Strumming Away to Glory

In an interview to Spark, Prasanna talks about his fascinating musical journey of being a guitarist, composer and the President of Swarnabhoomi Academy of Music. Anupama Krishnakumar listens in.
Prasanna is an internationally renowned guitarist, music composer and the Founder President of Swarnabhoomi Academy of Music, the largest music college in South Asia. A pioneer in performing Carnatic music on the guitar, Prasanna has more than 11 Carnatic albums to his credit, as well as recordings of original music such as ‘Be the Change’, ‘Electric Ganesha Land’ and more. He has performed and recorded with artistes such as Esperanza Spalding, Victor Wooten, AR Rahman, Joe Lovano, Omar Hakim, Illayaraja, Hariprasad Chaurasia, Dafnis Prieto, Alphonso Johnson and others. In addition, Prasanna tours and records with two collaborative trio projects – The ‘Raga Bop Trio’ with drummer Steve Smith and saxophonist George Brooks and ‘Tirtha’ with pianist Vijay Iyer and tabla player Nitin Mitta. Prasanna has composed the original music score for the 2009 Oscar Award winning documentary ‘Smile Pinki’. He has also scored music for the critically-acclaimed Tamil feature film, ‘Vazhakku Enn 18/9’ that is currently running in theaters. To know more about Prasanna, visit To know more about Swarnabhoomi Academy of Music (SAM), visit


Prasanna, the popular guitarist, the music composer and the Founder President of Swarnabhoomi Academy of Music –that’s your musical journey in a nutshell. But tell us about how this journey began. How did you get interested in music, particularly playing the guitar and when did you start learning?

My journey in music and life has always been a fascinating one since my childhood and when I look back, I certainly feel blessed. I was born and raised in a traditional, middle-class South Indian Hindu family in Tamil Nadu. While most musically inclined children growing up in my community at least in the mid-70s were usually exposed to traditional Carnatic music instruments such as the veena or the mridangam, I stumbled upon the guitar at the age of four because a neighbour played guitar in a church in the small town of Ranipet. I was hooked to the guitar even before I knew anything about the instrument. I started playing the guitar at the age of 10 after we moved to Chennai. I was also listening to Carnatic music, Illayaraja and Western pop bands like Beatles, Abba and Toto then. I took guitar lessons from a family friend called Shanmugaraj and later from Samuel Thangadurai but for the most part, I was self-taught as far as the guitar and western popular music goes.

How did you run into the idea of playing Carnatic music on the electric guitar? Did you face any particular challenges when you began experimenting with this unique idea?

I started playing Carnatic music on the guitar on my own, by intently listening to my sister’s vocal and veenalessons. Seeing my commitment and ability to play some kritis and ragas on the guitar, my sister’s veena teacher, Tiruvarur Balasubramaniam, offered to be my Guru. In the beginning, he was a bit skeptical because he had not seen anyone play Carnatic music on the guitar. It was my mom’s belief in my abilities and persistence that finally led him to agree to give me formal lessons. When my Guru and I started seeing results, he was happy. I was so fortunate that leading Carnatic ‘vidwans’ like Dr. Balamuralikrishna, Lalgudi Jayaraman and young masters like U. Shrinivas and many others were vocal in their praise for my playing and so were the Press, by and large. While my first guru definitely paved the way, the biggest credit for my development into a mature Carnatic performer must go to my guru, Kanyakumari, the incredible violinist and my teacher for 23 years. She completely revolutionized my playing with her dedicated and uncompromising teaching methods and professional insights as a top level performer in the Carnatic world.

What do you feel are some of the difficult and challenging ragas to play on a guitar? Why?

For me, the difficult and challenging ragas to play on the guitar are pretty much the same as the ones which are challenging in general. Ragas like Yadhukula kambodhi, Dhanyasi, Reetigowlai, Kedaragaula, Sahana, Bhairavi, Thodiare some of them.

You have worked with both Illayaraja and A.R.Rahman. Tell us a about the experience of working with the two of them.

Both Illayaraja and A.R. Rahman have transformed the scope of Indian film music in their own ways and have made immense contributions. I am so glad I not only worked with both of them but also developed a friendship with each of them. Illayaraja is specific about what he wants from a performer since he has got ‘everything’ about the music figured out in his head. Rahman is specific too in a different way but keeps himself open to ideas from the performers in a more obvious way and then puts together things by taking the best of his and the performer’s inputs. I can relate to both approaches since I am someone who is right in the middle of all that in my own work as composer and bandleader.

Congratulations on the success of ‘Vazhakku Enn…’. How was the experience of composing music for your first Tamil feature film?

Thanks. I am glad that my first score for a Tamil film happens to be for a film like ‘Vazhakku Enn 18/9’, which has unanimously been acclaimed as one of the greatest films in Tamil that has been made. Its commercial success outside of the critical acclaim is quite staggering. Balaji Sakthivel is a pioneering director in Tamil Cinema and with a producer like the risk-taking Lingusamy on his side, the output is for all to see.

I had a great time composing the music since Balaji invested so much faith in me. He knew he was going to get something that was not only different from what his erstwhile choice for the last two films – Joshua Sridhar would deliver, but also different from what any music director in the industry would deliver. Unlike other film composers in composing sessions armed with keyboards, samplers and keyboard/rhythm programmers, I was like someone from the dinosaur age, just sitting with the director in a composing session with an acoustic guitar, my voice, manuscript paper and a pencil. When I told Balaji that I would do the songs and the BG score all live with live instruments and players performing in the studio, as much as possible as a live band like how it was 30 years ago, he just smiled and said that it was entirely up to me. Balaji was kind enough to come to my college Swarnabhoomi Academy of Music several times and I wrote many sections of the BG score in music notation and then played to him in parts. As for the songs, I even had a full band of faculty from my college read the music, rehearse and show different interpretations for him to see how it will sound like, instead of showing him stuff programmed on keyboards. I am truly grateful to Balaji for letting me be who I am. Of course, it turned out in the end that the only song in the film ‘Oru kural ketkuthu penne’ not only didn’t have any ‘electronic programmed machine stuff’, it didn’t have any instruments at all! Maybe Balaji took my ‘acousticism’ even further than me!  Just kidding! But I am glad that the song has been highly acclaimed  a song with just voice and no instruments and it was entirely Balaji’s idea.

You also composed the music for the Oscar winning short film, ‘Smile Pinki’. How did the opportunity come to you?

A Brazilian guitar player and admirer of my music – Lucio Rebello recommended me to Megan Mylan when she asked him to suggest someone she could work with for the music for ‘Smile Pinki’, given its India-centric theme. Megan called me after the entire film was fully done and initially asked me for ideas on how to get permission from some Indian classical artistes for using their existing music. At the end of an engaging phone conversation, she decided in favour of having me do an original score for the film. However, the time was short and the composing, recording, mixing and mastering, all had to be done in two days flat in Boston, for her to meet the final edit deadlines. This was challenging for me to do, but then when you are given such a beautiful film about such a wonderful cause, you just say ‘yes’ and somehow find a way.

Megan wasn’t present at the recording. In fact, Megan and I haven’t met each other yet, almost five years since the score was done. Little did one know that this film will win an Oscar and more importantly, change the lives of so many children born with cleft lip in India and other countries. I am quite pleased that my first documentary film as music composer won an Oscar! I am also thrilled to be in the company of Pandit Ravishankar and A.R. Rahman as the only two other Indian composers who have scored for Oscar winning films.

How does your approach change when scoring music for a documentary film, a commercial movie and a theatrical performance? 

It is the same in some ways and different in some other ways. To me, I think music in very visual terms anyway and so the idea of connecting it to moving images – be it a feature film, documentary, dance or theater performance  – is a natural process. As a composer, I am inspired by what I see everyday and not just what I hear everyday. So, it’s a logical process. Having said that, each medium that you mentioned has different sensibilities and performance values. So it’s important for me as a composer to be in sync with the narrative as is appropriate for each of these mediums.

We would like to know more about Swarnabhoomi Academy of Music (SAM). I believe it is a key milestone in your career as a musician. What motivated you to start an institution like this?

If I have to pick any one thing that I have done in my life that gives me the most satisfaction, it has to be the founding of Swarnabhoomi Academy of Music. I have always been passionate about education and I myself consider education to be the single biggest factor in moulding my own personality and character. I have been fortunate to get a B.Tech degree from Indian Institute of Technology, Madras and a B.M.(Hons.) degree from Berklee College of Music – two of the most prestigious institutions in their respective worlds –  and intense one-on guru-sishya style education in Carnatic music from my gurus for a combined period of 30 years. I wanted to bring the best of all that I gained from both my western style education and the traditional guru-sishya style education in an Indian classical art and develop an approach in music education that blends all these into a powerful learning experience. Hence the concept of SAM was born. Of course, SAM wouldn’t have been possible without the patronage of Mr. G.R.K. Reddy and his Marg Group of Companies who gave us this awe-inspiring place and continue to support us.

Two years since its inception, we have grown so much with students enrolling at SAM from the U.S., Mexico, Democratic Republic of Congo, Tunisia, Chile, Argentina, Malaysia, Bangladesh and of course from all over India. We also have an exchange student partnership with McNally Smith College of Music, one of the larger music colleges in the U.S.

How did you exactly go about building the course curriculum of SAM? How much of your personal experience went into structuring the curriculum? 

My personal musical journey has been a combination of some beautiful accidents and some instinctive decisions. My personal experience in performing

Picture by Gerard Richter

and composing across many styles of music like Carnatic music, Jazz, Rock, Heavy Metal, Brazilian and other Latin American musical styles, African musical styles, Reggae and of course European Classical music, has helped me design a curriculum of global contemporary music that also draws significantly from the Indian roots. Over the years, I have also taught guitar players, bass players, drummers, trombone players, vocalists, pianists, and others privately. I have taught residencies, workshops and classes at MIT, Berklee, and the Banff Center for the Arts. I have always wanted to give back something to the country that made me who I am and through SAM I am fortunate to share the gift of music education. In less than two years, we have had 46 faculty members from over 20 countries come and teach at SAM. It’s a statement that we have made reminding each one of us about the glorious multi-cultural age that we live in and how it has to be an essential part of knowledge transfer to the young, inquisitive music student.

Further, one can see that quite some importance has been given to Carnatic music concepts as part of the course. For the uninitiated, could you explain why this is important even in the context of western music?

As I mentioned, SAM is a place of deep connection between the modern Euro-American western sensibilities of pedagogy and the Indian cultural aspects of teaching methodology. Carnatic music represents both a science and a philosophy and I believe it’s essential for musicians to get acquainted with this music along with many other forms of western music that they get exposure to in SAM.

Lastly, tell us a bit about your forthcoming music projects.

I have a long overdue album project that I finished recording in late 2009. Between SAM and my CDs and tours in Europe and the U.S. with the two other collaborative projects that I am part of – Ragabop Trio and Tirtha, I just couldn’t find time to put this album out. This is my most ambitious project with a stellar line-up of musicians that include Dave Douglas on trumpet, Rudresh Mahanthappa and David Binney on saxophones, Vijay Iyer on piano, Shalini and Natalie John on vocals, Mike Pope on acoustic and electric bass, Bill Urmson on electric bass, and Rodney Holmes and Mauricio Zottarelli on drums. On this record, I wanted to retain the rock abandon of ‘Electric Ganesha Land’ but blend it with the more jazz compositional approach of ‘Be the Change’. I am also experimenting with drum and bass, electronica and other interesting grooves on it. The new record also features a lot of vocal tracks, which bring a different quality to the aesthetic of the record. All the musicians brought in their incredible playing and energy to this.

Aside from this, I just finished the score for a documentary film called ‘Algorithms’ by British sports filmmaker Ian McDonald and also have a few other film projects in Tamil that I am considering post Vazhakku Enn 18/9’s success. And of course, there are some amazing things happening in SAM. In the Fall term, we have Jordan Rudess, keyboardist of one of the world’s biggest Rock acts, Dream Theater, coming to teach at SAM and I will be working on some exciting teaching stuff with him too, so lots to look forward to!



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