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The Brothers Ranganathan: Bow, strings and hammer

Trio Ranganathan, the French musical ensemble, recently concluded their second India tour

Ajay (far left), Ravi and Théo Ranganathan. Photo: Pradeep Gaur/Mint
Ajay (far left), Ravi and Théo Ranganathan. Photo: Pradeep Gaur/Mint

Airports and aeroplanes can be a hassle for touring professional musicians. They like to keep their instruments near them, but while a violin or viola can be stowed overhead, the cello, at 4ft long, cannot. So Ravi Ranganathan, who plays the cello, does what all professional cellists do while travelling—buy an extra seat for it.

Ravi recounts with glee the time when security guards at an Indian airport asked him to play the cello, to prove it really was a musical instrument.

Ajay, Théo and Ravi are the three Ranganathan brothers who make up the ensemble Trio Ranganathan, which concluded its India tour last week. I met the brothers and their father on the eve of their final concert in Delhi. Ajay, 28, plays the violin while the 24-year-old twins, Théo and Ravi, are the pianist and cellist.

The trio format with a piano, violin and cello could make a strong claim to being Western classical music at its most tender. It falls within the category known as chamber music—music written for a handful of players in a drawing room or “chamber" setting, not involving the seething cohort required for a full-scale symphony or an opera. The string quartet comprising two violins, a viola and a cello typifies chamber music, while the piano trio is even more intimate.

Born to an Indian father and Polish mother in Poitiers, France, their early exposure to both Western and Eastern music traditions has enriched their sensibility. Their mother bequeathed her love for Western classical music, while their father’s penchant for Carnatic music manifested itself in nightly lullabies. “He would sing Carnatic songs to put us to sleep," recalls Théo. “And our mother introduced us to the piano at age 6, much before we played any other instrument." Their father, Mohan Ranganathan, who moved to France in the 1970s and is a university physics professor, traces his ancestry to the noted 19th century Tamil composers Kavi Kunjara Bharti and Koteeswara Iyer, whose songs are still being sung in south India. Music is the stuff of lore in the family.

We wouldn’t like any ceremony around the concert which excludes people, as it sometimes happens in the West.- Theo Ranganathan

The idea of forming a trio came to the brothers about 10 years ago, when they were studying at a conservatoire, or a music school, in Tours. “The piano trio repertoire is probably the second most extensive after the string quartet, so we decided to perform together once Ravi learnt the cello," says Ajay. They entered competitions, held university concerts and performed at small venues.

Their first Indian outing, in the summer of 2012, was not without challenges. Théo narrates how the organizers in Chennai offered him a small synthesizer, which reproduces piano sounds digitally, after having emphatically confirmed on phone that they had a piano. Did the concert go ahead? “We had to change the programme. Ajay and Ravi played some solo Bach, and we played some Bollywood transcription with our dad singing. Paradoxically, it was the biggest success of the tour," says Théo.

Other than well-maintained instruments, the group doesn’t have major requirements. Chamber groups don’t require large concert halls and can make the most of intimate spaces.

This time they toured Puducherry, Pune, Kolkata, Chennai and Delhi. Given how niche the audience is for Western classical music in India, the reception was unexpected. “The response has been great and we saw many young people who came to try this music, which is quite different from European concert halls, where the majority of concert-goers are old. This kind of music certainly has a future in India," says Ajay.

A trio, like most Western classical music pieces, has three or four distinct sections called “movements", which are played one after another, with applause at the very end. Do Indian audiences clap between movements and is it distracting? “Not at all," Théo jumps in. “It only means we are reaching new audiences and we wouldn’t like any ceremony around the concert which excludes people, as it sometimes happens in the West. Also, if the piece is well-performed, the audience can really feel the right moment to clap." This attitude explains their practice of introducing the piece before the performance and offering some context.

“Before a concert, we would meet at least two-three times. But we don’t meet until we have absolutely perfected our individual parts, otherwise it would be a waste of time. When we meet, we try to interpret the piece and all we focus on is the whole and how it comes together, working on things like tempo and deciding which instrument should be prominent during certain passages. Although the notes are the same on the page, every trio group will play the same piece very differently," says Ajay.

The brothers speak three languages, English, French and Polish, and their father says: “The languages help the boys, as each language has its own music and if you don’t listen to the music of the language, you can’t learn it. It’s given them a keen ear."

I ask about interests other than music. Do you play any sports? “No," guffaws Théo, before quickly offering a justification, as if to prevent me from forming a judgement. “Doctors will tell you that the physical fitness which professional musicians require is on par with sports. You can seriously hurt yourself; it would not be visible but can be very damaging and potentially career-ending. You have to prepare your body." They look delighted with the sporting comparison. Their father provides a redeeming corrective. “They do yoga sometimes."

In future, the brothers want to enter chamber music competitions and perform more frequently. “We might also explore other opportunities, such as a solo career. There are a lot of new trio pieces to discover for now and having a solo career doesn’t rule out the possibility of performing in an ensemble. It’s a matter of time commitment," says Ajay. Ravi says he would like to play in a symphony orchestra and might audition for the Toulouse Orchestra in autumn. “Trio music can be more interesting than performing solo as people can see us interact with each other, which makes it really alive."

Their last concert in India was painstakingly organized by their father, but this time they have benefited from the support of Alliance Française. They even got Ravi’s cello an aeroplane seat. We love playing in India and as soon as we get the opportunity to come back , we will, they say.

While the brothers change for the photo-shoot, their father, who has barely spoken during the interview, maintaining “they are more important", walks up to me and whispers into my ear,“What’s so special about their music is that there is so much telepathic conversation—you put the three best players and they will try to show who is better but here, being brothers, it is just the music that comes out and not the musician."

I ask if he is satisfied with the paths they have chosen. He smiles. “We have given them all possibilities, now they choose." Are you happy? He breaks into a chuckle and says, “They’re happy, so I’m happy."

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