Three mridangam vidwans discuss the art, its present and future. All the three are trained in vocal music, with Prasad being a University prize winning student. "Without ragabhava we can't get very far," comments Ganapathyraman. Arun remarks, "Knowing every sangati in ‘Dharini Telisukonti' will help you to fill in, but to make it evocative, you must know how the raga flows.

“Even the divine Nandi's maddalam cannot hold them back,” is the general consensus about thani avartanam, which eternally signals an exodus. When three noted mridangam vidwans – K.V. Prasad, Arun Prakash and B. Ganapathyraman meet for a mid-morning coffee, they naturally begin with this conundrum!

“Wish I knew why they go,” sighs Ganapathyraman. “Chidambara rahasiyam!” laughs Arun. Is it because people don't grasp the techniques involved in the percussion interlude? “Does everyone understand everything before the thani?” shrugs Prasad.

How much planning goes into a thani? “Most of us follow the format of a big round, tisram and kuraippu. I've changed the format sometimes, but keep it proportionate to the whole concert. The thani is not a competition, but a component in the kutcheri,” Arun explains. Prasad takes it forward. “My thani is based on the style and pace of the vocalist. Then it will not become a talavadya recital, but an extension of the composition.”

Ganapathyraman's contribution: “Some sing swaraprastara like korvais, with arudi fireworks. Naturally my thani too changes colour.” Making new korvais as exciting as those polished through repetition remains a challenge.”

All the three are trained in vocal music, with Prasad being a University prize winning student. “Without ragabhava we can't get very far,” comments Ganapathyraman. Arun remarks, “Knowing every sangati in ‘Dharini Telisukonti' will help you to fill in, but to make it evocative, you must know how the raga flows. Sahana is not the same as Suddhasaveri.” Tukkadas make their own demands. “But some treat ‘Brammamokate’ as they would a Tyagaraja kriti.”

They also insist that, conversely, with vocalists such as T.N. Seshagopalan, Shashikiran or Vijay Siva who can actually play the mridangam, the flavour is different. If the singer sings with feeling, it will be reflected in the mridangam. “Then we can touch hearts,” says Prasad. “A matter of aesthetics,” Arun adds. Ganapathyraman concurs, “No musician can be good unless he is also a good rasika.”

If the main artist is not at his or her best on a given day, the accompanists must maximise their inputs to lift the level of the whole. The trio has no objections to the vocalists' kanakku vazhakku displays. “Why not, if they have the skill and the memory?” asks Arun. The problem arises only when artists whose styles do not naturally include laya intricacies prepare nadai pallavis with complex vivaharam for a big sabha.

“They are so tense until they finish the pallavi.” Ganapathyraman notes. Arun laughs, “Once the khanda kuraippu I'd planned was new to the upa pakkavadyam artist. Right through the recital, whenever he had breaks, I saw him reciting it sotto voce. Post thani, his relief found vent in a burst of energy!”

Prasad concludes, “Sarvalaghu swaras without repeated patterns are the test of greatness. Vivaharam is merely mathematics. You impact best when you do what comes naturally.” Arun emphasises that kanakku is different from layam. “With Semmangudi or MS or DKP all of whom had innate layam, percussionists could play anything they wanted.” Ganapathyraman believes that intricacies must not be esoteric mysteries but presented accessibly.

A question that bothers all three is that compliments, when they come, are always about the thani. Arun is indignant, “Don't they notice what we do throughout the concert?” A resigned Ganapathyraman says, “They evaluate us on the basis of the thani alone.” Laughs Prasad, “The worst is that mridangam students drift in late at kutcheris to hear only the thani. Don't they know that playing for the kriti and niraval-swara are as – or even more – important?”

Parents who know that it takes years to become a lawyer or a doctor want their children's mridangam arangetram in a single year. Gurus too resort to shortcuts to attract students. Prasad recalls a boy with a notebook full of jatis for entire kritis, inscribed like swara notations. The boy could recite all his korvais preset for ‘Mahaganapatim' (Nattai), ready to play them for any singer, at any time! Arun exclaims, “Don't worry, in two years, he will have 10 disciples – and the same notebook!”

The speakers know that present-day percussion vidwans lack neither talent nor ability. But distractions and demands have multiplied. “We can't practise for 18 hours as the past masters did,” regrets Ganapathyraman.

“Even seniors who played for stalwarts in the past play differently now,” Prasad notes.

Arun sums up, “Stylistic differences have vanished, few take risks, and this insecurity often leads to sameness in presentation.”