US-based musician is giving centuries-old vedic verses a musical twist

Updated: Nov 25, 2018, 08:14 IST | Anju Maskeri | Mumbai

A US-based musician is digging up centuries-old Vedic verses and giving them a makeover on YouTube

Vinod Krishnan
Vinod Krishnan

Recently, we found ourselves listening to singer and composer Vinod Krishnan's rendition of Achutaashtakam, on loop. Written in the 8th century by Adi Shankaracharya, it was a song that we had heard before in a version made popular by legendary singer KJ Yesudas. But, this time the beats were different. More relatable, if we may add. Turns out, this is what Krishnan, a Minneapolis-based creative director of the project Indian Raga (an arts education startup founded at MIT) set out to achieve when he began digging into ancient verses in order to "reinvent" them. With its soaring popularity on YouTube, Krishnan now plans to perform some of these pieces at an upcoming concert in the UK. Born in Chennai, Krishnan has lived a large part of his life in Mumbai. Living in the US, he now mentors musicians and singers to create novel music productions.

Excerpts from an interview.

What inspired you to musically reinvent ancient texts?
In today's digital world, artistes strive to create content that has strong recall value. One of the approaches is bringing together the old and new to find common ground. The beauty of our ancient texts is that they are eternal — even if someone picked it up a century from now, they will be relevant. Then, it's just a matter of how you take it to your audience.

How do you find your material?
Sometimes when I hear a song or a chant somewhere, it sticks to my mind — the words, the meter, the structure of the syllables. I go back and read about it. When you pick up a composition and try to make it contemporary, you have to first know your craft, but then have the discretion to determine what aspects of your music can you apply to this ancient text. For example, I created a contemporary western orchestral score for an ancient Tamizh song Karpooram Naarumo written by the famous South Indian female saint Andal. Andal writes this song as part of her larger literary masterpiece called Nachiyar Thirumozhi comprising 143 verses. The context for this text is Andal expressing her desperation to become one with lord Krishna out of intense devotion. There's so much subtlety and emotion. And here I am, trying to determine how to arrange strings around her devotion's manifestation. So, it's a lot of experimentation to ensure I am not overshadowing her work in trying to put my music ahead.

What is the criteria for selection of verses?
Most times, the composition is already well established, like Karpooram Naarumo. In other cases, like in Adi Shankara's Achutashtakam, I picked the first four verses. Most audiences today are tuned to three- to four-minute videos. We select specific parts from each song that when put together, create a new dynamic arrangement. We have to ensure the energy of the piece doesn't fall off and the listener is engaged.

When you say reinventing, what do you mean?
The text or its content is kept as is. I or my collaborators do not change it in any way. Based on the meaning, context, emotion and sometimes, if the verses are already set to a certain melody, I experiment with several classical ragas, and then the arrangement — the sounds, instruments and how they all sit together. The same melody, when you hear with different instruments creates different experiences. I strive to pick those combinations that are novel. It's quite subjective.

How much time did you spend on each song?
It depends on how long it takes me to fully absorb that song, its emotion and the nuances.
Then there are the usual composer's blocks. So it's a slow but a rewarding process.

What's the purpose behind this?
The purpose is to bring the wisdom of these texts to today's audience, some of whom may not know about such literary works.

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