Sai Shravanam has always been the person in the shadows whose work speaks — in bursts of music and silence. The musician, recording and scoring engineer and music producer was recently honoured withthe Tamil Nadu Government's Kalaimamani Award, and is said to be the first sound engineer to have received it.
Only after the awardees' list was announced did many outside of the music circuit get to know of the work Shravanam does at the bespoke Resound India studio, set inside Parameshwari Nagar in Chennai's Adyar. Shravanam has worked in Life Of Pi, and Matthew Brown's The Man Who Knew Infinity, about the life of mathematical genius Srinivasa Ramanujan.
Sound recordist Sai Shravanam
Shravanam is a self-taught artiste — as a child, he was charmed by the sight of Ustad Zakir Hussain playing the tabla and began learning it. He also picked up the engineering behind sound along the way, and set up his studio.
“I see myself as the catalyst between someone who creates music and the person who enjoys it. I am the person between the creator and the listener and my job is to find that place of balance between the two, and take decisions from a position of least judgement,” he says.
This means that Shravanam, whose name means ‘to listen', cannot get carried away by an artiste's legacy, but must work keeping only the end product in mind — ensuring the music reaches the listener the way it is meant to. “I am very frank, and that's something that artistes appreciate. They trust that I will ensure their art lingers for long. Artistes can fade, but the art they create lasts centuries and my job is to ensure quality during such longevity,” says Shravanam.
In an earlier interview to this paper, Shravanam had said: “Indian music, unlike Western orchestration, is all about horizontal harmony. It's a struggle to recreate that in recordings. But the end result is fantastic, with each layer and each instrument merging into another seamlessly to create a magical carpet of sounds.”
Sai Shravanam at his studio
Shravanam works with classical Indian musicians and dancers and composers of film music, occupying a unique space where he straddles the classical and the contemporary. He says sound recording is not just about technology, but more an aid for an artiste. “I basically record their musicianship and personality. It is my response to their artistry. And I have my moment when a listener goes ‘Aha' hearing a certain phrase or note.”
Music that speaks to all
Shravanam says he works knowing that 90% of listeners are not connoisseurs of music, but casual listeners. “So, technical and musical prowess does not matter to them. The music has to speak to them, and ensuring it speaks is what I do.”
Recently, while recording ‘Kandaa Vara Sollunga' by composer Santhosh Narayanan, a frequent collaborator, for director Mari Selvaraj's Dhanush-starrer Karnan, the team had initially decided to record in the studio. “But I felt the instruments, the Raja Melam, the percussion, needed to breathe in the open. Santhosh and I are on the same wavelength and he did not hesitate to go along with my plan. We decided to capture it in the village the artistes were from, and decided they could play in a field. But there was so much breeze, it got difficult. Technology is too small in front of nature. Eventually, we managed to record it in a temple praakaram (outer circle of the temple) with an incredible sound rhythm. The intent of the song came through, and that touched people,” says Shravanam of the song that has clocked more than 12 million hits on YouTube.
Shravanam has built Resound India bit by bit, adding things as he's progressed. “I always feel the need to step up. The quest is to keep updating oneself.” When the call regarding the kalaimamani award came, he thought it was a prank. “It came late at night and I never expected anything of this sort, because few people know about this niche field. The next morning, singers Ranjani and Gayatri were at the studio, speaking about a call they had received too. That's when I realised it was a real call. The award is truly special, because it is a State honour, and I received it with a lot of my friends. I dedicate the award to the artistes' fraternity that trusts me unconditionally.”
Shravanam has been playing the tabla for A.R. Rahman's recordings and concerts for over a decade now, and he was pleasantly surprised to receive a note from Rahman after the awards were declared. “I would not be in the field of sound but for him. He's a god-like figure.”
There's also a deep sense of equanimity in the way Shravanam perceives music. He is aware of the deep divide between classical and folk music. “But I am in a position where I realise the truth of both forms of music. My chair is a fantastic one. I am disconnected with the art and the artiste, the region or the form of music. What I record has to touch people. That is why I do what I do. This career chose me, and I have to do justice to it.”
The writer is a Mangalore-based freelance journalist.