These are radical inventions that are often received with a ‘tut, tut.’ G. Raj Narayanji is a well-known name in music circles in India. Apart from being a Grade A flautist with All India Radio, this IIT Chennai electronics and electrical engineer has in the last four decades created quite a flutter in these circles with his ‘musical robots’. While some musicians accepted these inventions as a Godsend aid, others take to them reluctantly – some even with disdain.
A third-generation musician born to a father who was a mechanical engineer, Raj Narayan inherited a legacy of musical talents along with a contraption. His father, who was a casual artiste, invented it to help him keep rhythm whenever he practiced music. Since it was operated using the knee even as the artiste played his instrument it could not help Raj Narayan practice for hours together. Using his electronic skills, he improvised on the contraption so that it would keep the beat automatically once plugged in. With this Shrutibox the artiste could practice for hours together – even while travelling and even at odd hours.
This was in 1971 when Raj Narayan was still working with HAL. In 1979, he quit HAL since he felt he was stagnating to pursue music. To sustain himself he set up a unit, which would supply coils to BHEL.
While travelling for performances, he started demonstrating the Shruti box. Many leading artistes were delighted with it and asked Raj Narayan to make one for them. This was the accidental beginning of a niche enterprise called Radel Electronics Pvt Ltd., a pioneer in electronic musical instruments for Indian music.
The growth and product development at Radel has been led by a series of circumstances and customer feedback. Soon after the Shrutibox, a natural extension was the invention of the electronic tanpura which again musicians need as an accompaniment. Sarod Maestro Rajiv Taranath used it in his practice session but not on stage since he liked to hear the sound of the tanpura directly in his ear. Using this feedback, Raj Narayan got back to the drawing board and created Sparshini , a mini Tanpura which has strategically placed speakers and which can alternate between auto and manual modes. The sound is electronic and pre-recorded.
While these early inventions were all driven by the needs of Carnatic music, the North Indian artistes voiced a need for a tabla. The digital tabla came into being. The Tabla players then asked for a digital harmonium and the Digital Lehra was formally launched by Pandit Ravi Shankar in 1995.
Today, Radel offers over 10 products ranging between Rs.2000 and Rs.42,000. The latest invention is the patented electronic veena, which has features like sound sampling, adjustable frets and speakers that enhance the sound output. While traditionalists balk at the fiber glass dummy resonators housing speakers, many find this modern-day version a convenience – easy to dismantle and carry around while travelling, easy to maintain and even a delight to play.
Q: So, what are the biggest challenges confronting Radel, I ask Radhika.
A: “The first is mindsets. It takes years for artistes to accept our products. Secondly, since we never planned this as an enterprise there was no business plan and product launches were circumstantial. As such we never could patent our products and there have been instances when people have duplicated them. The other issue is about quality manpower. Talent today is happy doing high-paying low-end work at IT majors instead of joining a company like Radel where our engineers get to work on innovations,” she states.
Q: How serious is the duplication issue?
A: “Our business is not high volume so there is only that much demand in the market. The other aspect is that our products are laborious to make. These are good enough deterrents but there are enough people who have duplicated some of our products. We neither have the clout to deal with them nor the bandwidth. But we now encrypt all our software,” says Radhika.
Q: How do you handle the manpower issues?
A: “We have set up an institute “Drona’ , a finishing or bridge school of sorts for engineers, where they go through three to six month intensive training to get industry-ready. We teach them PCB design, mechanical CAD, embedded software, project management along with how to face interviews, handle appraisals and soft skills like communication etc. As such we are able to have a pipeline for talent in-house.”
Q: Is there a huge demand for instruments from overseas?
A: “Yes, the huge NRI base is a definite target user for Radel products and we get a steady flow of orders from abroad. Our website is e-commerce enabled which allows them to make online purchases on a secure platform,’ explains Radhika.
Radel is today an ISO certified unit that can boast of several awards including the Government of India National Award for R & D received in 2009.
In 2005, when aerospace industry opened up, Raj Narayan got an opportunity to get back to his other passion for aerospace engineering. He set up Radel Advanced Technology Pvt Ltd, which specializes in high-precision products for aerospace and military use.
While on the face of it, the musical and aeronautical industries seem to be diverse but think again, Radel Electronics is really looking at the predictable aspects of music which has a set grammar that functions on set principles of the seven notes.