The Chembur Fine Arts Society, one of the foremost cultural organisations in Mumbai, is going places with its innovative and pioneering efforts in promoting and propagating Indian music and dance. The recent thematic annual conferences on Carnatic music have certainly caught the imagination of the music-loving public. The last three years have witnessed detailed discussions and demonstrations on the Musical instruments of Carnatic music. The first conference, on String instruments, was held in February 1999. Spread over two days, it highlighted in detail the various stringed instruments used in Carnatic music. Whereas the first day was dedicated to string instruments of Indian origin, like the Vina, Chitravina etc, the second day covered instruments of western origin that have been successfully adopted in Carnatic music (Violin, Guitar, Mandolin etc). The participants included top-notch instrumentalists. Wherever possible, different schools and styles were also featured. The conferences in 2000 and 2001 covered Wind instruments and Percussion instruments respectively.

In the coming weeks, Carnatica will bring you the papers presented by the participants at these Conferences.




THE Guitar AND Carnatic MUSIC

By R Prasanna


The Guitar:

The Guitar is one of the most popular musical instrument in the world. It is virtually impossible to find any music from the west where the Guitar doesn't have a prominent role. The Guitar is also unquestionably the most versatile among all musical instruments in vogue today. Several musical traditions like Flamenco, American folk, Brazilian music, Blues, country and western, Bluegrass, rock etc. are almost entirely Guitar based. Although the Guitar is not part of a standard classical orchestra, it is a highly respected concert instrument in western classical music, thanks largely to the efforts of Andres Segovia. Most of these systems of music (with the exception of Rock) are primarily performed on the acoustic Guitar. While classical, Flamenco and Brazilian musicians use nylon or gut stringed guitars, steel string guitars are the norm in the other styles. 

The Electric Guitar:

The advent of the electric Guitar in the early part of the twentieth century ushered in a new era of sonic exploration. The ability of the Guitar to cut through (thanks to amplification) was the key factor in its replacing the Banjo in the conventional big band jazz set up. The Guitar became a welcome addition to the standard rhythm section of Piano, Bass and Drums. Charlie Christian changed the face of the Guitar and in turn, contemporary music itself by elevating the Guitar's status to a major solo instrument in Jazz along with the likes of the trumpet and the saxophone. By the time Rock 'n Roll developed into a major musical form in the fifties, the Guitar progressed into being a popular instrument to becoming the most popular instrument in the western world. The electric Guitar revolutionized American Blues music and its half brother, Rock 'n Roll in so powerful a way, that its impact is felt strongly even today. Guitarists like Muddy Waters, Buddy Guy, John Lee Hooker, B B King and Freddie King took electric Blues to new heights, Chuck Berry made the Guitar an inseparable part of Rock 'n Roll. 

The sixties saw guitarists attaining superstar status. While the newer crop of English Blues oriented Guitar players like Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck and others were gaining worldwide attention, a certain American guitarist by the name of James Marshall Hendricks a.k.a. Jimi Headrix burst into the music scene like a volcano. Jimi Hendrix revolutionized the Guitar and rock music itself like nobody else before and after. He showed the world  the true sonic  instrument. Simultaneously, musician like Wes Montgomery, Joe Pags, Pat Martino, Kenny Burrell and others redefined the role of the electric Guitar in Jazz. Modern players like John  Mc Laughlin, Scott Henderson, John Scofield, Mike Stern and others have successfully bridged the Jazz-Rock divide.

Western Instruments in Carnatic music:

Western instruments have been in use in Indian classical music for some time now. While the common western instruments in Hindustani music are the Violin and the Hawaiian/slide Guitar, Carnatic music has seen a profusion of western instruments (Violin apart) like the Clarinet, Mandolin, Saxophone and the Guitar in modern times. Today musicians like A K C Natrajan, U Srinivas, Kadri Gopalnath and myself are highly respected concert artistes both in spite and because of our instruments. The Violin has been in use  in Carnatic music for so long and to such an effect that it is needless to even address it in this context. However the Viola (a sister instrument of the Violin) has been brought to the fore in Carnatic music in more modern times by one of the all-time greats, Dr. M Balamuralikrishna. 

Guitar in Carnatic music:

The Guitar was introduced into Carnatic music by Sukumar Prasad in the seventies. Its very interesting to note that Sukumar Prasad and his successors adopted the standard electric Guitar for Carnatic music unlike Hindustani musicians who have always used some form of a modified Guitar probably to make its sound closer to conventional instruments like the Sitar and Sarod. To extend the the argument even further, apart from U Srinivas, none  of the other innovators have made any significant modifications on their instrument to make it suitable for Carnatic music. My personal philosophy has always been that neither Carnatic music nor the Guitar needs any modification to suit each other.

Ever since the time I took up the Guitar, I have been constantly confronted with this question - "Isn't the Guitar suitable only for playing 'Raghuvamsa' since it is a western instrument? How can you play the classical Carnatic ragas like Todi, Bhairavi, Kambhoji etc on the Guitar?" It certainly pains me to see assumptions made about the Guitar by people who have no understanding of the Guitar or its vocabulary. First of all, 'Raghuvamsa' is as Carnatic a piece as anything else (its not a Blues, nor is it a Tango, nor is it Jazz, or Flamenco). Secondly, I believe that as a professional Carnatic musician, one cannot 'ration' ragas like that to suit one's whims. One should be able to play Todi, Bhairavi and Kadanakutoohalam with equal felicity on any instrument. Of course it is very difficult to play ragas like Todi, Varali and Bhairavi on the Guitar because they challenge the basic premise on which the Guitar is constructed which is as a tempered instrument; to suit western music. Therefore the frets in the Guitar are spaced in such a way that the least interval that can be played directly is only a music which is not based on tempered tuning, uses more than 12 tones in an octave. However these additional tones, quarter tones and other microtones are produced purely by gamakas in any Carnatic instrument. Therefore as long as the artiste can produce all the authentic gamakas on the Guitar (which calls for extraordinary perception, technique and practice), rendering Todi is not going to be any more 'impossible' than rendering Mohanam. It is my personal belief that the electric Guitar can produce virtually every gamaka that is possibly by a vocalist. The mechanics of how and to what degree of finesse that is achieved would reveal how much understanding of Carnatic music and the Guitar that the artiste possesses. In this context, I would even go to the extent of saying that to perform Carnatic music very naturally and convincingly on the Guitar, one has to acquaint oneself (preferable even perform) with as much Guitar music as possible (from Django Reihardt to Steve Vai, Wes Montgomery to Jimi Hendrix, Paco De Lucia to B B King) and at the same time as much Carnatic vocal music possible. That is the only way an artiste can truly know what the immense possibilities of the Guitar are and how to tie that with Carnatic music. It would not be inappropriate to mention here that I use Guitar techniques from jazz, blues, rock, Jatin and virtually any form of music that I am acquainted with when I play Carnatic music but what comes out is only Carnatic music and nothing else.

I also believe strongly that one should keep oneself abreast of the latest technological advancements in musical instruments, sound processing, recording etc which can open up a whole new world of statement to the musician. I use several digital effects like chorus, reverb, delay, compression, gating etc to colour my sound. Afterall, when the rest of the world is advancing, why shouldn't we? If not for technology, we wouldn't be able to hear Carnatic music in big concert halls today! Whether technological sophistication is needed is not the issue, but if that can help, I think that is incentive enough to embrace it. 

I should say that I have been extremely fortunate to enjoy total acceptance today from vidwans, critics and discerning rasikas and this is a continuing source of inspiration for me and I am sure for other musicians who are serious about taking up the Guitar for Carnatic music. If more and more people take to the Guitar, it would only be a glowing testimony to both the versatility of the Guitar as well as Carnatic music itself. As we enter into the new millennium, Carnatic music would only benefit from any valid innovations both in performance and pedagogy.

Note: This is the last paper from the String instruments conference. Next we will bring you the papers presented at the wind instruments conference held at the same Chembur Fine arts, Mumbai, in 2000.
Related links: Other articles from the Chembur Conference
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