Legends and laymen figured in mridangam vidwan T.K. Murthy's exchanges with T.R. Rajamani, as part of Sampradaya's Samvada series.

Has the role of the mridangam in concerts declined in quality? This question at Samvada or conversation between musicians, part of an ongoing series by Sampradaya held at the Kasturi Srinivasan Hall, set off the 86-year-old mridangam artist T.K. Murthy to retort bitingly, "Is the singing of today like the music of old times? I tell my disciples, don't play the way I teach you. If you do, you won't get concerts." Elsewhere, he implied that present-day vocalists were incompetent to handle anything more than sarvalaghu beats.

This satirical tone marked all exchanges between the veteran and interrogator T.R. Rajamani, the mridangist son of Palghat Mani Iyer. Nor was irony missed out in taking questions from the floor.

TKM cross-examined the rasika who wanted to know the difference between Pudukkottai and Thanjavur styles, and remarked, "You're not trained in mridangam, you just asked a question?"

He went on to express his doubts about Mamundiya Pillai's style. He concluded that everyone came to follow the Thanjavur style because TKM's guru Thanjavur Vaidyanatha Iyer had classified clear cut methods for concerts.

TKM's memories of GNB began with hearing him sing on the beach, which led him to recommend the then not highly regarded vocalist's inclusion (for a princely payment of Rs.15!) in a Thanjavur festival. GNB silenced doubters with his magnificent Andolika and Bhairavi. "They haunt me still!" cried TKM, adding that GNBs disciples did not sing with the same gauravam (dignity) as their guru.

Why didn't mridangists raise the quality of performance in concerts by women vocalists as they do for men? "In those days, Pattammal and Subbulakshmi could maintain khanda and mishra nadai. Now nobody can," was the heated reply. But didn't the same mridangist lift the standards for not-so-competent male singers? The query went unheeded. TKM also dismissed pallavi singing with, "Did the Trinity sing pallavis? Or did Mahavaidyanatha Iyer and Patnam Subramania Iyer?" No one reminded him that both Iyers were pallavi experts.

Despite the negative tone, and lack of content-structuring, there was something to be gleaned. Old names spilled out - Narayanasami Appa, Azhaganambiya Pillai, Umayalpuram Kothandarama Iyer - as did strange tales like that of the drummer who dropped a grain of paddy from an 'araipadi' can after playing each exercise till the can was empty!

Playing for dancers

Demonstrations of old moras and korvais for harikatha and bhajanai fascinated, as did TKM's disclosure that he had played for Vyjayanthimala until his guru bade him stop! We also learnt of TKM's association with Ponniah Pillai, descendant of the Thanjavur Quartet.

When this son of a school teacher overcame awe to play before Thanjavur Vaidyanatha Iyer, the childless mridangam maestro offered to adopt him. The mother refused to part with her son, but died soon after, and little Chittu found himself at Iyer's home, loved him like a son, along with senior disciple Palghat Mani Iyer. "Who has heard of disciples sleeping on the same bed with the guru and guru patni? We did," said TKM with tears in his voice. Gurukulavasam bore fruit when Chittu began to accompany legends such as Tiger Varadachariar and Ariyakudi Ramanuja Iyengar.

Heart-warming were TKM's tributes to laya wizards. "Even his disciples don't play like Pazhani Subramania Pillai. I do," he said. He described Palghat Mani Iyer's slender, stick-like fingers as 'divinely shaped for the mridangam!' When he first heard Dakshinamurti Pillai, young Chittu had sobbed to his guru, "I can never play like that! I want to go home." Once, when one head of Palghat Mani Iyer's mridangam tore in mid-concert, Pillai assured him that his ganjira would make the disaster go unnoticed. "And it did!" Memorable moments? "When the great vidwans of the past told me, 'You played well'."