Please tell us about yourself

It’s a compact studio at a DD Colony apartment with a blue-coloured wall bound by several layers blocking noise from the exteriors. As you enter Kodad-born composer Prashanth R Vihari’s world, he excitedly shows his seaboard instrument that looks like a keyboard and sounds like a flute, something that he first spotted at his guru A R Rahman’s studio during his brief course at KM Music Conservatory, Chennai.

Engineering has claimed many a talent but there is this person who reclaimed his life from engineering — Prashanth Vihari, the music director of Chi La Sow. Prashanth’s story is heart-warming in that it shows wannabe composers and film enthusiasts that success stories are neither made overnight, nor take massive strokes of luck – they come with a dedicated stream of work and patience in waiting for the opportune moment. That and a soft corner from his teachers at KITS, he adds, ensured he didn’t fail even as he spent most of his time with the college band that he helped start.

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How did you end up in such an offbeat, unconventional and cool career?

More excited than nervous about his debut film Vellipomakey , he’s floored by social media messages for the melodies in his quite ‘uncinematic’ album. Music has always been a part and parcel of the engineer-turned-musician’s life, he learnt carnatic music intermittently, sang bhajans for the Satya Sai Trust choir, having worked with a Hindustani and a Sufi ensemble at Chennai a few years ago. The multiplicity of the stints eventually helped refine his musical tastes. His tutelage under Usha Rani, musician Thirupatayya and late composer Chakri also helped his cause. “Yet, I couldn’t escape an MPC course in my 12th, an engineering degree was a must before I pursued my music career. I was like any other confused kid, not knowing where to go.” Shifting between Kodad, Warangal and Hyderabad during his childhood, the city houses most of his family members, he has sweet memories growing up here.

Musically, his heart lies in the independent arena, he enjoys the freedom and the online reception but his livelihood is made with his work on jingles and commercials. “Engineering gave me time to venture beyond academics. Our college encouraged us to pursue our other interests, there was a band we formed back then, we were a hit in the college.” What he knew was to make a career out of music, films were only one among the options for him to find work. Singing comes to him naturally, his decision to be a composer came about from his knowledge of realising what works and what doesn’t for a song. “My interest to compose began when mobile phones were relatively new and I started fiddling with my dad’s phone. An ideal bike ride is when I get most ideas. I just sing the note and record in my phone, briefing on the instrumentation I may need,” he says.

A graduate from KITS, Warangal, Prashanth took his calling seriously after engineering, in 2012, when he left for Chennai, a city for which his fondness is scarcely hidden. Though he joined the piano-preparatory course at AR Rahman’s KM Music Conservatory as a step towards a bigger goal, it was LV Prasad Film Academy which honed the artist in him, he asserts. Chance had a lot to do with it. Having bumped into a friend, Vishwak, Prashanth got an chance to compose for 20-minute thesis features of stunning quality. That was his greatest learning experience, he reveals, that he was getting paid for it was the icing on the cake. That was also probably his transformation from someone predominantly into singing to one who could score music.

Tell us about your first break

Yakub Ali, the director of Vellipomakey had spotted him through a video where Prashanth had given his own spin to Bharatiyar’s poem Suttum Vizhi Chudar Thaan Kannamma online. He was by then shifting his time between LV Prasad Film Academy’s and independent music stints. “He had messaged me online and we met, our sensibilities matched instantly. Back then, Vellipomakey was just planned as a one-hour independent film. He had a clear music taste, gave me a rough edit of the film and showed me the situations for which he wanted to blend the song. Music was an integral element in its storytelling, that gave me a push to do it,” he reveals. He did gratis for the project, but it’s the overwhelming appreciation for a seemingly-low budget film that took him by surprise. “Melodies are my forte, the situations in the film are so subtle that the genre lent itself well to the album.” His next projects are with director Ravi Babu, others include Raj Kandukuri’s Mental Madhilo and an untitled Tamil film.

What next?

Prashanth has gone from strength to strength since Yakub Ali gave him his first break in Vellipomakey. His obvious fondness for ‘O Muga Manasa’ spills out as he compliments the singer, Abhijit Rao, whose distinct voice lent shape to the song. ‘I like to see composing as a collaborative effort. Therefore, I like singers who can improvise. I don’t prefer being technically rigid, handing them a set of notes to pull off,’ shares Prashanth.

“I am especially thankful to wonderful guys like Adivi Sesh and Nani who shared my Vellipomakey track on social media. That was a significant step. Raj Kandukuri discovered me thence and gave me a chance with the Vivek Athreya-directed Mental Madhilo, whose soundtrack was widely appreciated,” Prashanth recounts. Rahul Ravindran giving him an unexpected ring purely based on the ‘sound’ of his BGM from Vellipomakey, in August 2017, and then backing him, was a pleasant surprise.

The dots continue to connect as one of the lyricists of Chi La Sow, and his good friend, Kittu, introduced him to Sankalp Reddy, who roped him in for a space thriller. The young music director heaps praise on contemporaries like Gopi Sundar (Geetha Govindam) and Vivek Sagar (Sammohanam).

What kind of music do you compose?

Prashanth’s sound is rustic and has a gentle twang to it, a characteristic he probably borrows from his affinity to Sathya Sai bhajans that he used to sing at Shivam in Hyderabad. He still composes jingles once in a while for Radio Sai. “Bhajans have the kind of structure I love in music, the build-up, the crescendo, and the surge of emotions. They inspire,” he comments on their influence, talking about how he is not religious but definitely spiritual. He also feels word of mouth has brought him to where he is.

‘I am experimenting with ambient music, with a touch of ‘dreamy’ rather than ‘dominant’ for my next project, with hints of ‘dubstep’ and ‘electronic’ without overdoing it,’ Prashant adds. An admirer of Indian Carnatic music, he also wants to collaborate with Hindustani artists at some point of time. His dream project though is to go to every nook and corner of Andhra and Telangana and record live music, with primitive instruments played by locals and natives, far away from mainstream awareness.

Prashanth also cites a wide variety of influences from Linkin Park and Coldplay to AR Rahman, Ilayaraja, Santosh Narayanan and MS Vishwanathan. He loves Stuccato, Masala Coffee and Indian Raga amongst those projects which are redefining India’s independent music scene and is quite fond of artists he has collaborated with like Sharath J, his sound engineer, Arun Chiluveru, his guitarist and Raghav Simhan, a violinist he works with often, along with band members, Bala and Ganesh.

A big fan of Hariharan, Prashanth loves Sid Sriram and Chinmayee among contemporary playback singers and Santhosh Narayanan’s complex range of sounds blending folk and rock.

What are your future plans?

Prashanth hopes Telugu cinema gives the neo-noir generation that breadth to breathe and experiment. Things are changing fast here; people are evolving from ‘cliched’ to ‘experimental’, just as they did in Chennai years ago, giving a market for something that is pure. He hopes for a generation of ethical ‘art critics’ who can go beyond just ‘rating’ to introduce audiences to the world of ‘art appreciation’. ‘The artist’s perspective, whether it is music or movie, matters and strong opinions will only discourage newbies like me from spreading wings,’ he signs off.