ARISI : Rice boasts rich sounds of Asia

V.K. SANTOSH KUMAR

Apsaras Arts Dance Company's newest production ARISI : Rice, which will be staged on Nov 25 and 26 at the Esplanade Theatre as part of this year's Kalaa Utsavam, is an extravaganza of melodic abundance, rhythmic opulence and a confluence of immersive soundscapes showcasing the richness of the various cultures of Asia.

Most part of the musical's score was composed by renowned Indian classical singer and composer Rajkumar Bharathi, great-grandson of the renaissance poet Subramanya Bharathi.

"Producing music and sound for this production has been one of my best experiences in my career spanning 20 years," said Chennai-based music producer and recording and scoring engineer Sai Shravanam.

The music in ARISI : Rice consists of expressions and sounds from different parts of Asia - such as India, Bali, China and Indonesia - skilfully intertwined with contributions from some of the best artists from the region.

The Indian sounds were created by flute virtuoso Navin Chandar, sarod player Pratik Shrivastava and percussionist S. Ganapathi.

The Balinese kecak (musical performance using only human voice) and gamelan and Indonesian flutes and percussion instruments provide a native sound to many parts of the score.

The Singapore Chinese Orchestra added uniqueness, with exceptional solos played on the erhu, yangqin, guzheng and dizi.

To top it all, Tamil playback singer Sathyaprakash Dharmar and folk singer Meenakshi Ilayaraja have sung some of the best parts of the score.

Mahesh Vinayakaram, son of the ghatam legend Vikku Vinayakram, also lent voice and added Indian jathi (beat count of the rhythm cycle) to the Balinese percussion.

"Usually, in collaborative music, people bring music from different parts of the world and make a jukebox of their respective music," said Sai.

"For ARISI : Rice, we wanted to treat the music as synonymous to the grain (arisi) itself, which is the common thread to Asian people.

"When Apsaras artistic director Aravinth Kumarasamy narrated the concept, it seemed very abstract at first. Then Dr Bharathi started to create the music score with a storyboard that got developed while we discussed in the studio."

Rajkumar composed the score with utmost attention to detail of the story, the intention and the emotion behind every scene.

"It is very difficult to bring in compositions that would suit all instruments of Asia," said Sai.

"Each instrument is developed for its native style and there are limitations in the instruments. We had to learn the available notes and pick suitable scales so that we could incorporate all the instruments."

Sai went to Bali to better understand its music and instruments.

"It was mind-boggling to experience the energy and surreal sounds from the kecak in the temple," he said.

"Bringing these musicians into the studio would not be do it justice, so I recorded the sounds of Bali in the temple environment.

"It was truly magical to capture the sounds alongside the chirping birds and rustling trees. The musicians were incredible and could understand even the complex Indian rhythm patterns."

After three days of recording in Bali, which consisted of compositions by Pa Dibya and scores from India, Sai returned to India with hundreds of tracks of Balinese music.

"It took over a month to map the tempo as the music was not recorded to a metronome, which is the norm in productions," he said.

"ARISI : Rice needed more authenticity and movement of tempos. But it's impossible to add other music if we do not have a reference tempo. It took a long time to study their rhythm structure and create a tempo map."

After this tedious process came editing, which Sai said was "the most difficult part".

"All the music was incredible and I had no heart to delete any portion," he said. "The best I could do was to carefully chose and layer alongside the Indian score. We also had to incorporate the kecak with the South Indian jathi. It was an intoxicating and sensational experience when it all came together. I am still not out of it."

Sai and Rajkumar also visited Singapore to interact with the SCO group, as it was the first time they were listening to the Chinese instruments.

"We studied the range of the instruments, the virtuoso of the instrumentalists," said Sai.

"It was a whole new world for us. Rajkumar wrote scores that would be suitable for each soloist."

Indian music was the last to be recorded as it acted as a filler to add richness and seamless links.

"All the soloists were incredible and brought a whole new realm of sound to ARISI : Rice. It has to be experienced, it cannot be explained in words," said Sai.

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