As he gears up for a concert tour across India, Konarak Reddy is using AI to recreate scenes from his journey in music. “You can prompt AI to give you photographs, and I want to capture the history that has fallen through the cracks,” he told Showtime, in an interview at his apartment on M G Road.

Paradoxically, in recent years, Konarak has grown fond of his acoustic guitars, preferring to play them more extensively than his electric ones. At 69, the legendary guitarist is looking forward to playing to small crowds with an interest in his kind of guitar music, infused in flamenco, and drawing generously from Karnatik, Hindustani, and at least half a dozen influences, classical and popular.

Konarak began playing the guitar when he was 13. He had to stay home as he had burnt his chin during a school experiment, and so he picked up a guitar, which his sister had received as a gift, and began playing it. He later learnt from many gurus, gaining insights into how a music reflects the culture in which it is practised.

India is internal and inward, and so its classical music is oriented to the exploration of a single line of melody, he says. Our classical music is not as evolved as Western music in harmony, or the use of multiple voices and instrumental playing simultaneously. He sees this reflected in the ‘lack of harmony in our traffic’ and the way we conduct ourselves. In the West, he says, the scene is more coordinated and orderly, but people follow rules so diligently that they pay for it in terms of freedom, implicitly trusting the system and losing awareness. Konarak describes his music as something that draws from the best of many systems, and expresses his emotions.

Excerpts from the interview:

What do you remember of the year you began your career in 1974?

When I came to Bangalore, the cantonment and the city were two different entities. The cantonment was very Western. The city had more Karnatik music. T S Mani had just started his school of percussion. Rock music had just come into the cantonment. There were many great bands and many opportunities to play in festivals and competitions. It was around ‘74 that I knew music was my calling. I had just come here from Chennai… that city was relaxed and lovely but had a more traditional outlook. I didn’t feel the cantonment and the city difference there. They were playing The Shadows and The Ventures, pre-Beatles. Here, with rock music, we felt it was a revolution. It had great power and was electric and loud. Around ‘74, I started playing with T A S Mani and Ramamani. We started incorporating south Indian music: at least the percussive part of it. As the years went by, I found that the energy of the Western music in the cantonment left. Now, most Western bands are only playing covers of what they remember, like Deep Purple and Pink Floyd. Children of traditional Karnatik musicians ended up playing guitars and drums. But their knowledge of Western music comes from a Karnatik background. The two actually don’t mix: they’re opposites. One believes in melody and rhythm, and the other in multiple notes and harmony.

Is that when this whole idea of fusion music emerged in Bengaluru? Over time, many bands started playing Karnatik music with guitars and drums. And quite a few invariably played raga Jog.

The simple basic form of Western music is the major scale and minor scale— they fall into a category of two ragas. So Jog (which alternates between minor and major) became the easiest thing to do. I have also tried fusion music. I tried taking ragas and playing (a number called) ‘Mango ripple’. I would play a lot of tunes with the mridangam or the tabla. But now, at my age today, I think they don’t mix.

The biggest challenge for a musician with such diverse influences could be that you belong everywhere and so you belong nowhere.

I was brought up in a multicultural family. My father (Pattabhirama Reddy) was a Telugu poet, and my mother (Snehalata) was an activist. I was an outsider to everything that actually existed in schools. I was like a cross-breed: I took from Jimi Hendrix, from nadaswaram players, from north Indian music. From the outside, I could see things from a different point of view.  But this absolutely posed a challenge. I was acclaimed all over Europe for playing the acoustic guitar. I tried to get the Indian Council of Cultural Relations interested… they pay the fare if you are touring. They asked me to send a tape. I did but nothing happened. I was cut out of everything. But it didn’t affect me because I was always revolting against the system.

If you had to define your genre, what would it be?

I don’t have any genre because it’s the music of revolt. I developed a technique: I play with my thumb. When I went to Europe, they were quite shocked as I was the only player with up and down strokes of the thumb.

What would you say are your landmark compositions? And tell us about your work in films.

I think (the composition) ‘Deviant Goddess’ is a landmark because I felt I had actually created my kind of music. Another one I like is ‘Tara’. It’s a sweet, happy melody.  I did music for the Kannada film Devara Kaadu, a film by my father. Before that, years ago, we did another film called Chanda Marutha. I used acoustic instruments and played with a violinist, and we used some Indian and some Western instruments. In Devara Kaadu we took up Soliga songs. We heard from the jury that we had just lost the National Award narrowly. The music of commercial films took a different turn, and I didn’t turn with it. So I took to the acoustic guitar and looked out to Europe where acoustic guitars were a big thing.

When you went to gurus like Vishalakshi and Rajeev Taranath, did you learn ragas on the guitar or learn their instruments?

I learnt the sarod first with Rajeev, and then in Puducherry, there was a fantastic player called Debiprasad Ghosh. I found eventually that the instrument I always went back to was the guitar.

You also did this album called Marathahalli Rani.

It was a tongue-in-cheek project with M D Pallavi. I composed the songs.  She translated them to Kannada and sang them. 

You’ve been very close to the Kannada literary world. Girish Karnad, Lankesh, and Ananthamurthy—all of them were in Samskara, the film your father directed.

It started with my father because he broke away from his very traditional family. My parents lived their life as artists. We had everybody like Ananthamurthy and Lankesh come to our house (St Mark’s Road).

* Bangalore 1974, Celebrating 50 Years of Konarak Reddy’s Music, part of Guitar Book of Revelations Concert Series, in collaboration with BLR Hubba, Wednesday, May 29, 7 pm, Bangalore International Centre.

Published 24 May 2024, 23:14 IST

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