Guitar Prasanna is now the president of the Swarnabhoomi Academy of Music, a world class institution some two hours from Chennai, where he is doing commendable work, shaping the music of students from around the world and across genres. I met Prasanna at SAM a month ago and plan to write a comprehensive profile of the institution he heads in the near future. In the meantime, an enquiry in Facebook about Sukumar Prasad, the first Carnatic guitarist, led me to this story—one of two I did on Prasanna in the 1990s.
Have guitar, will travel
Ramaswami Prasanna received rave reviews during the last Madras 'Music Season' for his guitar concerts at various sabhas. The 24-year-old engineering graduate is not the first South Indian classical musician to specialise in a Western instrument. Generations of violinists have made a European instrument their own, while the saxophone, clarinet and mandolin are now a regular part of the Carnatic music scene. The guitar itself was exploited as a concert instrument by young Sukumar Prasad a few years ago with considerable success.
Prasanna, who is now a well-established musician in the South Indian mode, has a keen interest in fusion music. South Indian audiences are familiar with the attempts of mridanga vidwan T V Gopalakrishnan to offer ]azz-Camatic music fusion concerts. TVG has been responsible for introducing Camatic musicians, of the calibre of saxophonist Kadri Gopalnath, on stage as exponents of such fusion efforts. Prasanna has gone a step forward by opting to study jazz as part of his higher education and by learning to introduce elements of Camatic music in jazz. He finds that his proficiency in the sophisticated classical music system is a great advantage in the improvisational aspects of 'modal jazz', the most prominent form of jazz today. Where the traditional jazz player has to be content with the limitations of his musical imagination within the framework of his upbringing, Prasanna has hundreds of ragas to choose from, to give free play to his manodharma.
Prasanna's present preoccupation with fusion can be explained by the unusual path of his career. Not until he had been performing regularly in light 'music orchestras for years did he begin to learn Carnatic music. He had been playing film music and Western popular music with great success before he decided to learn South Indian classical. He had shown unusual talent as a boy and guitar-playing came naturally to him, with hardly any need to practise his numbers before performances. Enjoying perfect pitch, Prasanna would often learn songs in the car on the way to a concert.
The turning point was Prasanna's mother's success in persuading Tiruvarur Balasubramaniam, Prasanna's sister's music teacher, to accept him as his pupil. Soon, the guitarist found he could coax the instrument to produce the gamaka-Iaden notes typical of Carnatic music. Before long, he was performing in cutcheris to appreciative audiences.
During the past year, Prasanna has been studying jazz composition at Berklee College of Music, Boston, one of America's prestigious institutions offering higher education in music. Enjoying the guidance and encouragement of his teachers — top-flight jazz musicians — Prasanna is fast proving to be an outstanding student of the complex art form, thanks to his rich, legacy of training in classical Camatic music. Prasanna's jazz .compositions include improvisations based on South Indian ragas which serve to enhance the sophistication of his compositions.
To Prasanna, the strenuous efforts to pay his way through college, the complexity and nuances of jazz, the need to keep in touch with Camatic music through weekend concerts, all these pose a challenge that spurs him on towards excellence. He knows that his classical music base will be a great asset in jazz, while his academic pursuits have enriched his appreciation of the technical aspects of Camatic music. His is already a success story in which talent has been burnished by intelligence and industry,