The science of music

Navaneeth Unnikrishnan, the teenager who explores the ragas of evergreen Malayalam songs and beyond on social media platforms and live stages, opens up about his musical journey, aspirations and the sound that creates magic
Navaneeth’s programmes would run into hours, as he starts with one song and then goes on to several related pieces.
Navaneeth’s programmes would run into hours, as he starts with one song and then goes on to several related pieces.

KOCHI: Navaneeth Unnikrishnan has had a long association with sound. To him, it is not just the energy that moves vocal cords or helps him communicate. Rather, it follows silence and precedes silence and is the rhythm that remains embedded in every aspect of nature.

He seems to have a trait to understand it, and hence the notes came naturally to him, even as a toddler. And now in his late teens, he can decipher sound academically. He knows the musical composition that makes up the songs we have always been singing without ever knowing how the sound is ingrained in it as bricks of rapturous melody.

The ‘boy wonder’ of music, as veterans such as Rex Master (of Kalabhavan fame who was also the chief violinist of G Devarajan Master) and Carnatic maestro Sreevalsan Menon have tagged him on social media posts, is an Arizona-born Keralite whose YouTube and Instagram channels are highly sought by Malayalis, especially those hooked to the all-time gems of Devarajan and Baburaj.

He has also performed to packed houses in Kochi and Kannur with deftly chosen, evergreen Malayalam melodies, and looked deep into them for elements of music or ragas dexterously used by the greats who made them. Navaneeth’s programmes would run into hours, as he starts with one song and then goes on to several related pieces and their compositions proving a point he began with. And then, he moves along as planned, divulging and embarking on another flamboyant journey through the ragas.

He seems perfectly at home on the stage, never intimidated by a crowd whose understanding of old Malayalam songs has more to do with nostalgia than the science of music. A treat it is for many to watch him explain how the popular ‘Chakravarthini’ is in Kedar, the late evening raga as per the Hindustani genre), and not Hamir Kalyani (used extensively in Carnatic) because of the variation of the syllable ‘dha’ and recalling how the veteran N Ramani played a Carnatic flute to match the Hindustani variations.  He also goes on to explain the raga used in ‘Bekas pe karam kijiye Sarkar -e-Madina’ (from the Hindi film Mughal-e-Azam) and how the legendary Devarajan Master used it in another evergreen number — ‘Ashtamudi Kayalile’.

The science of ragas is something that comes naturally to this teenager, who is a student of Data Science at New York University. He began his musical training in Hindustani as a four-and-a-half-year-old from Vijayashree Sharma, also based in the US. Now, he trains online with Pandit Ramesh Narayan. Carnatic lessons were imparted to him by Trivandrum Krishnakumar. The foundations are well laid, but what urged Navaneeth to explore music down to its elements was his own experience since childhood.

“My parents have a lot to do with this. They are from Kannur and migrated to the US for study and work. Even as a toddler, I was treated to a ritual of Malayalam songs played at home and the many following discussions. Another childhood memory is of my mother (Priya Vannarath, a paediatrician) driving me to school playing M S Subbulakshmi’s ‘Venkateshwara Suprabhatam’,” he says.

His father, Unnikrishnan Vadakkan, who works as an engineer and a researcher, has more to add. “There was an ambience of music at home but none of us were musicians per se. Navaneeth used to grasp the songs he heard and belt them out as a toddler, much to our amusement. As he grew up, he naturally took to it. Now, his music programmes stick nowhere to the plan; often about 100-101 songs are sung even when the plan would be to present 15-16,” he says. Navaneeth’s shows have an audience in rapt attention to his vast stock of information on home-grown singers and music composers such as Yesudas, Devarajan Master, Baburaj, Raghavan, Dakshninamoorthy, etc. who were probably two generations senior to the 19-year-old.

His spoken Malayalam, as he explains the nuances of the songs, is heavily accented by American English yet the flow of musical Malayalam as he sings is quite the cascade that catches the audience in awe. This too, he attributes to his upbringing and lessons from his grandmother. “They used to correct my spoken Malayalam. As far as I can remember, I knew Malayalam more than English till I went to school, as we used to speak only Malayalam at home. Also, there were conversations at home on Malayalam songs and composers, which still happens,” he says.

The format of his repertoire is both academic and aesthetic, presenting his expertise as a singer and as someone who understands how music is put together. And this analysis of songs is not intentional, Navaneeth claims.

“I am just fascinated by composers such as Devarajan Master. Though rooted in classical music, he did not use the pure form of ragas and gave a lot of importance to the song’s lyrics and the context. For example, he took the fundamental aspects of the Kalyani raga (Navaneeth hums ‘Sarasa Suvadana’ by Swati Thirunal to denote its extensive use in Carnatic songs) and put it in his famous ‘Sundara Swapname neeyenikkekiya varnachirakukal veeshi’.

In the later stanzas of the song, Devarajan Master uses Vasantha, Kaapi, and Ahiri, especially. Ahiri, the ancient raga, was used in another popular Malayalam song ‘Pazham Thamizh Pattizhayum’ from Manichithrathaazhu. So thus, ‘Sundara Swapname’ is a great example of how to compose a song, and create a lovely medley of Carnatic ragas. Devarajan Master’s greatest strength was he could use a simplified form of any ragas to create evergreen melodies. To do that is not easy at all, and this is what probably makes him the world-class musical genius that he was,” he says.

Navaneeth’s taste in music has had him explore various genres. The Covid lockdown gave him a chance to scout web archives and its vast databases on music. It was primarily after this period that he started his various social media channels. What followed was many performances at Ernakulam, Thrissur, Trippunithura, Palakkad, etc.

“I enjoy music of all kinds and listen to contemporary works a lot. There is Marvin Jay, rap, jazz, et al in my playlist. In Malayalam too, I like Sushin Shyam’s sense of sound that comes across in ‘Aavesham’... Well, it’s actually the sound that creates all the magic, the way we use it. Like it was in the background scores of Manichithrathaazhu and Namukku Parkkan Munthirithoppukal by Johnson Maash. Use of background score is probably coming up as a trend in Malayalam,” Navaneeth observes, expressing his aim to forever associate with music no matter what his career track is after his course. “I definitely want to compose and sing,” he smiles. 

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