G. Babu is a homeopathic physician. But he calls himself a “mobile doctor” – one who “attends to patients over the mobile phone” – because his passion for the mridangam, allows him little time to focus on his profession! The mridangam, says Babu, has been a constant in his life since he was in class four, training first under Kadanad V.K. Gopi, and later in the gurukula system under mridangam maestro Karaikudi R. Mani. Today, 44-year-old Babu is an A-grade artiste in mridangam of All India Radio, Thiruvananthapuram, and a veteran of many music concerts, accompanying the likes of M. Balamuralikrishna, Ustad Amjad Ali Khan, N. Ramani, O.S. Tyagarajan, Neyyatinkara Vasudevan, T.N. Seshagopalan, Aswathi Tirunal Rama Varma, T.V. Gopalakrishnan, Parassala Ponnammal, and Pantula Rama, to name but a few, on stages in India and abroad. Babu is also a keen composer of classical music, with a particular fascination for thillanas. His album, Thillana, comprising 10 thillanas in 10 ragas, sung mostly by M.K. Sankaran Namboothiri, was released on June 14. Excerpts from an interview with the Thiruvananthapuram-based artiste…
Mastering the mridangam
My father, the late P. Gopalan, a former officer with the Regional Transport Office, and my mother, the late L. Sumangala, a music teacher, both fostered my interest in music by regularly taking me and my sister, S. Jaya, to concerts at the Swati Sangita Sabha, and many other stages in Thiruvananthapuram. It was a great adventure for us because, in those days of poor road connectivity, we would travel all the way from the outskirts of Nalanchira to the East Fort area, where many of the concerts were held. I remember how I used to be mesmerised by the tala, especially the taniavartanam, and how I used to exuberantly keep beat to the mridangam, much to the amusement of others in the audience! Realising my potential, my father took me for training to Prof. Kadanad V.K. Gopi, a follower of the Palghat Mani bani and a disciple of Mavelikkara Velukutty Nair. It took Gopi sir upwards of a year to correct my fingering technique. He taught me the mridangam based on the theoretical aspects of music, what they teach for the Ganapraveena and Ganabhooshanam courses. My arangetam was at the Theerthapadamandapam, accompanying C.S. Jayaram and Irinjalakuda Vijayakumar. I had always been interested in Karaikudi Mani’s style of playing and in 1989, I took a year break from my homeopathy studies to spend a year in Chennai training under Mani sir. I’ve been an A-grade artiste for the past 16 years.
Learning under Karaikudi R. Mani
His style of fingering is his own, and quite different from the Palghat Mani bani. My guru’s is a little more mathematical and faster-paced style of playing the mridangam, and it has got firmer beats than Palghat Mani sir's bani. Initially, I found it very difficult to follow it but eventually mastered the style. Nowadays, my style is a mixture of both Palghat Mani bani and the Karaikudi Mani bani. My guru taught me how to follow a kutcheri, how to think beyond the regular sarvalaghu and really understand the vocals. He has also taught me to give due importance to edanthalas. Although the styles are different, whatever I learnt from Gopi sir has helped me to master the Karaikudi Mani bani.
It is absolutely necessary that a mridangam artiste, or any other accompanist, for that matter, understand and play according to the sahitya of a song. I have learnt the basics of vocals but my understanding of it comes from years of listening to kutcheris. If you know the sahitya you can adapt more easily to any mode of singing.
Being an accompanist
Of course, it’s well and good if an accompanist knows the singing/playing styles of the other artistes. However, practically it’s very difficult because artistes like Balamuralikrishna sir and Trichy Ganesan, for example, tend to be very versatile and however much you play with them, you never know what’s coming up next. So, generally, you’ve got to go with the flow and pray for the best! An accompanist should aim to impress but not at the cost of the other artistes. A concert is about teamwork and is not a game of one-upmanship.
Fascination for thillanas
It began when I was asked to accompany Dr. Balamuralikrishna for a concert at the Kowdiar Palace of the erstwhile Travancore royal family. I had already accompanied him twice, once for a programme by Kerala Tourism, and then for the Swati fete, where the maestro partnered with Pandit Ajoy Chakraborty for a Carnatic-Hindustani jugalbandhi. This time around though, he was going to be singing a Garudadhwani thillana, which I wasn’t too well- versed with. I wanted to really understand it, especially its mathematical versions and jatis, and so got hold of a recording and learnt it. Because I did a bit of homework, I was able to play well and I won much praise from the maestro himself. That’s how my fascination with thillanas began. The first thillana that I composed was one in Behag (Misrachapu tala) dedicated to Lord Padmanabha of the Sree Padmanabha Swamy temple. I have since composed thillanas on Lord Shiva, Lord Ganapathy, Lord Krishna, Lord Ayyappa, and three on the Devi, all of which feature in my new album.