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In his guru's footsteps

Guruvayur Dorai has accompanied stalwarts of Carnatic and Hindustani music.

Guruvayur Dorai is a source of encouragement to young musicians.

"PILLAI AVARVALODU antha vaashippu thaan njavakam vanthuthu" ("It reminded me of Pillai's playing.") Looking back on a musical journey of 60 years, it is these words that Guruvayur Dorai cherishes the most. They were spoken by the late Palghat Mani Iyer when Dorai accompanied Chitti Babu for a veena concert in the 1970s.

The Pillai referred to here is Palani Subramanya Pillai, master of the Pudukottai style (mridangam). Dorai says whatever fame and fortune he received during his career were owing to the blessings of his guru, Subramanya Pillai.

Dorai was in Kozhikode recently for the Thyagaraja Ulsavam, a music festival that has put Kozhikode on the cultural map of India. He has been a regular at the festival for the past 20 years. This time, Dorai accompanied Trichur V. Ramachandran and Sriram Gangadharan, on the first day of the festival.

Enriching experience

It was an enriching experience to hear from him stories about legends such as Chembai Vaidyanatha Bhagavathar, Palghat Mani Iyer, Pudukottai Dakshinamurthy Pillai, Ariyakudi Ramanuja Iyengar, Palani Subramanya Pillai and others.

The distinctive and extraordinary gumki technique (the bass tone variation created by the artiste on the left hand side of a mridangam by pressing and releasing its skin), a trademark of the Dorai style, bears a direct influence of the Palani school. Dorai made it more appropriate by bringing in a vivid resonance between the song and gumki. That is, whatever sangathi the main performer sings, Dorai embellishes it with a soft right hand stroke and an apposite gumki.

Dorai, born in a family of musicians (his elder sister, Guruvayur Ponnammal, was a celebrated vocalist and his brother Rajamani is a violinist), had his initial training under Palghat Subba Iyer and E.P. Narayana Pisharody. His arangetram was at the age of eight. He played for Chembai, who had always taken special interest in Dorai. It was through Chembai that Dorai came into close contact with veteran artistes. The turning point came when he became a disciple of `Palani sir' after moving to Chennai. There was no looking back after that. He recalls with pride accompanying stalwarts such as Musiri Subramanya Iyer, M.D. Ramanathan, Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer, G.N. Balasubramaniam, Veena Balachander, Chitti Babu and Flute Mali to name a few.

Dorai has been a constant source of encouragement for many present day artists such as T.N. Seshagopalan, T.V. Sankaranarayanan and Chitraveena Ravikiran.

Dorai recalled a concert by Veena Balanchander, for which Palani Subramanya Pillai was on the mridangam. Dorai was sitting beside Palani, keeping the thaalam. At one point, amid a complex Pallavi rendition, a slip in keeping the thaalam on Dorai's part made Palani angry. Although the matter was settled, Dorai agonised over the mistake. During a concert of Seshagopalan a few years ago, Dorai corrected an unexpected rise in the pitch of the mridangam, owing to the heat from high wattage stage lamps, by instantly adjusting the rope tension even as the song was being rendered. Such is his control over the instrument.

Dorai's knowledge of vocal music enables him to accompany a kriti effortlessly. He gives vocal concerts occasionally.

Dorai has performed with leading Hindustani artistes such as Bhimsen Joshi, Bismillah Khan, Pandit Ravishankar, Ustad Alla Rakha and Zakir Hussain. He has been regularly performing abroad since 1958.

He has been a visiting scholar at North American universities such as the University of Washington, Seattle, and Western Michigan University. He has received honours such as the Kalaimamani title from the Government of Tamil Nadu, Laya Chakravarthy title and so on.

Training youngsters

Dorai continues to train the young generation in the the Pudukottai school of m ridangam.


Photo: S. Ramesh Kurup

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