NARAYAN is a recipient of the Karnataka State Government Rajyotsava
Award for his achievements in the field of electronic music instruments. His
company Radel Electronics Pvt Ltd has revolutionised music learning and performing
with several inventions including electronic tanpuras, tablas and veena. An
A-grade AIR artiste, he is a flautist, and also holds a Master’s degree in
Electrical Engineering from IIT Madras. His love for music and technology have
led to inventions which have dramatically decreased musicians’ dependency on
others for practice
heart of any music is the need to achieve shruthi
shuddham. Can your invention actually help learners develop a sense of
When we started making these instruments in our factory, technicians
without any music background used to test the instruments to see if each unit
is holding its shruthi. All they had to do was put 30-40 instruments (set to
the same pitch) in a sealed room and test them for about 3 hours. I found that
after 5-6 months of sitting in that room, the technicians had developed a
musical sense. And they were able to tune the instruments as well, sometimes
better than professional musicians. This made me realise if you just turn this
instrument on in your house for an hour or two and if your kids who are
learning music listen to this, shruthi
shuddham will come. A genuine musician who is seriously interested in
developing good shruthi shuddham,
should listen to shruthi and do exercises of holding on to a note.
Sadly, the desire to perform to higher levels of quality, especially when it comes to shruthi has come down. People think it is the fireworks, the brikhas, and complex patterns which are important, not the shruthi shuddham. In North Indian music also, people complain that present generation musicians are not as precise in sur as the older generation, but even to this day they hold on to a note for long periods because if they waver it gets noticed.
have you made on your original design of the electronic shruthi box?
The electronic tanpura which I made in the 1970s has gone through so many generations of designs. Every year we have come up with new designs. Initially it was the discrete transistor, then the small Integrated Circuit (IC) based tanpuras, then the microprocessor based tanpuras, then the microcontrollers and now we have Digital Signal Processing (DSP). Today’s tanpura is nothing but a digitally recorded tanpura sound in a studio. String by string these are played in real time in a sequence as controlled by the user. So you can alter the tempo. If people say it does not sound like a real tanpura, that does not hold true.
If you just turn this instrument on in your house for an hour or two and if your kids who are learning music listen to this, shruthi shuddham will come. A genuine musician who is seriously interested in developing good shruthi shuddham, should listen to shruthi and do exercises of holding on to a note
G Raj Narayan
All this was a result of developing the electronic tabla for
North Indians. The electronic tabla was mix of analog and digital systems. A
microprocessor was controlling the sequence but the actual sound generation was
through analog means. The tanpura sound is a far simpler sound as compared to the
complex sounds produced on the tabla. The electronic tabla had to sound
absolutely like the original and like it would have to distinguish between tha,
na, din. In the tambura you are looking for the Sa Pa Sa. If the sound is
slightly different it doesn’t matter as long as you get the pitch. Whereas in
the tabla, it had to sound like the dha, the na, the dhin. So it was a far more challenging problem than
the invention of the tambura.
Which of your
inventions has had the greatest impact on learning?
I personally feel that the invention of the electronic tabla
in 1987, is a bigger break through than the electronic tanpura. Not many people
have recognised this in the South. As a
child I was aware that whenever my mother practiced Hindustani music on the veena,
she would require a tabla artiste to come and play for her. The tabla is
required for practice whether you play the veena, sing or play the sitar, sarod
etc. Earlier North Indian musicians could only do the aalap or sing the raga,
not a tala-based composition. That’s because the entire tala system of North
Indian music is encoded onto the tabla. Anytime anyone wanted to practice
Hindustani music, they had to wait for a tabla artiste. And he would come for
maybe an hour, thrice a week. There was a limit on the number of hours a person
could practice independently per week.
All the great musicians can always command a tabla artiste
to come and play. But the middle level and beginners, and others
non-professionals and amateurs have a big difficulty. With this instrument,
they said atleast they had a point of reference. That is why I believe the
bigger achievement has been missed in the media as well as in the South. These
inventions have revolutionised Indian music because they have contributed to
people learning or practising by themselves for long periods.
You say these
technologies have made musicians independent. Can you elaborate please.
To demonstrate the tala instrument at the Music Academy, I
played a complex Pallavi on the flute. To practice a complex Pallavi you either
need somebody who is well-versed with music to put the tala or a machine like
this. It was an audio visual instrument, which had lights grouped for laghu,
dhrutham etc. Although it was not the same as putting the tala by hand, I tried
to create this audio visual effect so that it is not a completely new or
different format. Palghat Mani Iyer used to make some of these complex patterns
on the mridangam and he said this instrument would help him practice.
Similarly, corresponding to the tabla we have a lehra instrument which enables a tabla artiste to practice (also called Nagma). It’s a precomposed tune set to different taals. Each of it can be set to any taal, any raag, different tunes, and then you alter the tempo so as to enable the tabla artiste to practise at different speeds.
So South Indian artistes are independent thanks to the
tanpura, shruthi box and tala meter, the main Hindustani singer is independent
of the tabla artiste, and the tabla artiste is also free to practice now.
How is the electronic
veena different and how have musicians responded to this invention?
The sounds of the veena are very feeble. I used to play
duets with my mother and my wife (both of who are vainikas). After the
concerts, people would say that the concerts were good but they could barely
hear the veena. In 1971, I demonstrated a solid body electric veena with a pick
up and removable gourd. Then I thought why not put the tambura into the veena,
as they also need shruthi. This is a self-contained instrument where you have
the shruthi, the veena and the pickup for the talam string. It has undergone
various levels of development and today we have a synthesiser which is shaped
and played like a veena.
The need for all of these inventions was born out of
complete necessity. In any concert, vainikas have to keep tuning the strings every
3-4 minutes. When you pull one string, another string goes to a different
shruthi. Refretting is one of the biggest problems faced by veena players. It
is difficult to get it done even in India. Removable and adjustable frets are
an engineering solution. The artiste can alter each fret even on the concert
The main objection people had to the electronic veena is
that it does not look like the Saraswathi Veena. However, my design resembles
the veena in the older sculptures. Today’s vainikas are using the traditional
veena with a magnetic pick up. The magnetic pick up bypasses the big kodam. It
takes the sound from the string and out, exactly like the electronic veena. The
only difference is they are using an electric veena which looks like a
traditional veena. Why should a musician risk damaging a delicately carved out
instrument when he/she can instead use something which made of solid wood and
which does not break easily. Apart from solving the refretting and breakage
problems, the most important issue of volume (in the conventional veena the
fine nuances, gamakams, sangathis get lost because the sound dies) is solved
because here the sound continues.
We now have shruthi
apps and other manufacturers. How does Radel compare?
The app that plays in the mobile phone should actually be as
good as a CD played tambura or an electronic tambura. If they are not as good
as the electronic tamburas, it may be because ultimately the sound is being
played through another attachment, the amplispeaker. The amplispeaker is not
designed to reproduce the fine nuances of the tambura harmonics.
Flute Mali was already using a shruthi box developed by
someone else when I met him, but he was not very happy as it used to wobble and
drift with change in temperature. This is where I bring in my electronics
background in HAL where everything has to be extremely precise and reliable.
People have started using these new technologies because of
their convenience over traditional instruments, despite their initial hesitancy,
reservations, conservatism, and the feeling that this was ‘not traditional’. I believe
that tradition changes and if technology enables you to do things differently
without any drawbacks, you might as well use it. (