Ragavan balances Tech and Music
By Hitesh Shetty
The booming IT industry in India has enabled many Techies to pursue their talents and passions. Meet IIT alumnus Ragavan Manian who moved to USA to do an MSEE which was followed by a hugely successful career in the tech sector. But a large part of his free time is spent in learning and mastering music – everything from Carnatic and Hindustani classical music to Jazz & Blues.
Techgoss (TG): Tell us about your Educational Qualification? Which IT companies and software did your work with?
Ragavan Manian: I've worked in tech my entire life. Did my B.Tech (Electrical Engineering) at IIT Madras (graduated 1996); then MSEE at the University of Virginia, where I worked as a Research Associate at their Center for Software and Information Systems. We built a software that used mathematical modeling to arrive at fault tolerance predictors of complex systems.
After that, 13 non-stop years building, deploying and trouble-shooting network equipment in large companies such as Marconi Communications, Cisco Systems and Marvell Technology.
Just completed a 1-year sabbatical doing MBA at the Indian School of Business, Hyderabad where I concentrated in Strategy & Finance. Back to work for another high tech company called Redpine Systems located in Hyderabad India (HQ at San Jose, Ca).
TG: What made you jump into Indian classical music, which is considered a rare genre by many music observers these days?
Ragavan Manian: The seed was sown early in my life. My family is musical. My parents are music lovers, and signed me up before my seventh year so I had no choice in the matter. Moreover a carnatic classical music education (vocal or instrumental) was considered de-facto. It is true that not many persevere at this arduous discipline, and that's where fortune smiled! In my eighth year I was singled by my Gurus for stage performance. The impetus to be a better performer propelled me well into my teen years, by which time art became intertwined with my persona.
TG: How do you balance the subtle and creative forte of classical music with the tedious, stressful and target oriented world of technology?
Ragavan Manian: This is a very germane question. The two worlds (art and applied science) do seem to be at odds with each other. This is also the modern neuro-psychological viewpoint, and it has led to many fanciful paradigms, such as right-brained versus left. Fact is, 'right' and 'left' endeavors are quite often complimentary. They're symbol manipulation exercises both, and post-modern research is waking up to the fact. Today there is a rising exchange of ideas and methodologies from one to another, demonstrating that these barriers are permeable. For instance, studio music production and even live music these days is a tech intensive affair; work place stresses and moving targets are rampant in the entertainment industry, perhaps even more. On the flip side, technologists and managers are discovering profound yet practical ideas from the theory and practice of music, that aid in unleashing creativity, productivity and empathy. And at its very foundations, music is a folk technology.
When these two forces (the 'subtle' force of classical music and the 'stressful' force of the tech industry) are co-located in the same person the result is an amalgamation. I incorporate elements of tech and art in everything I do. Things do mix and match, and the results are often satisfying. It does not necessarily make me an ace in either discipline, but I find my jack status and a balanced perspective a reasonable deal.
TG: Where all have your performed? What do you consider the highlight of your musical career until this point?
Ragavan Manian: I have sung extensively in all the major venues and broadcast channels in Chennai. Things slowed down once I went to IIT in terms of number of performances. I barely kept things ticking those 4 years! My experiences in the USA gradually changed my approach to music. I realized that the agenda of performing art is really less about the performance as a stand-alone event, and more about the community that it rallies and binds together. It makes cultural ambassadors and torch bearers out of its practitioners. It enforces self-awareness and mutual respect. I sang in many major venues in the USA as well, including the vaunted Cleveland Tyagaraja Aradhana music festival. I co-founded a light music band called Thillana which raised extensive funds for Indian charities. I collaborated with vocalists & instrumentalists of all traditions, ranging from carnatic, to Hindustani, western, jazz, pop and bollywood.
For me, being amidst a different culture taught me to appreciate new forms of music, beyond the western classical and rock genres that I was already familiar with. Jazz and Blues, America's greatest cultural exports finally spoke to me in a voice I could relate to. During this time I taught myself to play the blues harp and saxophone. I also tried to bridge my 'knowledge gap' with respect to Hindustani music by teaching myself to play the bansuri. My experiments with musical genres and instruments continue to this day. I recently purchased a Korg Wavedrum and the djimbe patch is awesome.
I believe in giving (and getting back) the most joy out of every performance. A casual musical get-together with a group of friends is as momentous to me as a huge fundraiser concert attended by thousands. For this reason, many concerts & events feature on my personal highlight list. However I specially treasure memories of providing vocal support to my mentor Dr. Mangalampalli Balamurali Krishna. He's the most gifted and rounded artist I've ever encountered, and probably ever will.
TG: How do you think as an artist, you can bring classical music to the mainstream audience? Do you feel here that, Technology can actually play a big part both in terms of educating the audience and also accessibility?
Ragavan Manian: Technology in the guise of mass media is already spreading awareness of classical music and improving its outreach. Access is much simpler with the ubiquitous internet and the availability of digital music. But there is also the risk of spreading it too thin, or worse, taking it for granted. Mastering a classical art form takes years of training. Technology abets this practice but does not accelerate it. As an artist and a tech spokesperson my goals are two-fold: encourage people in their aspirations (and maybe help build a product or two that will aid them with their aspirations :), while 'keeping it real' by not propounding myths and half-truths. Classical music, like anything worth its salt, takes time to learn & appreciate.
TG: How do you rate your journey as a Carnatic musician until here? Who were your early inspirations? Also, tell us about the sacrifices that you had to undergo in achieving, where you are today?
Ragavan Manian: My top inspiration has always been Dr. Balamurali Krishna, whose music has moved me ever since I was barely able to walk or talk.
There's a long roster of influential musicians that I've listened to since I was a child, too many names to fit in a paragraph or even two! In the world of Carnatic music I am partial to these, household names all - GNB, Madurai Mani, Chembai, Dwaram, Alathoor, Lalgudi, TNK, TNR, DKP, MS, MLV, KVN, MSG, Semmangudi, Sheshagopalan, Ravikiran, Palghat Mani, Harishankar, Mali, Ramani, Somu... There are droves more where these come from. My Hindustani list of Pandits and Ustads are similarly numerous. A few names readily pop up- Amir Khan, Bade Ghulam Ali Khan, Bismillah Khan, Bhimsen Joshi, Ulhas Kashalkar, Rashid Khan, Omkarnath Thakur, N.Rajam, Vilayat Khan, Ravi Shankar... Then there are the light music greats - Ilayaraja, MSV, KVM, Salil Chowdhury, SD Burman...
The Jazz list is an equally extensive one. I'll skip the bulk of it for now, mentioning only half a dozen - Bobby McFerrin, Toots Thielemans, Ella Fitzgerald, Stan Getz, Cannonball Adderly, Stephane Grappelli...
As for rating myself - My journey as a musician, be it vocalist, instrumentalist or composer cannot be measured accurately without also assessing my professional and personal track records. When I do so, I see that there have been many checks and balances, debits and credits, choices and sacrifices. The role of music in all of this is that of an integrating life force that brings meaning to everything, even to things not related to music. Silence is central to making music :). I find myself able to dip into the idiomatic genius of the carnatic tradition to define my living moments as a ragamala - a garland of ragas.
TG: .Do you hope to pursue music full time? Or do you always see a balance between a 9-5 job and music?
Ragavan Manian: I've never worked in a 9-5 job, so it is hard to tell :). Techies of my era always carry their work back home in the form of global conference calls, code reviews, schematics & documents to read & write, presentations to be prepared late night and presented early the next morning, often at a different city. Amidst this near-absence of balance, my music has managed to thrive, like a cactus, making do with little nourishment but managing to bring forth an occasional pretty bloom. I wonder if the desert vegetation analogy goes further - whether my music might even perish if I have a surfeit of time and resources! I'll only know for sure after I retire full-time from tech, which isn't anytime too soon.
TG: Where do you see yourself as a classical musician 5-10 years from now?
Ragavan Manian: I am back in India after a 15-year break. I sense a subtle change in the classical music scene since I left. There is more openness to experimenters like me. In fact there is something for everything in India these days! My first few concerts have been well received. With luck, in the next few years, I hope to distinguish myself as a uniquely styled musician following the footsteps of my mentor. I'd like to stage some of my new compositions that delve into the intricate, layered structures of ragas and taalas. I hope to also try and reach out to fellow techie-cum-musicians, in an attempt to find a literal & metaphorical voice to our dual lives.
(Photo credit: Padma Mahadevan)