Uday Shankar's musical cocktail

Uday Shankar explores new musical avenues through Chitra-Venu

Uday Shankar explores new musical avenues through Chitra-Venu

The atmosphere in Spaces is almost meditative. The scent of sambrani fills the air. And, a cocktail of sounds wraps around us — string, flute and a slide instrument.

Uday Shankar is seated next to a four-legged instrument rocking back and forth. Perched on the wooden box is a slide with a flute featuring one hole.

His hands move deftly as he plays Darbari Kanada on the strings, and (as he describes it) “chips away notes from the flute with his tongue” as he slides the bar with his left hand. The end result of this complex movement? A curious sound scape of melody and rhythm.

Chitra-Venu is the name of the instrument he has invented, for which he has American patents. An engineer, who divides his time between the US and India, Shankar began learning music in his 40s, tutored under his friend and Chitravina maestro N Ravikiran. He is also self taught. “And, Internet has also been a great blessing.”

The name is inspired from the Chitravina, which he also learnt to play. “However, the principal with which Chitra-Venu works is primarily like a flute, but with tweaks. Instead of too many holes, you have the sliding instrument and for percussion, the strings that work like a rhythm guitar and classical guitar at the same time. It requires a lot of skill to play this instrument,” he says. The Chitra-Venu is a combination of a string and wind instrument. The idea occurred to Shankar in 2009. “I wanted to challenge myself. Chitra-Venu is a hard instrument to play as you need breath control of a flautist, sliding control of a trombonist and must be able to strum the strings like a classical guitarist.”

Floyd meets Kedaragowla

In Shankar’s music, strains from Western and Eastern soundscapes intermingle. Though he is a Chennai boy, fed on a staple diet of kutcheris, he says he was exposed to international music during his stint as a student in NIT, Trichy. So, do not be surprised to find a strain of Pink Floyd creep in while he plays. “I am also influenced by classical Baroque music like Johann Sebastian Bach,” he says, adding that ‘Shine on You Crazy Diamond’ and ‘Comfortably Numb’ take him back to his college days.”

A student of the University of Illinois in the US, Shankar has assisted companies in medical device designing. Music, despite being a passion, was a marginal presence in his life. Till now. “I know I have a solid retirement plan for the next ten years,” he smiles.

He has performed in Chennai and abroad and responses have been, well, mixed. In Argentina, at the World Flutes Festival, his audience responded with a standing ovation. “They were intrigued by the visual spectacle of the instrument, mounted on tripods.” On the other hand, the audience at the Cleveland Thyagaraja Festival were merely curious. The instrument assumed its present form only a couple of years ago. “I started working on it in 2009. Then, it was just the flute and sliding instrument with a surmandal hanging for resonance. In 2016, the 35-strings part was added with a tampura section.”

Rebel notes

You also find a strong presence of Hindustani music, while Shankar plays Chitra-Venu. He says unlike the Gayaki tradition in Carnatic music, where the instrumentalist replicates the exact notes of the vocalist, each instrument in the Hindustani repertoire comes with its own unique flavours. The level of experimentation in Carnatic music is still very limited, he says. “There is a high degree of technical perfection. It requires stupendous amount of imagination to take a new innovation to the standard of what already exists. The Carnatic system has already attained a state of steadiness. It is an immense challenge for the performer to make it interesting.”

He wants to create a musical conversation between the strings, and the wind and slide instruments. “I do not strictly limit the music to any genre. The instrument is to fulfil my musical journey. Who cares? Music is music. Purists can take the door.”

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Printable version | May 27, 2022 10:25:13 pm |