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Classical music doesn't have to be old or slow: The Mysore Brothers

Ranjan Crasta | Updated on: 12 October 2017, 12:09 IST
(Photo: Priyanka Chharia/Catch News)

Day Two of the India International Centre's Festival of the Arts got off to a rousing start with a stunning musical performance from the Mysore Brothers. Violin maestros from Karnataka, brothers Mysore Nagaraj and Dr. Mysore Manjunath, delivered a tour de force performance, enthralling the assembled audience for two hours.

Accompanied by Tumkur Ravishankar on the mridangam and Guruprasanna on the kanjira, the curly-haired brothers showed exactly why the violin deserves to be a centre piece rather than an accompanying instrument.

Starting out as child prodigies under the guidance of their violinist father, the brothers have grown into ambassadors of their art, touring the world and gaining a devoted following. They have performed at the Sydney Opera House and the Royal Albert Hall, London. We caught up with Mysore Manjunath after the IIC performance to find out about more about them. These are the edited excerpts:

Ranjan Crasta: Your father is a violin maestro. Was learning the violin just an obvious progression for your brother and you?

Mysore Manjunath: My father is now 87. He is, and has always been, a very hard taskmaster. He reminds me of the mythological rishi Jamadagni – notorious for being short-tempered and prone to fury. He wanted us to be very popular, so without practising for many hours we wouldn't get lunch at home. We were terrified of him. He wouldn't even allow us to go to the movies. That was just the way we were brought up.

He taught us all the intricacies and all the latest techniques that he evolved. From there we grew to be the performers you see now.

RC: So did you take to the instrument very naturally?

MM: Nagaraj was much elder, he was already giving concerts. I, however, never wanted to learn the violin. In fact, I hated music. My father tried his level best to make me learn the violin, but I never did that.

One day, I was forced to sit on stage while my father and Nagaraj were performing a concert. After the concert, the organisers garlanded my father, brother, and the other performers. When they didn't garland me, I started poking my father and telling him I wanted one as well. He told me that just sitting on stage doesn't earn a garland. In all this hungama, the organiser came to know about this.

He publicly announced this to the crowd, and everyone laughed and clapped because I was a small child. They laughed light-heartedly, but to me it was a big insult. They were laughing at me. That was my red-letter day. After that I, the guy who never wanted to learn the violin, asked my father to teach me. That is how I started.

RC: You started performing with your brother and father when you were only eight-years-old. That must've been an overwhelming experience?

MM: Luckily, when I started performing, I was at an age where I didn't know what was stage fear. I was quite comfortable playing around the older professionals because they loved me. After all, I was a small child.

I was never worried about excellence or anything, I just played whatever I knew. After playing more concerts and all the jugalbandhis with so many wonderful musicians, then I started knowing much more about my music. By my teens, I started to gain more recognition, more accolades and started to travel around the globe.

RC: Given that you played the violin all through school, how did you manage to balance music and studies?

MM: I was not a very brilliant student. Luckily, schools were proud to have such a good violin player as their student so they were accommodating. They even moved exams because I had a concert. Then, I did my masters in music and my PhD in violin, so that was much more suited to me.

RC: The violin is primarily seen as an accompaniment. How did you bring it to the forefront instead?

MM: We accompanied literally every single major vocalist. Accompanying is very important, that's how you grow and learn your trade. But when accompanying, you are tied up, limited. Our public popularity was also growing, so we thought it would be a great time to shift to being soloists.

Originally, there isn't much passion for instrumental music in Carnatic. It is predominantly about the vocals and the lyrics. Very few musicians succeeded on their own, we wanted to take this challenge.

After a lot of performances in jugalbandhis with top musicians, European concerts, bands and so on, I built a perception of my music. One fine day I realised I was in a position where, as they say, I was too big to be an accompanist.

RC: The violin is originally a western instrument. What is the reception like in places like Europe when they hear the Carnatic style of violin music?

MM: The violin is a western instrument, but Indian classical music has received the instrument with a lot of love and care. The reception to us in the west is tremendous.

European concert performers love Indian classical music. They love seeing the original European instrument playing Indian classical, their own instrument being so beautifully adapted to a different system of music.

RC: How do you see classical music surviving in a time where most youngsters seem to prefer pop and electronic sounds?

MM: Hardcore classical may not appeal to masses in its existing form. However, instrumentalists have an advantage. We can very easily escape from the lyrics, we are not limited by them like vocalists are. Instrumental music is above language, religion, etc. Our music is universal. So with a little adaptation, if you can make it more attractive, it can compete with anything.

Classical music doesn't have to be old or slow. While our youngsters seem more drawn to Western performers, we need to let them know that Indian classical can also be very aggressive, very upbeat. I do that when I perform for younger audiences, a good instrumentalist must be able to do this.

RC: Your father encouraged your brother and you to be violinists. Is he doing the same with your children?

My father is a classical music jihadi, so of course he wants the next generation to also take up the violin. Now, Nagaraj's son is also a violinist, as is my own son. As my father always tells us, 'If we ourselves don't promote classical music, who will?'

First published: 12 October 2017, 12:07 IST