Charting his own course – Rithvik Raja

His guru is a star on the Carnatic music stage and off it, having received international acclaim for his ideals and work. His mother is a popular music teacher who has trained hundreds of children. But this young man comes with no sense of entitlement; instead, he combines his tutelage with plenty of talent and tenacity, and is charting his own — successful — course. Over the past few years, he has travelled far, performed widely and won much appreciation. Confident and candid, he is ascending the ladder to the top, surely and steadily. Meet Rithvik Raja, prime disciple of the redoubtable Shri T.M. Krishna.

What are your earliest memories of music? Do you remember any of the songs your mother Dr Sudha Raja taught her students at home, which you picked up as a toddler? 

My earliest memories of music are of the music classes that my mother used to teach at home, and of the two cassettes that my grandmother and father used to play every morning — Bhaja Govindam by Smt. M.S. Subbulakshmi and Oothukkadu Compositions by Shri Maharajapuram Santhanam. These two albums did a full circle every morning as I got ready for school. The classes were a constant through most evenings during my early years. I learnt almost all of my basics from my mother, including many compositions, but the ones that I have a very clear memory of are Male Manivanna (a Tiruppavai in Kuntalavarali) and Mudakaratha Modakam (a song immortalised by Smt. M.S. Subbulakshmi).
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Rithvik with his mother and first guru Smt. Sudha Raja (1993)

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Rithvik in a photo shoot by his uncle Shri T.E. Giridharan (1995, Ahmedabad)

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Rithvik singing the invocation song at a Rotary Club function (1998)

How did you then start learning from Smt. Sulochana Pattabhiraman? 

There was a period between 1997 and 2000 when I was extremely focused on cricket and pursuing it very seriously. Music had come to a standstill and I was barely singing. Realising that the best idea to get me interested in music again would be a change in atmosphere, my mother brought me under the tutelage of her teacher of more than 30 years, Smt. Sulochana Pattabhiraman. I have vivid memories of being in her house for hours on end as a toddler, while roaming the stairways listening to my mother’s classes. I had great respect for Sulochana mami, and was in awe of her as a child. The admiration I had for her made me take music seriously and gave me the commitment and motivation to do well in her classes. She was an expert teacher with abundant knowledge, and needless to say, my interest was rekindled.

I’ve heard that you had a short break from cricket at one point which you spent with nothing but music, and at the end of it you were convinced you wanted to pursue music more seriously. What brought about that transformation?

The break happened because of torrential rains in the city. It coincided with the December Season, which was when my teacher Sulochana mami gave me a book and pen and insisted that I attend at least four concerts every day. She asked me to come home to have breakfast with her every morning, when she would go through the concerts I had listened to the previous day and make corrections, while asking me what I thought of them. She made me write down every song I listened to, made me take notes and helped me learn from the process. By the end of that month, I had listened to over 120 concerts of musicians across the board and music had taken me over!
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Rithvik receiving the Best Bowler award from Shri Kris Srikkanth in the Milo Tournament (2000)

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Class photo (1998, Vidya Mandir). Identify Rithvik!

Rithvik (centre) singing as part of the Madras Youth Choir (1999)

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Rithvik in Ooty with Shri Abaswaram Ramjhi’s Issai Mazhalai

Was it in 2003 that you started learning from Shri T.M. Krishna? Were you one of his first students? How did you convince him to teach you?  

Yes, I listened to him live for the first time in 2001 and followed him around to almost every single concert of his in Madras for the next 2 years! When my voice started to break in early 2003, my teacher Sulochana mami said that it would be ideal for me to learn from a male teacher, as it would help me to manoeuvre through the difficult phase and then to further my music. I was extremely attached to her, and it was difficult to comprehend the inevitable fact that I had to leave her and go to another teacher. I told her that the only other person I would go to was Shri T.M. Krishna because I thought the switch would be easy for me to make, given my admiration and love for his music.

I think it was a few months before he agreed to hear me sing. After a few people recommended me to him, I went to his home on a Sunday afternoon for my first interaction with him. It was one of the most unforgettable musical experiences of my life. The detail in nuances and subtleties with which I re-learnt the Kalyani Adi tala varnam that first class will stay with me forever. He had a terribly busy concert schedule then and agreed to teach me for six months to see if his teaching schedule and travel would work together, and also be convenient and beneficial for me. Being one of his first students, I worked very hard to balance music and cricket and devoted a lot more time to music, to make sure he saw me improving and working on my music. It was one of the most amazing periods of my life.

You started learning from Shri T.M. Krishna at the age of 13. You became a professional concert performer when you were 19. It couldn’t have been easy to get to that level in six years — how much and what kind of effort did you put into it? 

My first stage performance after I started learning from Krishna anna was in early 2005 at Sastri Hall, which was attended by many musicians. Having seen me attending others’ concerts, there was definitely a strong curiosity to see how I sang. Although I was petrified, I enjoyed being on stage and singing for people, which was when the thought of doing this seriously as a profession crossed my mind for the first time.

By the time I was 19, I had graduated from Vivekananda College and had a few job opportunities through campus placements. When I had to make a decision, I spoke to Krishna Anna about it and it was his words of confidence that made me take music as a full-time profession. I do believe that working a job takes a toll on the body and the mind. You never hear of a cardiac surgeon or a lawyer who does that job part time while doing another full-time job. I did work for a month at a finance firm, and loved the job. But that feeling of inadequacy, of not being able to devote the amount of time I was used to devoting to music, made me quit without any second thoughts. Music requires as much time, effort and commitment as any other stream of work. With so much to learn and so much that we don’t know in a vast field like Carnatic music, don’t we need to spend all the time that we have in improving ourselves to be the best musicians we can possibly be?

Does your guru listen to your concerts and offer feedback?

Yes, he does. Initially I used to show him the song lists for all my concerts and would sing only after I got his approval. Now, he has given me the freedom to explore music and constantly encourages me to find my own voice. He makes it a point to listen to at least one concert of each of us students, especially during the December Season, and gives us a detailed report of what we did right and what needs work. He is not kind when it comes to mistakes made due to carelessness and laziness, but extremely patient and forgiving when mistakes are out of genuine ignorance.

How has being Shri T.M. Krishna’s disciple moulded your musical thought process?

Without going into great detail, I think what is important to understand is that he is a musician who values the art greater than himself or any other individual. His constant effort to work hard and be true to its aesthetic has taught us to not compromise on the basic values and principles of what this music stands for.

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Rithvik singing the misra nadai pallavi (Shastri Hall, 2011). Photo courtesy: Shri S. Hariharan

To understand the spirit of this music, and to pursue it while being honest and true to the art, is primary. The moment this takes precedence, everything else follows seamlessly. That is the most important lesson I have learnt from him.

I heard you attempt a 4-kalai misra nadai RTP once at Sastri Hall a few years ago. I’m curious — how much effort do you put into a challenging exercise like that?

It does take a lot of effort to be able to sing a misra nadai pallavi in 4 kalai without showing the nadai. But once you develop the skill of singing complex rhythmic exercises, it stays with you. Developing a knack for mathematics isn’t difficult. The real challenge is to present this in a manner that is unobtrusive towards the raga bhava and to be able to sing it with the ease of singing sarvalaghu swaras. Our music is raga music, and at no cost can that be sacrificed. So to put all of these together and present it in a manner that is musical and aesthetic is the real challenge that takes years of practice.

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Rithvik with his guru Shri T.M. Krishna (December 2016, Mumbai)

To this day, we see you on the stage in many of your guru’s concerts — either sitting behind or playing the tambura. How has this helped musically?

Musically, it has helped me understand the dynamics on stage, the reactions and the mood of other musicians on stage, the pulse of the audience, the importance of sound, what working as a team entails and how a concert is structured in order to succeed as also gauge the atmosphere on that given day. There are multiple layers to this level of musical understanding, and being on stage has given me the necessary tools to gain that understanding, which was essential in my early years of concert planning and singing.

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Rithvik experimenting with the culture of street music in Melbourne with M. Rajeev (violin) and Tanjore K. Praveen Kumar (mridangam)

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Rithvik receiving the Yuva Kala Bharathi award from Shri Kadri Gopalnath (2012)

You have been on multiple tours abroad in the past couple of years — how much time do you get to practise? Describe a typical practice session.

Yes, I have been to a few countries during the last couple of years. My tour of the United States of America for 20 concerts over 2 months in 2015 was a lovely experience. I recently travelled to New Zealand, Abu Dhabi, Malaysia, UK and many parts of Europe. I have also been blessed with quite a few awards like the Isai Chudar from Kartik Fine Arts and Yuva Kala Bharathi from Bharat Kalachar. But tours and awards are all motivators to keep working hard; they are neither a reward for past work nor recognition for achieving a certain level of fame. So it is imperative to keep developing one’s musical sense and values and not base it on specific professional goals. I have heard many senior musicians tell me this, and have also come to believe that as long as good, honest work is done, everything else will automatically follow.

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Rithvik with Shri H.N. Bhaskar and Shri Anirudh Athreya at Salt Lake City during the US tour (2015)

You are a believer in the power of social media. But social media can also have a slightly negative impact, in that a critical review — even one made by a rasika, not a critic — can reach thousands of people around the world instantly. Has that ever frustrated you? How do you cope?

We live in an era where social media has woven itself into all walks of life. Hence, we have to live with it, and take into account its pros and cons. Artistes have the risk of being openly critiqued, and can feel vulnerable at times. But the strong ones, who have complete belief in themselves and their art, seldom let such things deter them. If an artiste thinks too much or too seriously about the comments shared with little thought on social media, then self-doubt becomes a problem.

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Rithvik with Shri Arun Prakash and Shri R. K. Shriramkumar

There are two kinds of commentators — those that use it as a tool to garner attention while seldom being qualitative or subjective, and those that know the art and say things after carefully considering their validity. The latter are the ones whose opinions give us reason to analyse in retrospect. It is up to the artiste to take all this in his/her stride.

You are now actively involved in Svanubhava. What other events/projects are you involved in?

Yes, Svanubhava was started in 2008 by Matrka (Bombay Jayashri and T.M. Krishna) and YACM (Youth Association for Classical Music). It has gained considerable momentum over the years, and is now the top Indian art festival in the country that is run by students for students. Svanubhava was conceptualised with the intention of welcoming students to the diverse, multi-cultural world of Indian art and introducing them to the underlying beauty of even the rarest forms. This festival aims to involve students of various art institutions, and students from private and public educational institutions, and in the process, create hubs of student communities where they can feel a sense of belonging and nurture their passion towards Indian art forms. Apart from Svanubhava, I work with and volunteer for a number of organisations and also manage my own projects. I was the President of YACM from 2005 to 2011. I head Madrasika, an organisation that aims to make space for art. I also worked on a couple of music videos, titled ‘Kutcheri’ and ‘The Classical Project’. For more details on the projects I am involved with, please visit www.rithvikraja.in.

You have a Bachelor in Commerce from Vivekananda College, and have done a one-year multimedia course as well as a degree in Sound Engineering from SAE Institute of Technology. Were any of these your fallback career options?

The reason I took Commerce and pursued my Bachelors from Vivekananda College was so that I would have more time to pursue music. The college was extremely supportive, and I had a wonderful three years there. The subsequent sound engineering and multimedia courses were just things I explored out of passion. None of these were ever my fallback career options, as I had decided by the time I finished college that I wanted to pursue music as a full-time profession.

So did you design www.rithvikraja.in? What other websites have you designed?

Yes, I did design my website. I have designed a bunch of other websites, more than 20 of them, apart from visiting cards, posters and other multimedia designs. But all of them were of my own accord, for people who approached me personally and for projects that I was interested in doing.

At a concert during the 2015 December Season. Photo courtesy: Smt. S.V. Hema

At a concert during the 2015 December Season. Photo courtesy: Smt. S.V. Hema

I don’t normally take corporate offers or work on things that do not interest me. Since this isn’t my profession, I only indulge in it once in a while. I have also done the websites for two of my projects, www.svanubhava.com and www.madrasika.com.

Where would you like to be 10 years from now?

This is a question that we as musicians get asked frequently, and a question for which I have never found an answer! Though every time the answer changes, one thing remains constant — I wish to be known as an honest musician who sang pure and unadulterated music. Fame, money and popularity may come and go. But to sing with dignity and maintain one’s reputation as a musician is of paramount importance. So to continue along this path and to be truthful to the music I so deeply admire is would be my bliss.

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