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In many ways, the Indian musician Rajendra Prasanna is an emblem of his country's classical tradition. As with so many Indian musicians, he grew up in the gurukal system where he was one of a long lineage who had been taught by their musician father who would pass on the knowledge acquired from the previous generation.

Prasanna's father and grandfather were both musicians, but in some way Prasanna also broke with tradition. He is one of the rare musicians who plays both shehnai and flute, learning the former from his father and the latter from his grandfather who was a legendary innovator and influence in classical Indian flute.

And the gift gets passed on again: Rajendra Prasanna's son Rishab is also a flute player an a member of the small touring group which is bringing the spirit of Indian classical music to the Taranaki Womad and Auckland Festival (dates below).

“Yes, the music comes down from many generations and continues through an unbroken chain,” says Rishab who speaks for his father who has politely said his English is not so strong before passing the phone over.

Rajendra Prasanna was born in 1956 and made his first concert appearance before he was in his teens, which placed him directly in that period when Indian music – through the passion of George Harrison and the profile of Ravi Shankar – was gaining international attention.

Prassana63d104_20y_flutist“It was the shehnai that my father first learned to play,” says Rishab. “My grandfather introduced flute into my family and then he made many disciples in India and you will see that the way the flute is played in India today is because of the contribution of my grandfather.

“My father went to Calcutta to a music conference when he was 12 and that was where he first played in public.”

Yet for someone so grounded in the long tradition, the music around him was changing rapidly. Ravi Shankar has often complained that the music was misunderstood by many in the West, notably hippies who thought of it as stoner music, but also inside India where many musicians changed their style to cater for the growing international audience. Long ragas became truncated to fit onto LP record, some even edited down to just the fast passages for singles in the hope of getting radio play. And many musicians chased the money not the art.

“Because of the contribution of Pandit Ravi Shankar in the Sixties and Seventies our music became so popular and many other artists came to understand Indian music. But my father is very clear about how the music changed and he did not like that.

“In India we are having many conferences about that and the questions are, “Who is the real artist? Who is performing for art and who just for business?” Now some people want publicity and to attract the public and this is a different form and not a true art.

“We don't have an intention for business and publicity, keeping the true art intact is very much away from these intentions. An artist is complete when he is doing it fully from himself and feeling that his art is giving him full satisfaction, rather than if the main aim is to have money and a business and popularity.

“So this has all been changing and you see many big Indian artists coming to different countries. But for us it is important to just present it they way you would in India, with your soul in it.

“My father is also thinking like that, that wherever you go you should play your true art rather than focus on other things. If you focus on your art then only ultimately it will attract a true audience, if it gives you satisfaction it will give them true satisfaction.”

Rajendra Prasanna has taken his art to some impressive stages – he has accompanied Ravi Shankar, including at the 2002 Royal Albert Hall in the Concert for George – but has also created soundtracks for Indian films, although Rishab is quick to note, “not for Bollywood”.

SGHNC_01_42_150x150“He didn't work for Bollywood but worked with many folk music tunes from different parts of India for smaller films. Rather than make a career in Bollywood he was more keen to enrich the authentic folk music.”

Rishab says when the group – with Vikas Babu on shehnai and Shub Maharaj on tabla – play in New Zealand and Australia in the coming months they will reach back into that long tradition and play in the manner of classical raga where the music develops slowly.

“We play a little alap and this is a slow improvisation, and then after that it is slowly increasing the tempo and at the last it is going very fast. This is a principle of classical music, the little increasing slowly affects the human emotions in a good way, rather than if you just do something very fast and then something very slow. It is a complete balance, just like we can not get shocking news and happy news one after another.

“So we do things slowly slowly and it becomes a little increase in an ascending way.

“I have to say, we are very excited to come, it will be our first time in Australia and New Zealand and we hope to play very well for you all.

“We've heard wonderful stories of Womad and the Auckland Festival, so coming to those is a great honour.”

Rajendra Prasanna and group play the Taranaki Womad March 18-20, 2011 and one concert only in the Auckland Festival on Tuesday March 15 in the Auckland Town Hall Concert Chamber. 

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