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Music, out of the box

A comprehensive notational sheet for Carnatic music? Music composer and singer Ramesh Vinayakam is aiming towards it with his innovative gamaka box

June 13, 2011 07:11 pm | Updated October 13, 2016 11:01 pm IST -



There's immense quietude, lots of unadorned space and rooms with only instruments. The small, brightly-painted studio is stacked with gadgets, and books on Indian and Western classical music are strewn all around. And, Ramesh Vinayakam is blissfully playing Norwegian composer Christian Sinding's ‘Rustle of Spring' on the piano. His fingers glide across the keys and his eyes intently follow the sheet music. There's no one around, but music fills up the composer-singer's work pad along the Adyar river in Kotturpuram.

No wonder Vinayakam has come up with the sound-breaking gamaka box that could revolutionise the understanding and learning of Carnatic music. At first look, the notations present themselves as a frightful combination of algebra and geometry and Vinayakam explains — like a mathematician, the many symbols, strokes and curves.

Gamaka or gamakam is the way a swara is stressed, sung in high or low pitches and oscillated. Though it signifies ornamentation of the notes, it's not merely a decorative aspect of the art form. Gamakam brings out the character and emotion of a raga.

Anxious days

For the past one year, Vinayakam has been working through the day and spending wakeful nights singing each line of a varnam repeatedly and notating the gamakams. He was so frazzled that he was forced to keep off the research for sometime. “Besides the anxiety of coming up with faultless methodology, I was often troubled by the thought if I had taken up an impractical task. But since I have made it my mission for now, I put all my doubts and fears to rest,” he laughs.

After drawing up the notational graphs for a few varnams, Vinayakam decided to get feedback and a nod from violin maestro Lalgudi Jayaraman and veteran vocalists R. Vedavalli and P.S. Narayanaswamy.

“They were extremely encouraging and gave their blessings. And then I decided to go the whole hog.”

Vinayakam always wanted to come up with a visual representation of the aural and oral tradition. He felt Western music could be learnt by anybody across the world because every note is put down on paper, and wanted to do something to make the Carnatic system more accessible. The inspiration to pursue it seriously came when Vinayakam met V.S. Narasimhan, who is known for performing Carnatic compositions with string quartets. “Notating of gamakas has been attempted earlier by a few vidwans but they are not very clear and in-depth. In fact, a thorough visual representation will help document age-old compositions and the way they are rendered in different padantharas (styles). It will also add to the learning experience with a better grasp of the swaras because a slight variation in the gamaka can change the identity of a raga,” he explains.

But does this not amount to tampering with tradition and taking away the improvisational nature of the system? “I believe tradition is dynamic, not static. If something helps in perceiving the art better, what is the harm? I am open to criticism, it will help me perfect my innovation,” he says.

His creative profile is not just about deconstructing classical music; he has scored music for Telugu and Tamil films and is into playback singing too. He always desired to own a studio and wield the baton. “I love to play god,” he chuckles and hastens to explain, “That feeling of giving life or creating is very satisfying.” Vinayakam, who composed a devotional song at the age of 12, grew up on a mixed diet of classical, pop, ghazal and film music.

“As a composer every piece is a challenge,” says Vinayakam, who was the music director of films such as “Azhagiya Theeye”, “Hey! Nee Romba Azhaga Irukke”, “Nala Damayanti” and “University”. Ready for release is “Paal”, a film on transgenders that has music by him. He will soon start work on SPB Charan's next film. “Gamakas or gaanaa paatu …it's music that matters to me,” Vinayakam sums up.


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