Chitra Venu - A New Invention by Udhay Shankar
ABOUT UDAY SHANKAR
Uday Shankar, born in 1962, grew up in Chennai and was first introduced to Carnatic music as a young boy by his father, who taught him a few ragas and encouraged him to try them out on a flute. His uncle took him to the concerts of masters like Semmangudi, T N Seshagopalan, M D Ramanathan, K V Narayanaswamy, the Violin Trio with Palghat Mani Iyer and others at Shastri Hall, Tyagaraja Vidwat Samajam and RR Sabha.
Around age nine started a lasting obsession with the world of sound — experimenting with a bamboo flute and later on, with veenas, tamburas, and any other instruments he could lay his hands on. He developed an interest in the physics of sound, in swarasthanas, and the dynamics of playing music on different kinds of instruments, albeit with no formal training on any of them.
High school and college years saw exposure to western sound-scapes — the beautiful harmonies of the classical idiom and the compelling classic rock sounds of Pink Floyd and Jethro Tull.
During post-college years he received a few formal lessons on the Carnatic flute from Maestro T S Sankaran, a disciple of Mali. He also interacted with Chitravina Narasimhan who gave him lessons on Raga and Tala basics.
Profoundly influenced by the continuous, resonant, singing tone of the chitravina and its prime exponent Ravikiran, he learned a few songs on the instrument during the latter’s visits to Atlanta during 2001 and 2002. Consequently emerged a desire to play a flute with the continuity and playing dynamics of the chitravina, ideally suited to Indian music.
During 2008-09 Uday started fabricating initial prototypes of the newly-christened Chitravenu, and discovering the technical challenges of devising such an instrument. Challenges of the flatness of the main pipe and sliding member, their smoothness, stickiness and friction, mouthpiece design, the physics of tone, mitre-joints and so on needed constant research, experimentation, and his own inventiveness in the absence of “experts” on this untraveled path.
A working prototype finally emerged around 2010-11, and some excellent suggestions and feedback from Sri Ravikiran on the playing dynamics and range of the instrument led to further design improvements.
An iterative process of technical improvement and practice playing a slide instrument with limited visual and no tactile feedback has resulted in the present version. The last few years of Chitravenu development have thus been a full time avocation, working at the intersection of music, physics, engineering and the machine-shop floor.
A Biomedical Design Engineer by profession, Uday divides his time between Pittsburgh, PA and Chennai where he lives with his wife and their nine-year old daughter, who also enjoys “playing” with a variety of instruments.
The new instrument combines a flute-like soundscape with the ability to manipulate pitch continuously like the trombone and chitravina (gotuvadyam) and is probably the first serious alternative (i,e., apart from toys and gimmicks) wind instrument since the saxophone which was introduced about 150 years ago.
CHITRAVENU – THE INVENTION
Chitravenu is a melodic wind musical instrument capable of producing a continuum of pitches in a fashion that is highly suited to playing Indian classical music both of the Carnatic (South Indian) and Hindustani (North Indian) variety.
Indian classical music is based on a set of discrete notes similar to western music, but a major difference is that part of the Indian aesthetic that mandates the ability to glide smoothly between notes separated by small or large intervals, as well as the ability to create smooth modulations around any individual note. Therefore, ideally, Indian classical music calls for a complete continuity of pitch, as well as the ability to control pitch movement with great rapidity and precision.
Among melodic wind instruments (as opposed to string instruments), only the trombone and the slide whistle offer continuity of pitch. The latter is of limited range and of non-musical tonal quality, and, hence, can be classified as a toy.
The trombone is not very well suited for Indian music because it does not allow for the desired fine dynamic control, as well as the fact that it offers less than a single octave range without overblowing. Overblowing cuts the continuity at the point of transition from normal to overblowing. Thus, the present invention fills a clear void in the type of instruments currently available for playing Indian classical music.
FIRST PUBLIC DEMONSTRATION AT THE CLEVELAND TYGARAJA FESTIVAL
Uday Shankar presented the entirely new musical instrument that he has been developing in his spare time over the last five years, at the Cleveland Tygaraja Festival.
A demo of the chitravenu at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Qxhn1YIRt3c