Ajazz/Carnatic guitarist and composer of repute, R.Prasanna started playing the instrument when he was very young. Today, he is known as one of the most innovative guitarists in the country, who has gained fame all over the world, with his virtuoso guitar techniques. Prasanna however, wears all the praises that he gets, with ease and a sense of nonchalance. From playing classical music on his guitar, to a jugalbandhi with Ustad Ghulam Mustafa Khan on Coke Studio recently, this bundle of talent has come a long way.
“I knew I was going to be a guitarist when I was about five years old,” begins Prasanna, and adds, “I once remember seeing my neighbour in Ranipet play the guitar at a church and from then I wanted to play the guitar. I started with an acoustic guitar and by the time I was 12 years old, my sister, who was learning classical vocal, happened to start her veena classes with which exposed me to the world of Carnatic instrumental music. I was listening to a lot of Ilaiyaraaja’s film music along with western pop music, but never Carnatic. I started playing classical music on my guitar when Thiruvarur Balasubramaniam taught me the basics. He used to sing and I used to play the notes on my guitar.” Prasanna adds that he had attended a kutcheri of the then noted Carnatic guitarist Sukumar Prasad and had asked Prasad to teach him. But he was refused for reasons unknown. “Later, it was the noted violinist A. Kanyakumari who taught me and mentored me,” says Prasanna and thereby hangs a tale that brought the master and the student together.
Prasanna says, “When I was just 18 years old — in 1989 — I had my first big, formal concert at the Music Academy. I had requested A. Kanyakumari to accompany me on that day but she could not. She was so kind hearted that a month before the big day she offered to help me out and fine tune my performance with her inputs and professional insights. She has been my guru since then for the last 25 years. She made a big difference in my life” says Prasanna.
His first concert at the Music Academy was well appreciated by all and the sound of an electric guitar playing Carnatic classical was well received. A Carnatic giant like Dr M. Balamuralikrishna and Mandolin U. Srinivas were present at the concert, while Semmangudi, though he could not attend the concert was very happy with Prasanna and congratulated him for his effort.
Prasanna is someone who has many things going at a time. While he was busy with his first concert, Prasanna was also actively playing rock, heavy metal and jazz in addition to touring the country with his band.
After finishing his B.Tech in Naval Architecture from Indian Institute of Technology, Chennai, he started working in a software firm, but within months, he quit, realising that his true calling lay in music. He went to Boston to study classical composition and jazz composition at the prestigious Berkeley School of Music, which opened up a whole different world for Prasanna. He says, “It was a tremendously incredible experience for me. The exposure to different kinds of music and musicians, the information and knowledge exchange is something that remains with me throughout my life,” he says.
Inspired by his experience in Boston, Prasanna, came back to India and started the Swarnabhoomi Academy of Music to encourage and open new doors for musicians to explore and master the art of music. “Swarnabhoomi Academy of Music (SAM) was established in 2009 when there were no professional music schools in India except A.R.Rahman’s K.M. Music Conservatory. While Rahman’s school focussed on western classical music, SAM focussed more on Carnatic and world music. In our very first batch we had around 500 students from around 13 countries. SAM has a gurukul approach to learning music. The students and the teachers live together in one place and exchange and create music. It is a school that is now standing on its own strength now. The academic part and the curriculum is based on the Berkeley School of Music. So we have an equal balance of music, education and scientific approaches.
SAM has become an international college now, with people sending applications from as far as Finland and Slovenia and many countries like these,” he explains proudly.
Prasanna has collaborated with a lot of musicians worldwide and says that these collaborations have taught him more about life and himself than any thing else. “I have an immense amount of support from my friends and my family. I have always been open to new experiences and have welcomed new challenges as well as new thoughts,” says Prasanna.
Apart from working on the music of several award winning movies like the Oscar-winning short documentary film — Smile Pinki, Prasanna has collaborated with a lot of jazz musicians from Europe and from the US. He says, “With God’s grace, life has taught me a lot of things and has made me learn that I’ll have to take things as it comes.”
Apart from an array of music albums released by Prasanna, Peaceful was the first one to hit the stands in 2001 that contained compositions in Carnatic ragas, while his second album was the much acclaimed Be the Change, which was released in 2004. Be the Change had a unique mix of Carnatic and jazz scales and was collaborated with musicians from across the United States. After the jazz/Carnatic fusion in Be The Change, Prasanna released a tribute album to his guitar God — Jimi Hendrix, titled Electric Ganesha Land, an album that captured the hearts of both Carnatic lovers, rock n’ roll and metal fans alike. With original compositions like Sri Jimi, Snakebanger’s Ball, 4th Stone From The Sun and Iguana On A Funky Trail, Electric Ganesha Land was a super hit. Prasanna also plays for bands like Tirtha with Vijay Iyer on piano and Nitin Mitta on tabla and Raga Bop Trio with Steve Smith on drums and Goerge Brooks on the saxophone.
“Finding my own sound is one of the most rewarding among things,” says this talented musician and adds, “I am honest to my work and open to explore many things and finding my own sound is like knowing who I am and to get there I have to know more about what I really am. Playing guitar is just a small part in my life. My life is something more than what it is. And if I ask myself, why I am doing this, my music becomes a meaningful extension of who I am,” he reflects.
Despite having so much on his plate, Prasanna says that he is learning each and every day. Prasanna says, “I like keeping things simple. I listen to all kinds of music and I enjoy playing them. I am open to all kinds of experiences and this has made me a keen learner in life and in music. I think that this is how I can organically evolve as a human being.”
Prasanna says that he aims to be a “connecting thread” between different cultures. “I make sure that this will happen, not just between musicians but with anybody else. Each of us are different in our own way, and this is what makes it more interesting. This is a privilege that God has given me and I will do my best to make the best out of it. To make a difference and to make people happy is what I think my duty towards this privilege is,” he says.