Sangeetha Samvaadham: Episode 5 -- A Carnatic Conversation with Rajeev Mukundan
Updated: Jul 6
Welcome to Sangeetha Samvaadham, a series of compact written interviews with Carnatic musicians by Ramaa Ramesh. Samvaadham is the Sanskrit word for a conversation, and each of these conversations is an attempt to understand a little more about each artiste, their journey and how they perceive themselves and their art form. To this end, the set of questions remains largely consistent while the answers vary significantly by artist - some deeply introspective, some refreshingly practical - each a reflection of how that artiste perceives themselves and the world around them.
Photo: supplied by artiste
Rajeev Mukundan is a Carnatic violinist, game developer and visual storyteller. A disciple of legendary violinist Sangeetha Kalanidhi A. Kanyakumari, Rajeev is an A-graded artiste of All India Radio and a sought-after accompanist in the Carnatic concert circuit. His latest project, Little Heroes, a collaboration with his vocalist wife Krithika Natarajan, combines music and animation to re-imagine iconic Indian characters as little kids.
Q.Which freely-available piece or concert would you recommend as a 'Rajeev 101' introduction to a new listener?
Rajeev: When I read this question, I realised that I haven't been great at compiling records of my music. I guess I should put more of my music out there. There are some on YouTube, but if I were to pick a few, here is one where Rithvik Raja and I performed Akhilandeshvari about a year back, for his album 'Duet'. Here is another one that I've played with my wife Krithika, as part of some home practice sessions during the lockdown last year.
Q.What do you think makes you a successful musician?
Rajeev: A key trait to being a good artist is to just be curious and learn without a filter. I like doing so many things apart from music. I love to code, read, draw, travel and a lot more. I like to think that all these experiences have an impact on my music, one way or the other.
Q. Have you had a concert moment - either as a performer or a listener - that opened up a new window of possibility for you, or led to a fundamental shift in the way you sing?
Rajeev: I've had several such moments. As a performer, I've had the opportunity of sharing the stage with so many wonderful musicians and in every concert, I look forward to those impactful moments. When I'm performing, I'm not only playing, but I'm also listening to and enjoying what the others on stage are singing/playing. And sometimes, there are those moments when somehow, everything comes together just right and it is just blissful. This also happens all the time when I'm listening to music, when even a single note or a phrase can be so fulfilling that I just stop listening because I'd be content. I'm sure a lot of us would have experienced this. It's really hard to analyse the discernible impact these moments have had on me, but they are all a part of who I am as an artiste today.
Photo: supplied by artiste
Q. Imagine you could be born in any period of history and grow up as a peer alongside any musician of your choice, with unfettered access to them. Which musician would you choose and why?
Rajeev: I would have to say - Sri Voleti Venkateswarulu. As a kid, I used to listen to and learn Annamacharya krithis from his recordings. That was my only exposure to his music back then. It was only about 6-7 years back, when I was re-introduced to his music through an out-of-the-world virutham he had sung in Sindhu Bhairavi. You could tell, from listening to it, that he was singing with such abandon, and that (for lack of a better phrase) he was in the zone! I started listening to his recordings more and more and every time I listen to the man sing, I'm speechless. Growing up as his peer and getting to spend time with and learn from him would be amazing.
Q. You trained under the legendary violinist A. Kanyakumari - can you tell us a little bit about your guru?
Rajeev: Until I joined Kanya maami, I was not serious about playing the violin at all. I had not understood the nuances of this genre of music and just learnt it as a hobby. I used to attend concerts with my parents who were fascinated by Kanya maami's music. And as a young child, I was fascinated by her concerts not because of her music (I was unable to understand her brilliant music at that young age) but because she owned a fancy white violin! It's surreal to think that years later, I got to learn from maami and also perform alongside her. Classes with her would always be so interactive. She never taught by playing the violin, she would always sing in class and the students would have to figure out how to play it in a way that was best suited to us. She would let us experiment with our finger/bowing techniques and find a way that worked for us rather than telling us this is how it should be done. Technique was never a goal in and of itself but was used as a tool to express the essence of the music. She would never look at the time while teaching. I remember that, many a time, classes would go on for hours together and we would end up staying until the wee hours of the morning. She was very open minded. She led by example, in experimenting a lot with the art form while still retaining the Carnatic sound, by creating new and innovative ragas, compositions, instrumental pieces, ensembles... the list goes on!
Q.Can you recount for us a moment when you've felt moved during the course of your musical journey so far?
Rajeev: A word of praise from one's teacher or even an acknowledging nod is enough to make your day! It was during the very early stages of my performing career, Kanya maami had asked me to perform alongside her. It was the first time I was going to accompany her in a concert, so naturally, I was extremely nervous. Moreover, she played at a great speed and I was doing my best to keep up, but did end up making quite a few mistakes. She was so encouraging and would smile at me every time I made a mistake. It eased the atmosphere on stage and only motivated me to try harder! During a raaga aalaapana section, maami stopped midway and asked me to continue for a bit and when I finished, there was some feeble applause from the audience. She put her hands out and started clapping and spoke into the microphone "chinna paiyyan nannaa vaasikaraane, neengalum nanna kai thattalaame" ( the young boy is playing well, you can clap a little more ). I was truly moved by this gesture from her.
Q. What one style of music other than Carnatic finds place on your playlist? What about it do you enjoy the most?
Rajeev: I listen to several genres of music but if I had to pick one, it would be Hindustani. When I was in school, I used to be obsessed with the sitar, so much so that I had my parents get me a used sitar to try out. I didn't get too far with it amidst violin lessons and school work. But it is still one of my most favourite instruments. I grew up listening to Pandit Nikhil Banerjee, Amjad Ali Khan, N.Rajam and many other wonderful Hindustani musicians who've had a significant impact on my music. What I love about Hindustani is the raw emotional content and the unhurried exploration of ragas.
Photo: supplied by artiste
Q. Who is on speed-dial when you want to practice, or do you prefer to go solo?
Rajeev: Nowadays, I sometimes practise with my wife and in the past, I have practised with some friends of mine. But I mostly like to practice solo. Aside from some basic exercises, I don't structure my practice sessions. It's almost like an expression of the state of my mind on that particular day. So, if someone were to listen to me practising, it could sometimes sound pretty weird . Some days, I could go on for hours playing the same raga and on others, it is so random that it keeps changing every few minutes. There are even days when I sit down to practice, my mind draws a complete blank and I just get up and walk away.
Q. Speaking of your wife, what is like to have a life partner who is also a musician? How has this this influenced your own journey?
Q.What's something that you consider an unexplored frontier for you musically, or something on your to-do / to-achieve list as a musician?
Rajeev: I love storytelling and narrative design and I've been toying with some ideas on how to integrate that with Carnatic music or rather "how do you tell a story through just music?" When I read about some of the concepts and theories behind cohesive storytelling / narrative design, I see a lot of relatedness to music and if we could somehow marry the two, it would be really awesome... or maybe not! But it's something I really want to do, to see how that turns out.
Q. What would you add to, or change about, the Carnatic music scene?
Q. Finally, can you play a minute's worth of music (anything you like) for us?