Prasanna Ramaswamy is a unique ja- zz musician, blending his training in classical Carnatic music with a very western instrument — the guitar —
and at the same also following popular western music and bands with a passion.
At 45, Prasanna is at the top of his game —
collaborating with the likes of Grammy-win-ning composer A R Rahman and celebrated
jazz musicians such at Vijay Iyer and Rudresh Mahanthapa.
He has played many times with Rahman
on the composer’s film scores. Earlier this
year, he held two sold-out concerts at New
York City’s Rubin Museum of Art where he
played Rahman’s hit compositions and narrated background information for each
piece. And on August 15 he performed with
Rahman and his orchestra at the United Nations General Assembly, to mark India’s 70th
Independence Day as well as M S Subbu-lakshmi’s birth centenary.
With Iyer and tabla player Nitin Mitta, Prasanna formed a trio and they called it Tirtha — again blending western and Indian compositions, sounds and instruments. Tirtha
is also an album they released in on Iyer’s
label ACT Music. The trio performs often,
including earlier this year at the opening of
the Met Breuer Museum.
The Indian Institute of Technology-train-
ed Prasanna (he studied naval architecture)
has released series of albums, but for his new
work, All Terrain Guitar, he further explores
jazz sounds, using his compositions and wo-
rking with a range of artists, including Iyer,
Mahanthapa, Dave Douglas, Mike Pope and
Rahman, talking about the first piece on
the album, says, ‘Prasanna’s Springtime in
New York is as beautiful as chilling out in
Central Park and having a Masala Dosa.’
We meet with Prasanna at his home in
New York City, where he talks about his
training, influences and his collaborations.
Congratulations on your new album. How
do you think people and your fans will react
to your music and how do you want them to
It’s not for me to say how people listen, but
one would like people to listen to it in a continuous manner, because each song is completely different from the other.
There was a time people would buy CDs.
But now they download or stream the music.
Is that an issue with you as a creative person?
I am saying for this particular album, I
would like to give a chance to people to hear
it as a story. There will always be people who
will say they don’t have CD players. But all I
am saying is that I want people to listen to —
perhaps in their car or streaming also — but
in one go, and not as each song separately.
You and the artists who worked with you on
the album collaborate a lot with each other…
Yes. Most of these people have their own
projects going on, too. Natalie John, who is
on one track, was a student at the Banff
Centre (in Banff, Canada) when I was teaching in the summer jazz program. Vijay Iyer
chairs the program now. That year Dave Douglas was chairing the program and Rudresh Mahanthapa was also there. I heard
Natalie and later called her to teach in my
school in Chennai.
Everybody else I have known for years. We
have been playing together.
Tell me how music came into your life. I
know in Indian families there is often a lot of
pressure to finish education first. There is a
value for education when you are told ‘you
can practice music later’.
When I was five, I saw a neighbor playing
a guitar and said I need to go and play it also.
Like everything in life, you just do it and
later you think about why you did it. Creative
and critical thinking probably shouldn’t
happen at the same time. Luckily critical
thinking is not even a part of child’s DNA.
And your parents were fine with it?
Yes, but by the time I actually started playing I was 10 or so. My whole story has been
of being a really hungry child. I come from a
culture where there was emphasis on classical Carnatic music. Guitar was never in the
mix. But I didn’t know those things.
Ilayaraja’s music was biggest influence
when I was growing up and it still is. I grew
up in Tamil Nadu; his music was
so integrated with so many things
And then someone’s neighbor
would go to America and bring back a cassette of Boney M. At home
my sister started learning Carnatic
vocals. All of that sounded cool. By
the time I was 11, I had a cassette
with a weird collection from Toto
to Pointer Sisters, the Bee Gees.
Along with this the steady diet of
Ilayaraja’s songs. All of this I was
playing on the guitar.
When did the formal guitar trai-
I had a teacher — Shanmugaraj,
the brother of a family friend. He
was very motivational and had
A few months later I started taking Carnatic lessons from my sister’s teacher — Tirvarur S Bala-subramaniam. My sister was taking veena lessons and my mother
thought I could take lessons from
him as well. There was a lot of
resistance, since he did not know
how to teach me guitar.
He taught you Carnatic music on
No, he taught me singing and I
translated that into playing it on
That is so great that your parents
supported you so much.
In this particular case all credit
goes to my mother. Where I am today, at least in terms of playing Carnatic music, it is certainly because
of her. She was so much into my
It was also around this time that
my explosion of rock guitar happened. People saw me play Indian
film music and they turned me on to Deep
Purple and Led Zeppelin. Michael Jackson’s
Thriller and MTV came to India around
that time. It changed my life since it didn’t
sound like Ilayaraja. It was a transformational time.
Now, I am able to give that process to my
students because it is different world today.
Despite all of this training you went
For me it wasn’t this or that. I was good in
studies and music. My parents’ support was
one of quiet dignity. They were not pushing
me or lobbying for me. They were not making me a larger-than-life figure.
I was just a practical kid. My parents let
me have all.
But there was an expectation of you having
to go to IIT?
No, my parents didn’t think like that. They
saw me balance it myself.
Did you come to the Berklee College of
Music immediately after IIT?
There was a small gap. By the time I was in
IIT, I was performing Carnatic music professionally, touring India doing rock music and
transcribing jazz music. I had to make sense
of this. I found a place called Berklee. I said
I am going to America, but not to study MS
in naval architecture or fluid mechanics. But
I am going to America to study music.
LIKE CHILLING OUT IN CENTRAL PARK AND HAVING A MASALA DOSA
Composer A R Rahman’s words about a
track from Prasanna Ramaswamy’s new
album capture the essence of this unique
musician. Ramaswamy, who blends jazz,
Carnatic and other influences, discusses his
music with Aseem Chhabra.
COURTES Y: PRASANNA RAMASWAM Y
India Abroad September 23, 2016