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Strings of harmony

Be it veena, santoor or guitar, for well-known artiste R.Visweswaran, music has no boundaries. A profile.


"I ENJOY music — be it Western Classical, Carnatic, Hindustani or film songs. Kritis such as Syama Sastri's "Devi Brova" rejuvenate me spiritually; it is a blessing to be able to enjoy music," says R. Visweswaran, fondly referred to as the "Flamenco Mylaporean" by veena maestro, S. Balachander.

This self-taught artiste earned the epithet because he mastered both the classica guitar and the Flamenco guitar by listening to artistes such as Segovia and Carlos Montaya.

Though he grew up in an atmosphere steeped in Carnatic music - he was a nephew of the Carnatic legend, G. N. Balasubramaniam, and his mother was a talented vocalist — Visweswaran was drawn to Western music. When he was only nine years old, his uncle (GNB) suggested that he learn Carnatic music from him. He says ruefully, "How stupid I was to have missed the opportunity!

Visweswaran was fascinated by a classical guitar performance by Siegfried Behrend at the Max Mueller Bhavan. He was then a B.Com student. He became so competent that the American jazz guitarist Charlie Bird, hearing him play during a visit to Chennai in 1968, volunteered to teach him. Later, Visweswaran passed the LTCL (Licentiate in Teaching) from the Trinity College, London, completing the 11-year course in three steps and in three years. In 1976, he had the privilege of being taught by Alexander Legoya at the Conservatoire de Paris. He also taught himself to play the Flamenco guitar.

Meanwhile, he learnt to play the veena from Vidwan Pichumani Iyer, though it was much later that he started learning Carnatic vocal music from his mother. Other well-known musicians under whom he learnt include D. K. Jayaraman, S. R. Janakiraman, Trivandrum R. S. Mani, Kalyanaraman, T. Mukta and even M.S. Subbulakshmi. "I am sure I must have inherited GNB's genes to be able to get this far in music," declares Visweswaran.

As a student, he used to visit the film music director, M.S. Viswanathan's recording sessions just to experience the thrill of listening to the various instruments. He happened to meet flute maestro Hariprasad Chaurasia after a concert in Chennai. Chaurasia invited him to come to a recording by R. D. Burman and his orchestra in the mid-1970s. When the director heard Visweswaran playing the guitar, he was charmed and invited him to Mumbai to play in his troupe. Thus started his sojourn in the Bollywood music world, where he played not only for Burman, but also for Laxmikant-Pyarelal, Rajesh Roshan, Salil Choudhary, Chitragupta, besides Chaurasia himself. "I'm proud to have been associated with some of the greatest playback singers," he recalls. In those days, there would be several `takes' before a recording was approved. "There used to be a 100-piece orchestra on a three-head machine; now there are three artistes on 256 tracks, with overlapping facilities. The pleasure of sharing knowledge among artistes is lost," says Visweswaran.

After marrying Bharatanatyam exponent Chitra, he decided to stay in Chennai to further her objective of popularising this dance form. This gave him the opportunity to play the guitar for M.S. Viswanathan. "Working with MSV has opened my mind to a great extent." He continues to play the guitar and santoor in the orchestras of MSV, A.R. Rahman, Harris Jayaraj and others; it is his voice one hears during the murder scenes in the Tamil film, "Indian"!

After listening to Pandit Shivkumar Sharma, he became fascinated with the santoor and started learning to play it on his own. He began taking lessons from Sharma in1976. Since then, there has been no looking back; he has been giving santoor concerts all over the world and was even invited to take part in the Sankarmochan Samaroh in Varanasi. He first learnt Hindustani vocal for a while from Krishnanand. "My exposure to Carnatic music made it easy for me to learn Hindustani; I learnt the details through discussions with artistes and by reading books."

Visweswaran, an ICCR artiste, has taken part in many Festivals of India abroad, along with Chitra. He has accompanied John Kaizan Neptune, leading Saku Hachi (Japanese flute) artiste in a CD album, `River Rhythm'. The same artiste accompanied him on the Indian percussion instrument `Udumbu', when he played the santoor as a gesture of thanks to the Japan Foundation, which invited him and Chitra to Japan last year. During the Festival of India in Switzerland, Visweswaran had to pitch in during Chitra's Bharatanatyam performance in place of the usual singer. That was how they began to perform together. Proud moments in the couple's artistic career include performing in the presence of Pope John Paul II at Rajaji Hall, Chennai, during his visit here in 1986 and for the Kanchi Paramacharya and his successors. In 2001, he had the opportunity to play Mozart's Symphony No.40 in G. Minor on the santoor along with the world orchestra in the presence of Satya Sai Baba.

The latest feather in Visweswaran's cap is the setting up of a digital recording studio `Anthardhwani' in his home with state-of-the-art equipment and recording several jingles.

LAKSHMI VENKATRAMAN

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