India Abroad September 23, 2016
But I also knew about the competition if I was going to play
guitar. If I had been a sitar player from India it would have
been very different. Being a guitar player and having to crack
the international scene, you have to deal with so many preconceived notions. Because people tend of brand you. People
didn’t take a guitar player from
India that seriously. And then
there was a resistance to me
because I was playing classical
Indian music on guitar.
Where does the resistance
come from now? The critics or
No, not the audience. The
resistance comes from people
who are challenged by the notion
that something they know very
well — the guitar, has another
side to it. Some people may not
want to see an electric guitar
player perform classical Indian
music. They have an exalted
opinion of Indian music and they
have a poor opinion of the guitar.
Thankfully, it is a much more of
a multicultural world and those
people are dwindling in numbers. I am not worried, since the
value of what I do has been
Even after coming to the US
and studying at Berklee, you have
always had a foot in India.
My biggest inspiration for that
is (the tabla maestro Ustad)
Zakir Hussain. He’s always had a
life in America and in India.
There have also been other
people like (violinist) L Shankar.
And what has your focus been
I used to be the president of the
Swarnabhoomi Academy of
Music in Chennai (he founded
the institution). I took care of it for
five years. But my move to New York changed things. Now, I
have a seven-year old daughter, and I want to spend more
time with her.
Tell me about your connection with Rahman. That quote by
him about Springtime in New York is interesting. Have you
chilled with him in Central Park?
No, I haven’t. But many times when he comes to New York,
he stays in a hotel near Central Park. So, he has the connection. I sent him a track last year. Immediately he wrote back
saying, ‘You are only sending me one track? Can I get the
whole album?’ After listening to the whole album he emailed
me with this sentence about Springtime in New York and I
asked him if I could use it as his quote.
When did you first meet Rahman?
A R and I met when I was in IIT. We were going to do an
He had not started film music then?
No, he was doing jingles at that time. I would go to his
place and we would record and jam and have fun. It’s a very
open, informal relationship. Neither of us have taken undue
advantage of the fact that we are good friends.
For his second film Pudhiya Mugam he asked me to play
the guitar for the song July Matham Vandal. He had a vision
for a totally guitar-centric song. That became a cult song.
Then I left for Berklee, but we kept in touch. During his
middle phase I was in India for some time. I worked on his
Hindi and Tamil songs. I did the title score of Lagaan and
arranged the string orchestra for that film and also Swades.
Most people associate my film work with Rahman, other
than my own film scores.
Apart from the friendship, as a composer what creative feel
do you get from Rahman?
How I work with Rahman is the direct result of how we
have been friends. One never forgets how we started playing
together in the late 1980s. It was so spontaneous.
He knows how to get the best out of people, and I am sure
he is different with different people. With me it’s very open.
When we were recording the song Patakha Guddi for
Highway, we started jamming where I started playing this metal
riff. The song went from a typical Punjabi folk thing to a sudden one-minute guitar segment in between. Same thing with
the MTV Coke Studio project.
He’s very comfortable leaving me with things. From the
beginning many times we will be recording and he will not
even be there. Usually, when I record something it is in the
final piece. Even with Million Dollar Arm and the piece Desi
Thoughts, it started as a little jam session, but the final piece
includes two-and-a-half minutes of me playing guitar. I did
not how much of it he would use, but so many people told me
it was the strongest part of the piece.
It happened with The Hundred-Foot Journey and even my
wife Shalini performed in it.
We work on fewer projects now, but we are always connected.
What were the film scores you have done?
My first score was for the short Smile Pinki, which won the
Oscar. It was the same year when Rahman won for Slumdog
Millionaire. How often do two composers from Chennai
work on films that win the Oscars?
But the biggest project I worked on was a Tamil film called
Vazhakku Enn 18/9, which won a National Award and also
the Filmfare award. It was big box-office hit.
I also worked on the documentary Algorithms about blind
chess players in India.
I find it fascinating that there is a community of South Asi-
an and Indian jazz musicians. At what stage did you meet
Vijay Iyer, Rudresh Mahanthapa and Rez Abbasi?
I knew Vijay first long back. I wrote to him about one of my
CDs and he sent me one of his. One of the first things he said
to me was, ‘It’s so refreshing hear
someone play gamaks on guitar.’
We started working together a
few years later.
Once Vijay and Rudresh came
to Boston to play I
them. But I really got
to know Rudresh
when we were teaching at Banff.
The good part with
the two is that not only
are they good musicians, but they are truly
unique in jazz.
You three also must connect
because you are Indians and from
I don’t go for that connection
only. No two backgrounds can be
as different as mine from Vijay’s.
Vijay was born here. Mine is a
conflicting background from serious Carnatic music to pop bands.
I am sure Vijay has not played
covers of Madonna and Eagles.
For instance, the songs that Vijay
and Rudresh play are the most
metal of the album, especially the
piece Pinch Pennies in Monaco.
It’s a very aggressive Frank Zappa
thing. The song 31 starts with a
two-and-a-half minutes of piano
solo by Vijay.
How did the Tirtha ensemble
Tirtha came out of Vijay and I
talking about working together.
But we had to have something real to
Our philosophies are different. Vijay’s and my compositional ideas are very strong and different. But we could only
play if there was a convergence. He doesn’t play Ella
Fitzgerald’s tunes. I had to respect that.
There was a gig that came up in Chicago, and Vijay asked
me and Nitin Mitta to join. Immediately it was obvious that
we were bringing different strengths. So, 50 percent of
Tirtha’s music is Vijay’s and the other half is mine. I think we
should do a lot more, but we keep busy with own projects.
What next for you?
I should think about a tour with this album. I love teaching. I have so many child prodigies from nine to 13 playing
Carnatic music on guitar. Some of them came on a tour with
me to India as well.
Are they all of Indian origin?
Yes, most in this group are, because they already have
Carnatic music exposure. But I have students from all ethnic
backgrounds. Now I have an army of children who come and
stay here and study with me.
I feel this journey of Carnatic music and guitar has to continue, especially so after U Srinivas passed away. I felt I had
to do something that represents a combined legacy we
shared. He was one of my biggest inspirations.
What’s next for you?
Well I am thinking of a tour related to the album.
Then every month I perform at Terraza 7, a music venue in
Jackson Heights. One month I will play Ilayaraja’s songs
with Latin beat. Sometimes we play A R Rahman. People
drive from other cities to watch the show. That takes a lot of
my creativity. n
LIKE CHILLING OUT IN
CENTRAL PARK AND
HAVING A MASALA DOSA
From left, Vijay Iyer, Prasanna Ramaswamy and Nitin Mitta of Tirtha. The trio performs often, including earlier this year at the opening of the Met Breuer Museum.
There was a gig that came up in Chicago, and Vijay Iyer asked me and Nitin Mitta to join. Immediately it was obvious that we were bringing different strengths. So, 50 percent of Tirtha’s music is Vijay’s and the other half is mine. I think we should do a lot more, but we keep busy with own projects. C O U R T E S Y : V I J A Y -