Carnatic music “grew” on him with time

“You would not know my country, let me write it down for you,” said the man challenging my general knowledge. In a sea of silk sarees of myriad colours, veshtis and angavastrams, he towered over the others, dressed in an olive green T-shirt and grey crop pants. He had the usual attributes of any tourist visiting south India, except that he belonged to a country with less than half the people in Chennai — Lithuania.

A Lithuanian at a Carnatic kutcheri, can come as a mild surprise to some. But a Lithuanian learning and playing the mridangam? As I listened to Pranas recount how he found Carnatic music in Eastern Europe, I wondered for a moment at the perceptiveness of the Canadian philosopher Marshall McLuhan. Was his idea of a global village actually taking shape, at least culturally? Pranas, who works for a publishing company in Lithuania, had a keen interest in various forms of ethnic music and became interested in Carnatic and Hindustani music. By his own admission, he could not connect to the form initially, “In our country, a popular musical piece ends in about five minutes, while in the Carnatic and Hindustani forms, the musician spends five minutes just warming up.” He says the music “grew” on him with time, and he felt compelled to learn the art of playing the mridangam.

He stumbled across a YouTube video of Ghatam Suresh playing the mridangam around five years ago and sent him an email requesting him to accept him as his student. And the first thing Suresh did on reading the email was to locate Lithuania on a world map! That was the beginning of a relationship Pranas cherishes now.

He says, “I work for nine months, and spend all the money I earn in the remaining three months in Chennai.” He has flown into Chennai in the Tamil month of Margazhi for the past four years now. However, Pranas' love for Carnatic music remains exclusive in his country. He narrates how his three-hour long mridangam practice sessions do not go down well with his neighbours. His love for Indian music is not just limited to mridangam vidwans such as Palghat Raghu and Palghat Mani Iyer; he speaks of his fondness for Hindustani music, particularly the dhrupad style. He enthuses over his favourites — Abhay Narayan Mallick, Vidur Mallick and the Dagar Brothers. However, he has no doubt that his preference is for Carnatic music.

As our conversation draws to a close, I can sense a restlessness in him. As I start to fret over the possibility of having made him uneasy, he asks me where he would have to pay to buy a CD of Guru Haridas bhajans. And I embark on that Marshall McLuhan train of thought again.

(The writer is a student of journalism at the Asian College of Journalism, Chennai.)