Over 25 years ago, a young Bengaluru schoolboy used to accompany a monk of the Ramakrishna Math for prayer meetings at various venues. He was in charge of arranging the microphone, the amplifier and the speaker, while another youth played the tabla. The tabla player was absent during one such satsang. The monk turned to the boy and told him how good it would be if he also learned to play the tabla. That simple remark had the boy's mother Sarojini sending him to Pandit Seshadri Gavai for classical training.
Fast forward to December 2017: composer and music director Praveen D Rao is surrounded by sophisticated sound recording equipment, musical instruments of various kinds and talented musicians waiting to record a score at a high-tech studio when Sunday Herald caught up with him. The young boy had come a long way.
"Swamy Purushothamananda was my shiksha guru. He made me who I am. He asked me to accompany singers on tabla whenever there was a cultural event at the Ramakrishna Ashram in Basavanagudi. Many of them invited me to play at various concerts. It set off an amazing chain of events," he exclaimed. Today, Praveen plays many instruments including the tabla, harmonium and keyboard. He is also an actor. But his voyage has its beginnings at the Ramakrishna Ashram.
Praveen had gone with the Swamiji to Chennai's AVM studio for a recording in 1991. Rajiv Gandhi was assassinated, and they were confined to the ashram for three days, as the whole city had come to a standstill. In the conversations during that period, the swamiji assigned him a task that was to have far-reaching consequences: Praveen would be in charge of all cultural events at the Bengaluru Ashram for three years. It was here that Praveen honed his skills of organising dance and music ensembles, plays and choirs. "I understood how to organise events, how to present new ideas too. I was commissioned to compose music for a Sampad production called 'Moving Earth' involving 240 dancers at the 2012 London Olympiad. I used the veda mantra that I had learnt at the ashram years ago in my composition."
Later, Praveen stepped in to accompany tabla player Udayaraj Karpur, who was a part of kathak legend Maya Rao's dance school. Karpur had undergone a surgery and since he was still weak, Praveen ended up playing a number of portions. When Karpur shifted to Mumbai, Maya asked Praveen to play at her shows, since he was already familiar with her work. In 1992, this would take him across the seas for the first time to Canada. Although Maya had informed Praveen about the impending travel months in advance, he had not taken her seriously and had not even applied for a passport.
"In those days, a passport would arrive months after applying, and I had to leave in a fortnight's time. I approached a senior IPS officer who had watched me perform at a number of private concerts for help. He stepped in and pushed my papers - and there I was, travelling abroad for the first time!" he laughed. "I was asked to create a rhythm structure revolving around Ibrahim Adil Shah's ghazals for a kathak presentation. That was my first tryst with composing," he said.
He stepped into a recording studio for the first time - and funnily enough, not as a tabla player. Composer and musician Vijay Kumar Athri was looking for somebody to play the taala, which involved the simple but extremely important cymbals. "There I was, surrounded by musicians on different instruments. I was fascinated by the process. Somebody was handing out notations that were being played, some separately, some together - that's when I learnt about musical notations."
On foreign shores
He was invited to Birmingham in 1993 for six months to play the tabla for a musical production called 'Janapada'. His repertoire increased, and so did his exposure to other forms of music, theatre, storytelling and dance. During one children's workshop at Birmingham, he wanted to see how young minds there reacted to two Indian ragas based on the tradition of rasas, which could broadly be translated as music for specific moods or times of the day. Their reactions astounded him.
"It shook my foundations of Indian classical music. They saw sorrow in a slow-paced grand raga. They saw happiness in a fast-paced raga I had chosen to depict pathos," he exclaimed. That experience taught him to move away from conditioned musical beliefs and explore new areas.
It was only a matter of time before Praveen was asked to score music for Kannada television serials and films. Many popular serials began with the title track composed by him, including 67 Harris Road, Tulasi, Baduku, Seethe and Laali.
His NGO Prakruthi brought musicians to open-air performances. Through this, he revived the historic tradition of music at Cubbon Park's famous Band Stand. The Royal Air Force's musical band had performed during the British days, and later the Karnataka Police band would play here, before the tradition stopped. The Bengaluru crowds loved the revival. Praveen poured his earnings into the project. It was halted when renovation on the band stand began. He is keen to revive it, although this time he is looking for a financial grant to run the show.
His restless, creative mind is constantly trying experiments. He is excited about his band Chakrafonics, which plays music that is "parallel to classical, a sort of Indianised jazz..."
We could hear the waiting musicians switching on recording equipment. Melodious music began flowing out as they tested earlier recorded bits. It seemed a good time to step into the cold winter night, with warm tunes following.