Some Western reviewers have said that Prasanna “started” his career by playing Karnatik music, and then went on to study Jazz and Rock at Berklee College of Music in Boston. The reality, like everything else that happens in India, was more complicated. True, his first major recognition came from his innovative electric guitar performances of Karnatik classics in concerts and on numerous albums. But when he first started playing guitar at age 10, he believed that “the be all and end all of guitar was Rasputin by BoneyM.” After playing American pop tunes and Tamil film music for a few years, he started teaching himself to play Karnatik music on the guitar by eavesdropping on his sister’s vocal lessons. When he was able to formally study Karnatik music, it was only because his mother spent months convincing vocalist Tiruvarur Balasubramaniam that the guitar could become a Karnatik music instrument.
This was not, however, the beginning of a traditional guru-shishya relationship. Prasanna continued to tour and perform on television with Rock bands throughout southern India, doing songs by Steely Dan and Spiro Gyra, as well as learning the more progressive Rock of Jethro Tull and Emerson, Lake, and Palmer. Nevertheless, he also continued his studies of Karnatik music, and at the age of 18 gave a concert at the Madras Music Academy, where he received praise from such great Karnatik musicians as M. Balamuralikrishna and U. Srinivas. At this point he began his studies of Karnatik music with his primary guru, the great violin virtuoso A. Kanyakumari.
Prasanna’s guitar method was influenced by Karnatik violin in two important ways. First, he uses a tuning essentially equivalent to that of the Karnatic violin, by tuning the strings D A D A D A. Secondly, he duplicates the wide sliding gamakas of Karnatik violin by sliding up and down the fingerboard.
I asked him about this technique when I saw him perform a benefit concert for Room to Read, a project that creates libraries in Indian villages. Why didn’t he bend the strings instead of sliding them? “Bending the strings would make sense in Hindustani music, which often has long slow srutis that travel from one note to the next,” he said. “But in Karnatik music, the microtones are built into the scale itself. Each note in a raga has a specific gamaka that ornaments it every time it is played. And because those gamakas are often played very fast, it makes more sense to play them by sliding.” But don’t the guitar’s frets make it impossible to play gamakas that actually mark the notes between the notes? “Even on the Karnatik veena, the gamakas are often played by sliding on the frets,” said Prasanna. “And Srinivas gets his gamaka by sliding on a fretted mandolin. Why not on the guitar?”
On Ragamorphism, his new instructional DVD, Prasanna deals with this issue in more detail. In Karnatik music, the octave is actually divided into 16 distinct steps, rather than the 12 tones used in Western tempered music. How can these 16 steps be played on a guitar, which has only 12 frets for each octave? Prasanna does not explain this as clearly as I would like. But apparently there is a way of playing the gamakas that pushes the string against the fret and produces these otherwise unobtainable notes.
This DVD not only provides an introduction to some of the fundamentals of Karnatik melody and rhythm, but also shows ingenious ways to use these principles while playing Western music. Prasanna starts by introducing the concept of melakartha ragas—ragas that use all the notes of one of the 72 fundamental scales of Karnatik music. He then proceeds to show imaginative ways in which these ragas could be combined with Western musical principles.
Because Western music assumes that there is only one fundamental scale, it creates musical variety by playing several notes in that scale at once to create harmony, or modulating that scale from one tonal center to another. Prasanna points out that we can create harmonies that sound like modulations to the Western ear, even though they are all contained within a single melakartha scale. For example, Pantuvarali with a D Sa (tonic), contains the chords D major, F sharp minor, F sharp major, and A flat 5. Prasanna plays Pantuvarali on his guitar against these chords, playing his improvised melodies with a Rock/Jazz shuffle, and creates an astonishingly fresh and progressive sound.
From there Prasanna moves on to the Janya ragas—ragas that leave out certain notes of the scale going up or down. He teaches a melody he composed in a Janya raga, breaking it down into eight bar phrases and explaining why each phrase is incorporating principles of Karnatik music into a new context. Finally, he adds gamaka to the melody, which makes it far easier to hear its Karnatik roots. He then goes through the same steps for another solo created in a different raga, this time set to the chord progression for John Coltrane’s Equinox. The DVD concludes with a performance of a completely traditional Karnatik composition.
Prasanna has unquestionably carved out a niche for himself, and is actively seeking to expand it. He has created a distinctive and effective guitar style that is as instantly recognizable as that of Carlos Santana or Jimi Hendrix. Will it become as popular? That question will probably be answered after the release of his new album this December. It will feature bass superstars Alphonso Johnson and Victor Wooten, among many other gifted players, playing both rearrangements of traditional Karnatik compositions and Prasanna’s own originals. And the techniques described in this DVD certainly open up new possibilities to anyone who is willing to work carefully and creatively with them.
Teed Rockwell has studied Indian classical music with Ali Akbar Khan and other great Indian musicians. He is the first person to play Hindustani music on the Touchstyle Fretboard.