Mridangam artiste Neyveli S. Skanda Subramanian shares how hard work and honesty helped shape his career.
He started to learn the art of playing mridangam when he was eight years old from Tiruvarur R. Krishnamurthy. Subsequently, he came under the tutelage of veteran mridangam vidwan Tiruvarur Bakthavathsalam. Today, Neyveli S. Skanda Subramanian is one of the most sought after mridangam accompanists and has provided mridangam support to leading Carnatic musicians, including Nedunuri Krishnamoorthy, M. Balamurali Krishna, N. Ramani, M.S. Gopalakrishnan, T.V. Sankaranarayanan, T.N. Seshagopalan, Sudha Raghunathan and Nithyashree Mahadevan.
How did a boy aiming to be an engineer take up this profession? Explains Subramanian, who was in the Capital recently for performances, “When I was in school, one of my father's colleagues took me to Tiruvarur Krishnamurthy Sir, who initiated me into mridangam. Bakthavathsalam Sir, who was a disciple and nephew of Krishnamoorthy Sir, would often come to his house and offered to take me under his tutelage and asked me to move to Chennai from Neyveli. As I had, by then, already completed my Diploma in Mechanical Engineering, I shifted to Chennai in 1988 with the intention of taking up a job and simultaneously learning from Bakthavathsalam Sir.”
But Bakthavathsalam had other plans and insisted he concentrate on the mridangam, assuring him he would excel. “He even spoke to my parents and convinced them. Having settled in Chennai and started leaning mridangam from him, I participated in competitions and began to win prizes. Slowly, I got opportunities to play in concerts,” relates Subramanian.
As he grew busier playing his instrument, did he ever regret his decision? “No. Certainly not,” comes his quick and unambiguous reply. However, he adds that he had to work hard and that continuous hard work never goes waste.
Percussionists who know the compositions being sung or played are considered better equipped accompanists. Subramanian agrees and says he also learnt vocal music, though “only for a very brief period,” since constant touring leaves him little time. “Though I started to learn vocal music from late O.V. Subramanian Sir after he shifted to Chennai, I couldn't continue for more than six months due to my frequent travels for mridangam accompaniment. But, before coming to this field, I would regularly attend Carnatic music concerts and listen to radio concerts. It might be the Adi tala for which I would be playing. But if I understand the spirit of the song and the feeling of the composer, it will certainly help me to embellish it further.”
Expressing his gratitude to all those artistes who encouraged him during his formative years, Subramanian narrates an interesting episode. It was the first time he was providing mridangam accompaniment in a concert. He was in Chennai and playing for vocalist O.S. Thiagarajan. “As soon as Thiagarajan Sir finished his opening varnam piece, he seemed to be impressed with my playing and whispered to give him my telephone number after the concert was over. As I did not have a telephone connection then, I simply kept quiet after the concert. But as he once again insisted I give my number, I told him the fact. He then took my postal address and would regularly inform me of concert opportunities by sending postcards.”