Kaniyal Hari Prasad, a Kalakshetra alumnus and one of the most sought after dance vocalists in the field juggles his time as a teacher at Kalakshetra, dance vocalist, and kutcheri performer. Known for his meticulous preparation despite his hectic schedule, Hari Prasad works in tandem with the dancer to create a dance-music synergy. He speaks about his background in music, and his views on the need for artistes to work together to ensure that classicism in dance music is not lost. A musician who does not want to be labelled as only a ‘dance vocalist’, Hari Prasad aspires to continue his career as a kutcheri musician.
A word about your beginnings in music
I learnt music from Govinda Bhagavatar for 15 years in Kerala. Music was part of my family though no member was a professional musician. I had my music arangetram at Guruvayur along with my sister. After my pre-degree, I saw an advertisement about Kalakshetra and applied for admission to the music course. I was in Kalakshetra from 1988 to 1991 and learnt from Sri Salem Chellam Iyengar, Sri Vairamangalam Lakshminarayanan and Sri S. Rajaram.
I was fortunate to have learnt compositions of vidwan M. Balamuralikrishna directly from the great musician. For the last few years I was training with Sri V. Subrahmanyam (who passed away in November 2013), a senior disciple of Semmangudi.
Were you performing as a solo artiste then? How does it feel to straddle both worlds?
I had been performing right from my Kerala days and while at Kalakshetra, I became a graded artiste with AIR-Chennai. Till today, I continue to perform kutcheris and sing for dance. I don’t feel the need to limit myself to either field. I do not find it difficult to switch back into kutcheri mode, so I am also active as a kutcheri singer.
Of course rehearsals, teaching and continuous performances take a toll on the voice. So I am careful not to strain too much. My students understand. During peak performance time, I don’t sing with an open throat in class. You learn to manage over time.
How did you start singing for dance?
My work in the dance field began as I started singing for Kalakshetra dance-dramas and variety programmes organised by Kalakshetra. My first two dance-dramas were Koorma Avataram and Andal.
I began singing for Sujatha Srinivasan who was performing regularly at that time. Since then, there has been no looking back. It has been 25 years now and I am happy to say that I have sung for senior dancers of all banis.
Do dancers now prefer lighter ragas and demand less of classicism in the music sung for dance? Do singers tend to use voice modulation rather than focus on ways to bring emotion through the raga swaroopam?
I do notice that difference. Dancers are searching for new ways to make their presentation attractive musically. I have my doubts about whether this is good. We don’t need to move away from our classical roots to appeal to audiences. This is something we need to address collectively. It is not just the dancers who are responsible for this trend. Musicians are contributing to it by taking this short cut. For example, to create a feeling of veeram, one can do it by choosing a raga and suitable sangatis to create the effect. (Hariprasad demonstrates Athana raga for a viruttam on Siva).
Just because the dancer is emoting a situation of pathos, why should the singer also cry? Any situation can be created using raga bhava and not false dramatic modulation of voice. This is a result of dancers and musicians not equipping themselves musically.
People assume that it is easier to sing for dance. What makes a good dance musician?
That is why music is being compromised when it comes to dance. Unless a musician is well trained and understands all the nuances and foundation of Carnatic music, he can never be a good musician – for dance or otherwise. It is not just a question of having a good voice and learning songs from cassettes. To add depth to a Bharatanatyam performance, you have to bring your musical sensibility to the stage. If not, the magic will never happen.
Today there is a lot of demand for and hence opportunity for dance musicians. The responsibility lies largely with the musicians to ensure that the music they offer does not compromise the basic foundation of our classical system. In the last ten years, there have been soundly trained musicians singing for dance, which is very heartening.
You seem to be more comfortable watching the dancer and repeating a line if necessary rather than doing fixed set of repetitions.
Over the years I have become accustomed to the Bharatanatyam mudras and prefer a visual clue to move to the next line. This gives the dancer and myself scope to improvise and sing without being constricted always by the number of repetitions for a line. Of course the rapport one shares with the dancer is important. For example, I have been singing for Bragha Bessel for a long time now and we are each comfortable with the other’s working style. I always note down a cue or places where there is a doubt so that I am alert during the performance. These small habits help in synchronisation.
Do you compose for dance?
After graduating from Kalakashetra, I worked in Puducheri for sometime at the Bharatiyar Palkalai Koodam where I tuned many Bharatiar songs. After my return to Chennai, I joined Kalakshetra as a staff member. I composed music for dance productions for artistes outside. My Kalakshetra training has been a huge help in this respect. Having worked with dance-dramas from an early stage, I have an understanding of composing for productions. I find it easy to visualise what the dancer wants because of my years of experience working with dancers. I can anticipate what a Kalakshetra dancer or a Vazhuvoor trained dancer would require. I always discuss the scene-by-scene progression with the dancer and obtain her inputs before proceeding.
Can you name some of the productions you have composed music for?
I have composed many productions for the Natyarangam thematic festivals like Kshetra Bharatham and Ramayana Bharatham. I have composed music for Smt. Roja Kannan, Smt. Jayanthi Subramaniam, Sri A. Lakshman, and Sri N. Srikanth, to name a few.
Any experience in playback singing?
Recently, I lent my voice to actor Jayaram in the movie ‘Swapanam’ with music composed by Sri J. Valsan.