Abhishek Raghuram is an immensely fascinating musician. Out of sheer talent and uncompromising hard work, he has shaped a genre that is his own, earning a niche for himself in the pantheon of Carnatic musicians.
Among his generation of Carnatic musicians, he’s into a unique genre that doesn’t play by the conventional rules, but seeks to traverse diverse artistic expressions. His deep musical insights and relentless practice over the years have made him a thrilling performer on stage who doesn’t worry about taking risks while expressing himself. “For me, art is about self-expression. The act of erring is something insignificant. It’s a momentary thing,” he says.
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And that unconventional daring approach makes his music unpredictable, remarkably exciting and often genre-bending. Just like vintage wine, no two concerts of Abhishek are the same. For the same reasons, when he sings the same raga twice in a concert, they don’t sound the same, or even close to each other.
Born in a family of celebrated musicians — Palghat Raghu, the yesteryear doyen of mridangam, was his paternal grandfather and the legendary violinist Lalgudi Jayaraman was his paternal grand-uncle — Abhishek grew up listening to classical music. He learned both vocal music and mridangam under the fond supervision of Palghat Raghu and started performing publicly from the age of 11. He also played the ganjira and the mridangam and had accompanied all the major stalwarts of percussion in Carnatic music.
Abhishek is noted for his intense and inventive exploration of the raga, stirring improvisations, and the use of rhythm-dynamics besides his unique use of voice that resembles Western opera singers’s technique of singing from the diaphragm. This exceptional voice technique, that often generates a whole-body experience takes his music closer to other forms of classical arts and is probably unmatched in contemporary Carnatic music. “As a musician, I just feel happy sharing something with the audience, because I think they will also enjoy it and share the happiness back with me. So, in that process, there’s going to be a lot of explorations. That’s the greatness of this art,” he says.
Boxing Abhishek into Carnatic is not entirely fair because different genres of music find convergence in him: the sangathis, gamakas and briga-gamakas that are unique to Carnatic, sometimes the alapanas and tans as in Hindustani, sometimes the deep musical sounds emanating from the nabhi like in Drupads, and sometimes the never ending swara kalpanas and alapanas that remind one of Jazz.
He is one of the few Carnatic musicians who draw large audiences both in Chennai and other cities of India. Despite his strong classicism, he is not a conventional traditionalist and hence doesn’t mind associating himself with other musicians, artists and genres. He has performed with leading classical musicians across India – Jayateerth Mevundi, Sanjeev Abhyankar, Praveen Godkhindi, Rahul Deshpande, Bombay Jayashri and Shashank Subramanyam to name a few. He has composed music for various frameworks, and has been collaborating with famous south Indian dancer Shobana in recent years.
And he is an extremely thoughtful musician as I learned speaking with him at his home in Chennai earlier this month. He takes deep pauses and thinks intently before making every point and frequently engages in riveting conversations because that’s how intense and clued-in he is about his art.
Since it’s the Margazhi season, I routinely ask this question to everybody. How important is the music season to you? Do you have some special memories and experiences to share?
My earliest memories of the season are from the 1990s when my grandfather used to play regularly. I would look forward to going with him to concerts and sit on the stage behind him, listening to great musicians. I guess that is my best memory of the season because that music was just unbelievable.
When did you start performing in Margazhi?
In 1997, at the noon slot. I would have been about 12-13 years of age then.
Are there any special concerts that you still remember?
Yes, my first evening concert at the Music Academy in 2010. That was very special for me and will remain so, for many reasons. There was a lot of anticipation from people about how I was going to perform, what I was going to sing etc. The reception I got after the concert was also very special. That evening will stay with me forever.
Some musicians reserve their best for margazhi. Do you do that?
Every concert is important, wherever and whenever you sing. Every time you go on stage, it’s like a penance. You have to be at your best. The growth and evolution cannot be just for a part of the year, but throughout. You have to constantly keep improving, you have to listen to yourself, you have to introspect and see what can be better. And all that has to be done all the time, not just during the season.
How has your practice evolved over the years? Is there is a structured method behind it or is it free flowing because by your own admission it’s also a joyful process.
As the old adage goes, practice is penance. Practice doesn’t mean that I have to just sit at one place and keep singing. That alone is not practice. It’s something else – It’s about thinking, listening, discussions, trying and perfecting it.
Assume that music is a language; how do I get more proficient in it? I have to improve my vocabulary, keep writing, keep reading and so on. It’s the same with music too. I have to constantly keep listening, singing, introspecting, creating and so on. Practice is a culmination of all these.
When you plan a concert, what are the elements that decide your scheme and repertoire? Once you have a plan in mind, how much do you change on the stage or as you get to the venue? I have heard from your accompanists that you are very spontaneous.
As a vocalist, the important thing is the voice. So, you pick your content suitably- depending on range, speed, whom you are singing with and the physical settings such as the auditorium, the audience and the acoustics. For instance, in a temple you may sing differently than in an auditorium.
Continuous introspection is inevitable.
In one of your recent concerts I heard you singing Shanmughapriya raga twice. Any reasons?
That was a spontaneous decision inspired by the mood of the situation.
How important is the audience to you? From my experience of attending your concerts, you have one of the most attentive and eager audience and I often love to see you building a musical sculpture and be part of the process. It’s unique. Do you also keep the mood of the audience in mind?
The essence of performance lies in how well you communicate your music to the audience. And experience teaches you that it’s about sharing facets that you have enjoyed in the music.
In my experience, you are quite daring in improvisation and never seem to play it safe. You are constantly trying new ideas even at the risk of erring. It’s a very thrilling experience for the audience. Do you also feel the same?
There’s no right and wrong in art. For me, it’s about self-expression. Every time an artist goes on stage, he/she has to express himself or herself. So, in that process, there’s going to be a lot of explorations. We will try new things and that’s the greatness of this art.
The essence of art is to create.
I remember you singing a detailed alapana of Bhushavali, a raga that has been rarely explored. In my research, I couldn’t find any record or reference except probably a couple of lines and a composition such as “Gopanandana” by Swathi Thirunal. How do you elaborate ragas with extremely limited material?
It was my interpretation of that raga. Obviously, the composition is the main reference. When one learns music, the basis for any raga is the compositions. It is upto the practitioner to know how to expand using the phrases and gamakas.
Are there ragas and compositions that surprise you? I mean you find new facets of them, new possibilities every time you sing.
Any raga that we encounter for the first time surprises us.
I have been very fortunate to have trained under Vidwan Padmabhushan P S Narayanaswamy because with him the surprise factor happened all the time. Every time, for every song, he would have a different flavour. That’s the way he teaches. He would always give us a new insight into the ragam. A part of the penance I mentioned earlier is also about learning.
Great composers add different flavours to the raga, thereby contributing to the growth of a raga. So, it’s not the composition alone that’s new, but the raga as well. When you keep expanding your repertoire, the scope of ragas also gets bigger.
Many pastoral melodies that are popular in Hindustani don’t get widely elaborated in Carnatic concerts, except by a handful, because these ragas are considered light with apparently limited scope for expansion. Have you tried doing long alapanas or RTPs on such ragas? Say, Desh, Pahadi, Patdeep, Bhoop, Piloo etc.
When I have to sing Desh in a Carnatic concert, my interpretation will be a little different from what a Hindustani musician would sing.
I find other Hindustani ragas such as Multani, Bilaskhani Todi, Jogiya, Nand very interesting and have enjoyed singing some of these ragas in jugalbandis.
Do these ragas end up in your Carnatic concerts? Say, Multani for example.
Not always. You may need different instrumentation. What actually determines our labelling of Carnatic or Hindustani is the interpretation and the instrumentation. It’s up to the individual’s interest as to what to do.
Often you have been unconventional in choosing accompanists. You have used flute and tavil, instead of violin and mridangam, which are rarely seen for Carnatic vocal concerts. Is there any special reason?
It is part of my efforts to sing with different artists. It’s about the sonic landscape that I would like to give my listeners and that can keep varying. I believe Carnatic music has a rich palette of sounds and the more we expand it, the better.
Your collaboration with dancer Shobana is quite unique. How has been that experience?
It was a unique opportunity to collaborate with dancer Shobana. It was quite different from my regular concert in the sense that it was the coming together of two different art forms and how two artists understood and complemented each other’s art.
I had to learn how to sing varnams and other compositions – the way they were sung for dance originally and we also adapted an abridged version of ragam tanam pallavi using which we showcased the history of dance.
You have singled out U Srinivas as the most influential musician in your life who had a close association with your grandfather. How has he influenced your music?
The thought of U Srinivas Anna stirs up emotions within me. He was God’s own creation for this music. He was perhaps a musician who actually practised nadopasana in the truest sense of the term. In fact, that’s exactly what I mean by penance. Because of all that, every single note and every single phrase he played sounded godly.
I had the fortune of attending many of his live concerts with my grandfather and I can still feel the exhilaration when I think of those experiences.
One of the alluring aspects of your music is that it’s a whole body experience. As somebody else also said your music reminds me of the “Naabhi Hrit Kanta Rasana” phrase. You seem to sing a lot from the diaphragm like the Western opera singers do which necessarily requires a lot of training and techniques such as appoggio breathing
For singing, you need the awareness of the body.
The most instrumental person with regards to my singing technique was Vidwan Rajkumar Bharathi. I have sung quite a few recordings with him and every recording was a learning experience.
As saint Tyagaraja says when we use Naabhi, hrit, kanta, etc there’s a certain quality that’s added to our sound through the involvement of our body.
It’s what you call a musician’s never-ending pursuit of a perfect sound. It’s a universal pursuit across all genres.
Could it be more pronounced in your case because your voice is powerful? I think if the voice is weak, it may not be this impactful.
No, it should be the other other way around. If you do it, you will have a more powerful voice.
So, it’s almost like tuning your body as an instrument
I asked one of your accompanists if you don’t get hungry after a concert because it’s like a physical exercise.
For the viewers, it’s like the occasional moments of euphoria in Sufi music
Personally I feel that boxing your music just as Carnatic is not entirely fair because I get different styles finding convergence in your music – say the Carnatic sangathis and gamakas and briga-gamakas, sometimes the Hindustani alapanas and tans, sometimes the deep musical sounds emanating from the nabhi like in Drupads and Opera, and sometimes the never ending swara kalpanas or alapanas that remind me of Jazz.
It’s the greatness of the system that I sing. Carnatic music has worldwide reach. Music as a sound must be universal and beyond genres. What I mean by sound is that it doesn’t need any other language. It can communicate by itself.
The voice is an amazing instrument given the wholesomeness of its sound. We have come across so many voices that have pierced our hearts with just the sheer power of their sound.
Given your extensive training on percussion and performing experiences on Mridangam and Ganjira, the rhythmic aspect – the layam – of your concerts are a great attraction. How has your specialised knowledge of rhythm influenced your music?
Layam is inherent in Carnatic music. It is engrained in every single component of this music. It is similar to what they call timing in sports. It is a feeling that cannot be quantified.
Vocalising fast swaras is not easy as in instruments, right?
Singing swara in high speed is not just about rhythm, It needs specific preparation for different ragas depending on gamakams, moorchana, etc. Singing swarama of basic exercises such as alankarams helps.
Could you throw some light on your growing up years and your childhood, adolescence and association with music.
My growing up years shaped my music, especially because of my grandfather – Padmasri Palghat Raghu. Right from a very young age, I was exposed to music. I was very fortunate to have listened to almost every great legend of yesteryears, some of them live.
Attending my grandfather’s concerts were a lesson on the sheer integrity that he had for the art and that in itself was a huge inspiration. Needless to say every time he played for me, it was a blessing.
I am extremely thankful to my family members who have been perhaps the most objective critics of my music and because of whom I keep striving harder.