Mridangam artiste and Guinness World Records holder Kuzhalmannam Ramakrishnan tells Athira M. about his tryst with the percussion instrument that has taken him places

Kuzhalmannam Ramakrishnan put his village in the Guinness World Records in 2004. Felicitations and honours followed. The mridangam artiste was in the capital city for yet another performance and felicitation, but his mood was anything but upbeat.

His father, 86-year-old K.R. Gopalakrishna Iyer, had been hospitalised and Ramakrishnan could not wait to return to Palakkad to be with him, his guru and pillar of strength in all his endeavours.

“My father taught me the basics of playing the mridangam. He is such a passionate fan of the instrument that he keeps saying that he wants to listen to it when he breathes his last. It might sound crazy, but when I got a job after my studies, he insisted that I learn the mridangam instead of taking up a job,” says Ramakrishnan.

Growing up in a family that was in tune with music, there was no lack of encouragement for the budding musician. “My mother, P.L.Saraswathy, used to sing. I’m the youngest and my five sisters doted on me,” recalls the artiste.

As the conversation veers to his marathon performances on the mridangam, Ramakrishnan stresses: “Many people think that it was the record that established me as an artiste. I’m a Top Grade artiste of All India Radio, and I am in charge of mridangam during the Chembai Music Festival. I have accompanied stalwarts of the Carnatic world. The marathon performances just happened.”

Ramakrishnan’s first marathon performance was a homage to his sister Prabha who succumbed to cancer in 2004. “She was very fond of me and encouraged me a lot.” To keep her memory alive, Ramakrishnan decided to organise a music fete at a temple in Kuzhalmannam. “Also, I gave a 36-hour performance, that featured 130 vocalists, at an event organised by Swaralaya in Palakkad,” he says. That was his first record.

The urge to take our music and its magic the world over culminated in a 101-hour concert in Kannur in 2005, that lasted for five days. “‘Rhythm for peace’, the concert, was special not just because it was dedicated to world peace. The whole experience was different and has been the toughest so far. After a point, I couldn’t stop. My fingers were playing, not obeying my brains. I was tired, but couldn’t stop. I was in some sort of a trance,” he says. At the end of it, he rewrote the existing 84-hour long Guinness record in hand drum.

“The next attempt was easier than the first since the Guinness officials had revised the duration for a break. Till then we could take a 15-minute break after eight hours. They changed it to a 20-minute break after every four hours,” he says. Ramakrishnan played for 301 hours, that is 13 days, at the Nehru College in Coimbatore. “I named it ‘Mridu’. It was meant to popularise the mridangam among youth,” he says.

The last of his marathon shows was the 501-hour-long performance at Nandavanam Hospital, Ottappalam, in 2009. “My sister breathed her last there. The attempt was named, ‘Rhythm Therapy’, with rhythm as an alternative treatment method,” he says. That led to the Guinness authorities crediting another record to his name – the first person in the world to perform more than 500 hours on any instrument continuously.

Obviously, there has been criticism! “Yes… and some of them very mean. But I don’t bother about them. Whatever I’ve done have been based around and for the mridangam. I didn’t do this for fame. Some say I’ve commercialised music. But, the truth is, in each of these attempts, I have felt the presence of the divine,” says the 41-year-old. What next? More records? “No! There is no motivation,” he says.

Puritans are unhappy about his fusion concerts as well, because he stands while playing the mridangam instead of the usual practice of sitting down to play the instrument. “In fusion concerts, you often find musicians walking into the crowd and performing. But that freedom isn’t there for a mridangam artiste. So I decided to hang the instrument around my neck and play it. Thus, I did not have to sit while playing the rhythm. The critics claim that the sanctity of the instrument has gone for a toss. Then, I tell them about the Unchavrithi procession at the Tyagaraja music fete at Thiruvaiyaru where the mridangam artistes walk around while playing the instrument. I’ve got photographs of many legendary artistes taking part in the event,” he says. Ramakrishnan has been part of the orchestra in many music reality shows on Malayalam television.

“But I never tamper with tradition or culture during a classical kutcheri. For instance, I might wear flashy clothes for a fusion concert but not for a Carnatic recital. There is a place for everything,” he says before signing off to get ready for his fusion concert that evening. All set for a new rhythmic encounter.

Short takes

A self-taught artiste, Ramakrishnan has four Guinness records in his name. He now holds the record for the longest performance on a hand drum, 501 hours, which is also the longest solo concert by any musician.

He is a painter. “My works are mostly based around music,” he says. He has acted in a film Neerajanam in which he played a mridangam artiste. He runs the Centre of Music in Kuzhalmannam and Koduvayur in Palakkad district.

Ramakrishnan is married to Suguna and they have a son, Adarsh Krishnan.