The traditional western keyboard is arguably the instrument least suited for Indian music, because it cannot produce essential microtones and other nuances of color. A keyboard player can choose from many different sound sources, such as a piano string, an organ pipe, or an electronic sample. But once the choice has been made, the isolation from that source requires the keyboard player to produce exactly the same tone color for every note. When the pianoforte appeared, the keyboard player was able to reclaim the touch-sensitive volume dynamics that had been sacrificed in the construction of the organ and harpsichord. But the keyboard still lacked the ability to play sruti (the notes between the keys) and changes of tone color. 

This is an ability that almost all other instruments possess. String players can give a different tone color to each note in numerous ways, such as bending or sliding the strings, or plucking them in different places or from different angles. Wind players can similarly change their tone and pitch by reshaping their mouths or partially covering sound holes. And the human voice is free to change pitch and tone in more ways than can possibly be described. But there is nothing like these expressive possibilities on the standard keyboard, because there is a key between the musician’s fingers and the sound source. For European music this sacrifice was worth it, because it enables one musician to play harmonies that would otherwise require an entire orchestra. But because pure Indian music doesn’t use harmony or orchestral arrangements, the Indian musician who plays keyboard is in effect paying for something he can’t use.

All of this changed when the Moog® synthesizer was introduced during the 1970s. The synthesizer’s primary goal was to think beyond the assumption that all important musical information can be captured by the lines and black dots that accurately describe what can be played on a keyboard. Instead, every single note was described with the concepts of acoustic physics, such as attack, release, sustain, decay, and frequency response. Western composers had traditionally left these factors to the instrumentalists, and limited themselves to telling the instrumentalist which fundamental pitch should be “ornamented” with those “colors.” Because the composer was the dominant figure, musicians in the western European tradition gradually fell behind their colleagues in Indian and Afro-American music in their ability to use these ornaments. The important thing was to play the black dots on the page in the exact order and timing the composer wanted them, and too much ornamentation would clash with the carefully arranged parts written for large Western orchestras.

The synthesizer changed all that by giving the composer direct control of all of these ornaments and colors, and the oscilloscope replaced sheet music as the graphic depiction of musical sound. At first this looked like the musician would be automated out of existence, because the composer could program all of these features herself. Instead, creative power was given back to the musicians by adding a keyboard to what was called the “mini-Moog®.” This instrument could play only one note at a time, but this turned out to be a feature, not a bug. This left one hand free to operate a control panel that enabled the keyboard player to shape and ornament each note as eloquently as a violin or a sarod. A small handful of jazz musicians created distinctive melodic improvisations with this instrument that were often heavily influenced by their studies of Indian music: Jan Hammer, George Duke, Joe Zawinul. Unfortunately, progressive electric jazz waned in popularity at the end of the 70s. The new generation of digital synthesizers no longer bothered to include most of the features that inspired this style of playing. Some models retained the “control wheels,” that made it possible to manipulate pitch and tone color, and in principle these machines could be programmed to do much of what Hammer, Duke, and Zawinul had done. But the next generation of technopop synthesizer players were more interested in playing cheesy approximations of an entire string section than in equaling the expressive capabilities of a single violin.

For some of us, this seemed like a lost opportunity for Indian music. These new controllers had corrected everything that made the keyboard unsuitable for Indian music. The almost limitless tonal range of the synthesizer seemed to promise that the sruti and colorations of the best classical Indian music could transform any imaginable electronic sample. Why wasn’t anybody learning how to do this? A.R. Rahman combines synthesizers with symphonic orchestras and samples Indian instrumentalists to create huge rich textures that are very beautiful, but have only an intermittent connection with Hindustani and Karnatik traditions. Abhijit Pohankar devotes himself primarily to Hindustani music on the electric keyboard, but plays few sruti, using classical piano sounds to expand on the arpeggiated santoor style of his guru Shivkumar Sharma. Surely there must be someone who, after years of studying both synthesizer and Indian music, could forge an authentic synthesizer gharana.

This has finally happened, but I never thought it would be accomplished by an 11-year-old. Child prodigies are at their best copying the styles of their elders, and usually don’t do truly original work until they have been playing for years.

K. Sathyanarayan, aka Keyboard Sathya, has done more than master the fundamentals of Karnatik music.

He has created a style with the synthesizer control wheel that captures both the spirit and the letter of Karnatik music. His use of the control wheel far surpasses anything done by the 70s electric jazz virtuosos, who only used one or two similar bends to make rhythmic markings. Sathya marks all of the sruti of traditional compositions, and composes pieces of his own, that make the synthesizer sound authentically Karnatik. Now that he has reached the ripe old age of 15, he has branched out into other areas: A fusion band called HeARTbeat, a record of his own bhajans, and singing in both Karnatik films and advertising jingles. He continues to study with his mother K. Lalitha (a Karnatik singer who has done playback work in Tamil films for decades), violinist A Kanyakumari, Padmavibhushan Dr. M. Balamuralikishna, and with Padmashree Mandolin Shri U. Shrinivas. This rich grounding in tradition should insure that he will continue to create a uniquely Indian voice for the most electronic of instruments.

For further information and music samples go to: www.keyboardsathya.com.

Teed Rockwell, a student of Ali Akbar Khan, is the first person to play Hindustani music on the Touchstyle Fretboard.