MYSURU: If you happen to pass by Ramanuja Road, Mysuru, in the evenings don’t be surprised if rather than the revving of engines, you hear some melodies or drum beats from P Gururaja Motors, a mechanic shop. While 57-year-old C R Raghavendra Prasad holds spanners during the day, he turns into a music teacher in the night, and his shop becomes a school for children. He teaches them how to play the drums, rhythm pad, jambe, congo, African thumba and other musical instruments. Prasad works in his garage for five hours in the morning, after which his assistant attends to customers the rest of the day.
If this isn’t interesting enough, Prasad’s speciality is that he teaches blindfolded, in both the Western and Carnatic styles. Also, another of his specialities is that he teaches children to play the mrudangam and nadaswara on a drum kit. He also claims to be the only person from Mysuru to play ‘thalavadya’ (percussion) on Western instruments (drums, jambe, rhythm pad). Traditionally, the thalavadya is played on the tabla or mrudangam.
A diploma holder in Tool and Die (Mechanical), Prasad’s musical journey was an organic one, as he hails from a family of musicians, but it was not always a cakewalk, he says, as there were several ups-and-downs along the way.From an early age, he had an inclination towards playing the drums, and started off early too. Just by keenly observing the drums being played, he began his romance with the instrument at the tender of age five. After school, he would play with orchestra groups, and practise the drums.
“My mother R Gowramma was a singer and father C V Ramarao, a postmaster, was a violinist. My sisters are Kathak dancers, and my brother a mrudangam player -- so music came naturally to me. Every Thursday, we would play and recite Bhajans at home. It was this environment that drove my passion for music,” he says.He joined the ‘Senior Anna Thangi Orchestra Troupe’ at the age of eight, and started performing after school. In those days, he would get paid 50 paise per performance. When Prasad became a teenager, he joined the Mysuru Mohan Orchestra in the 1980s, which he says, was a turning point for his 16-year-old self.
The troupe would play in concerts for celebrities, which is when Prasad got the chance to showcase his talent in front of cinema stalwarts like Dr Rajkumar, Vishnuvardhan, Shankar Nag, S P Balasubramanyam, K J Yesudas and Manna Dey. “I have done more than 80 live shows for Dr Rajkumar. He used to call me ‘Abhimanyu’. I also got the chance to share the stage with other prominent Kannada stars when Sandalwood got together to help drought-hit North Karnataka in the 1980s by conducting charity shows.”
After completing his mechanical training and getting his diploma, Prasad worked at a private company for 12 years. “When I was working there, I would travel to Bengaluru after duty ended at 4pm, to perform. Then I would return to Mysuru around 3 am, and my day would start again by 7am. This was my routine for over six months.”
It was around this time that it dawned upon him that he needed to follow his passion. He quit his job and decided to pursue music full-time, and flew to the Gulf for this, but it took time to convince his family of his plan, he says. He then performed with local troupes for the next five years, and travelled to countries such as Dubai, Singapore, Malaysia, Italy, France and more. He has also worked as an entertainer on Sea Princess cruise for one year with Indian Rhythm, a Mumbai troupe.
After returning to India, Prasad started his own troupe - Rhythm Makers - in 1997. There are 16 members in the troupe, who put up around 80 performances each year. The troupe specialises in the classics, performing only old Kannada, Hindi and Tamil hits.Another turning point in Prasad’s life was when he decided to start his own music school - Prasad School of Rhythms - in 2005, where he teaches instruments to children from poor economic background. “There are many talented but underprivileged children who cannot afford to pay fees for classes. As I conduct classes in my own garage, I don’t incur any expenditure, so I impart free training to a few children,” he says.
Over 50 children are learning how to play musical instruments at Prasad’s school, and about 300 have graduated from there, with distinction/merit. Prasad has tied up with Trinity College London’s Music School, and the faculty there conduct exams for the children every year in Bengaluru. He follows the same syllabus at his school.
Prasad, who has been conferred with a Doctorate from Chennai Virtual University, recalls that in the initial days of the school, parents hesitated to enrol their wards, and looked down on him because he was a mechanic. “Now, their perceptions have changed. I have taught music to more than 350 children in the past ten years, this makes me proud.” His dream is to compose a state and national anthems using 108 drums, 10 mrudangams, 10 tablas and keyboards, along with 40 singers.
To become professionals, students must complete eight-grade courses, one diploma and two Master’s degrees. On average, it takes around 13 years to complete the full course. Prasad says that there is a lot of demand for drummers across the world -- they even get the opportunity to work in schools, the Navy, police bands, etc.
IT RUNS IN THE GENES
Prasad’s wife Mangala, is also a vocalist. They have two children -- Bharath and Sumukh. While Bharat is a flautist, doing his final year of engineering, Sumukh is a guitarist, studying B Com. Sumukh, who wants to pursue a career in music too, says, “My father is my inspiration -- his confidence and will power are what I look up to. I want to follow in his footsteps and achieve something big in the field of music.”
THE WADIYAR CONNECT
“Maharaja Jayachamaraja Wadiyar had composed several songs, which are used even today by the police band. He had mastered all eight grades of music, and was give an award by Trinity College of London during the time. I’m happy that I’m associated with the same university,” says Prasad, fondly talking about the Wadiyars’ contribution to music.