In a traditional Carnatic ‘kutcheri’ the ghatam is still not used as a main percussion instrument. But there are many gifted artistes who have worked hard and experimented to make the ghatam heard, giving this ‘pot-instrument’ a new dignity. Manjoor Unnikrishnan is one of those. A much preferred artiste, Unnikrishnan has accompanied almost all the top-ranking musicians, is graded B High in All India Radio (AIR), has performed with various artistes in numerous albums, has travelled with his ‘wonder pot’ to more than 22 countries and has played at various prestigious venues. Unnikrishnan talks about his musical journey.
Born and brought up in Pattanakad, I was fortunate to have parents who were musically inclined and supportive. My father, Pankajakshan Nair, worked at McDowell and Company, Cherthala. He was not a trained musician but he had great interest in it. It was he who instilled in me and two of my brothers this passion for music. He insisted that we learn and practice regularly. He took us to programmes and slowly this interest grew. In fact, Manjoor is my father’s place and I added this to my name to perpetuate his memory.
I did my Ganabhushanam at the RLV College of Music and Fine Arts, Tripunithura. I trained to play the mridangam but actually never played it all, except perhaps for my exams. Even in college, where the students had a programme called ‘Sruthilayam,’ I played the ghatam.
Two people, other than my father, played important roles in my career. My first guru was Cherthala Bhaskara Kurup, who taught me the nuances of mridangam. He is no more. And then I continued my music studies with G. Chandrasekharan Nair, who worked for AIR. He was instrumental in me choosing the ghatam. He believed that there were very few professional ghatam artistes and hence more opportunities. Later on I learned a lot from senior artistes like T. V. Vasan, Palakkad Narayanaswamy and E. M. Subramaniam who were gracious in guiding me during my fledgling days.
First major concert
It was at Alappuzha in 1986 and it came through chance. The ghatam artiste who was to accompany B.V.Raman and B.V.Lakshmanan could not make it. This was a temple concert and the organisers were in desperate search of a replacement. That was when someone mentioned my name. For me this was a God-sent opportunity. Mavelikkara Velukutty Nair (mridangam) and Alagiri Swami (violin) were the other artistes on stage. I think I did not fare very badly.
To achieve the tonal quality on the ghatam is tough. Apart from trying to create a dynamic, aesthetically aggressive style, I have attempted to master the ‘gamaka prayogam,’ which involves trying to play the base notes, using both wrists and even my stomach, to string together a rhythmic pattern. I use the heavy Manamadurai ghatam. And another thing is that at every concert I try to draw the attention of the audience to my instrument for at least two minutes.
My first tour abroad was in 2000 for a concert by M. Balamuralikrishna in Kuwait. From then on I have been fortunate to accompany some great artistes to around 22 countries. The most memorable of them was with Pala C. K. Ramachandran. It was for a programme of the Indian Council for Cultural Relations and we travelled across South Africa, Zambia, Mauritius, Botswana, Lesotho and so on.
I must have played the ghatam for over 25 concert albums by Trichy Ganesan, Mathangi Satyamurthi, Sankaran Namboodiri and so on. Apart from this I have been part of Balabhaskar’s fusion ensemble. When I have free time I also accompany my brothers, who along with a group of youngsters, play regularly at two resorts in Kumarakom. On an average I play for at least a 100 concerts every year.
I have two brothers, Ramesh and Ranjit. Both of them have established themselves as a vocalist and violinist, respectively. The wives of both my brothers are accomplished dancers. We have now started a school at home called ‘Chilanka.’ I also devote some time to train a few students here. My wife, Jyothi, is a working woman and I have a six-year-old boy, Ananthakrishnan.