Mridangam maestro T.K. Murthy on the art of rhythm

The regularity of day and night, the seasons, tides and biological cycles of living beings all remind us that time has its rhythms even if we cannot keep track of them. Perhaps it is this inner sense of the inexorable march of time that mridangam maestro T.K. Murthy expects his students to dip into when he says that to mark a musical time cycle, the hand movements are peripheral: “The time measure should be within you.” Take a slow time cycle in which each matra is equal to, say, four beats (referred to as randu kalai chowkam). Usually when counting a tala in randu kalai chowkam, people mark each beat twice with the hand, to make sure each on is equal. “This is not necessary,” says the eminent percussionist, whose 90th birthday was celebrated with a festival and related events in the Capital over the past week.

With over eight decades of experience, the amiable vidwan belongs to a generation that had not heard of the term ‘child prodigy’ but produced many. As a child he learnt music under his father Thanu Bhagavathar. Avidly interested in the mridangam, he began to play the instrument, and by the age of eight was under the tutelage of the renowned Tanjore Vaidyanatha Iyer, who took him to Thanjavur and taught him in the best traditions of the guru shishya parampara. The celebrated mridangam maestro Palghat Mani Iyer (10 years Murthy’s senior) too was among the resident disciples.

At New Delhi’s India International Centre, seated along with his disciple, Professor T.K. Venkata Subramanian, and his son, noted music composer T.K. Jayaraman, the guru radiates joy as he discusses complex mathematical calculations. Whenever he mentions his own guru, his eyes are soft with affection.

“We all slept in the same room, the guru on the cot and we students on the floor. In the middle of the night, he might suddenly get up and tell us about some aspect of tala. That is how his mind worked — always immersed in music.”

The nonagenarian is known for having brought the 108 Talas — a classification that is no longer prevalent in Carnatic music — into awareness. On how this project began, he recalls with a smile that the station director of All India Radio, Trichinopoly (modern-day Tiruchirapalli), where he was a staff artiste, wanted to do “something new”. K.C. Thyagarajan was the station’s music producer. “So I said there are the 108 Talas. You choose a few of these and I will set the mora (rhythmic pattern that comes when a tala elaboration is coming to a close) and tadhinginatom (the closing tihai) for them.”

The project required delving into manuscripts in the Saraswati Mahal Library. The 108 Talas are explained in these manuscripts in sutra form, says Professor Subramanian, and therefore only a practitioner could work out the execution. Eventually some 20 talas were designed for presentation, with the young Murthy recommending two vocalists, a violinist (V. Sunderesan), two artistes each on the kanjira, the tavil and the dholak, and one on the morsunkh. He also asked for one more mridangam artiste. The grand ensemble met with a fine reception.

“I had asked them to ask five vidwans their opinion of the programme,” he recalls. The five included his guru. “I told them to ask on their own behalf, not mine,” he adds shyly. When his guru found out the tala patterns had been set by Murthy, he asked him how he managed. “I told him, it is you who have taught me,” says the maestro, explaining that he calculated by taking a familiar time cycle (say, 16 beats), and modified it to the number of beats he required to reconstruct the new patterns.

His guru’s approval earned, he thought, “Why not try all the 108?” His compositions of the 108 Talas, as well as the system of 72 Melakarta Talas, are available in CDs. “I have also played the 35 Talas (the classification of the 35 Suladi Sapta Talas currently in use in Carnatic music) for All India Radio Archives,” he says.

He may be a wizard at mathematics — despite having been formally schooled till about class IV, says Subramanian — but tala is not merely about numbers and beats. What about emotions and expressions (bhava) — at the heart of music?

“When we sing there is something called raga bhava, there is sahitya bhava, and there is swara bhava,” says the veteran. “Similarly, there is tala bhava.”

Accompaniment is of prime importance to him. He feels an accompanying artiste must understand the aesthetics: where to play, where not to play. “In the tani avartanam (percussion solo), you play what you have practised at home. But it is in accompaniment that you are tested, because you have to accompany and also embellish.”

The stalwart, who played the mridangam for M.S. Subbulakshmi for over five decades, has accompanied virtually all the great names in Carnatic music, not to mention dancers (among them Vyjayanthimala Bali), as well as the musical storytelling form of Harikatha, the devotional Namasankeertanam and Divyanamam of Tyagaraja, points out that great musicians are not swayed by the variegated rhythmic patterns of the percussionists. “Whatever we play, they will not be disturbed by it and will keep marking time.”

The varied exposure combined with the discipline of temple arts has given him a treasure house of learning. “I would enter the temple early in the morning and not come out till the evening,” he remarks.

Experience is useful, but experimentation, it seems, is more fun. At least the smile on the maestro’s face says so, as he reveals his next project: setting mora and tadhinginatom for the talas of Thiruppugazh, the 15th Century Tamil devotional compositions in praise of Lord Muruga.

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