A reel of The Man Who Knew Infinity is playing on screen. Srinivasa Ramanujan has just got married and his wife and mother travel in a bullock cart. He runs ahead to welcome them home. The veena, flute and vocals combine with the tinkling of cowbells and Western orchestration to create a soundscape so evocative, you experience a new bride’s excitement and hesitation as she steps into her marital home. The best part? The Indian part of the music was created in Chennai, in the cosy Adyar neighbourhood of Parameshwari Nagar. The man responsible for it is Sai Shravanam, who last hit headlines for his stint as sound recordist and additional engineer in the Oscar-winning Life of Pi .
But the 35-year-old’s musical journey began much earlier. When Shravanam was about six, he watched a commercial for tea featuring tabla wizard Ustad Zakir Hussain playing by the Taj Mahal with his hair flying and fingers creating magical notes. The visuals and the sound were imprinted in his mind, and Shravanam decided to play the instrument. His parents bought him one, and like Ekalavya he learnt by listening, in his case, to Zakir Hussain.
Self-taught is a word that sits lightly on Shravanam, an alumnus of Madras University and former project associate at IIT Madras, He also figured out music production and recording the same way. The knowledge was around, and he dug deep to make it his. He read up, scoured the internet and squirreled away money to stock up his studio bit by bit, with the best the world had to offer.
Today, he has his name appear five times in the credits of Matthew Brown’s The Man Who Knew Infinity , a moving tribute to the fascinating story of Indian mathematical genius Srinivasa Ramanujan. Shravanam is credited as the Indian music producer, recording and scoring engineer, co-writer of Indian music, and tabla and surmandal artiste.
Few in Chennai other than those in music circles know of Shravanam, but international fame came calling some years ago when he worked on Life of Pi . The sound engineer has played the tabla for AR Rahman, worked on Swappnam , a dance-theatre production for which Ilaiyaraaja composed the music, and recorded innumerable artistes at Resound India, his temple of sound, set in the first floor of his home.
But, right now, all focus is on The Man Who Knew Infinity. . The opportunity came his way following a chance meeting with music producer Justin Stanley at Henson Studios in Los Angeles. They wanted him to create an Indian soundscape for the movie, and originally thought of the tabla and sitar as primary instruments.
That’s when Shravanam, whose forefathers hail from Ramanujan’s hometown of Kumbakonam, stepped in and spoke about the veena, the mridgangam, morsing, ganjira, ghatam, temple bells and more. “They were gracious enough to accept suggestions and I started to set up a system whereby we could work in sync from remote locations. I sent them detailed notes about the instruments used. They sent me watermarked reels with Western orchestration and my job was to infuse layers of Indian sounds that complemented what they’d created. We began work in March 2015 and finished it after a week of day-night sessions.”
Once the project came his way, Shravanam’s father took ill and had to be rushed in for surgery. But, the filmmakers decided to wait for him to return. “That kind of faith was gratifying.,” he says. “Also, they expect nothing but the very best. It also allows you to polish your talent and create the very best you can.” Shravanam is also one of the few classically-trained sound designers in the country, and when he started Resound India in 2007, his goal was to capture the tonal richness of Indian classical music in sonic form. “Indian music, unlike Western orchestration, is all about horizontal harmony. It’s a struggle to recreate that in recordings. But the end result is fantastic, with each layer and each instrument merging into another seamlessly to create a magical carpet of sounds.” The sound engineer prefers to keep a low profile and is happiest when peers and senior musicians appreciate his contribution. He’s looking forward to the day when Zakir Hussain would record at his studio. And, he gives all credit for his growth to his parents’ unstinting support.
“They never once questioned me. I’ve played tabla through school, even before my board exams... that freedom helped me bloom and grow into what I’m today.” But then, in a way, it all boils down to destiny too; what else could someone, whose very name, Shravanam, which means listening, do but dabble in but sound?
What Coby Brown, music composer of The Man Who Knew Infinity , had to say about Shravanam, “Sai was a joy to work with. He gave the Indian music a sense of place and authenticity through his tasteful orchestrations and his impeccable engineering skills. His network of musicians was an incredible resource for us, as they helped breathe life into the music I’d written for the Indian sections of the score with their beautiful performances.”