A woman playing the mridangam is rare and a foreign woman playing it is even rarer. But as Lara Pearson laughingly puts it: “People expect foreigners to do crazy things!” A mridangam student, Lara, who hails from England, says, she finds the beats of the mridangam regal. “That is the reason why I decided to learn it.”
Lara first heard the mridangam in 2002 when she was in India to do the “usual touristy things like sightseeing, meditation and yoga."
“It was at a concert in Mysore that I heard the mridangam. Although I was impressed by the stately sounds emanating from the instrument I never imagined I would learn it as playing it seemed like a strenuous and daunting task,” says Lara. However, during her stay in Mysore, a mridangam class for beginners in the neighbourhood had her attending them and learning the basics.
In search of a guru
“My teacher in Mysore wasn't a proficient one and as I wanted to learn more about the instrument I decided to find a guru during the Chennai Music Festival.” And that was where she heard mridangam artiste Changanasserry B. Harikumar playing the instrument.
“He was accompanying T.M. Krishna. His performance seemed surreal to me as he deftly accompanied the vocalist. I knew I had found my guru. But it did take quite a bit of persuasion for him to accept me as his student.”
And so from Mysore, she moved to Srirangam, Tiruchirappalli, where Harikumar resides. “He is an extremely busy man, what with his work and his concerts, so classes are usually whenever he has time to spare. Sometimes, it is just a couple of hours and sometimes it goes on for a whole day. Whatever the case, he never seems to tire of playing and explaining the mridangam,” says Lara, who adds that playing the mridangam is tough.
“You need strong hands and I am currently trying to build up my strength,” says the fragile-looking Lara.
Trained in the western violin, Lara is also learning to play the Carnatic violin. “I started learning to play the Carnatic violin in Mysore. I love the devotional aspect in Carnatic music, the depth and complexities of the raga…I'm currently learning the violin from T.K.V. Ramanujacharayalu in Srirangam,” says Lara who gets her guru to explain the layers of meanings behind each composition so that she can bring the right emotions to the pieces.
Her family, she says, is happy that she is doing what she loves – music. “Also I go home for a couple of months in a year to earn enough money to support myself back here, so they don't really miss me that much,” says Lara who does technical aspects (mostly editing) for various “small-time documentaries in England.”
Although she is fond Indian food, the only Indian dish she knows to prepare is kichidi. “But I rarely cook as I find it dull to prepare food for just one person. A local restaurant provides my food.”
Asked how she spends the days when she does not have classes and she says: “Practising. I am constantly trying to polish my skills. In fact that is all I do – practise.”
So, does she see herself in concerts soon? “I don't plan. I believe in going with the flow. I will perform only when my gurus, be it for the mridangam or the Carnatic violin, feel I am ready to do so. But more than performing, it's the spirituality of the music that I want to go deeper into.”