Is the importance of the tampura artist acknowledged?

How important is sruti to music, be it Carnatic or Hindustani? “Most important,” would say any musician worth his salt. Of course, Taalam is important too, as the cliched adage goes - “Sruti Maatha, Layam Pithaa.” A lay listener might not notice if the talam is not perfect. But the same listener will squirm in his seat if the sruti alignment is awry – be it the main artist or the percussionist. The sound of the tampura is soothing and meditative. Playing the tampura is not as easy as it appears to be. The touch on the strings has to be light and even and they should not be plucked.

Of course, the electronic gadget has become ubiquitous. Musicians agree that it can never replace a traditional tampura but juniors prefer the electronic version because they cannot afford to engage a tampura artist.

So, the tampura is an indispensable part of a concert. Does it mean that it elevates the status of the person wielding it? The answer, gleaned from some veteran tampura artists is ‘no.’ “The Sabha people don’t realise the importance of tampura; some of them don’t consider us as artists or treat us with respect,” they say.

To begin with the payment is very low, a couple of sabhas paying only Rs.75-100, hardly enough to cover conveyance. Some organisations such as the Music Academy and Ragasudha pay Rs. 300 and even more during the season.

Says Ganesan, with about 60 years of experience in this profession: “There are musicians who receive Rs.70,000 to 1,00,000 for a marriage reception concert. But they don’t part with more than Rs.300 at the most. Even the accompanists don’t get paid proportionately.”

Saraswathi agrees. “The maximum I have so far received for a marriage concert is Rs. 500,” she says. But she never demands and accepts whatever the musician gives. She never takes money from the organiser as well as the musician, on principle. This cannot be said of all the tampura artists.

It is felt that an amount, say, Rs. 200, should be fixed as the minimum for a tampura player. And if they are paid directly by the organisers instead of giving it to the musicians, who pass it on, misunderstandings and complaints can be avoided.

The doyen among tampura artists is 83-year-old Lakshminarayanan who has been in the field for over seven decades. “I have played for flute Mali, K.B. Sundarambal, etc. Sundarambal would sing from 10 p.m. till 6 a.m. Once the sruti is set, Mali would continue to play well-aligned, even if the tampura is stopped.

Born at Vellore, he learnt to play the flute from Thiruvannamalai Doraiswamy Sarma and obtained Government technical teacher’s certificate in vocal and flute and has also been teaching from home. Having been a clerk at Sangeetha Vadyalaya founded by Prof. Sambamurthy, and also as a casual (worker) at AIR, he is conversant with the technical aspects of musical instruments also. He carries his own tampura. Among the varieties available, he prefers those from Thanjavur and Miraj.

Lakshminarayanan has been a favourite flute/tampura player of many dancers such as Dhananjanyan and Adyar Lakshmanan. He is sought after for Arangetrams as a lucky mascot. He is a Tamil Nadu Government pensioner.

Musicians too have their favourites. Unnikrishnan banks on Ganesan, Seshagopalan’s regular is Vaidyanathan (15 years). Also preferred by Neyveli Santhanagopalan, Nisha Rajagopal, T.V. Ramprasad and Abhishek Raghuram, Vaidyanathan calls TNS as his ‘Manasika Guru’ and says he owes everything to him. He is the son of vainika Thirukokarnam Ramachandra Iyer and teaches vocal music at home.

Saraswathi considers Vijay Siva as her mentor. She plays for Lakshmi Rangarajan and Gayatri Girish too. Noticing her passion for music, Siva suggested that she take up this profession.

These artists have little respite during Season, often appearing for two or three concerts continuously. “Sometimes two artists would sing the same raga and composition and it is quite tiresome,” say Lakshminarayanan and Ganesan. But Saraswathi disagrees. “I don’t feel bored. I try to observe if there is any difference in the Patantharam. I closely observe RTPs and tani avarthanam,” she says.

Not all musicians are indifferent to the needs of the tampura artists; besides hiring their service regularly, they also make sure that they are appropriately compensated by the organisers. Saraswathi says that if the sabhas do not pay properly, the musicians do so from their own pockets.

Ganesan has been accompanying Unnikrishnan from his first concert. His remuneration is Rs. 500 for sabha concerts and Rs 1,000 for marriage kutchers. Recently Unnikrishnan arranged for him to be honoured by rasikas from abroad, though the first to honour him was Guru Karaikkudi Mani. Kuchipudi dancer Sailaja too has honoured him.

Ganesan is the son of yesteryear singer-actor Kothamangalam Seenu. Thinniyam Venkatrama Iyer was his maternal grandfather. He used to sing along with his father casually but it was P.S. Narayanaswamy who urged him to take up tampura playing. He has strummed the instruments for many veterans including Semmangudi, Chembai, M.S. Subbulakshmi, MLV, Ramnad Krishnan, Radha-Jayalakshmi, Brinda-Mukta and also for Hindustani musicians Parveen Sultana, Lakshmi Sankar and Jugalbandi between Ravi Shankar and Lalgudi Jayaraman. He is a regular at the Tiruvaiyaru Tyagaraja aradhana.

Vijayalakshmi has only positive things to say. Beginning with playing the tampura for Therezhundur Sisters, she has completed almost 40 years in the field. Hailing from Vinjimuri, Andhra Pradesh, she learnt music in her childhood. She came to Chennai after marriage and was a B-grade musician with AIR and DD. She has been in recent times accompanying Mambalam Sisters and Amrutha Murali. “All the musicians are quite nice and pay decently; I accept what is given and never demand,” she says.

Girija learnt to strum the tampura from her father Venkataraman, a veteran in the field. Before marriage she used to go for outstation programmes also. She does not accept too many assignments. Aruna Sairam pays her Rs.500 for sabha programmes and Rs.1,000 for private TV channel programmes, while even some up and coming musicians give her Rs.200-300.

The electronic tampura, of course, is handy when going for outstation concerts. But the electronic tampura is often set rather loudly and the pitch changes on its own sometimes, due to voltage fluctuation. If the power fails occasionally, naturally the tampura too goes off and starts erratically when the power comes back with a surge in voltage.

Is it possible to have an association of tampura artists? “No,” they say in unison. Reason? There is no unity among them. For instance, Vaidyanathan admitted that some tampura artists do not respect their commitments; when someone is ready to pay more, they desert the musician to whom they had given a commitment. This happens during the Season when the demand is high. In this context, one of the advices Siva had given Saraswathi was – to honour commitment, besides being punctual.

The electronic version

The electronic version tampura, of course, is compact and ideal for outstation concerts. But, it is set rather loudly and often the pitch changes, perhaps due to voltage fluctuations. And it is real problem when there is a power breakdown.