Chennai Margazhi season

Honour revisits this prodigy

Chitravina N. Ravikiran

Chitravina N. Ravikiran   | Photo Credit: S_R_Raghunathan

Creator of Melharmony and several ragas and an enthusiastic collaborator — music is a way of life for Sangita Kalanidhi designate, Chitravina N. Ravikiran

“To those who have struggled with them, the mountains reveal beauties that they will not disclose to those who make no effort... The mountains reserve their choice gifts for those who stand upon their summits” - Sir Francis Younghusband.

Nothing can be closer to truth than this statement as we unravel the life story of Chitravina Ravikiran, for he did not reach the summit by sheer luck or destiny. The closest to explaining the phenomenon called Ravikiran could be the term Prarabdham and the complete passion coupled with single-minded dedication from the man who sowed the seed (his father and guru, vidwan Chitravina Narasimhan) and from Ravikiran himself as an active participant and recipient in the process of nurture. To Ravikiran should go the credit of not merely scaling different peaks, but constantly chiselling himself and inventing and reinventing teaching methodologies in a scientific manner.

His first concert

His first public performance was in Malleswaram Sangeeta Sabha, Bangalore. . It was Dr. V. Raghavan, who extended his hospitality to the family, while arranging the boy to be presented at Madras. It was in the famed hall of the Music Academy in the same year, 1969, that Ravikiran began his career that saw a meteoric rise. A galaxy of vidwans arrived to test the child. Ravi began identifying and rendering 325 ragas, 175 talas and also answering complex questions that prompted the Music Academy to award the child prodigy a scholarship making him the only recipient so far. The music world hailed the arrival of the child prodigy. In 2017, the Music Academy once again has chosen to confer upon the prodigious genius, its most prestigious award, the Sangita Kalanidhi.

At the age of five, Ravikiran gave his first vocal concert in Coimbatore. He recalls with gratitude all the great vidwans, who not only attended his kutcheris but also encouraged him, imparting and sharing knowledge. “These helped me evolve as a musician,” says Ravikiran, who was home schooled, guided by his mother Choodamani, aunt Saraswathy and grandmother. It was his father who opened his mind to arithmetic, science and of course to the world of music — making him listen, absorb, analyse different ragas and talas while also teaching to notate which helped him later to collaborate with different genres of music.

He also grew up listening to stories and incidents woven around the songs, understanding not only their meaning, but the import of the context, which would lend itself to the delivery of the song. Thus to him, content, intent and delivery, (“CID” as he calls it) became the crux of his music, a point he impresses upon his young students and a point pertinent to all genres of art, especially when faced with the task of having to identify good quality music. He feels that an artiste at all times should give importance to ‘intent’ which is about honesty and integrity; an artiste should be honest to himself and his audience. “Never take the audience for granted irrespective of city, venue, level or age,” says he.

The years 1972-77 saw him performing vocal concerts in different places. His father slowly introduced him to the chitravina (his grandfather Narayana Iyengar and father played the instrument).

By 1978, Ravikiran set on his new voyage and soon became synonymous with the instrument. He switched to a 21-string chitravina and began presenting several concerts. After a concert in Delhi, the then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi discovered that Ravikiran was undergoing home schooling. Imagine the family’s surprise when on arrival at home, they were greeted by the Principal of Kendriya Vidyalaya, who was ready to give Ravikiran admission in Class Four. The boy happily discovered his other loves such as chess, table tennis and cricket. “But I soon discovered that my passion did not match my talent,” laughs Ravikiran referring to his love for cricket. . When it comes to teaching students, he admits, “it is attitude more than aptitude that I seek.”

Learning the nuances

Ravikiran reminisces how his father would keep him awake to listen to National Music on AIR. So he listened to the best of concerts and understood the nuances of even Hindustani music. “I begin to understand the thought process behind this. While it is necessary to prepare a field for the sowing of seeds, it is equally important to have a well to water it.”

His thirst for learning never ceased and one day when he listened to T. Brinda, he realised that he wanted to partake the musical wealth she possessed. “Her one phrase had everything in it.” It was Y.G. Doraiswamy, who took him to meet Brindamma, who readily accepted him as her disciple. He remembers that the next day she taught him ‘Sri Kamalambika.’ She was a repository of not only Kshetrayya padams and javalis, but also of very rare compositions of the Trinity of Carnatic music and Patnam Subramania Iyer. Ravikiran blossomed under her guidance and tutelage. Apart from the repertoire, he imbibed her way of thinking and approach. “Hers was a voice that could move from very slow to very fast. She was the most uncompromising traditionalist, who would never waver from her values,” observes Ravikiran.

In the year 1990, the year vidwan D.K. Jayaraman was awarded Sangita Kalanidhi, a resolution was passed in the Music Academy and gottuvadyam shed its colloquial name to acquire and be known by its more authentic name mentioned in the Natyasastra — Chitravina.

‘Sivane aanalum tapas panninadhaan Sakti’ was his father’s constant refrain, implying that he would have to work at it continuously. Ravikiran took the advice seriously. His father encouraged him to listen to several audio recordings and live concerts and to imbibe the essence without attempting to imitate.

Ravikiran recalls how in the early years his brother Sashikiran would critique every concert. It was this feedback from the family that helped him chisel himself into a finer musician. “Growth can happen only when criticism is accepted. Of course, it should be “informed criticism from an impeccable source.”

By the time he entered Class Seven, kutcheris had taken over his life. Though he concentrated on chitravina, he presented vocal concerts too. When he was 18, he performed a 24-hour non-stop solo concert in Chennai.

Ravikiran remembers the many memorable jugalbandis that he had with several notable musicians including Balamurali Krishna and Mandolin U. Shrinivas.

Besides being a prolific composer (over 800 pieces including Indian classical, melharmonic, world and contemporary), he has also introduced several ragas. He has composed in Hindi, Sanskrit, Tamil, Kannada and Telugu. He is the first to create pieces in 35 talas of Carnatic music and the only composer to come up with a 72-mela ragamalika gitam, a 13-part piece spanning over 72 parent ragas in seven minutes and has to his credit varnams in rare talas. He has the distinction of composing a whole piece with only descending phrases! At this point, Ravikiran mentions what Pt. Ravi Shankar told him when he met him. “I remember you as the boy who told his father while taking the elevator down, ‘appa, we are going in avarohanam!’”

In early 2016, the chitravina exponent reached another milestone — he tuned the 1,330 verses of Tirukkural in 16 hours. His special creations for dance operas brought him into close contact with stalwart-dancers such as Radha, Pt. Birju Maharaj, Vyjayantimala Bali, Prof. C.V. Chandrashekar and Adyar Lakshman.

While learning, assimilating, performing, Ravikiran was thinking about how he should share Carnatic music with the world audience. In 1987, violin virtuoso L. Subramanian invited him for the recording of a pop music album. Soon, many musicians of international repute began collaborating with him. Ravikiran had seen the work of great musicians and their contribution to world music. But he also saw a lot of music that came under the banner of ‘fusion music.’ He decided that the time had come to “infuse good music,” and when opportunities came his way, he welcomed it wholeheartedly.

Birth of Melharmony

When he was invited to the U.K. to perform at the Millennium Festival in 2000 (Ravikiran-BBC Philharmonic collaboration for Kalasangam’s Global Echoes), it turned out to be a new era for the world of music. It marked the birth of Melharmony.

The success of this venture was followed by several melharmonic concerts, collaborations, paper presentations and recognition from the cities of Madison and Middleton.

In 2013, the city of Middleton declared the third Saturday of every November as Melharmony Day. In 2015, Madison followed suit declaring November 8 as the day.

Ravikiran collaborated with noted western composer and music theorist, Robert Morris (Eastman School of Music, NY) and the two developed and expounded the Academic rigour of Melharmony from the standpoints of Eastern harmony and Western melody. “Melharmony is a system that takes into cognizance the rules and aesthetics of both melody and harmony-centred systems (like traditional Indian/Chinese and Classical Western/Jazz). It showcases the similarities between diverse systems while embracing the distinctions too.”

While this is revolutionary, one cannot but admire the methodical mind of Ravikiran. Ravikiran admits that though he has few/no memories of the manner in which his father taught him, he paid a lot of attention to the teaching methodology, when his father taught his siblings and his cousin.

He recalls how his father had the spikes of the gates in their home painted — 18 on one side, 18 on the other — 36 in all; each of the spikes was coloured and was assigned a raga. So once they had learnt 36, they would come backwards counting another 36 to finally be ready with 72 melakarta ragas. Though he was not taught in this way, what impressed Ravi was the manner in which his father kept polishing his teaching method.

It was this among several other influences that propelled him to excel at every stage and every concert. He has created several melharmonic arrangements based on the works of traditional composers. His ‘raga-based’ (not just raga-influenced) compositions have influenced several composers, including Polivios Issariotis.

While acknowledging the importance of technology, something he uses extensively (pioneered online training programme akin to Flipped Classroom education system in the U.S., initiated distance teaching through tele-teaching), he clarifies, “technology should at best be a supplement not a substitute for teaching/learning.”

Ravikiran is an institution by himself. A great singer, fabulous instrumentalist, a prolific composer, an author and an avid blogger, who chooses to blog on every subject from inertia and integers to cricket. Creator of Melharmony and several ragas, a designer who fashioned his own instrument, head of several worthy projects, Ravikiran has earned every award — international, national and State.

Busy with several projects and many tasks at hand, the Sangita Kalanidhi’s Aarohanam phase continues.

When I became Naganandini

Honour revisits this prodigy

The two-year-old boy reminded me of the dark-hued, mischievous divine child Krishna. I was 18 and enjoyed carrying around this child prodigy during his stay in our house (Dr. V. Raghavan’s) on his first visit to Madras in 1969. The child was happily singing or humming ragas even when playing. You could ask him anything related to music and at any time of the day. He would call me ‘Naganandini,’ the 30th Melakarta raga. During the entire stay, he would address me so with great amusement. - Nandini Ramani

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Printable version | Feb 27, 2020 9:23:25 AM |

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