When Vishnudev sings in prestigious concert halls and Sabhas in Chennai as well as venues across the world, his classicism, confidence, uninhibited style and highly nuanced bhava are hard to miss. The freedom that he embodies, both in terms of his learning and imagination, also ensures that his music is eclectic.

Of the younger generation of Carnatic musicians, Vishnudev KS is somewhat unique. He has a boisterous, open throated and bhava-rich style that combines the classical traditions of two states, namely Kerala and Tamil Nadu, and is an exception to the general belief that one has to be raised in Chennai’s Carnatic ecosystem to be acknowledged by the establishment. He is one of the most charming musicians of the present generation and has a steady following in the competitive Chennai Sabha circuit and elsewhere.

Born and raised in Kerala, Vishnudev had most of his early music training in the state till he was 22, which also meant that from a young age itself manodharma (musical imagination) and bhava were as important to his music as its grammar and classicism. His guru Chandramana Narayanan Namboothiri, a famous teacher in central Kerala, ensured that not only his classical fundamentals were strong, but also that he explored the distinctive essence and purpose of his music. Narayanan Namboothiri’s emphasis on self-expression encouraged him to sing freely and imaginatively. Quite often, even when he was happy with a session with young Vishnudev, he would ask, “Where’s the main thing?” What he alluded to was bhava, without which he thought music was incomplete. The emotional landscapes of ragas and compositions that opened before Vishnudev led him to a path of self-discovery that still continues. “I am only a medium. I often wonder about the source of all this music. Where does it all come from?” he asks.

His classical foundation got stronger and his music richer when he continued his musical training in Chennai under Neyveli Santhanagopalan, and later under the legendary musical Guru PS Narayanaswamy (PSN). PSN also followed a similar tradition of strong classical values and unhindered imagination. “PSN Sir taught us ragas and compositions thoroughly with all their subtleties, but always allowed us to pursue our own musical styles. He would listen to us sing what he taught us, but would intervene only if there were glaring mistakes that needed to be corrected. He didn’t insist that we sing exactly the way he sang. That approach gave his students a strong footing as well as a lot of creative freedom. It also ensured that his students became musicians with distinctively different styles and attitudes,” he says.

Today, when Vishnudev sings in prestigious concert halls and Sabhas in Chennai as well as venues across the world, his classicism, confidence, uninhibited style and highly nuanced bhava are hard to miss. The freedom that he embodies, both in terms of his learning and imagination, also ensures that his music is eclectic. His music is influenced not only by Carnatic classical, but also by a lot of other forms and a number of past and present masters and peers. “They are also my teachers,” he adds.

What makes Vishnudev’s music special is also his sonorous voice and the ability to easily traverse the octaves. When he is in full form, Vishnudev is an absolute delight to watch.

Excerpts from a free-wheeling conversation with G Pramod Kumar, the second in this year’s interview series.

Although the Covid epidemic has shut down live concerts for the December season for the first time in its history, there seems to be a sudden discovery of virtual concerts. Are you singing in many of them?

I am doing eight (smiles).

Oh, that sounds almost like a regular season. Isn’t it difficult to sing in empty halls without an audience? Without their feedback, where do you draw your inspiration from?

A virtual concert is certainly no match to singing before a live audience, but under the circumstances, it’s not bad. For many of us, singing without an audience is not new because every now and then we sing on AIR. It’s in a small studio and we won’t even hear what we are singing because there are no feedback monitors. In most of these virtual concerts, there are monitors and at least we can hear ourselves.

The dynamics of your voice is quite attractive, particularly when you easily move up to the higher octaves. How far can you go?

When my voice is properly warmed up, I can hit the Sa of the third octave, but not always. I actually know if my voice is good and if I am ready for the higher frequencies while I am singing. One can’t do that in a pre-planned way. In a concert, in the heat of the moment, when my heart says I can do something, I just go for it.

Does it fail sometimes?

Oh yes, it does sometimes! Most of the time, the heart is right. But if you are even slightly doubtful, you may fail. If you are confident, it will succeed. Sometimes you won’t get that confidence, not just while attempting high octave notes, but also while executing other on-the-spot ideas as well.

What about going down to the bass frequencies?

I can go till Pa, Ma and sometimes Ga, but not always. Sometimes, after two hours into a concert, I lose some of my bass register, but the upper octaves really open up. If and when I reach that point, I focus more on middle and upper octave exploration. I dynamically make these decisions.

What about the Dhrupad style ultra-bass singing?

In Dhrupad, they do their Kharaj Riyaz, where the ultra-bass notes are explored and sustained to open up one’s voice to sing lower octave notes effortlessly. However, in Carnatic, this kind of practice is not known to be in use. Carnatic music is predominantly composition-oriented and the major chunk of Carnatic compositions explore only the middle and upper octaves.

Forms like Dhrupad require you to sing at a relatively lower pitch than your usual pitch. You actually explore a lot of areas in between swaras. In Dhrupad, you magnify everything – it’s like playing an audiovisual at half speed. You explore the raga at such slow, steady speed. Singing in that style in high pitch is very difficult. You can sing faster phrases in upper octaves, but going slow is very difficult. To have that kind of control in all its perfection is hard to attain. What works for one system of music may not always work for other systems.

Your raga-singing is always a very fulfilling experience. Your voice, the dynamics, the intensity of expressions (bhava) and the spatial impact they create are quite something. Tell me something about your raga-singing.

My approach to singing the raga has evolved over time and it’s an ongoing process.

Many factors go into raga-singing and it’s also influenced by a lot of other singers. To get adept in raga-singing, you have to definitely listen to a lot of musicians. We can learn the pre-set aspects of music (kalpithasangeetham) from our Gurus, but for developing unhindered imagination, (kalapanasangeetham) you have to listen a lot. In the process, you also start developing your likes and dislikes, you feel like listening more to some specific people and the conscious aesthetic choices that you make shapes your music.

In the beginning, I used to experiment a lot with speeds and phrases and random ideas with no structure. Then I got a lot of feedback that I needed to be more structured; but that had made me very structure-conscious. When we are too conscious of what we are doing, we lose the flair. So, I also had to go through that phase when I had a lot of ideas, but had to restrict myself because of the thought of a structure. I guess now I have gotten past both those stages and feel comparatively free because the structure has become somewhat inbuilt. I am sure it will evolve further and I might hopefully experience even more freedom. There is still quite a long way to go.

I would like my journey to lead me to be one with the raga, if it’s possible in this lifetime.

Do you get a kick when everything falls in place?

Absolutely. That’s the main motivation in singing. Singing the raga has been very special to me. I find a lot of happiness in it and most of the time I even get carried away. In fact, during most of my practice, I keep singing the raga alone that I even forget to sing the composition. When I see something in nature, or something good or bad happens in my life, my musical expressions are all in the form of a raga. During such situations, I just sit with my tanpura and sing a ragam. That’s the canvas on which I paint my expressions. I remember singing Keeravani when my grandmother passed.

In raga-singing I am a fan of all musicians who sing their heart out. Each raga has a personality, and temperament. You have to feel the raga. Initially, you have to understand parts of the raga grammatically, which are your entry points; but most important is the feel of the raga, the emotion. It’s very abstract. Once you understand that, it’s hard to stop singing. But on stage, you can’t get lost for practical reasons. Performing live for an audience has a different dynamic.

Does the feedback from the audience modify your singing in a live concert?

Yes, it’s hard not to get influenced by the audience-feedback

Do you keep eye-contact with them?

Sometimes I do, but sometimes, I get into a zone where I don’t know what’s happening around me. Sometimes, the conditions are so conducive for me to go into that zone.

Sometimes even absolute silence is good feedback, isn’t it? It means that the audience too are with you in that zone.

Silence from the audience could mean one or two different things. If they’re silent because they feel a complete lack of connect with me, then it is definitely not good! (Laughs) However, if there is silence that is steeped in a common experience of music between artist and the audience, that would be an amazing thing!

How do you practise for such raga-journeys on stage?

I try different iterations. Usually, I try a raga for about 15 minutes and most of the time, I find I am not happy. So, I will start all over again. I do multiple rounds like that.

Probably what helped you integrate into Chennai’s classical music establishment and concert circuit was the training under PS Narayanaswamy. How do you recall the experience of learning from such a musician of musicians?

PSN Sir encouraged people to sing in their own styles and hence his disciples have become unique in their own ways. Look at all the wonderful musicians who have been trained by him; you can see the diversity. Also, since many of today’s performing musicians are his disciples, I got the golden opportunity to interact with these musicians – senior artists, peers and aspiring students. We all got to practise together, learn compositions together, explore manodharma aspects with PSN sir listening to us and we all got to be a part of each other’s musical journeys. Not only did this give me room to integrate into the Chennai music circuit, but it also taught me several life-lessons and gave me precious memories that I will cherish for a lifetime.

You shifted to Chennai quite late in your life, at 22, and still made it into the big league. Tell me about that journey

I had my higher education in engineering and took up a job immediately after I finished my course. In fact, during my engineering, I was extremely distraught by the fear that my education and a subsequent job might rob me of my music, which was everything for me. So, I purposely chose a job in Chennai to pursue music where it mattered the most. I then chanced upon the right opportunities to learn from the best and to interact with people from the field etc. Many people have been instrumental in my progress and I can’t thank them enough. I reached a point where I got the confidence to quit my job and take up music full time. Also, it is important to state that I got to work in the US for a couple of years and was able to pay off some loans. That gave me the financial freedom and confidence to quit the salaried job I had.

I truly believe that no matter how late, one will reach where he/she is destined to. But it does involve a lot of passion and hard work.

Vishnudev receiving Augustine Joseph memorial award from Dr. K J Yesudas in 2002. (Image from Vishnudev’s personal collection)

Let’s get technical and esoteric now. This is something I routinely ask most musicians since it’s considered to be the touchstone of the manodharma competence of a Carnatic musician: How do you approach Ragam Tanam Pallavi (RTP)?

To keep an RTP interesting for myself, I usually explore variety in terms of the sahitya, talam and the melodic structure. I also sometimes take up pallavis popularised by yesteryear doyens. In a concert, I don’t plan how I split the time for each in detail, but set aside one hour for the main piece.

Ragam, tanam, pallavi-neraval, swaram etc have unique manodharma-characteristics. You shouldn’t mix them up. For instance, neraval shouldn’t sound like a ragam. In the middle of the neraval, if you do a lot of alapanas, what’s the difference between a raga and the neraval? Just as a raga shouldn’t sound like neraval, neraval also shouldn’t sound like swaras and so on.

Complicated pallavis in RTPs and concentrating on the kanakkus (mathematics) must be tough, isn’t it? Your concert for the Pallavi Durbar last year appeared to be quite complex.

Yes, you will have to concentrate and prepare a lot for them although simple and easy-to-connect pallavis are not as difficult. A concert such as Pallavi Durbar is meant to inspire students to take up more pallavis like in the olden days. Apparently, those days, there were such durbar sessions – competition for pallavis. That’s what Pallavi Durbar is trying to recreate.

In regular concerts, I don’t take very complicated pallavis, but once in a while, I try to test myself. I would like to see how far I could go. Probably sometimes when I hear my peers sing a complex pallavi, it inspires me. It will require hours of practice. In fact, anything advanced that’s tala-related requires a lot of concentration and practice. What I like about pallavis is that it’s intellectually challenging. All of us want to be intellectually challenged, right? That’s what an RTP does in a concert. If the concert is not too short, I will try to squeeze in a pallavi.

Do pallavis require specialised training or is it something that you naturally devise yourself when you mature as a musician?

If your fundamentals are strong, you can attempt any pallavi. However, depending on the complexity of the chosen pallavi, you might have to put in a lot of hours of practice.

Also, some musicians do take specialised pallavi training from experts. This will certainly add a lot of value.

Does one need to be very good with mathematics for pallavis? I ask this question because a lot of classical music aspirants may not be good in mathematics.

In olden days, neraval pallavis were equally or more prominent in concerts than mathematically complicated pallavis. However, Vidwans like Alathur Brothers popularised complicated pallavis. Not all RTPs have to be “kanakku” based. In the newer generations, lot more advanced concepts are being tried out. But there is always a value for simple Neraval Pallavis as well.

Sometimes it can be intimidating. The way they rip, mix and play in complicated structures and still get it all right.

Yes, it’s like tightrope-walking. Presenting a mathematically challenging pallavi or complex nada pallavis can be quite demanding. You have to start exactly at that particular “edam” (position). If it’s a very long talam – say 30 beat – and if you lose that position in one cycle, you will have to wait till the next cycle. What will you do during that period? You will be trying to cover up the miss, and then the whole situation gets stressful. Complicated structures require a lot of internalisation. Even in the absence of talam, you will have to know where you are.

Is this something you enjoy or you do under compulsion?

Sometimes I do enjoy them; sometimes I enjoy simple things (laughs). Once in a while you feel that you need some intellectual stimulation and, in such situations, you get to compose a bit complicated pallavi. I often compose a pallavi and sit on that for a while. Once I prove to myself that I can do it, I take it to the stage.

Does it tire you?

(Laughs) It depends. If it hasn’t gone as per your plan, you may get exhausted. If it has gone well, the satisfaction it gives you compensates for all the physical exertion.

Any inspiration for pallavis?

Frankly, it’s all inspiration. Among the past masters, Alathur Brothers have done a lot of wonderful Pallavis. Seshagopalan sir is also very famous for his brilliant pallavis. I am a fan of Abhishek Raghuram’s pallavis too. I am also inspired by the pallavis in marga thalas by the late Smt. Suguna Purushothaman. She used to be a master of avadhana pallavis (maintaining different thalams at the same time) too, which are very difficult. I haven’t explored it much. It demands a lot more time and at one stage you realise it’s all about how you like to prioritise and allocate time for different areas in music because each such area is an ocean in itself.

Let’s talk about kalpanaswaras, another thrilling aspect of manodharma. How much of your kalpanaswaras is pre-planned?

Only the finishing korvais are pre-planned. Or some porutham if it’s possible and if the line is amenable to that. In general, I plan only the korvais. Some standard korvais always start on the beat – on the samam. That makes the take-off easier. The execution of new korvais requires practice. You need to be thorough.

Lalgudi Sir and TR Subramaniam (TRS) sir were great in porutham singing. They are intellectually intriguing at the same time aesthetically beautiful. They won’t sound like merely mathematics at play.

Do you like singing kalpanaswaras?

Yes, very much. It is actually the entry point to manodharma singing, according to me. The kind of swara-singing I follow is predominantly sarvalaghu oriented which is singing swaras without much karvais. Every small fraction of the beat will have swaras packed in it.

Very groovy

Yes, and very energetic. This is what my paramaguru Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer used to follow. Also, Madurai Mani Iyer. I am very attracted to that style.

But for the sarvalaghu swara-singing to work, you need the mridangist also on your side, right?

Yes, if the mridangist understands your sarvalaghu style and plays accordingly, that will sound really beautiful. Sarvalaghu is not just tha ka dhi mi tha ka dhi mi, it could also be three and five and so many other different random combinations. Mostly when more odd numbers come into play, it becomes more thrilling. Some mridangists are very sensitive and anticipate what you are going to sing. For example, Palghat Raghu sir could apparently predict what was going to come from the singer. That was holistic musical knowledge, not just on tala. There are several sensitive mridangam artists in today’s generation as well. Many of them sing well too! To sing sarvalaghu-swaram, that kind of mridangam support will be blissful.

Going back to mathematics, doesn’t too much of it affect the overall aesthetics?

It depends on how you sing maths. If the mathematical pattern adds to the aesthetic beauty, it’s surely enjoyable. When Lalgudi Sir included mathematical patterns to his swaras and compositions, they never sounded out of place, but added beauty to the whole thing. TRS Sir’s porutham based singing is also similarly beautiful. But if you put in a lot of karvais in kanakku, it affects the continuity. Then it will be discrete swaras with no musical connection. It will just be mathematics. I am not a great fan of that.

Overall to sound good, you need to be adept in laya. You cannot miss even a small fraction of the beat. I wouldn’t like it if it’s just mathematical brilliance. It has to go with the composition. Together everything has to make sense.

But some audiences have a penchant for mathematics

Yes, you are right, there are some takers for kanakku singing, like korvais etc, but not all. Many senior musicians have told me that a lot of people appreciate less kanakku-oriented singing. There has to be a balance. When there is too much maths and even the mridangist doesn’t have an idea of what you are doing, there will be total mayhem on stage. Even the audience would feel it. Everything has to go together for the chemistry of music to work.

You have a boisterous, open throated and uninhibited style. Any particular influence?

Honestly, I am not too sure if I am that open throated (laughs). I still have a long way to go and I am working on that.

I look up to a lot of musicians who are open throated like Madurai Somu, Voleti Venkateswaralu, TV Sankaranarayanan, Rashid Khan and many other Hindustani musicians and even Qawwali singers like Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. I admire such open throated style. They sang their heart out.

Is this “not holding back” a style that you have been following from childhood?

I think so, I do value my voice and when I sing, I try not to hold back. That’s being honest, I think. Each person has a natural tone and texture that they should treasure. I look at how I can use my voice to express myself better; but I am nowhere close to understanding my voice. That’s a constant journey. I think I may not understand it fully even at the end of my journey. It has to be a self-discovery, a Guru can help, but only a little bit. It’s a very interesting journey, something that I really love.

Another thing is the behaviour of each voice. My voice may behave differently after two hours of singing and it may not be the same for another person.

Do you project your voice differently depending on the time and space?

Yes, but it happens naturally. When you are in a big auditorium, when there are a lot of people sitting in front of you and monitor-feedback is not good enough, you tend to push yourself a little more. You look at the space, it’s big and you want to be audible, right? If the feedback is good, you won’t project much; but if the feedback is less, you project more. That’s a natural tendency. it happens without planning.

But wouldn’t that take away some subtleties or finer details of your music?

Yes, you may lose some of that when you push too much. You lose the dynamics. You lose a lot of fine details. That’s an unhealthy projection. If it’s open throated, it’s well and good; but if it’s open throated loud singing, it’s unhealthy. Open throated can be even soft; but loudness is harsh and you lose quality.

Another discernible feature of your singing is bhava. Since you have told me about your interest in Kathakali padams (Kathakali music), has it influenced the nature of your music?

Born and raised in Kerala in a family like mine with exposure to both Kathakali and Carnatic music, it was only natural for me to listen to a lot of Kathakali padams by maestros such Kalamandalam Unnikrishna Kurup, Venmani Haridas and Sankaran Embranthiri. If I quantify, it may not be as much in comparison to Hindustani and Carnatic, but still I guess I have listened to a lot of Kathakali music. I am sure that has had some influence on my idea of music as well as singing.

My Guru Chandramana Narayanan Namboothiri Sir also had a lot of exposure to Kathakali music because he came from a family of Kathakali artistes. It indeed had an effect on his teaching. It therefore could have given me an extra bhava-perspective. To please Chandramana sir, you needed to sing with bhava.

In fact, the emotion – the bhava – of each raga is what inspires me to sing. That’s my starting point.

Since you emotionally connect with the ragas, are there any favourites?

Any raga in which I can express emotions is my favourite. For instance, Todi is an ocean of limitless opportunities. In fact, there are also a lot of Kathakali padams in Todi because of the possibility it offers for expressing diverse emotions in different contexts and moods. Similarly, a Saveri can be used even in an angry context. If a ragam carries only one emotion it can get boring, isn’t it?

The shades of ragas change with the contexts. In fact, even within bhakthi one can be angry. A raga is not about expressing just one emotion, but many emotions.

Kerala’s classical musicians have always excelled in bhava. What do you think are Kerala’s value additions to Carnatic music? And why is Carnatic music very popular in Kerala although the state hasn’t produced many stalwarts.

Firstly, the bhava-influence could be because of Kathakali and Sopanam music. Kathakali padams are not stand-alone music, but are meant to elevate a visual performance that’s bhava rich. Therefore, Kerala singers who have exposure to Kathakali music (and also Sopanam) would have internalised a lot of bhava and hence instinctively express it in their art.

Secondly, our olden day film music industry had been raga-oriented for a long time and of course, the presence of a doyen such as K J Yesudas have made a huge difference to the appreciation of Carnatic music in the state. Dasettan (that is how he is fondly called in the state) has successfully bridged the gap between Carnatic and popular music. I know people who, with zero exposure to Carnatic, can perfectly deliver a begada based film song. How does it happen? Because those film songs were rich in raga-bhava like a Carnatic composition. Additionally, the devotional music you hear everywhere is also Carnatic-based.

Thirdly, there are absolutely no barriers to learning, performing and enjoying Carnatic music in Kerala. This is something that you seldom see anywhere else. So, for common people in Kerala, Carnatic music is not an alien form, but something that they are exposed to on a daily basis. Also, the culture of temple concerts has strong prevalence in Kerala.

In addition, the role played by the Travancore princely state, the Swathi Thirunal Music College, the Navaratri Mandapam concerts etc have helped a great deal in popularising Carnatic music and making it accessible to everyone. Needless to say, the wealth of Maharaja Swathi Tirunal’s compositions has contributed to the Carnatic repertoire!

Are you a risk taker on stage?

Very much. I always think with my heart, not with my brain (laughs).

How much does the give and take with accompanists enrich your music on stage?

The raga and swara patterns by the violinist during the manodharma portions of a concert inspire me. Sometimes, I pick on their improvisations and develop on them. The same happens with percussionists as well. They are not just Vidwans of talam, but that of laya. Sometimes I feel bad that how misunderstood the idea of laya is. In fact, bhava or expression are very important in laya as well. Some percussionists are so sensitive to the bhava of the raga that they express it so beautifully on the mridangam. For instance, for a raga such as Anandabhairavi, the gumkis they play on the left side of the mridangam will match the gamakas that we sing. In fact, a concert is a team effort and it becomes successful only if the chemistry among all the artistes on stage works.

Influence of other forms of music?

I listen to many genres of music and get really charged up like anybody else. More than technical aspects, that thrill or happiness is very relatable to my Carnatic concert as well. Most often the common thread that attracts me to any type of music is the emotional connect.

When you listen to other forms of music, don’t you come across phrases that you may like to use in concerts if they are applicable to the ragas that you sing?

If they naturally come to me, I will go ahead and use it.

How do you handle successes and failures of concerts?

Successful concerts always give me an adrenaline rush and I get immensely charged up. After some highly energetic concerts, it will be impossible to sleep for a while.

On the other hand, some concerts become very mechanical. The situations may not have been favourable: the way my voice behaved, the way the chemistry between artists on stage didn’t click, the tone of my voice from the feedback monitor etc. On such days, nothing would have gone in my favour; At the end of the concert, you do wonder what could have happened – everything was fine in terms of grammar, the format, structure, choice of kritis etc., but you were not happy. Those concerts are like going through the motions. Frankly such a concert would bring me down for a while. But even a “failed” concert offers a lot of learning that I can take away, so essentially it is not a failure after all.

Your core strength(s) as you see them?

I think I have a good vocal tone, my style is expressive and I give a lot of importance to the sahitya. When I sing compositions even in unfamiliar languages I try to sing the sahitya the right way, including the pronunciation. I may not be perfect, but I do try.

Past masters that have inspired/influenced you –

It’s a long list. I have followed many, each in different ways. I look up to them a lot.

To name a few, Madurai Somu for his daring alapanas and for not holding back anything; GNB for his inimitable spontaneity in his robust voice; KVN and MDR for their revolutionary, unique bhava-laden music with utmost sruthi and laya sudham; Semmangudi and Madurai Mani Iyer for their impeccable, inherent laya and for their conviction in their music; and Brindamma for her chaste raga bhava, purity of nadam, and unadulterated class. There are so many other legends as well. I have been inspired by all of them so much. They are like my Gurus as well.

There was a stage when people would ask me if I was following T.N. Seshagopalan’s style. At a later stage, many asked me if I was following T.M. Krishna’s style. Stylistic influences are inevitable when one listens extensively to a particular artist. So, I started limiting how much I listened to my most favourite musicians (laughs). I believe that rather than stylistic traits one must be able to gain inspiration from musical ideas and approaches from each artist that we look up to.

Other senior musicians that you look up to

There are many. TV Sankaranarayanan, Neyveli Santhanagopalan, Sudha Raghunathan, S. Sowmya, Sanjay Subrahmanyan, Ranjani-Gayathri, to name a few.

Plans on the anvil?

My wife Lakshmi and I are working on an original album. It’s a Carnatic melody based fusion album. We both love composing and have set to tune about 25 Sanskrit and Malayalam compositions of Advaita Dasa (Binu Panikkar, a Detroit-based writer). Some of them have been released. It’s a work in progress.

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