The art of Kala Ramnath
Shailaja Khanna JANUARY 26, 2018 00:00 IST
UPDATED: JANUARY 26, 2018 05:11 IST
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Striking a chord Kala Ramnath in performance;
The seasoned violinist talks about receiving the coveted SNA Award and how she is not aconventional musician
Kala Ramnath is from an illustrious lineage; six generations of musicians precede her out of which three generations were violinists. It was but natural that she started playing the violin from the age of two-and-a-half onwards.
Her tenacity and focus have made her one of the top violinists in the country today. She has received a Grammy for her album “Miles from India”, and was awarded the coveted Sangeet Natak Akademi Award recently.
What does this SNA award mean to you?
I feel truly blessed and humbled, because this award is everything a musician aspires for. When I look back at my journey, I feel convinced of the saying that you keep doing what you have to do, and the Almighty takes care of the rest.
Do you agree that usually recognition from the West happens first, and then we take notice!
Maybe this is true. It is a bad thing. People talk more about my playing in the movie “Blood Diamond” than my concerts! It’s inbuilt in our psyche – if the West recognises us, then our worth is recognised.
You belong to an illustrious family of Carnatic musicians; why do you play Hindustani music?
It was my grandfather who decided I should learn in the Hindustani idiom; maybe he saw I had the aptitude for it? When I was growing, there was Hindustani music in the house; you know my aunt Dr Rajam plays Hindustani music, so it’s not as if I was new to it. I developed a liking for it; it’s probably in my genes! I learnt to sing too. I was of course taught in the Carnatic idiom as a child, but today I don’t remember Carnatic ragas, and now my music is only Hindustani.
Jasraj ji, your Guru says he sees you as the torch bearer of the Mewati gharana. How did you go to learn from him?
With Jasraj ji I have an old relationship. He presented me in a concert when I was just 12. When I was about 17, I went to him to learn as I felt my music was stagnating. I just loved his music.
The layakari in my music is due to Jasraj ji’s influence, you know how important laya is in his music. I have tried to emulate the vocal style totally in my presentation; I don’t follow the instrumental format of presentation of aalap jor jhala then gat.
Growing up, my icons were Rajam ji, Jasraj ji, Zakir bhai and Kishori Amonkar.
In the West you have done a lot of fusion concerts…
I have done a lot of fusion, but I don’t do fusion music in India. If you just add drums and bass it’s not fusion, fusion is when you create something with a musician from another music tradition; it’s the collaboration of different genres to create something harmonious.
To give you an idea of what meaningful fusion entails, I collaborated with a Danish jazz orchestra – there was me on the violin representing Indian music and a full Western orchestra. That year Denmark was nominated as the cultural capital of Europe.
I worked with them for two years before the concert; in between, I went to Denmark 4-5 times. We got to know each other at the first meeting, we wrote some music ideas on paper, worked on them, played together for over a week, realised the shortcomings, met again, explored further and it is only after that, that we had enough to play a two-and-a-half hour concert that made sense. My answer to a musical phrase played should be appropriate; if I haven’t explored the other’s music, how can I do that?
In the past, I have done quite a bit of collaborations with Carnatic musicians like Shashank Subramanium, Vijaylakshmi Lalgudi – recently, I haven’t done much. Even in Hindustani music, the collaboration with a fellow percussionist like Pt Yogesh Samsi makes sense; we understand each other’s idiom, he knows my instrument and my singing style of playing, I know the tabla.
We have mutual respect for each other as people as well as musicians. Until you establish that, until our musical ideas match, until there is give and take, we won’t be able to create meaningful music.
In a sense you are not a conventional musician…
I am open to many things. I recently played for the movie “Jungle Book”, but I don’t think they used it. I am happy to have my fingers in a lot of pies! I am also a part of 3- 4 music groups abroad. I have a foundation Kalashree for economically down trodden people who I teach; I work with an NGO in Kolkata where I have teachers to introduce music to children.
I also work with sick children in the US where I use music to help them. A nine-year-old child I used to teach, died of cancer; I saw how this sweet chirpy boy slowly lost interest in life, how he struggled, how my music helped him in his final days, so I realised the importance of doing this. Music usually excites, but our Hindustani music soothes, it relaxes, and puts them to sleep. Chemotherapy results in difficulty in sleeping; music calms them and gives them rest. I try to play live for them.