G RAJ NARAYAN is a recipient of the Karnataka State Government Rajyotsava Award for his achievements in the field of electronic music instruments. His company Radel Electronics Pvt Ltd has revolutionised music learning and performing with several inventions including electronic tanpuras, tablas and veena. An A-grade AIR artiste, he is a flautist, and also holds a Master’s degree in Electrical Engineering from IIT Madras. His love for music and technology have led to inventions which have dramatically decreased musicians’ dependency on others for practice
At the heart of any music is the need to achieve shruthi shuddham. Can your invention actually help learners develop a sense of shruthi?
When we started making these instruments in our factory, technicians without any music background used to test the instruments to see if each unit is holding its shruthi. All they had to do was put 30-40 instruments (set to the same pitch) in a sealed room and test them for about 3 hours. I found that after 5-6 months of sitting in that room, the technicians had developed a musical sense. And they were able to tune the instruments as well, sometimes better than professional musicians. This made me realise if you just turn this instrument on in your house for an hour or two and if your kids who are learning music listen to this, shruthi shuddham will come. A genuine musician who is seriously interested in developing good shruthi shuddham, should listen to shruthi and do exercises of holding on to a note.
Sadly, the desire to perform to higher levels of quality, especially when it comes to shruthi has come down. People think it is the fireworks, the brikhas, and complex patterns which are important, not the shruthi shuddham. In North Indian music also, people complain that present generation musicians are not as precise in sur as the older generation, but even to this day they hold on to a note for long periods because if they waver it gets noticed.
What advancements have you made on your original design of the electronic shruthi box?
The electronic tanpura which I made in the 1970s has gone through so many generations of designs. Every year we have come up with new designs. Initially it was the discrete transistor, then the small Integrated Circuit (IC) based tanpuras, then the microprocessor based tanpuras, then the microcontrollers and now we have Digital Signal Processing (DSP). Today’s tanpura is nothing but a digitally recorded tanpura sound in a studio. String by string these are played in real time in a sequence as controlled by the user. So you can alter the tempo. If people say it does not sound like a real tanpura, that does not hold true.
G Raj Narayan
If you just turn this instrument on in your house for an hour or two and if your kids who are learning music listen to this, shruthi shuddham will come. A genuine musician who is seriously interested in developing good shruthi shuddham, should listen to shruthi and do exercises of holding on to a note
All this was a result of developing the electronic tabla for North Indians. The electronic tabla was mix of analog and digital systems. A microprocessor was controlling the sequence but the actual sound generation was through analog means. The tanpura sound is a far simpler sound as compared to the complex sounds produced on the tabla. The electronic tabla had to sound absolutely like the original and like it would have to distinguish between tha, na, din. In the tambura you are looking for the Sa Pa Sa. If the sound is slightly different it doesn’t matter as long as you get the pitch. Whereas in the tabla, it had to sound like the dha, the na, the dhin. So it was a far more challenging problem than the invention of the tambura.
Which of your inventions has had the greatest impact on learning?
I personally feel that the invention of the electronic tabla in 1987, is a bigger break through than the electronic tanpura. Not many people have recognised this in the South. As a child I was aware that whenever my mother practiced Hindustani music on the veena, she would require a tabla artiste to come and play for her. The tabla is required for practice whether you play the veena, sing or play the sitar, sarod etc. Earlier North Indian musicians could only do the aalap or sing the raga, not a tala-based composition. That’s because the entire tala system of North Indian music is encoded onto the tabla. Anytime anyone wanted to practice Hindustani music, they had to wait for a tabla artiste. And he would come for maybe an hour, thrice a week. There was a limit on the number of hours a person could practice independently per week.
All the great musicians can always command a tabla artiste to come and play. But the middle level and beginners, and others non-professionals and amateurs have a big difficulty. With this instrument, they said atleast they had a point of reference. That is why I believe the bigger achievement has been missed in the media as well as in the South. These inventions have revolutionised Indian music because they have contributed to people learning or practising by themselves for long periods.
You say these technologies have made musicians independent. Can you elaborate please.
To demonstrate the tala instrument at the Music Academy, I played a complex Pallavi on the flute. To practice a complex Pallavi you either need somebody who is well-versed with music to put the tala or a machine like this. It was an audio visual instrument, which had lights grouped for laghu, dhrutham etc. Although it was not the same as putting the tala by hand, I tried to create this audio visual effect so that it is not a completely new or different format. Palghat Mani Iyer used to make some of these complex patterns on the mridangam and he said this instrument would help him practice.
Similarly, corresponding to the tabla we have a lehra instrument which enables a tabla artiste to practice (also called Nagma). It’s a precomposed tune set to different taals. Each of it can be set to any taal, any raag, different tunes, and then you alter the tempo so as to enable the tabla artiste to practise at different speeds.
So South Indian artistes are independent thanks to the tanpura, shruthi box and tala meter, the main Hindustani singer is independent of the tabla artiste, and the tabla artiste is also free to practice now.
How is the electronic veena different and how have musicians responded to this invention?
The sounds of the veena are very feeble. I used to play duets with my mother and my wife (both of who are vainikas). After the concerts, people would say that the concerts were good but they could barely hear the veena. In 1971, I demonstrated a solid body electric veena with a pick up and removable gourd. Then I thought why not put the tambura into the veena, as they also need shruthi. This is a self-contained instrument where you have the shruthi, the veena and the pickup for the talam string. It has undergone various levels of development and today we have a synthesiser which is shaped and played like a veena.
The need for all of these inventions was born out of complete necessity. In any concert, vainikas have to keep tuning the strings every 3-4 minutes. When you pull one string, another string goes to a different shruthi. Refretting is one of the biggest problems faced by veena players. It is difficult to get it done even in India. Removable and adjustable frets are an engineering solution. The artiste can alter each fret even on the concert platform.
The main objection people had to the electronic veena is that it does not look like the Saraswathi Veena. However, my design resembles the veena in the older sculptures. Today’s vainikas are using the traditional veena with a magnetic pick up. The magnetic pick up bypasses the big kodam. It takes the sound from the string and out, exactly like the electronic veena. The only difference is they are using an electric veena which looks like a traditional veena. Why should a musician risk damaging a delicately carved out instrument when he/she can instead use something which made of solid wood and which does not break easily. Apart from solving the refretting and breakage problems, the most important issue of volume (in the conventional veena the fine nuances, gamakams, sangathis get lost because the sound dies) is solved because here the sound continues.
We now have shruthi apps and other manufacturers. How does Radel compare?
The app that plays in the mobile phone should actually be as good as a CD played tambura or an electronic tambura. If they are not as good as the electronic tamburas, it may be because ultimately the sound is being played through another attachment, the amplispeaker. The amplispeaker is not designed to reproduce the fine nuances of the tambura harmonics.
Flute Mali was already using a shruthi box developed by someone else when I met him, but he was not very happy as it used to wobble and drift with change in temperature. This is where I bring in my electronics background in HAL where everything has to be extremely precise and reliable.
People have started using these new technologies because of their convenience over traditional instruments, despite their initial hesitancy, reservations, conservatism, and the feeling that this was ‘not traditional’. I believe that tradition changes and if technology enables you to do things differently without any drawbacks, you might as well use it. (