Tuesday, 29 November 2011

Cricket. Coffee. Carnatic: In conversation with Rithwik Raja

Zeenab Aneez

“Recently I saw a boy wearing an Iron Maiden t-shirt and thought, why can’t I do the same for Carnatic music, which I love? “

From a conversation with Rithwik Raja you can detect the bafflement he experiences at the inability of his peers to enjoy something so beautiful. Born in Chennai, Rithwik is among those touted to be the rising stars of Chennai’s music. But his ambitions don’t stop there. As president of the Youth Association for Carnatic Music Rithwik dreams of a day when Carnatic music will be on everybody’s iTunes playlist.

Rithwik recounts his foray into the world of Carnatic music as one that was natural. “ I just started singing along with my mother, Smt. Sudha Raja’s, students, enjoying simply imitating what they were doing. That was how I got initiated into Carnatic music’’ he says. “I wouldn’t say I learnt in the conventional way by carrying a book and a pen and heading to music classes after school. Learning in the very casual atmosphere of my home has benefited me because I was never forced into it.”. But unlike most prodigy’s Rithwik did not make a beeline to professional performing.He had, another, more enticing, passion: Cricket.

Like any other boy growing up in Chennai, playing cricket with friends after school was not just recreation but necessity for Rithwik. However, that was not enough. “ Once my Dad got back from work I would force him to bowl to me too.” he says. He fuelled this passion by attending summer coaching camps and playing for the school junior camp. By the ninth standard he was school team captain and representing the state of Tamil Nadu for the under-15 category, all the while continuing his musical training. Soon, the tough schedule caught up with him and he realized he could do only one if he wanted to give his best, whether it was music or cricket. “I was still playing in the state team I could not leave cricket so easily” he says.

Hence, the choice between cricket and music was certainly not an easy one for him. Music was initially just a hobby for Rithwik who spent most of his time training for cricket. “I was learning only because I loved to sing, not to become a performer.” he points out.

Rithwik recounts two weeks in November which he sees as a turning point. To a person living in Chennai, November means two things: music and monsoon. Chennaiites, young and old brave the heavy torrents and water logged streets to attend Carnatic music concerts all over the city. “After second term exams I had three weeks off and had nothing to do as all my matches were cancelled due to the rain. So I decided to attend all the concerts that were being held in those three weeks. I could say it was these three weeks that are the reason I am a performer today”

Since then Rithwik has not looked back. “I love being on stage” he says. Having taken part in many music competitions in school, he does not suffer from stage fright. Even if that were the case, it would all disappear once he started his performance.

When Rithwik was eleven, his mother decided to put him under her own guru the renowned Carnatic vocalist and eminent musicologist, Smt. Sulochana Pattabhiraman. He trained under his new Guru for two years but as his voice started breaking,in 2003, both his mother and his guru felt he needed guidance from someone who has had the same experience. “ The time when your voice break is a crucial moment,” says Rithwik, “because you need both the mental and physical capacity to deal with the change in your voice. At first it sounds awful and completely out of sync so training and guidance is very important at this stage.”

Thus began Rithwik’s enduring relationship with his present guru and mentor, T.M.Krishna, who has wielded much influence on Rithwik’s musical journey. Rithwik recalls his first meeting with T.M.Krishna in much detail.

“I went to see him on a weekday afternoon, at around 2:00 p.m. The entire house was dark as the rest of the family was sleeping. We sat at his music room and he asked me to sing a varna and he made a few changes and corrections to see if I could comprehend and apply them to my singing before deciding to take me in.Since he was travelling a lot then he could only promise me six months at first. Thankfully things settled down and I am still learning from him”.

He does not have much to say about critics and reviews. So far he has been well received. “My well-wishers do talk to me after a show and tell me if I need to work on something. But ultimately, you are the best judge of your own performance. If I give my best, it will transfer to the audience.” A dream concert to him would be on the beach during sunrise to a small crowd. “I once attended such a concert on the Kalakshetra beach, loved it and have wanted to do one like that since.”

While he performs only Carnatic music, Rithwik listens to a lot of other artists. Ilayaraja is his personal favourite. “When I was young my entire family would sing and listen to his songs at gatherings and even now I listen to his songs regularly. I also like The Beatles for their honesty and dedication to their music”

When he is not training or performing, Rithwik is busy wearing the shoes of the President of the Youth Association for Carnatic Music (YACM). The organization which started out in 1984 was first dedicated to providing opportunities for young performers but that goal is almost achieved, says Rithwik. “You will find a slot for a youth performer at any show today.”

Today, the YACM’s goal is to popularise Carnatic music among the younger generation. “Carnatic music is like any other music. It can be enjoyed purely for its beautiful sound. The problem today is that most youngsters feel intimidated by it. There is the feeling that they can’t appreciate it because they are unfamiliar with the structure.It’s just a matter of conditioning” he argues.

Through the YACM, Rithwik and his team hold workshops on the basics of Carnatic music in schools in and around the city. “We use fun ways to teach kids about our music so they don’t get a mental block against it.” The recently held Indian performing arts festival Svanubhava was a YACM venture towards engaging young students in Indian performing arts. “There were over 1300 students at the festival. This proves that there is interest, so it’s just a matter of exposure” he says.

They have also launched a website, www.avartana.com, which he aspires will become a platform for all things relating to Indian performance art – general information, lyrics, tips, artist profiles, discussions, video lectures et al. “ It is not a serious website,” says Rithwik, “ and we hope it becomes a resource for anyone interested in knowing about Indian performance art. Like Crickinfo is for cricket! ”

He hopes to make Carnatic music as much an element of popular culture among youngsters as Iron Maiden or Pink Floyd. He also spoke about merchandising t-shirts with popular symbols of Carnatic music.

Rithwik has tried his hand at working in an office but didn’t feel at home there. “I felt like my entire life was spent in office. I had no time for anything else.” Right now, he is also the proprietor of a web designing company, Articature Designs. “I’ll do this as long as it does not eat into my time spent on music” he says.

He has been performing solo shows since 2004 and is only too happy to do the 17 shows he has lined up in the next two months.

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