Five kids have assembled below ‘Guitar’ Prasanna’s MRC Nagar apartment on a balmy evening. They’re trudging along to his house, each carrying a heavy guitar and sophisticated equipment.
Very soon, they’re at a class with Prasanna, well known in local musical circles for popularising Carnatic music on the guitar. They render popular kritis such as ‘Vatapi’ and ‘Entharo’ with as much ease as they would play, say, Metallica’s ‘Master of Puppets’.
They’re all based abroad — most in the U.S. and some in West Asia — but their favourite instrument is the guitar and their preferred genre, Carnatic. “It’s a happy combination of the kids’ love for the instrument and their parents’ exposure to classical music,” starts off Prasanna, “Carnatic music is user-friendly and fun too — I started playing it because of that and wanted kids to follow suit as well.”
The first to join the gang was Los Angeles-based Raghav Ramanujam, now 12. His father had heard Prasanna play at a concert, and was determined to have his son taught by him. “The first day of class, I was stuck,” laughs Prasanna. “So, after Raghav and I had a couple of ice-creams, I picked up the guitar and taught him ‘Vatapi’. He loved it.” Today, Raghav has already picked up 30-40 kritis and plays them with ease.
His friend and classmate, 13-year-old Shiam Kannan from New Jersey, can do the same as well. His favourite might be American thrash metal band Slayer, but he can strum up the kriti ‘Kamalamba’ equally well. “It’s not like a traditional guru-sishya relationship,” explains Shiam. “Many a time, we hear a kriti being played at home and ask Prasanna to teach us that. That’s how our classes work.”
The rigidity associated with the teaching of Carnatic music is something Prasanna hopes to break with his classes. “The resistance to Carnatic music among the younger generation is due to its aura of impossibility,” he says, adding, “It’s upon us to tell the kids that everything is possible and that we can make it happen.”
Take, for instance, Gokul Shyamsundar, a 12-year-old from Dubai, who started off with vocal training before picking up the guitar too. “I thought playing Carnatic on the guitar was a cool thing,” he says. “So, I try playing whatever I sing.” Gokul’s classes take place both in person and on Skype — but there are no rigid rules or timings. “That way, it doesn’t become so much of a class but a jamming session,” he says.
This aspect of interactivity is what attracted New Jersey-based Avyay Natarajan, who can already play quite a number of instruments. “I can play the keyboard, mridangam and ghatam,” he says. “But while presenting concerts, it’s somewhat cooler to pick up the guitar.”
Avyay is just 13, and so are most of his ‘classmates’. The age, feels Prasanna, plays an important factor. “It was what I dabbled in at this very age that has made me what I am today,” he says, nostalgically. “It’s at this age that they can strike a balance between studies and music, and pick up everything fast.”
All the four kids were part of the December music season, where they played individually in various sabhas, and as a five-piece band. The forthcoming years will see them make regular visits to Chennai to showcase their musical talent. “They’re all in it for the long run because, ultimately, they love the guitar,” says Prasanna. And, playing ‘Mahaganapathim’ on it, but not before indulging in a Metallica song.