The Thrissur-born Manoj George is the first Indian violinist to be awarded a Grammy certificate for his work on the New Age album, 'Winds of Samsara'. He talks about his life and career
By Shevlin Sebastian
Photo of Manoj George by M. Jithindra
Violinist Manoj George had gone to Pune in February, 2014, to take part in a show with the singer Lucky Ali. After the show was over, he was sitting in the green room, when one of the organisers came up to him, and said, “Somebody wants to meet you.”
So Manoj stepped outside. A pregnant woman, in her early thirties, and wearing a salwar kameez, smiled at him. She said, “It was a good programme. But when I saw your performance, I have decided that I will make my unborn baby a violinist.”
On a brief visit to Kochi, the Bangalore-based Manoj says, “I felt shocked. In fact, this is one of the most unforgettable compliments I have received.”
There is a glow on his face as he speaks. Of course, Manoj has other reasons to have a glow. In February, the album, 'Winds of Samsara', a collaboration of the Bangalore-based composer Ricky Kej and the South African flautist Wouter Kellerman, won the Best New Age Album at the 57th Grammy Awards. And Manoj contributed for two songs: he did the choral arrangement for 'Mahatma', and the orchestral arrangement for 'Mountain Solitude'.
Amazingly, for his choral arrangement work, he was given a certificate from the Grammy Awards. “It was a proud moment for me,” he says. Manoj may be one of the first Malayalis to get this award, as well as the first Indian violinist.
The certificate is rare because although 120 musicians worked on the album, only a handful got this honour. Not surprisingly, Manoj has framed it and put it up on a wall in his house at Bangalore.
'''Winds of Samsara' is a fusion of contemporary music from all over the world,” says Manoj. “So, there is a mix of Western and Indian classical music, South African and Middle East genres of music. It is a spiritual and meditative album.”
And it did well. The album reached No 1 in the Billboard New Age charts. But even before it was released, Manoj had no doubts that it would do well. “Just after I finished recording 'Mountain Solitude' in a recording studio at Bangalore, I noticed that everybody went quiet,” he says. “It seemed as if they had gone into a zone of silence and peace. That was when I realised that 'Samsara' would make an impact.”
Manoj has also made an impact. A talented artist, he has performed in Europe, Africa, the USA, Canada, the Middle East, China, and Sri Lanka. He has his own band, 'ManojGeorge4Strings', and played with musicians like Dr L Subramaniam, Hariharan, Shivamani, Shankar Mahadevan, Trilok Gurtu, and rock musician Bryan Adams.
Apart from that he has composed music for Malayalam films like 'Kharaksharangal' and the Kannada film, 'Aathmeeya'. “In films, music composers have less freedom,” says Manoj. “It is the director who decides what type of music they want.” Meanwhile, in Bangalore, Manoj has set up the New Wave Music Centre with the aim of developing a new generation of musicians.
Manoj's own foray into music began in his hometown of Olarikkara in Thrissur district. He got inspired to learn the violin when he saw the violinist, John Lewis, playing in the choir of the Little Flower church. “I liked the sound,” he says. “Many people think that the violin is a sad instrument, but I don’t agree. It has a lot of variety.”
When he told his father, George Chittilappilly, who wrote lyrics and poems, the latter offered full encouragement. So Manoj joined the Kalasadan orchestra and came under the tutelage of Leslie Peter.
“I liked the instrument, but I realised that it is not easy to play,” says Manoj. “So I practiced a lot.”
The Kalasadan was one of the best orchestras in Thrissur. So it was no surprise that Manoj wanted to be a part of it.
Three years after he began playing, one day, Leslie asked Manoj whether he would like to play the violin for one of the shows. “That was the moment I was waiting for,” says Manoj. “I immediately said yes.” And he has never looked back.
Today, Manoj is busy as ever. “I am working on a solo violin album,” he says. Manoj is also collaborating with Poly Varghese, who has studied under veena exponent Pandit Vishwa Mohan Bhatt. “I am also doing live shows, which is a blend of music and dance,” he says. “In these shows, the music is not an accompaniment to the dance. Rather, it is a jugalbandi between music and dance.”
A full-time violinist for the past 25 years, Manoj also has words of advice for budding musicians. “Firstly, you need to have talent,” he says. “In any field there will be lots of competition. But hard work will always be rewarded. However, you have to struggle a lot. There will be moments when you feel dejected. But, today, I have no regrets because I am living my passion. I thank God for that. If I get a chance to re-live life I want to be Manoj George and a violinist once again.”
(Published in The New Indian Express, Kochi and Thiruvananthapuram)