chat N. Shankar on his artistic journey. TAPATI CHOWDURIE
N. Shankar, a veteran mridangam artiste of Kolkata, was born in a typical Tamil Brahmin family in March 1960 in Thiruvananthapuram. His mother Lakshmi Narayanaswamy, a Carnatic vocalist, discovered his early interest in the mridangam and put him under the able guidance of late L.V. Vaidyanathan in 1970. Exposed to different kinds of music, including jazz, blues and rock, over the years, he formed his own group, Layavinyas, in 1989 and has been expanding his creative horizons ever since. Here he answers a few questions on his life in music . Excerpts…
Learning the Tanjore bani
L.V. Vaidyanathan belonged to the Tanjore bani of playing the great art form, which was made so popular by the legend of the mridangam, Palghat Mani Iyer, and, later, I underwent advanced training from the legendary Kerala mridangam vidwan, Mavellikara Velukutty Nair , who was the senior disciple of the doyen Palghat Mani Iyer.
I gave my first performance in a Carnatic classical concert at the annual Saint Thyagraja Music Festival during the Aradhana celebrations. This became regular feature for me and I was noticed as a young accompanist during these festivals. From 1977 onwards, I started accompanying junior vocalists and, later, after a year graduated to accompanying senior musicians of Kolkata, in both vocal and instrumental.
I got a major breakthrough in 1978, when I appeared for the Taal Vadya Baichitram, a special concert where some of the big names in the Hindustani percussion world from Kolkata were performing, and I was taken to play the mridangam there.
Connection with Hindustani music
For a couple of years I was a part-time accompanist in the instrumental department of Rabindra Bharati University, Kolkata (RBU). This association brought me in close contact with great stalwarts of Hindustani music at an early age. I thus got an insight into the actual world of music. During this period, I got an opportunity when Pandit Shankar Ghosh, the legendary tabla maestro, asked me to join his famous ‘Music of Drums’ as a guest accompanist along with famous percussion artistes such as Kalamandalam Kesavan Poduval. With this troupe we performed all over the country and I was exposed to a different world of percussion melody. This was a beautiful association, which, later on, also became a part of my inspiration, while experimenting with percussion and melody fusion.
Giving up music
Opportunities for Carnatic music were less in Kolkata. So when I got an offer, just after completing my graduation in the early ’80s, to work for a major export organisation in their marketing area, I grabbed it and left the part-time job at RBU.
Making a comeback
Apart from playing in concerts with visiting artistes from South India as well as playing selectively for dance recitals, where my mother used to sing, I was exposed to new-age music in which the percussion instrument became a central performing item. I was inspired by Ustad Zakir Hussain’s band Shakti and legendary mridangam vidwan Karaikuddi Mani’s classical group Shruti Laya, and Pandit Shankar Ghosh's Music of the Drums.
In 1989, I, along with a couple of my musically inclined friends who played the violin, kanjira or ghatam, formed a band called Layavinyas, a name chosen specially by my mother, who encouraged me constantly. I started Layavinyas with five members — violin by G.V. Rajan as melody support, Venkatachalam on the mridangam, P.V. Sairam on the ghatam and on the ganjira and one of my tabla students, Kaushik Chowdhury. It was an instant success. By the time the first year ended, we had performed at least 15 concerts and got good reviews. Encouraged by this success I brought in new sounds too and included tabla tarang and sitar. We created new compositions in varied rhythm patterns of Carnatic percussion and also the tabla bols, combining both Carnatic melody and rhythm as well as passages from Hindustani music.
N. Shankar, a veteran mridangam artiste of Kolkata, was born in a typical Tamil brahmin family on March 28 1960 in Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala. His mother Lakshmi Narayanaswamy, a Carnatic vocalist, discovered his initial interest in the mridangam and put him under the guidance of late L.V. Vaidyanathan in 1970. L.V. Vaidyanathan belonged to the Tanjore bani of mridangam playing, popularised by the legend of the mridangam, Palghat Mani Iyer. Later he underwent advanced training under the eminent mridangam vidwan of Kerala, Mavellikara Velukutty Nair of Thiruvanathapuram — himself a senior disciple of Palghat Mani Iyer.
Shankar first appeared at a classical concert during the annual Tyagaraja Music Festival during the ‘aradhana’ celebrations of the saint musician. Shankar made his mark as a young mridangam accompanist during these festivals regularly from 1977 and started accompanying junior vocalists; after a year he graduated to accompanying senior musicians of Kolkata, in both vocal and instrumental concerts, and became in the process a sought after accompanist. Since his mother was also a busy musician, mainly accompanying dance recitals of Kolkata Kalamandalam as well as other dancers, he was exposed to dance forms too.
However, it is as an accompanist for Carnatic concerts or kutcheris that he is best known. Though raised in a musical family, he could not be kept away from the usual attractions of childhood, says Shankar. He was an active cricketer too. Once, with a performance lined up in the evening, he injured his finger during an afternoon cricket tournament. He recalls hiding his pain and playing at the concert without telling his parents and guru — who would have been very angry. After the two hour concert he was left with a huge swollen finger.
When hardly 18, Shankar got an opportunity to appear in the Taal Vadya Baichitram, a special concert, where some of the big names in Hindustani percussion world from Kolkata were performing.
For a couple of years Shankar was a part time accompanist in the instrumental department of Rabindra Bharati University Kolkata. This association with the University brought him in close contact at his such an young age to great stalwarts of Hindustani music. He thus got an insight into the actual world of music .During this stage he got a huge opportunity when the legendary tabla giant from kolkata Pandit Shankar Ghosh wanted him to join his famous ‘Music of Drums’ as a guest accompanist along with the other famous kerala percussion artistes like Kalamandalam Kesavan Puduval. With this troupe Shankar travelled all over the country and performed and was for the first time exposed to a different fusion world of percussion melody this was a beautiful association which later on also became a part of his inspiration for Shankar was ever into newer ventures in experimenting with percussion and melody fusion .
Opportunities for carnatic music were less in kolkata. Very few organizations were having concerts and also the local All India Radio Station did not have a separate section or gradation given to carnatic music and so when Shankar got an offer after just completing his graduation to work for an major export organization in their marketing area grabbed the job in the early 80s and left the part time job at RBU as there was prospect of going abroad in this job. After leaving this job he started his own business with a business partner and this helped him in pursuing music in a serious way and helped him in touring around the globe.
Apart from playing in regular concerts with visiting artistes of repute from south India as well as playing selectively for dance recitals, where his mother used to sing, he was exposed to the new age music in which percussion instrument became a central performing item.He was inspired by the Ustad zakir Hussain band 'Shakti' and then the legendary Mridangam vidwan ‘s Sri Karaikuddi Mani’s classical group Shruti Laya, and Pt.Shankar Ghosh’s music of the drums.In the year 1989, he along with his couple of musically inclined friends who played the violin, kanjira or ghatam he formed a band called “Layavinyas”, a name chosen specially by his mother, who encouraged him constantly.With his exposure to different music,which included jazz, the blues and the rock, he started Layavinyas with five members- a violin by G.V. Rajan as melody support,Venkatachalam on the mridangam P.V.Sairam on Ghatam and on kanjira and one of his tabla student Kaushik Chowdhury. The journey of Layavinyas started.It was an instant success for the team.By the time the first year ended they had nearly performed in at least fifteen concerts getting good reviews .Encouraged by this success Shankar brought in new sounds too and included tabla tarang and sitar to their team.They ushered in new compositions in varied rhythm pattern of carnatic percussion and also the tabla bols, combining both carnatic melody and rhythm as well as passages from the Hindustani music system.