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In Conversation With Ravi Kiran, Chitraveena Maestro

Nirmala Garimella
05/05/2004

The beautiful strains of the Chitraveena greet you when you open the webpage of this gifted artist. Ravikiran’s mastery over this instrument is legendary. He has been alternatively called the Indian Mozart, a musical genius and the crown prince of Carnatic music in the various press reviews he has received. Meeting the artist himself is a humbling experience of sorts. He is warm and friendly, direct and passionate in his conversation about music. A musical prodigy who displayed his talents as early as age two, he has definitely brought a new and innovative dimension to the understanding of the form with his unique compositions. I met him recently at the home of Phil Scarff of the IndoJazz Group Natraj.

Lokvani: Tell us something about your present tour?

Ravikiran: I am performing in a series of concerts at various places in the US till May and then I leave for Europe. I prefer to go on short tours rather than two long tours because then I can spend time in Chennai. I had the pleasure of meeting Phil Scarff at the recent Carnatic festival in Chennai and I was a guest artist in one of their concerts. It was a very pleasant experience. So I decided to play again for Natraj here in Boston.

Lokvani: What is the present status of the Chitraveena and its proponents?

Ravikiran: There are many talented and promising musicians in this field. I have my own school called the International Foundation of Carnatic music which offers instruction in the area of music, both instrumental and otherwise. My wife Lata who is presently visiting relatives in California is a vocalist and assists me in my various projects. We have an Ensemble called the Vintage Virtuosos and I compose and write the lyrics for this and even for dance artists. Right now I am composing for a production called the ‘The Trinity” for Vempati Chinna Satyam. My cousin, Chitraveena Ganesh is a prodigy and has given both solo and group concerts. My sister Kiranavali who is a vocalist also plays the instrument. I have a few students too here in the US. One of them is Vishal, a young boy in Austin, Texas. He is very talented.

Lokvani: Could you tell how the name Gottu Vadyam changed to Chitraveena?

Ravikiran: The two names are synonymous. Chitraveena was the original name but somewhere in between, the Gottuvadyam became more prevalent. Since it is basically a slide instrument, the term gotu meaning ‘slide’ was used. Vadyam of course means instrument. However it seemed to me that it did not communicate much. I always humorously referred it as “does it mean that I go to the Vadyam or not to go to the vadyam”. So I set out to do some research on this subject. There were many pioneers of Marathi origin in the late 18th century and some of the artists were responsible in bringing it back to the concert scene. I canvassed for a name change and obtained signatures from leading musicians. Then the Music Academy passed a resolution and the government of India also recognized it.

Lokvani: As a global artist with so many collaborations, could you share your experiences with us and what we can learn from each tradition?

Ravikiran: It is a learning experience for both. What I admire best in Western Classical music is the rigor it demands. It is well defined and a fantastically evolved system that has been built on a good foundation. Any system that demands such perfection and dedication is good. I find that it is very similar to the melodic rules of Indian Classical music. My own goal is to bring to the world an appreciation of Indian Classical music. It has been my experience that many times the audience come to listen to the performance at a concert because of the noted musicians. It is the ‘concert’ not the ‘concept’ that appeals to them. I would like to change that. My passion is to compose and popularize the concept of ‘Raaga’. That is why I started this concept of Melharmony where I started composing music with harmony but with a stress on the melodic rules.

Lokvani: Your first big effort in this direction was the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra, isn’t it?

Ravikiran: Yes, In fact when we started the concert, I addressed the audience saying “All this while, you heard the BBC Philharmonic, now you will listen to the BBC Melharmonic and the people loved that. It was an amazing experience and we had many encores. Since then I have worked tirelessly to refine this concept. When you are facing a challenge to bring Indian music to the western ear it requires serious thought. It is a stimulating exercise and as a composer you have the unique opportunity of a platform where you can share these concepts.

Lokvani: Your views of what music has meant to you in your own life?

Ravikiran: It is like how I named my own website www.ravikiranmusic.com. The two are inseparable. There are 3 sides to music – emotive, intellectual and the spiritual and I am always striving to blend all these three aspects in my music. I often tell my students that perfection is a journey not a destination. Carnatic music is amazing. It has an abundant lyrical wealth and so one must always strive for the exquisite and share it in the process.



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