Vishaal Sapuram: Master of mesmerising smooth tones of Chitravina

Kalaa Utsavam has become a confluence of great Indian artistes, musicians and dancers. One such maestro is Texas-born Vishaal Sapuram, a prodigious chitravina (fretless lute) artiste from the south Indian classical (Carnatic) music tradition who will perform in Singapore on November 16. He is a disciple of the renowned chitravina maestro Shri N Ravikiran.

It is a unique experience to watch Vishaal Sapuram as his nimble fingers strum and glide across the fretless strings of chitravina. Photo courtesy: Esplanade Theatres on the Bay
It is a unique experience to watch Vishaal Sapuram as his nimble fingers strum and glide across the fretless strings of chitravina. Photo courtesy: Esplanade Theatres on the Bay

For the uninitiated, chitravina, an ancient 20 or 21-string lute also referred to as the gotuvadyam, resembles a veena (slide lute) without frets and sounds like a combination of the veena and a violin. It resembles the Hawaiian slide guitar.

It is a unique experience to watch Vishaal Sapuram, as his nimble fingers strum and glide across the fretless 21 strings, evoking a lilting tune. He is a prodigy right from his childhood. He began training in vocal at the age of three under respected gurus in the USA and India.

From the age of six, he has been under the tutelage of Shri Ravikiran, under whose guidance Vishaal rapidly emerged as a performing artiste. At age nine, he gave his first vocal concert at the Music Academy Chennai, and within a few years began to perform on the rare chitravina, becoming one amongst a rare few of his generation to take up this instrument.

He is also credited with inventing a new raga (musical scale) with his guru Ravikiran called vishweshwarapriya.

Vishaal has won several accolades, including the Best Instrumentalist Award from the Music Academy Madras three times (2015, 2017, & 2018), the Gottuvadyam Narayana Iyengar Award from Sri Krishna Gana Sabha, a music scholarship from India Fine Arts (Austin, USA), ‘Isai Chemmal’ and the Suchindram S P Sivasubramaniam Centenary Award from Trinity Arts Festival, Chennai, and ‘Pannisai Ilam Paridi’ from the Dr Kannappan-Vasuki Trust.  He is also an A-Grade artiste for All India Radio.

Vishaal Sapuram is credited with inventing a new raga (musical scale) with his guru Ravikiran called vishweshwarapriya. Photo courtesy: navachitravina.com
Vishaal Sapuram is credited with inventing a new raga (musical scale) with his guru Ravikiran called vishweshwarapriya. Photo courtesy: navachitravina.com

Vishaal began teaching music at age 10 and has also given many lecture-demonstrations and workshops, including at the University of Texas (USA), University of Alabama (USA), the Temple of Fine Arts (Malaysia), and so on.

Connected to India caught up with Vishaal Sapuram to unravel the facets of this multi-talented musical wizard.

CtoI: Chitravina is a complicated musical instrument which only some artists have mastered. Why did you choose to learn the Chitravina as a child?

Vishaal Sapuram: For me, it was chance that first brought me to the chitravina. I had gone to Chitravina Ravikiran Sir to learn vocal initially, as he is also a renowned guru for vocal music. Watching him play was my first exposure to the instrument, and when he asked me if I'd like to try playing, I was interested. In time, I switched my focus from vocal to chitravina.

Vishaal Sapuram performing at Udupi Shri Krishna Temple in India. Photo courtesy: navachitravina.com
Vishaal Sapuram performing at Udupi Shri Krishna Temple in India. Photo courtesy: navachitravina.com

CtoI: You were a child prodigy as you started teaching at the young age of 10. How was the experience of giving music lessons to people older than you?

Vishaal Sapuram:  Actually, my first student was two years younger than me; I was 10 and he was eight! But I have also taught a few students much older than me. The respect they have given me and my art is humbling. My experience has been that when the student is sincere, age does not matter at all.

CtoI: You are credited with creating a new raga with your guru Ravikiran called vishweshwarapriya. Tell us something about this new raga.

Vishaal Sapuram : I was six or seven at the time, and I was really just playing around, trying out some new combinations of notes. When my parents coaxed it out of me in front of Ravikiran Sir, he was kind enough to give it a name after verifying that it was indeed new and created a composition in it.

Vishaal Sapuram being felicitated at the Music Academy Award. Photo courtesy: navachitravina.com
Vishaal Sapuram being felicitated at the Music Academy Award. Photo courtesy: navachitravina.com

CtoI: Tell us about the illustrious trajectory of your career in music.

Vishaal Sapuram: My journey began when I was an infant, when my parents saw that I used to intently listen to the classical and devotional recordings they played at home. By the age of three, they began to take me for music classes. At the age of six, I came under Chitravina Ravikiran Sir, and under his guidance, I performed my vocal arangetram at the age of nine. I had also taken up the chitravina, practising it on the side during my vocal training, and from age 13, I was giving chitravina concerts.

In college, I received dual BA degrees in Sanskrit and Economics, and also had an opportunity to study Tamil, as I was very keen on studying the lyrics of Carnatic compositions and the ideas and ideals they expressed. After that, I moved to India to pursue music full-time (I had grown up fully in the US), and with time began performing extensively and touring abroad to Europe, Malaysia, and so on. Apart from my chitravina solo concerts, I have had the opportunity to play as an accompanist for my guru and a few other stalwarts like Abhishek Raghuram and so on. I have also played several collaborative concerts (jugalbandi) with skilled musicians from both Carnatic and Hindustani backgrounds. I feel blessed to have been able to devote myself to this art and look forward to delving deeper and deeper into it and discovering where it takes me.

CtoI: What is the significance of performing in Esplanade’s festival Kalaa Utsavam – Indian Festival of Arts for you?

Vishaal Sapuram: I am very happy to be able to perform for Esplanade's Kalaa Utsavam. It is a beautiful venture, connecting so many different aspects of culture and celebrating them in such a grand way. I really look forward to the experience of being a part of the festival and sharing my music with everyone there.

Author
Ashraf Jamal
Ashraf Jamal – Senior Writer

Ashraf Jamal brings a rare depth to writing equipped with a degree in journalism, a postgraduate degree in political science, and a degree in law from the Allahabad University. His experience includes editing and publishing the Northern India Patrika and writing for Times of India for almost a decade covering just about any topic under the sun including NRIs and Indian diaspora.

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