Tavil maestro Karuna Moorthy has made the sound of the percussion instrument heard on prestigious international platforms around the world. The musician shares the highlights of his career and life.

Clad in immaculate white, with every curl of his crowning glory in place, the chubby-cheeked 43-year-old tavil maestro Karuna Moorthy is a picture of composure as he settles down for a chat at Taj Vivanta in the capital city. Five minutes into the conversation, the poised globetrotting musician beats a retreat and the devoted musician in Karuna surfaces and proceeds to talk non-stop about his fascination for the thavil. There is passion, there is dedication, there is conviction, there is pain, and there is humour and foresight. “I am in love with the tavil. I talk to my tavil and there is nothing that my tavil does not know about my life,” he confesses.

Karuna and his tavil are jetsetters. The World Percussion Trio, one of the many associations Karuna has forged with world-class musicians, was formed in 2002 with Steve Smith and Hakim Ludin. Sizzling flamencos, percussion programmes all over Europe, jazz fusion recitals in Mumbai, thumping percussion fusion programmes in Kerala… there is little that Karuna has not tried on the tavil, a percussion instrument that is usually played in temples and for Hindu marriages.

Dismissing the widely held perception that the tavil is a ‘loud instrument’ that drowns out other instruments, he says the misconception is because of musicians who have little idea about how to play the instrument. Holding up his hand, he says: “Look at my fingers and hands! They are not calloused. If you know the right finger techniques and the right way to play the tavil, it can be played on any stage. The tavil is not a percussion that is meant only to drum up excitement. It is a sensitive percussion that can be performed solo or to accompany other musicians. I have played with Louis Banks on the piano and he was amazed at the way we jelled together. He did not think it was loud! Maestros such as veena exponent Rajesh Vaidya, saxophonist Kadri Gopalnath, tabla maestro Zakhir Hussain and guitar legend Carlos Santana do not seem to think the thavil drowns out the nuances of their music.”

Exasperated with misconceptions and prejudices, Karuna clarifies that to be a god musician, it is important to open one’s mind to all kinds of music and art. Instead of confining himself to musicians, the tavil exponent makes it a point to interact with artistes from all walks of life. “They could be filmmakers, painters, dancers, sculptors or writers. But each one of them has an interesting insight to offer and that broadens my horizon. Moreover, I am a fan of world music and try to keep in touch with the world,” says Karuna.

Pausing to catch his breath for a while and after pondering on his own words, Karuna adds: “It is loose talk, big talk, vanity and selfishness on the part of musicians that are pushing many streams of music toward extinction. If only musicians would concentrate on their art, share their skills and learn to position themselves properly, all would be well," adds Karuna.

Karuna’s affair with the percussion instrument began long again in a village in Haripad when a little boy heart’s beat to the rhythm of the thavil that he heard in the Subramanyam temple there. “Perhaps it is in my genes considering I hail from the family of the legendary Ambalappuzha brothers. With the blessings of my parents, Radhakrishnan Nair and Murukeswari, I began learning from Narayana Panicker,” recalls Karuna.

The youngster’s performance during a youth festival caught the attention of Damodar Panicker who requested one of the judges Tanjavur Govindaraj to meet the boy. Taken up by the teenager’s dedication and talent, he agreed to take Karuna as his student. “It was truly the age-old gurukulam tradition wherein a student stayed with his guru, did all his chores, and also imbibed the art from him. I stayed there for 12 years. He opened my eyes to a new world in music and rhythm,” he remembers. Even his father’s misgivings did not make him falter in his passion for the tavil.

Then for seven years, he learnt from Tiruvidaimarudur Venkatesh, his guru’s guru. He went on to become the disciple of Valayapatti Subramania and Mannarcudi Vasudevan. Once he was done with his training, Karuna set out to make the sound of the tavil heard loud and clear on the international platform. Moving away from the beaten track Karuna boldly began collaborating with world-class musicians that soon gained him an international reputation.

Two years in Chennai convinced him that he was better off living in a village. And that was how Vaikkom became his home town. “I get the peace and quiet to practise and create and spend quality time with my family. I find that my stay here recharges me,” says Karuna.

The musician now hopes to begin a centre of excellence at Vaikkom that will train youngsters in piano, drums, music and so on. He hopes to get his friends and fellow musicians to hold workshops and residencies to attract the best of talent.

Short takes

  • Some of the best tavil players come from Sri Lanka. I feel that the origin of the percussion might have been that country.
  • There might be hundreds of players who play the tavil better than me but there is only one Karuna. That is because I am not willing to compromise on my music and that has helped me position the tavli centre stage.
  • I am co-producing a movie – directed by my dear friend Rajeev anna (T.K. Rajeevkumar)
  • My wife, Latha, is my manager. We have two children –Ananth Moorthy and Athira Moorthy. While Ananth plans to become a sound engineer, Athira’s aim is to become a postgraduate in management and run the place that I hope to begin.

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