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Music 2
Shankar Tucker and his troupe perform at Galaxy, The Park, on Wednesday. They belted out a mix of original compositions and cover songs and a few raga-based compositions featuring Bhimpalasi and Bageshri. Their take on Ore piya (from Aaja Nachle) juxtaposed with Adele’s Rolling in the Deep on the clarinet drew the maximum cheers. Pictures by Sanjoy Chattopadhyaya

American online sensation with his clarinet Shankar Tucker kicked off The Park’s New Festival 2012, a contemporary arts festival curated by Prakriti Foundation and hosted across The Park properties in Chennai, Hyderabad, Bangalore, Mumbai and Calcutta. Tucker was accompanied by musicians Kartik Shah (guitars), Nirali Kartik (vocals) and Amit Mishra (percussions). t2 caught up with Tucker for a chat.

How did you get involved with Indian classical music?

My parents were disciples of Ma Amritanandamayi (who named him Shankar). So I was exposed to a lot of Indian culture, including devotional music. I slowly got used to it and later realised that what I was listening to were bhajans. I’d be singing a tune and I didn’t know it then but it was the raga Bhairavi. Another influence was Remember Shakti (a world fusion music quintet comprising John McLaughlin, Zakir Hussain and U. Srinivas, Shankar Mahadevan and V. Selvaganesh) and their collaboration with Hariprasad Chaurasia. So I collected all his (Chaurasia) recordings and started listening to them and started playing along with them. That is how I learnt all the phrases and techniques.

I’m guessing you’re wondering what is a white guy doing playing Indian music? And I get this there as well (back in the US). I’d try to form bands in college and get them to perform Indian music… I’d teach them tehais… and they’d be like ‘what are you doing!’ (Laughs)

What was it like being inspired by Hariprasad Chaurasia and then training under him?

I was studying western classical music at the New England Conservatory in Boston and I’d kind of do this on the side. I would take his recording, 20- and-30-second chunks, and slow it down and play it on my computer. It would take me a really long time to pick it up. It would take me months to pick up just those 30 seconds.

But in India it was different. Here, I’d take three-hour lessons during the day and he would give a class, play a phrase and we would have to repeat that phrase. And then he’d play another and no phrase was repeated. And it wasn’t recorded. And it was not just one raga, but two! We would cycle through so many ragas every month. It was intense!

Is the difficulty of the classical medium the reason you adapted to Bollywood?

I wanted to work with vocalists. And I didn’t have much money to do videos, so I’d just try to get vocalists to record and snag them for a day. The singers too didn’t have time to do big classical pieces or compose together. So I’d ask them, ‘What songs do you know?’ And they generally say something from Bollywood and I’d just say, ‘Okay, let’s do these songs.’ So I started putting them on YouTube and they started getting really popular and we started getting requests for them and that’s how this concert happened. Actually this group used to do really proper classical music. But people in Bombay, Bangalore and Chennai would ask where are the film songs, so we started playing film songs and here in Calcutta we have people saying where’s the classical? (Laughs)

What’s the reception been like across the cities?

It was great! Bombay was crazy. People were screaming and requesting, ‘Five more songs!’ And I’m thinking, ‘Wow, five?’ And there in the middle, I see frikking Shreya Ghoshal! She joined us on stage and sang Aaj jane ki zid na karo.

So what are your next projects? Any plans of adapting more Bollywood songs?

No, I think we’ve already done too many covers. Now I want to compose more and do more of our own thing. I’ve just finished composing for a Tamil independent film, a very nice experience.