MIDNIGHT MUSINGS WITH RAMAN IYER

Meet Raman Iyer,musician and storyteller who shares his musical journey through the tunes of his mandolinand talks about his new venture.

1)What sparked your interest in music? Tell us about the people who inspired you?

Music was around in the family, but my training and exploration began in my boarding school – Sri Ramakrishna Vidyashala, Mysore. I learnt the western mandolin from Mr. Diwan Singh Dhami and then explored the Indian styles on my own while playing along  Bhajans which were part of the  daily routine  in the school.

The first person who inspired me to get on to the stage and continue with my self taught Indian interpretation, was Swami Sattvasthananda, the monk who was conducting bhajans in school. I was 13 and was just fiddling around with the melody of a bhajan. which he overheard   while passing by, and immediately told me to play live, every day during the bhajans. I had no clue of the songs, the raagas, idea of time signatures etc, but he just set me free. “Those listening are your friends, be free, play by ear, improvise. If you goof up, learn.”

This also led him to place me among the singing group, accompanied by a harmonium and tabla during school functions. Even Before dignified guests such as Dr. APJ Abdul Kalam! He not only gave me the push to get on stage, but also forced me to write my own solo parts. “During the space between mukhda and  the antara, don’t just play the melody of the song, come up with something!”

So I would constantly bother my western music teacher,DiwanSInghDhami and the teacher Mr. Nagendra who taught vocals for the students learning singing, and they really helped me with references, patterns and ideas. Mr. Diwan Singh also took me into the school “Orchestra” where we would play western classics. So it was a beautiful balance. These were direct inspirations and forces who pushed me.

I look up to several people, but the ones right on the top are Maestro Illayaraja, Yanni, Mandolin U Srinivas, John Mclaughlin, Dave Brubeck, Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton, and PravinGodkhindi.

They are my go to place for lessons in humility. Every time I feel I’ve created something “great”, or when the applause from the audience resonates for a bit too long after I’ve gotten off the stage, I listen to them, and come back with the realization that I am just a few lifetimes away from getting anywhere close to them.

2)What were the hardships that you faced as a mandolin player because it is mostly considered a

classical instrument?

None actually. But that’s because it was never my intention to be known as a “mandolin” player.  I enjoy connecting with people, telling stories, weaving narratives and using the mandolin to add a musical flavour. I never pitched or positioned myself as a “classical mandolin player” or a hired gun for sessions. I tailor my music around the stories I want to tell.

I am a mediocre player in my opinion. I am terrible at playing other people’s music. I am quite comfortable in customizing my music towards the stories I want to tell.

3) What was the intention behind Midnight Musings? Tell us how you developed the idea and went through with it?

Midnight Musings & The Mandolin evolved during the pandemic. With several bursts of Instagram lives and webinars, I felt that perhaps I can do something to not miss the stage so much.

But I also knew that  people would soon undergo digital fatigue, so I decided to do an Instagram live at night,  while cutting out the video. In a highly visual medium like Instagram, I wanted to create a no video ambience, like an old world radio, that would make people stop looking at the screen, keep the phone aside, and just listen.

I got this Idea from Sanya Acharya, who runs a daily Instagram radio – Sanyaka Radio.

And being a hunter of stories, the lockdown allows me to dig deep into the corners of my mind, reach for those scribbled notes, books, references, and reflect upon them in tranquility.

I completed 100 episodes on 16th July. I have been doing this everyday since 7th April, not missing a single day and creating fresh pieces of music for every story.

It’s been evolving beautifully. Sometimes I get friends to come over and play music or tell stories, sometimes I use backing tracks created by friends to compose my melodies. I collaborate with artists and illustrators for the promotions, and it’s been keeping me quite busy and content.

4) You have met and interacted with many international artists, what would you say are some of the different struggles that Indian artists have to face as compared to them?

The primary struggle would surely be convincing families! Indians in general have a lot more answerability to not just parents but even to a distant chacha who will call you and tell you about the vacancy in his bank. While struggle is for everyone, at least in the west, I’ve seen many musicians who easily, without having to fight or make a supreme effort to convince family – move out, drive an Uber, work in KFCs, busk at the subways and play club gigs. They earn decently, there is no indignity in having a hat before you and allow commuters to listen and drop money into it. They gather friends, cut an album or two, even sell them as they play on the streets, and continue driving Ubers and working in restaurants.  And they don’t look at it as a “struggling musician phase”, which they should overcome and win the Grammy and make that distant chacha eat his words.

In India music is seen as  just a means  to “Success”, which is defined by your presence and sustenance in film music. There have been several instances, when I board a cab, or even while walking through security checks in airports with instruments. “Are you a musician? Which films have you sung for?”

My musician friends in London, New York and Sweden don’t have the pressure of being a “Successful” musician. It helps them live a decent life, take care of their families. It’s just another profession. Not all Architects are Charles Correas, not all scientists win the Nobel. This pressure to become “Something”, and not just make it a profession that helps one live decently, in my opinion, is more among Indian artists.

5) Apart from playing the mandolin, what else do you like to do in your free time?

I am quite a boring nerd. You will find me buried behind books at home or in libraries and museums. People inside books and animals outside books are my world. I spend time with the strays in my area. I have adopted a couple of them, and take care of the others by coordinating with organizations and people in my area for timely vaccinations, health care and  food.

6) What were some of the biggest obstacles that you have had to overcome in this journey?

None at all. They would have been obstacles had I been heading somewhere. But I just want to be. Telling stories, playing music. Everything else- love of the people, money, rejections, lack of social media numbers…these are side effects. I will continue doing what I am doing, regardless of the presence or absence of such factors. I always have stories to tell, and music to play.

RAMAN IYER | MUSICIAN-STORYTELLER |

 INSTAGRAM : @ramaniyer

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