Friday, 26 October 2012

Chameleon Voice - Child Wonder Pragathi Guruprasad

Today was when I first came across the name Pragathi Guruprasad.

C Mohan, 8 years my senior from IIT Madras, an IBM Fellow and a prolific chronicler of events (for want of a better term), wrote about Pragathi on Facebook, with a link to an article that his wife Kalpana Mohan had written about the child prodigy. I was intrigued.

Some searching on YouTube turned up an amazing repertoire. And she's only 15. This girl can sing virtually any genre of music, it appears. Let me count the ways.

Being a Tambram, Pragathi would obviously have to know Carnatic (South Indian classical) music, so let's start with a Tillana in Raga Purvi Kalyani, recorded in Fremont, California.


I'm also amazed that all those US-bred Indian kids in the audience are au fait with Carnatic music to the extent that they can keep the beat (taalam) with their hands. Wonderful.

Now, most non-Indians may not know the difference between the North Indian (Hindustani) and South Indian (Carnatic) classical styles. But trust me, they're very different. It's not easy to learn to sing in these two styles at the same time, but Pragathi pulls this off effortlessly. (Did I mention she's 15?)

I'm South Indian myself, but I'm partial to the North Indian (Hindustani) classical style, and I found it such a pleasure to hear this piece in Raag Kedar. Pragathi was just 12 then!

At just 12 years of age, she has the voice control of a seasoned maestro. The slow beginning (the Alaap) where the raag unfolds is powerful and very smoothly introduces the mood of Kedar. Don't miss the vocal acrobatics towards the end (the Taans and the Tarana, for those in the know). This is technical perfection at any age!

(You may have noticed that I use the spelling "raga" for Carnatic music and "raag" for Hindustani, although it's the same word. That's another bit of the South-North cultural chasm.)

Once a singer masters classical music, all other genres are child's play.


A semi-classical devotional song (a Meera Bhajan), in Raag Shuddha Saarang


A Tamil film song

All that is fine, but it's still Indian music. How about something completely different, like Western pop?

Pragathi does an Adele with "Rolling in the Deep"

Have you noticed how she changes her dress and appearance to suit the style of music?

It isn't all class, to be fair. Here are some excerpts from her performance in a singing contest. Call me a classical music snob, but I wouldn't be caught dead listening to some of these numbers ("cheapo" songs, as my wife fondly calls them). Still, I guess it goes to show that nothing is beyond her abilities...

She can scale the heights and plumb the depths with the best and the worst of 'em...

This has been quite an education for me, thanks to the journalism of Mohan and his wife. I hope this talented girl lives up to her immense potential, rises to greater heights of glory and doesn't fall by the wayside.  The last video clip was, frankly speaking, a bit disturbing to me. Showbiz is a glittering but tawdry place to be, and it's not easy to hold onto dignity and class when the cheap seats are egging you on.

This is a schoolgirl from the US whose mother took her off her studies for a year to compete in a music contest back in India (a contest where she eventually placed second). That's a pretty big decision for a parent to make, and I'm not sure if I would do something similar even if my child showed such prodigious musical talent. And I certainly wouldn't do it if I felt my child was too young to avoid being dazzled by the bright lights and lose her way.

This is the new India, - full of opportunity to rise or to fall. She's got the talent. I wish her wisdom and common sense. If Pragathi can keep her head, like that sensible singer Taylor Swift, more power to her.
(Coincidentally, Taylor Swift's song Fifteen offers similar advice.)

Update: This is Pragathi in 2015, returning to Hindustani music after a long gap.

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