Carnatic music trained, Chandana Bala Kalyan took YouTube by storm with her Carnatic Jazz version of the classic song ‘Take 5’.
But there is more to Chandana than just singing Carnatic Jazz. Initially she received Carnatic music training under the guidance of her father. Her father was a Carnatic classical violinist while her grandfather taught at his own music school. It was natural for her to be drawn towards music. As a 4 year old she would sing along with the senior
students at her father’s music classes. Realising Chandana’s intrinsic talent for music, her father took her under his tutelage.
“When I look back, I feel blessed to have grown up in that environment. I absorbed so many experiences without having to look out for them,” reflects Chandana.
When she started her musical training, Chandana was not encouraged to listen to other genres of music. Her Gurus were all about the music regulations for the students. Though her friends would listen to the latest pop music, Chandana stuck to Carnatic music.
“The purists considered a musician as diluted if they knew film music,” said Chandana with her trademark smile.
It was in school that she would come across the classic ghazal album, ‘Haazir’ by Hariharan and Ustad Zakir Hussain. It was the first time she heard a genre other than Carnatic music and she was mesmerised. Chandana would listen to the album on a loop, wondering how the maestro sang it.
“I never knew how to sing in Urdu or Hindi. I would pick up small compositions from Kannada literature and try to sing it like a Ghazal. That’s how my entry into genres other than Carnatic began,” said Chandana.
Start of the fusion music journey
It was when she moved to Mumbai that her spectrum of music opened up. Her sojourn of collaborating with artists from various genres began with renowned percussionist Taufiq Quereshi. Taufiq would introduce her to a whole new
world of music and musicians.
“I would think how differently I can implement the same raga. How do I add a different flavour and colour to the composition. Then I started singing the Carnatic ‘alaaps’ in a Hindustani style. That is how my music exploration kind of began,” said Chandana.
The exploration was limited to her personal content and not for public viewing. It is only 2 or 3 years back that Chandana started uploading small videos on the internet. The videos would bring her instant recognition. Her unique renditions took even the senior musicians by awe. Chandana started interacting with other musicians,
exchanging ideas and picking up the nuances of fusion music. Her friend, Shankar a multi-instrumentalist/percussionist, would introduce her to Sanjay Divecha. Chandana was drafted by Sanjay in his band.
Chandana contributes to the band with her vocals but also by helping out in the compositions.
“A lot of informal learning has happened through Sanjay Sir though he has not sat down and taught me,” quips Chandana.
Chandana also sang for maestro Ranjit Barot’s album ‘Supernova’. She is also a part of the Rajiv Raja Combine. The band is more on the jazz canvas so the chord progressions are of a different kind and the melodies are simple. Chandana uses her voice as an instrument as there are no lyrics.
“I do not consider myself a jazz musician as I am not adequately trained. I am fascinated to adapt my Carnatic learning to it,” asserted Chandana.
Carnatic music and Jazz
Carnatic music is very extensive but also very adoptive and adaptive. For Chandana, listening to a jazz standard is more about improvising on it to make it feel closer to home.
“For me it is about what ragas can be evolved with the combination of harmonies playing underneath or rhythmically how I can work around it,” Chandana points out.
This unique blend can be experienced in her renditions of ‘Take 5’ and ‘Unsquare Dance’.
“Unsquare Dance is a combination of 7 beats which is like ‘Misra Chapu’ which is an important ‘Tala’ in Carnatic but 7 count combination is rare in jazz. For me how to get these two together was the challenge. That is how I started working on tala patterns,” recounts Chandana, adding,
“Unsquare dance is ‘Viloma Chapu Tala’ which is the opposite of ‘Misra Chapu Tala’. In ‘Misra Chapu’ the split is 3:4 but in ‘Viloma Chapu’ it is 4:3. So it inspired me.”
At the beginning she was never confident about achieving it. When she first saw other vocalist perform, she would get frustrated trying to figure out how they did it. But when she started working on it, it came naturally to her. The idea is to balance the beats between two hands but treat both as one.
Chandana is now focusing on exploring folk and light traditions by using devotional literature. She labels her concerts featuring this journey of hers as ‘Marma’. For this she incorporates the Abhangs, Bhajans, Qawalis, Sufi music and also Folk traditions like Baul, Rajasthani music.
“The purpose of different genres of music is to find peace within. I am exploring devotional literature from diff genres in a contemporary fashion for the same.”