South Indian classical (Carnatic) music and rock 'n' roll make the unlikeliest bedfellows. But on composer Prasanna's electric guitar the two dwell in harmony.

The 38-year-old Indian composer's works include 11 Carnatic albums, Electric Ganesha Land, a Carnatic-rock fusion album, and Be the Change, a much-acclaimed work of jazz fusion.

Prasanna has also composed music for films such as the Oscar-winning documentary Smile Pinki.

A short documentary directed by Megan Mylan, Smile Pinki tells the story of Pinki, a girl born with cleft lip who benefited from corrective surgery by Smile Train, an international charity.

The film highlighted the cause of children with cleft lip.
Prasanna, an engineering graduate from the Indian Institute of Technology Madras, followed his heart when he quit his IT job and enrolled in a four-year course in music at Berklee College of Music, Boston.

He graduated with honours and won, among other prizes, The Berklee College of Music Guitar achievement award and the music composition award.

He has also performed at international festivals, including The North Sea Jazz festival, Guitares Du Monde and Les Orientales.

“Smile Pinki is the first documentary film I composed music for and I am happy it won an Academy Award,'' he told Weekend Review in a telephone interview from Boston, where he lives with his family.

Prasanna's first original score, however, was for the feature film Framed, by Chetan Shah in 2007.

In September 2007, when he received a call from Mylan, Prasanna had no inkling Smile Pinki would find such fame.

“Megan had heard about me from Brazilian guitarist Lucio Rebello, whom she had worked with. Lucio was familiar with my music. I knew about Megan's earlier film, Lost Boys of Sudan, though I hadn't seen it.

"I was pleased to work in a film that highlighted the cause of children born with cleft lip,'' Prasanna said.

“Initially Megan was not sure whether she wanted an original score or just to work on existing music. But after our conversation she was keen on an original score.

"It had to be a typical Indian classical score, the sounds of which would be familiar to a Western audience.''

For this score Prasanna used the sitar, the tabla, the flute and the acoustic guitar.

“Watching the film I understood the mood and roughly knew what was expected of me. Megan's cue sheet was clear. We went over some ideas over the phone.

"I had only three days from the time I watched the film [to deliver] the final mix of music. Megan couldn't make it to the recording session.

"This [showed] the level of [mutual] trust and respect although we barely knew each other. Megan and I have not got a chance to meet [till] now,'' Prasanna said.

“In the United States everyone takes art seriously. People working together have a healthy respect for each other and there is no needless interference.''

Prasanna was unable to attend the Oscar ceremony. “I was in India after the birth of my daughter [Katyayini]. I was delighted when the film won the award.

"I had no clue the film would come this far. We do our best and move on. It is a blessing when something like this happens.''

After Smile Pinki, Prasanna has received offers to compose music for some Tamil films and a feature film and a documentary in the US. “I have not finalised anything yet,'' Prasanna said.

Smile Pinki, is awaiting release in theatres. It is also likely that it will be telecast on HBO this June.

“Hopefully when the film reaches a larger audience there would be greater interest in my work as a film composer. At the moment I am enjoying my break with my baby.''

Prasanna grew up listening to the Indian music maestro Ilayaraja. He used to strum Ilayaraja hits on the guitar. Later on, after listening to his sister Deepa's Carnatic music lessons, Prasanna tried to play those notes, too, on the guitar.

“My music is eclectic. I love traditional Indian music as much as I do rock and jazz. To me it was a natural thing to do.

"That's how I feel about Carnatic music,'' he said.

While playing for rock bands in school and college, Prasanna was also being trained in Carnatic music. He has been performing on stage since he was 12.

At Berklee he majored in Western classical composition and studied jazz composition, guitar performance and film scoring.

“That set the tone for me and put me on a good footing to work in music.''

In Boston, their house is located next to the Berklee College of Music, with other institutions such as the New England Conservatory of Music and Boston Conservatory in the vicinity.

“We are surrounded by musicians. Looking out of the window, watching young men and women with their instruments inspires me. Their love for music and their hope that they will make it someday eggs me on.

"It makes me explore within and raises the bar for me. I need this artistic environment. It feeds my art. I know I cannot remain complacent.''

In Boston he conducts workshops, takes music classes privately and for residencies in colleges too. He has performed with legends such as Joe Lovano, Larry Coryell, Anthony Jackson and Omar Hakim among others.

During the kutcheri (concert) season in Chennai he accompanies veterans. He has played alongside musicians such as Dr L. Subramaniam and Umayalpuram Sivaraman and Trichy Sankaran.

“I need that environment, too, for my growth. Music is like food to me. It keeps me alive. Music connects me with people. I have interacted with thousands of people on my tours in the US and Europe. I don't think I could have met so many had I remained in an IT profession.''

As for films, Prasanna first played the guitar for A.R. Rahman's composition, July Madham Vandhal, from the Tamil film, Pudiya Mugam.

Besides playing music for other songs of Rahman, he arranged and conducted the string orchestra for the title song of the Hindi film Lagaan.

“Rahman is a good friend of mine. We met in 1991 before his Roja days while recording an album, which was shelved for some reason,'' Prasanna said.

“I enjoy working with him. I also enjoy working with Ilayaraja, who inspired me in my youth.''

His parents have been Prasanna's greatest support right from the time he decided to leave his job for a degree in music. His wife Shalini, his junior at his alma mater, sings for his compositions.

Talking of family, Prasanna said: “My parents' support was unconditional. … They gave me the freedom to follow my passion.''

“Shalini,'' he says, “is a great blessing. She holds a regular job in the insurance industry. Her sense of music is refined.

Her cultural upbringing enables her to give precise inputs with regard to my music and take my work further.

“She sings for my albums and at concerts, writes lyrics for some of my songs and does the paintings for my album jackets. I am blessed with such a family.''

On the anvil is his next album featuring several musicians. “I hope to record it this summer. Besides guitars and vocals by my wife, I may use the piano, trumpet, trombone, saxophone, bass and drums.''

Mythily Ramachandran is a writer based in Chennai, India.