Renowned Classical-World musician and composer Dr. Prakash Sontakke gives Sriram Ravishankar a peak into his world of swaras, his journey as a Hindustani Classical musician into becoming one of the most well known names in the International circuit as an Indian cross-over artist, and much more..
Tell us more about your beginnings as a musician
Coming from a family of musicians, my mother Dr Mani Sontakke and father Dr Mani Sontakke were incredible educators with a very open mind deep rooted in tradition. My first discovery of Michael Jacksons “Thriller” was the discovery of the fact that if you can read the musical notes then the entire music of the world is the same. It so happened that when my Dad heard me sneaking in the cassette and listening to the first Bass riff of the song, he walked into the room and asked me for the Swara pattern of that Bass Riff and later on when I did that he said “Now isn’t this song in Raag Bheempalasi?” This one statement opened up the doors of the most beautiful world of swaras and how there is swara in everything for me.
Your influences and what drove you towards World music
I was always a little notorious as a child especially musical notoriousness.The story goes like this that the music teacher at my convent school had the typical “Riyaz karo beta dus pandora seal” (practice for ten to fifteen years) approach and all this Gyaan for only playing notations as basic as SRG RGM. I tried explaining to him that I would prefer playing a movie song like “Yamma Yamma ye Khoobsoorat Sama” which upset him deeply and he failed my only chance to go and play for the schools’ participation in some local competition. I was not the kind to easily give up so I quietly sneaked into the venue and just before his so called “bright” disciple went to perform I slowly went and detuned the Instrument the disciple obviously had no clue of the instrument being detuned and he gave a blissful performance with a totally detuned instrument. The interesting part was now when the Judge Legend Pt Kishan Maharaj asked the student to tune the instrument and when he realised that the bright one had no clue he requested someone to help him. That someone was me and I cut a deal saying I should be allowed to play for at least 2 minutes. He agreed and after the bright one, I went and played Yamma Yamma. Pt Kishen Maharaj was amused and said, “When you can tune so well why aren’t you playing classical too . And that was the opportunity and I played classical too. The crowds had enjoyed YAMMA YAMMA already and now they were very much more impressed with the display of Classical. “Music of any kind is great as long as it is performed and executed well” were his words which ring in my ears even now.
My greatest influences are Pink Floyd, Omkarnath Thakur, Kumar Gandharva, Beegees, Karft Werk, Vallabham Kalyansundaram Bundu, Ali Khan Saheb, Gopal Shankar Mishra, MS Gopalakrishnan, Allarakhaji, Zareen Daruwala, Balram Pathak, Nikhil Banerjee, Ravishankar, and Depeche Mode.
What was appealing to me was, the fact that the World of Swaras could connect anything to anything as long as it was the Raga. As more maturity set in, the Jazz of Chick Korea and Keith Jarret along with Jon Garabarek and Edberg Gismonti finally landing at Hermeto Pascoal (Introduced by Iain Ballamy) kind of opened up an even bigger door of improvisations in Indian Classical with some inspirations of great Jazz (I strictly say inspired by because I have learnt only Hindustani Classical) to me. The exposure and opportunity to perform with “ FOOD”- British Norwegian Duo was an experience which opened up many more doors for me.
Tell us more about how you broke into the international circuit as an Indian classical musician
I was always known as the “Yes! ” man and I really don’t know if that is a right thing. Talking about opportunity the chart is such that opportunity gives experience; experience helps in honing the skill and that helps in creating more opportunities which creates more experiences. The chart looks organic but after first stage itself musicians are happy with the money coming in and the next stage starts looking like a waste of time and a major risk taking which could be avoidable. Anyway apart from some small tours of Indian Classical dance segments where you are hauled up in some NRIs basement, cooking your own food and waiting to finish the weekend’s concerts so you can go shop for some T-shirts and perfumes, I looked away and preferred to do something else. One such opportunity was with Arya. Later on, Lehera was born and that was a major break in the Canadian circuit. I think I have seen more of British Columbia then probably most of the Canadians. (chuckles)
Later “Moonarra” happened and the sound was intriguingly different and we have done some amazing tours and been successful at that. Thanks to the Manis ( Dr. TAS Mani and Vid RA Ramamani), I was introduced to the duo
“ FOOD” and the subsequent ECM recording ‘Mercurial Balm’ was hailed by many critics as a Hall Mark album in more ways than one. An Indo-French collaboration (thanks to Alliance Francaise Bangalore) with artiste Jeremy Labelle from the ‘Reunion Islands’ was a very exciting and unique one. Also, I released an album with Italian Musician Guitarist Eraldo Bernocchi which was making waves internationally, released by Rarenoise records titled ‘Invisible Strings. Recently I also released an album as Dr Prakash Sontakke Group called “Progressive Raga” which is another new experiment with ambient sounds and what not. The album features Karthik Mani, Kedar Nayak, and Shadrach Solomon which is now at the Top 20 in iTunes chart. I don’t know weather “broke into” makes sense, but small spaces of our own creative and unique space is what has made me happy.
With so many international collaborations, how easy or tough is the crossover for you? Tell us more about your collaborative process
When I work on a project the last thing I do is think of how the end sound will be like. Approaching with a mindset to listen rather than just perform is an important ingredient of any collaboration. If there is too much of skill display, believe me after some time the listener as well as musicians will grow out of it. How to form a new sound together should be the primary objective. For example, Progressive Raga has some tracks which we have played for years but when we started to record, the result was very unique and different sounding. If you listen it will surely help.
Coming from a family of music educators, how important is music education to you? How have you taken the torch forward?
I have done my PhD and have a triple masters in Vocal, Violin, and Guitar. My mom and dad passed the bug onto me very well. The Phd is about the development of the Slide Guitar as a prominent instrument in Indian Classical music. I am also attached with the Shankar Mahadevan Academy of Online music education and I believe that Online Music education is here to make a big mark. My wife Chaitra Sontakke is associated with the Hindustani Music Department of the Academy. I am willing to share all the time and am a part of Octavium which is a beautiful place for young and sensitive minds to take a creative shape.
What’s the reality like for a Veteran Classical musician to be stuck amidst the clutter of Popular Music?
Its fun to see all the new things going on. There’s a new wave of fusion which is kind of very power oriented where each player is “Fast and Furious”. Its all different ways to achieve the same thing. I love Popular music and as a matter of fact, all world music projects came out of Pop projects which did one of those experiments which made them a cult like status. Our project Progressive Raga is one such emblem of change to come and the sounds of progress are already echoing.
How did ‘Winds of Samsaara’ happen?
Ricky Kej and I go a long way back when we met at Omshree Studios where I had given music for a English film by Rajesh Murthy called ‘The Peak’ in 2002. He liked my work and we hit it off from there and I have worked on almost all his major projects since then. It is a wonderful achievement and more of such projects need to be happening.
What’s next for you?
I am working on small projects at schools which can focus on developing instrumental music as a personality and character building tool for all the happy future citizens who will get to hear a lot of music in the “ears” to come. Knowing some instrument will make them a part of this silent movement called “Listen and Play”.