Heresy or progress? Electrified instruments in Indian classical music

Indian classical music is often described as an ‘all-acoustic’ tradition. This designation is somewhat vague – while the pre-electrical era was definitely an all-acoustic time, virtually all of today’s ‘acoustic’ instruments arrive to audiences through microphones and powered amplification systems.

This, in turn, feeds back into the choices and intuitions of musicians as they take the stage: Zakir Hussain cites how the advent of microphones influenced 20th-century tabla artistry, allowing the fine whispers of bayan bass strokes to reach large crowds.

Some purists might say that a studio-recorded tabla solo is no longer truly ‘acoustic’ if electronic reverb is added to it in post-production – settling for nothing except the direct, unamplified experience of a live, face-to-face recital. But plenty of other artists feel that India’s classical traditions owe their continued existence to their capacity to adapt and innovate. Consequently, many of them have in recent years turned to more integrated forms of electronic capture and manipulation. Here are two such experiments. Trust your own ears to judge!

• Uppalapu ‘Mandolin’ Srinivas (1969-2014) picked up his father’s mandolin as a child in Andhra Pradesh, and became instantly entranced by its possibilities. Despite it not being a traditional Carnatic instrument, and despite the fact Srinivas did not hail from a family of professional musicians, his astonishing talent at playing it was quickly recognised. He soon began studying with Rudraraju Subbaraju, who – as a vocalist rather than a mandolinist – would just sing the boy great compositions from the Carnatic classical canon, leaving him to find his own ways to fit them onto the fretboard. He rapidly developed a breathtaking technical mastery, many elements of which were totally his own.

Though initially an acoustic player, he soon realised that he must electrify. This was a vital step, allowing him to properly articulate the intricate, sustained ornaments of Carnatic music (he also switched from the traditional four double-strings to five singles). This quickly took his sound to unparalleled heights, and aged 13 his international career began in earnest with a spellbinding show at the Berlin Jazz Festival…where he received a standing ovation after directly following on from Miles Davis’ performance (…talk about going in at the deep end).

The young virtuoso’s sensitive creativity attracted countless top-level collaborations over the next three decades, including a star turn with Indo-jazz heavyweights Remember Shakti. Tragically, he died at the age of 45, from unexpected complications arising from a liver transplant (despite being a lifelong teetotaler). John McLaughlin, the group’s guitarist, told me about this in a recent interview: “He left an indelible imprint upon Shakti that will last forever…losing Shrinivas threw all of us musicians into a sense of loss that kept us apart for about 5 years.”

• Niladri Kumar, another prodigy, gave his first performance on the acoustic sitar in Pondicherry, at the age of 6. But in young adulthood, as a fast-emerging artist, he found that his instrument could often be drowned out in group settings, or amidst louder genres: “Armed with a sitar, but placed for a performance between an EDM and DJ set. How is our sound to be heard in the midst of that? On that kind of a global platform, that will make audiences turn their attention towards our music?”

His admirably bold response was to invent the ‘zitar’ – a bright-red electric sitar with magnetic pickups and a more compact design, allowing it to be played without sitting cross-legged on the floor. Its tone is striking – and while it’s definitely ‘electrified’ rather than just ‘made louder’, I think it retains a good chunk of the sitar’s acoustic nuances. 

According to Niladri, “It’s about a small attempt to turn attention towards the sitar…[to] draw people towards India, and explore her proud and profound legacy”. He is still primarily an acoustic sitarist, but remains proud of his youthful creation – and, judging by his packed concert crowds, he has succeeded in his overall mission to engage new audiences. And I don’t think the acoustic sitar is in much danger from its electrified counterpart – so kudos to the spirit of experimentation!

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