Art & Culture

Meet the new generation of Indian guitarists: Unplugged and online

In late October, sixteen guitar players performed at a packed Bengaluru bar named BFlat for the final round of the All-India Fingerstyle Guitar Competition (AIFGC). It was all men (since the parents of the lone woman finalist had reservations about her travelling alone), most in their early to mid twenties, and from various parts of the country – the metros, Patiala, Bhopal, Dimapur, Hyderabad, Dehra Dun. They had been selected from the seventy-two guitarists who had entered the competition by uploading YouTube videos of their playing (some shot in cramped bedrooms). The contest, only in its second edition, brought into focus a phenomenon that has emerged over the last decade – the growing popularity of the guitar as a solo instrument, the internet’s enormous influence as musical inspiration, instructor and platform, and the rise of the guitar adept, identified and nurtured through festivals and competitions.

All India Finger Style 2016

“One of the best teachers I have had is YouTube.”

“You can tell from my name that I come from a musical family,” says Rhythm Shaw, 21, who won the previous edition of the AIFGC in 2014. He began to learn the guitar and the tabla when he was “two or three.” A video on YouTube shows him in uniform at a school competition, barely having begun to let fly on an electric guitar before being stopped by teachers. Apparently, his sound-check had taken up most of the time alloted. (Did he win anyway? “I think so.”) He’s won more competitions than he can remember (including, earlier this year, the acoustic category of Lee Ritenour’s Six String Theory contest), but the fingerstyle competition was special.

Guitarist Rhythm Shaw in Mumbai on 13th November 2016.- Photo by Mandar Deodhar

One of the judges, the German guitarist and producer Peter Finger, was so impressed with Shaw that he signed him up for an album. Opening Act came out late last year, followed by an 18-stop concert tour in Germany. Shaw has since played in other European countries, continues to play regularly in India, and will perform in Brazil next summer. His music is eclectic in its influences, a result of his training in Hindustani classical music, western classical guitar and jazz, and from having a musician father who made sure he listened to all kinds of music. There’s also the internet. Shaw says, “One of the best teachers I have had is YouTube.”

In a sense, much of what went on at the AIFGC finals can be traced back to a YouTube phenomenon, the American guitar player Andy McKee. McKee is one of many guitarists who play the acoustic guitar in a style that combines the usual melodic and harmonic elements with flourishes of percussion – knocking the guitar’s soundbox, slapping strings, tapping frets. Ten years ago, on November 25, 2006, one of McKee’s videos – Drifting – went up on YouTube and quickly became a sensation. It has over 55 million views now, surely many of them logged by young guitarists trying to learn the piece.

The guitarist Konarak Reddy, moving force behind the AIFGC says, “YouTube is afire with young people enthused with these techniques.” While the term ‘fingerstyle’ simply refers to playing the guitar without a pick, it has increasingly come to be thought of as playing somewhat like McKee, and with a few exceptions, this style was on prominent display during the AIFGC finals. And perhaps it says something about the relationship between technology and this style of guitar playing that McKee’s only performance in India to date has been at IIT Kanpur.

The engineer, techno-entrepreneur and member of parliament Rajeev Chandasekhar happens to be a guitar enthusiast (and also happens to own guitars signed by, among others, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Eric Clapton and Buddy Guy). He recalls learning to play when he was young, trying to find a teacher, “sitting with chord sheets.” His son plays guitar now, and Chandrasekhar points out that technology has made a difference. He says, “Kids can experiment a lot with music. It’s much easier now to take riffs and loops and create a song out of it.”

The relatively staid world of classical guitar is not immune to the possibilities of the internet either. Every Thursday, Nandini Sudhir, 19, takes classes via Skype from the Dutch guitarist and composer Annette Kruisbrink. “When I started playing in 2007 there were very few classical guitarists in India,” she says. “Now the number has increased.” Nandini’s growth as a classical guitarist is a good example of how institutions and platforms can nuture talent. Most of her music training came at the Bangalore School of Music, which she says regularly invited good guitarists to perform and teach.

Nandini Sudhir. Photos: India Today

In 2010, Kolkata-based Avik Saha started the first classical guitar festival in India (which last year expanded to Delhi, Bengaluru and Chennai). Nandini says, “The festival created a revolution in classical guitar in India.” Among other things, it allowed her to meet one of her early inspirations, the Polish guitarist Marcin Dylla, whose music she had listened to on YouTube. She won a prize in Kolkata in 2012, then went to Thailand for a competition, where one of the judges invited her to Germany for the Nordhorn guitar festival (where she’s been winning prizes for a few years now). That’s where she met Kruisbrink. Nandini studies with her in Europe in summer, and continues classes over Skype the rest of the year.

For Joey Sharma, who won this years AIFGC, guitar instruction was closer at hand growing up in Dimapur. “In Nagaland, you’ll find a guitar player in every house,” he says. “There’s always someone to play with.” He’s been through a heavier phase with rock bands, and now lives in Bengaluru where he plays mostly fingerstyle jazz. He got up on stage at this year’s AIFGC finals and acknowledged Don Ross, one of the judges, a big name in the fingerstyle world and someone Sharma counts as an influence. “He makes everyone nervous,” he said into a mic, before assuredly playing his jazz arrangement of a hymn he grew up listening to.

Despite the increasing number of platforms for guitar players, earning a living from it is still an uphill task. Sharma works as a guitar teacher. Mhaseve Tetseo, who won the Furtados Dimapur all-India acoustic guitar competition in 2012, played with bands in Delhi and returned to Kohima, where he works as a music producer. He’s also part of a new band named The Gearmen Dudes, with four guitarists and zero singers. “It’s a celebration of the guitar,” he explains.

“In India,the biggest problem is sustainability”

Rhythm Shaw, who moved to Mumbai earlier this year, plays for Hindi films and is part of A.R. Rahman’s touring band. He is also working on his next album. Joy Sengupta from Chennai, one of the finalists at the AIFGC, recently resigned his job at Infosys to take up music full-time. He’s playing studio sessions, as well as working on his own music.

“In India, the biggest problem is sustainability,” says Floyd Fernandes, a Mumbai-based guitarist who’s been playing for forty of his forty-seven years, and in a variety of styles. He’s widely known among Indian guitar players for the tutorial videos he shares online, for the guitar clinics he’s conducted across the country, and in no small measure for his straight-talking manner. Having worked with hundreds of young guitar players, Fenandes has no doubt there’s plenty of talent and passion, but he says jazz or blues or classical guitar simply doesn’t have a large enough audience to provide a livelihood: “We have to appreciate the country we’re in. Here western music is esoteric.” And he’s concerned that guitar players who try to cross-subsidise their music by doing what sells – it’s not uncommon for capable musicians to be asked to mime on stage to pre-recorded tracks – run the risk of “not furthering [their] musical exploration.”

Must the music played by a virtuoso Indian guitarist always be esoteric? Certainly there have bee exceptions – for instance, Susmit Sen’s fluid sarod-like guitar in the music of the massively popular Indian Ocean. Thinking to the future, Konarak Reddy makes a fascinating observation about listening to entries for the AIFGC. “Twenty years ago,” he says, “it was people influenced by the west who picked up the guitar. They would come to it through the Beatles, rock music and all that.” Now, he says he is seeing young guitarists influenced by Hindi, Tamil, Kannada film songs, by A.R. Rahman. “They come to the guitar without a past and go on the net. Then, when they see Andy McKee, they try to incorporate these techniques in what they know. I can see there’s an idea – some sitar, veena, tapping, a Hindi film melody. They’re not ready to go on stage yet, but I can see it evolving.” Reddy thinks this might have something to do with “the confidence boost and aggressiveness we’re seeing about our country.” He says, “They are freer now. When I started playing guitar forty years ago, you couldn’t say you composed a piece yourself. I would always say it was composed by a foreigner so it would get a better reaction. Things are different now.”

Machine Heads

The artisanal guitar makers

Comparing a handmade guitar to a factory-made one is analogous to comparing a painting with a toaster: the one really needs to be judged by different standards than the other. - Ervin Somogyi, Luthier

Acrosss music shops in India, the familiar Givson and Hobner guitars on which a generation began their noodling are giving way to slick Chinese-made guitars. At the other end of the spectrum, a handful of luthiers – craftsmen who work with stringed instruments – are producing custom-built guitars for serious musicians.

Karan Singh of Bigfoot Guitars, Gurgaon, says, “I design one-off custom pieces from scratch.” Musicians come to him looking for something specific – a tone, a design. He will work with the guitarist, shaping the instrument to their comfort. He says, “Tolerances are like half mm for people who spend their entire lives on the guitar.”

When the big guitar manufacturers couldn’t give Susmit Sen what he wanted, he turned to David Murray of the Dehradun Guitar Company. Sen says, “He studied my posture, my style. Spoke to me for hours about what I was trying to do.” Sen is unstinting in his praise: “The guitars I have are two of the finest instruments in the world.”

Handmade guitars don’t come cheap. Nor do they come quickly. Singh’s guitars, for instance, cost upwards of 2500 USD, and he makes around fifteen instruments in a year. The Dehradun Guitar Company specifies a wait time of twelve months. And since handcrafting guitars in India is such a niche activity, Singh says, “Everything you can think of is a challenge.” He points out that there are no places to learn the kind of wood-working it takes to make guitars, that tools and machines are hard to find. Sourcing wood is a problem too, with the wood available mostly meant for furniture. Singh likes to experiment with Indian woods, but, he says, “If you ask for mango wood in a timber shop they’ll throw you out.”

Arulnathan Dominic Xavier of Bengaluru (whom Singh calls “the grand-daddy of Indian luthiers”) uses Indian rosewood and mahogany and imports spruce and cedar for his guitars. He says, “India is the main source of rosewood for guitar making. But like idiots, we are selling only the wood, not guitars.” Xavier has been making guitars since he was a schoolboy, but he started Arul Guitars in 2005, named for his teenaged son who had died the previous year. Xavier has made some unusual guitars – one with a sarod-like fretboard, another a two-sided guitar with attached harp and sympathetic strings (54 strings in all). But he mostly makes classical guitars that are known for their warm sound. “The music and the players are both traditional, so there’s not much chance to experiment,” he says.

Guitar maker Arulnathan Dominic Xavier at his workshop in Bangalore, Karnataka, India.

Luthier Karan SIngh of Bigfoot Guitars at his workshop in Gurgaon – Photos:  Vikram Sharma

Not bound by those constraints, Singh says, ”There’s nothing that’s unusable as far as I am concerned.” He’s made guitars with wood from mango, tamarind, jackfruit, and monkeypod among others. Since there’s little precedent, he’s had to work out how to treat the woods to use them best. He’s presently working on a case study on indigenous woods for American Lutherie magazine. That might just lead to Indian woods entering the mix and produce some distinctive sounding guitars.

History of Guitars in India

As far as the everything-originated-in-India camp goes, there’s talk of a tortoise-shaped veena from the Samaveda, and some hopeful etymological speculation around ‘geet-taar’. But it’s more reliably understood that the instrument we know as the guitar arrived with the Portuguese in the early sixteenth century.

The ethnomusicologist Martin Clayton in a paper on guitar culture in India notes that the area around Goa was an early hotspot for guitar playing, with the instrument moving to other parts of the country as musicians travelled on work. Goans, Anglo-Indians and church music seem to have kept the guitar going until the twentieth century.When the Hawaiian guitar craze took over, this time in Calcutta. In the 1940s a Samoan guitar player named Tau Moe spent the years of the war performing in the city and teaching the instrument to Indians. One of his students, Garney Nyss, also a photographer, hockey player and cricketer, would go on to record prolifically with his band The Aloha Boys. He also taught the Hawaiian guitar, which began to be used for Rabindrasangeet, and eventually made its way into film music. The responsiveness of the raised strings played with a slide, and the guitar box’s resonance were ideal for Hindustani classical music – and gave us Brij Bhushan Kabra and the Grammy-winning Vishwa Mohan Bhatt.

As international bands from the psychedelic 1960s discovered India, the sitar and themselves, young Indians were discovering rock guitar and starting college bands around it. The guitar featured prominently in film music of course, but also played a part as a visual prop. Just in Hindi films, it’s been slung over a shoulder by Joy Mukherjee, caressed by Zeenat Aman, even rigged to give Mithun an electric shock.

And it turns out that the guitar, at least the Hawaiian guitar, might have a old Indian connection after all. One story from Hawaii about how the technique originated has it brought there in the late 19th century by an India-born man named Gabriel Davion. And it seems likely the slide technique had been in use in India with other stringed instruments for quite a while.

 Srinath Perur is the author of ‘If it’s Monday it must be Madurai’ and the translator of the English edition of Ghachar Ghochar

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