INTERVIEW: South India's Carnatic progressive rock band AGAM speaks on Hyderabad's Gudi Sambaraalu, the art of fusion music and more

The band comes to perform in Gandipet Lake Park.

One of the world’s greatest artists, Pablo Picasso, once said, “Learn the rules like a pro, so you can break them like an artist.” AGAM, a Bangalore-based band has been turning the painter’s words true for the last 12 years by breaking the notion that Carnatic music is a codified art form, and taking it to the contemporary world by melding it with progressive rock — in a genre-bending legacy. The band is the pioneer of Carnatic progressive rock and is well versed in both the genres to be able to break the moulds set by cultural purists. It has come a long way from having its first gig in Bengaluru with a crowd of only 25 people to now touring US, UK, Middle East, South East Asia and southern cities with crowds pouring in, in thousands.

The south Indian band comes to perform in the City of Pearls for Paramparaa’s Gudi Samabaraalu — temple dance and music festival. It observes performances by music mavens and classical dance exponents who invoke the divine, at some of the most spiritual places in Telangana — Ramappa Temple, Edupayala Temple, Venkateshwara Swamy Temple and more such sites. Revved up for their performance, band member Aditya Kasyap, who plays bass guitar and backing vocals for AGAM talks to us at great length over a call about their upcoming live show. Starting our chat on an elated note, he says, “We are coming to Hyderabad after a fairly long time and are very excited to be here! We are expecting a lot of music lovers at our show. To play at a festival of this stature is going to be extremely exhilarating as it appreciates the art and culture.” The band is going to perform their past playlist for a memorable rendezvous.

Pushing boundaries
AGAM was spotted by none other than music composer AR Rahman in 2007. He declared them the winner of a talent hunt show on television and brought them into limelight. Since then, there’s been no looking back, with the band performing at high-octane music festivals alongside distinguished bands like The Raghu Dixit Project, Indian Ocean, Avail and more. They have performed in the finale episode of the second season of the hit radio show Coke Studio India in 2012, and also appeared on television shows thus, taking indie music to Indian hearts at home. Their music is loved for a heady mix of Carnatic combined with rock influences as seen in popular albums like The Inner Self Awakens (2012) and A Dream to Remember (2017).

Telling us about the ideology of the band, Aditya shares, “When we started, all of us knew about Carnatic music in one form or the other due to our upbringing. Then we went to college, moved on to different walks of life, where someone picked guitar or drums or other instruments. But we all agreed to the fact that we wanted to play music that is close to our heart which was Indian classical, but in a way that it resonates with a broader audience. In the last 10 years, we have tried to contemporise the genre and bring our interpretation into it.”

People usually do not associate spirituality with a rock band, but AGAM’s style makes it possible due to their evolved rendition of Carnatic music.“When people say Carnatic music is codified, we feel it’s like an ocean that blends itself with other influences. That makes it unique and that's why we love it. If it was restrained, it could not have the power to integrate itself with other art forms. Its all-encompassing nature allows bands like us to exist. Moreover, we feel that no form of music is so rigid that it cannot be adapted with the other influences or evolve with time,” he says. While the band has left cultural purists frowning with its raging success, it has moved classical music stalwarts like sister duo Ranjani and Gayatri, Aruna Sairam and Kaushiki Chakraborty who have come forward in the past to collaborate with them.“That became the highlight of our career,” Aditya recalls.

As per purists, Carnatic music is strictly regulated by rules on ragas (melodic formulae), and talas (rhythmic cycles) with an archetypical usage of instruments like Saraswati vina, venu flute, mridangam, ghatam, violin, tambura and more. While the band is well-acquainted with them, its members Harish Sivaramakrishnan, Swamy Seetharaman, T Praveen Kumar, Sivakumar Nagarajan, Jagdish Natarajan, Yadhunandan and Aditya also use modern instruments like violin, guitar and drums to create tunes that often end in an encore.

Invoking the divine
For those who are still wondering how a modern-day band is invited to perform at a spiritual festival, AGAM’s logo and philosophy have a lot to say. Its rust-red Theyyam logo — a folk art form dominant in Northern Kerala and some parts of Karnataka — portrays the divine connection between man and nature and man and deity.

The band’s name translates to ‘soul’ in Sanskrit, Tamil and Malayalam languages because that is what music means to them — the essence of life and prayer. Aditya shares how music is a way to express their spirituality which is not any religion-specific. “While we genuinely believe in a higher power, we are not religious, but are spiritual. One way of looking at our logo and the music we create is to see it as an invocation of the divine. But another interpretation is that we are trying to get clarity of thought and purpose. We are trying to find who we are with music.” Time and again, AGAM has presented songs that conjure the divine. From tracks like Dance of the Brahma and Swans of Saraswati that present intense rhythmic percussions to Subrahmanyena based on the composition by Mutthuswamy Dikshitar that venerates Lord Subrahmanya — they remember the godlike with a seraphic joy rendered by their art.

Cutting across audience
While they are rooted in culture, they’re not archaically traditional, thanks to their global influences from troupes like Metallica, Dream Theatre, Pink Floyd and AR Rahman. They have recently performed in Dubai after the pandemic and are planning to tour Australia this year. This kind of East meets West, classical meets rock and local meets international ethos makes them appeal to kids, adults and the elderly alike. Aditya elaborates on the same, “We have been humbled to see young kids, as well as 70-year-old elderly folks throng our concerts. For many kids, this is their introduction to Carnatic music. Nowadays, their parents come and tell us that their child is interested in learning about Carnatic music after listening to our band's melodies. The fact that our music is able to inculcate that interest, is truly humbling.”

Does it give them validation as an artiste? “We did not start with an intent of having people validate us. We just explored music that came naturally to us. Now, when people come and tell us that they have a renewed interest in classical music — that is a legacy we wish to leave behind,” Aditya tells us. Given that they tour the country and abroad, we asked them what’s the most cherishable part of being on the roads, especially in a foreign country, and Aditya tells us, “It is the love of the Indian diaspora. Secondly, we also have a lot of Europeans and Americans who tell us that they started to listen and appreciate Carnatic music for the first time in their life after attending our shows. That’s another step closer to why we embarked on a musical journey.”

Best of both worlds
While live concerts are their forte, they are open to lending music to films, but time is a roadblock given the band members have Monday to Friday, 9 to 5 jobs. But they love their work of being techies as much as they admire music. “The thought of doing just one thing full-time has not crossed our minds. What we do on the professional front kind of helps us to tell people that it may not be a binary choice and one can follow both professional and personal interests. When we say we love our corporate jobs, it is not comforting from an income point of view, but more to do with loving what we do on the work front. I head homecare at Hindustan Unilever, Harish is the face of a user interface app, Praveen is a product manager, Jagdish is with Airbnb. Many of us have tried to get an education from some of the best universities in the country and we love to use that knowledge in the professional sphere. So we work on weekdays and create music on weekends,” Aditya says.

Most of the band members hail from premium institutes like IIM and BITS Pilani. Upcoming album The band has a new album coming out in 2023 where they have taken influences from jazz and have tried to infuse Carnatic with Caribbean percussions. It brought us to ask how Carnatic, which is deeply rooted in South Indian culture, could blend with African-influenced beats and Aditya’s response blew our mind, “The base of Carnatic music is not only the well-defined rhythmic structure, but it also lends itself beautifully on the progressive rhythmic structure. Western music is codified where the use of polyrhythm patter ns is fairly new whereas Carnatic has had polyrhythmic patterns for centuries. So we can see the latter as the originator of polyrhythms. At a fundamental level, they (Carnatic and Caribbean) both belong to the same family and ours is a humble experiment to see how they sound together.”

So 2023 will be more about experimenting with intrinsically different raga families and observing what melodies they create. The theme of the album remains undisclosed, but it’s going to bring what AGAM does best — convey the soul of the music.

AGAM performs in Gandipet Lake Park on January 7 at 6 p.m
Twitter: @RanaPriyamvada 

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