Internationally renowned musician
Genre combines classical music with Afro-Cuban percussion
Member of 20-year-old Bengaluru Band Layatharanga
The challenge for me is to choose between musicality and virtuosity. It surprises us all to see how the sound evolves.
Pramath Kiran was just three when he was drawn to the world of percussion. His father T S Ganesh Upadhyaya played the mridangam, and Pramath picked up his first talas when he was still a toddler. Today, he is one of India’s most versatile percussionists, playing an array of instruments for audiences across the globe. He endorses Meinl, the famous German instrument brand, and has curated a special percussion set-up that he uses for Carnatic, Hindustani, and world music. Pramath’s unique sound comes from integrating Cuban and African patterns with Indian rhythms.
When he is not playing the conventional Western drum kit, he substitutes its kick with the cajon, an instrument that resembles a tea box. Using other unconventional surfaces, he creates a sound that blend his many musical influences. He has also innovated on the morsing, or the Jew’s harp, and found a way to shift pitch on it.
Schools that offer formal training in Western drumming have opened up immense possibilities for Indian percussionists, he observes, and Bengaluru is now the city where the most exciting musical experiments are emerging. And the Internet has made musicians more aware. “The challenge for me is to choose between musicality and virtuosity,” he says, emphasising how aesthetics often calls for more than just speed and dexterity.
In his school days, the Bengaluru boy was fascinated by the sound of the tabla. A little later, he was training under Udayraj Karpur, one of the city’s foremost tabla players. Pramath’s flair impressed top-notch vocalists, and as a teen, he was invited to perform on several prestigious platforms.
Pramath’s taste widened even further, and he began exploring a variety of genres. Anoor Ananthakrishna Sharma, the mridangam wizard and guru, became his biggest influence in this phase. His curiosity about the clave pattern in Afro-Cuban led him to discover the magic of Giovanni Hidalgo, the God of the congas. Pramath listened to his recordings and began assimilating Cuban styles into his playing.
In 1998, Pramath teamed up with fellow musicians to start Layatharanga, a band fusing Carnatic classical talas with world rhythms, and presenting it as a high-energy package to a Bengaluru buffeted by the winds of globalisation. The timing was perfect, and Layatharanga caught the imagination both of the culturally-rooted south Bengalurean and the new Bengalurean attuned to Western and Bollywood sounds. The band just celebrated 20 years with a big show at Chowdiah Memorial Hall.
“Both our music and our friendships have grown over these two decades,” Pramath says. The band’s members have individually played with such legendary musicians as Jethro Tull and Anoushka Shankar and bring in something new every time they rehearse for a Layatharanga show. “It surprises us all to see how the sound evolves,” Pramath says. What is especially gratifying for the band is that Layatharanga is now regarded as a style of music, and rhythm ensembles are often asked, “So you are performing Layatharanga?”
Indian rhythm is a solo institution, while the Afro-Cuban tradition is oriented to group performance, Pramath observes. He has experienced the joys of both, accompanying musicians who range from the classical purist to the daringly avant-garde. Pramath also runs Layadigi, an audio studio he founded 18 years ago, from his house in Subramanyapura. He expanded it four years ago. It is here that he records, masters and designs the sound for albums and experimental soundtracks. He is doing world-class work there as well: a track he recorded for the bass legend Victor Wooten was nominated for a Grammy.
Pramath holds a diploma in instrumentation technology, but he gave up on it as a career option after just one day at work. “I decided it was not for me,” he says. He had also done a web design course, and created websites for musicians, but all that was before music became his sole passion. Among people he has worked with, he counts Praveen D Rao, Jayanthi and Kumaresh as big influences, besides his gurus. He reveres Trilok Gurtu and Giovanni Hidalgo as path-breakers.
In the year ahead, Pramath sees himself doing more of what he loves: performing and teaching world percussion. He is also recording instructional videos, soon to go up on sites such as Shaale and Ensemble. Pramath lives in Bengaluru with wife Shridevi and their seven-year-old daughter Mahima.
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