Symphonies of Serenity

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Accomplished musician, composer and producer Craig Pruess has worked on various film soundtracks, including Bend It Like Beckham and Bride and Prejudice, showcasing his ability to blend different cultural sounds and styles. His celebrated album, The Sacred Chants of Shiva, creates a soothing and contemplative atmosphere. In this article, he writes about his journey into the realm of Indian music, particularly his connection with Indian ragas and spiritual music.

My first exposure to Indian music and culture happened when I was a 17-year-old undergraduate student at the prestigious Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in the United States.

One night, in the late 1960s, as I poured over my physics equations, I first heard on my headphones George Harrison’s haunting song, “Within Without You”, on the famous ‘Sgt Pepper’s’ Beatles album. The song strangely gripped me, like a calling home.

Growing up in rural New York State, 50 km north of New York City, I had played and performed music in public for ten years, achieving somewhat of a “child prodigy” status on trumpet/brass, piano, oboe and percussion. I was simultaneously composing in all styles but had never heard anything as exotic and charming as the Indian ragas.

Transcendental Meditation and Making Music

After college, I began teaching music full-time at the East African Conservatoire of Music in Nairobi, Kenya. Around the same time, my older sister became a teacher of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi’s Transcendental Meditation (TM) in the US. I also learned the TM method while visiting my family in the United States. It was a profound experience, and I began to meditate twice a day.

After staying in Africa for two years, as I pondered my next career move, I attended a concert by the great Ali Akbar Khan – the Indian sarod maestro.

Impressed, I made a vow to myself to learn this whole music system. I also decided to teach myself advanced synthesizer programming and to go to London to decide the future course of action.

Meanwhile, I continued my meditation practice in the UK. Within five months, I met an excellent band of musicians, Visitor 2035, and began composing, arranging, and recording our instrumental music while touring the UK.

Three years later, we secured a major record deal, and a year after that, our first recorded album was released. My music was greatly appreciated, and I became a very busy session musician, arranger, songwriter, and record producer in my own right.

Collaboration with Cliff Richards

In 1981, I received an unexpected telephone call from British Singer-Actor Cliff Richard, who said he had heard an album I had produced and thought we could work together. Thus began four years of collaboration, followed by numerous gold and platinum records for me.

First Visit to India

Since 1976, one by one, my band members in Visitor 2035 have been learning Transcendental Meditation, making our music more focused and potent. Consequently, I began doing advanced TM courses and learned the TM-Sidhi (yogic flying) programme.

In late 1980, Maharishi announced the start of international schools for learning “Gandharva-Veda” — the art and science of the ancient Indian ragas and its connection with Ayurveda, the science of perfect health.

On that Vedic Science course, every evening when Maharishi came onto the stage, he was accompanied by an unbearded, shy young man who would sit with eyes closed and chant the Sama Veda.

So powerful were the chants that we all went into deep meditation. It was my profound introduction to the sacred chants of ancient India.

Interestingly, I learned later that the shy young man was none other than the renowned Indian guru and spiritual leader Sri Sri Ravi Shankar! When I met him again 13 years later, he invited me to do the Art of Living (AOL) course.

My first experience with the AOL breathing technique, sudarshan kriya, was so profound that I felt I had “come home.” It was beyond words! I trained as an AOL teacher and taught thousands of people the sudarshan kriya in the last 30 years.

Making of the Sacred Chants of Shiva

While training as an AOL teacher, I began making recordings of Sanskrit chants with one of Sri Sri’s experienced Indian teachers.

Later, Sri Sri sent his sister, Bhanumati, to my home and recording studio in the UK, and we recorded “Shivoham” and “Atmastakam”, which would later be featured on my first sacred chants album – Sacred Chants of Shiva.

With a handful of Sanskrit chants recorded, I began making cassette copies for other AOL teachers to use on their courses — music to create inner stillness and silence in mind!

Times Music and the Sacred Chants Series

In 1997, a colleague in London had heard that the Times of India group was looking to establish a major record label, Times Music. He thought I was a good match for a “Western Artist” to release his music on it.

Since 1990, I have begun to blend my knowledge of Indian ragas, including (my) sitar playing, into many idioms of Western music, creating Indo-fusion blends for big films like “A Little Princess” (Warner Bros), “Harry Potter & the Goblet of Fire” and my film soundtrack scores for the number one UK/India box office smashes, “Bend It Like Beckham” and “Bride & Prejudice.”

In 1995, I produced, arranged, and co-composed an English language Indo-fusion album, “Eyes”, for premier Bollywood music director Anu Malik.

Times Music wanted to release my 1996 Indo/Afro-jazz fusion album, “Terracotta”, an excellent collaboration with EMMY and BAFTA-winning composer/sax player John Altman.

In addition, I had hoped for Times Music to release my album “Sacred Chants of Shiva,” and they were on board after hearing my rendition of “Shiva Manas Puja.”

The decision paid off tremendously because by the end of 1998, Times Music’s “Sacred Chants of Shiva” sold millions of copies worldwide.

The second time I came back to India in January 1999, I was greeted with the sight of my photograph on the front page of the Sunday Times, along with an article detailing my successes under the heading “From MIT to Mantras.”

My collaboration further deepened with Times Music when I was commissioned a new album for World Peace called “Sacred Chants of Buddha”.

This was followed a year later by “Sacred Chants of Rama”, then the “108 Sacred Names of Mother Divine”, which, to this day, is my most continuously best-selling album internationally of the whole series, with one of its tracks, “Devi Prayer”, being featured in feature films, and championed by leaders of the human development movement like Tony Robbins, Eckhart Tolle, Ram Das and Brandon Bays.

At the end of 2023, Times Music released the eighth album in the series worldwide, “Sacred Chants of Jesus”, which features a powerful chant in Aramaic, the ancient language of Jesus Christ.

Forthcoming Endeavours

During the next four months in 2024, two more albums will be released by Times Music – “Essential Celestial Ragas” in collaboration with my beloved sitar teacher Indrajit Banerjee and “Sacred Chants of a Lifetime,” which is a new collaboration with Argentinian chant maestro, Daniel Bellone.

 

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