, who sang for the first commercial album that he released. While he was playing at the Kennedy Centre in the U.S., he received a call from Rahman’s office inviting him to perform for the live concert of the Jai Ho Oscar World Tour show that was to happen the next day at Singapore. “Wonderful tone and wonderful playing,” said the great man after the concert. Ever since, Shravanam has been the principal tabla player for the composer at both live concerts and recordings
Life of Pi
Shravanam speaks of the many wonderful opportunities and collaborations. Bombay Jayashri once approached him to record for a piece that she was to sing. It was only later that he found out what the project was all about — it was a recording for the much-talked about Oscar nominated movie, Life of Pi . He soon received an email from Fox Studios that foxed him. They wanted a remote location recording done live. Shravanam wrote back saying that he did not own a source connect licence but was excited about the project. Fox procured the licence for him, connected him to the engineering department of their studio and their computer team. The work began and the rest, as they is, history. Mychael Danna even wrote a letter of appreciation. To Sai, that was the threshold of a wider world that he was getting ready for. He had the opportunity to collaborate with German Symphony orchestra and Karaikudi Mani and they wrote the score for the symphony — Carnatic rhythm and Hindustani rhythm notated and used in symphonic music