Carnatic vocalist extraordinaire, Mahesh Vinayakram, is credited with re-interpreting Carnatic music by giving it an infusion of contemporary flavour, and in the process, making it more relatable to the current generation. Brimming with enthusiasm for his craft, Mahesh speaks to Namaste Switzerland and tells us more about his vision for Carnatic music, and how he believes in embracing new trends while keeping the tradition alive.
Initiation into the world of Carnatic music
Growing up as the son of legendary ghatam player Vikku Vinayakram, music was not just a career, it was a lifestyle. Mahesh credits his background in Carnatic music to his family and considers his father and grandfather to be his role models. His father and grandfather trained students at their house each day, and he likens his household to a ‘gurukul’ where you not only learn music, you wholeheartedly imbibe the lifestyle of your guru. Having been raised in a family of musicians, he was immersed in learning Carnatic music through practical experience. Lessons would begin early in the morning along with prayers, and a daily regimen helped him build an inner discipline. Mahesh’s children, daughter Gurupriya and son Guruprasad are continuing in his legacy.
Mahesh began his musical journey at the age of 4,and continued his formal training in music under the tutelage of gurus such as Shri H.Y. Narayanan, Shri O.S. Thiagarajan, Mrs. Savithiri Sathyamurthy. After he received a National scholarship from the Indian Government-s Cultural Department, he thereafter took advanced lessons under Smt. Radhaviswanathan, daughter of Bharth Ratna M.S. Subbulakshmi. He started singing Carnatic music in concerts at the age of 19.
Mahesh describes his grandfather as a ‘Deergadarshi’, or a visionary, who intuitively understood his grandson’s strengths and suggested that he focus on melody, paving the way to chart out his career as a vocalist.
Balancing professional and personal life
Mahesh encourages people to channel their creative side, and pursue an art form. “Tweaking your creativity helps in bringing about balance in life”, he says. There are 64 traditional art forms that are practised in India, he says, and focussing on any one art form can help a person find the balance in their lives.
Mahesh believes that music is an important element in our lives. “I am blessed to have a career in music, which has always been my passion. Music transcends language, regardless of its genre”, he says.
Mahesh also believes that if you are truly passionate about something, you will forge a path to fulfil your passion. On his mother’s persuasion, he completed his Bachelors in Corporate Secretaryship and Masters in Sociology at Madras University. His creative pursuits were not too far behind though, he was the cultural secretary in college and his musical talents found encouragement through the support of his college principal.
Musical collaborations and merging various genres of music
Although Mahesh originates from a traditional Carnatic music background, he has always been open to new ideas. “I didn’t want to get stuck in one genre, I believe in using the grammar of Carnatic music and combining that with different music genres from various countries”, he says.
“I have had the opportunity to work with different genres”, he says. Mahesh has worked with several musical maestros such as Nitin Sawhney, Ustad Zakir Hussain, Stevesmith and Pete Lockett to name a few. He has also done a collaboration with the beatboxer, Dub FX. “I have been blessed to work with world-class musicians, and with artists from different countries”.
One of Mahesh’s defining moments was witnessing the band ‘Shakti’, a collaboration of his father, Vikku Vinayakram, Ustad Zakir Hussain and other musical legends. Mahesh observed the true power of music at a power-packed performance by the band at an open-air theatre in IIT Chennai. He realised the power of the merging of different genres of music, and this deeply influenced his thinking. “My philosophy is to accept and open up to different kinds of musical genres”, he says.
The global stage
One of Mahesh’s most memorable concerts was at the Umeå Folk Festival in Sweden in 2014. The performance featured 120 Swedish artists from ages 6 -70 ages. Mahsh was a featured artist in the orchestra, ‘Allspeal’. “To sing in an orchestra with so much of collective energy was really special”, he says.
The theatre Cirque du Soleil is known to be the biggest theatre production in the world. In 2016, Mahesh had the honour of being the first Indian male singer from the global Carnatic music fraternity to be cast by Cirque du Soleil. The production, Luzia, was inspired by Mexican mythology and surrealism. The production interspersed dream sequences with classical Indian ragas. With a packed schedule (330 shows in a year), the production was a one-of-a-kind experience that put Mahesh on the global stage.
The journey of learning
Mahesh firmly believes that one should never stop at learning new skills and improving one’s craft. Although his area of focus was vocals, he was influenced by his grandfather to continue learning and challenging himself. With a strong interest in rhythm, he also learnt the ‘Moharsing’ (known as ‘Morchang’ in North India, also known as Jew’s harp in the West,), and has been collecting musical instruments from different countries. His hobby of collecting instruments grew and he has a growing collection of around a couple dozen different types of instruments in his studio. He is also an avid collector of vinyl records.
Carnatic music upholds the saying “Sruti mata, laya pita” meaning – ‘the mother is the melody and rhythm is the father’. “If you learn to combine the melody and the rhythm, then you truly become a good musician”, he says.
The confluence of technology and music
Mahesh strongly believes in embracing technology and maximising the potential of music through new digital trends- a philosophy that is close to his heart.
“To take Carnatic music to the new generation, we need technology”, he says. He talks about music in the cloud, and apps that have revolutionised music, and gives us the example of the ‘iTablapro’ which lets one perform the tanpura without the need to carry the instrument on the stage.
Mahesh calls his brand of music ‘Karna-Tech’, through which he takes technology and combines it with the traditional grammar of Carnatic music. Mahesh is working on an app known as the ‘MV app’, that among other things, would enable people to watch him live. His live-streaming portal, www.Maheshvinayakram.in is available in the app menu.
Goals and aspirations for the future
One of Mahesh’s goals is to “Use the internet as a medium to take music to the entire world”. He is passionate about music being accessible to the next generation and sharing his knowledge with others.
“We must cast aside our ignorance and adapt to new technologies. We should respect technology and make the most of it”, he advocates. True to his own unique style, Mahesh compares connecting with his audience to the process of connecting to a ‘wi-fi’ reception. “ If the musician is on and enabled, and if the audience is receptive, then both the audience and the musician can ‘fly together’”, he says with a flourish.
We look forward to more from Mahesh Vinayakram, in his musical journey, and his quest for making Carnatic music more accessible to the new generation.