H is fans travel far and wide to see his nimble fingers dance on the mridangam. Although many seek him as their guru, Changanesserry B. Harikumar is forced to turn them down as he is busy with various commitments. However, the mridangam vidwan, a top rank artiste of All India Radio, does share his knowledge and expertise of the instrument through various seminars and workshops on the mridangam at venues across India. Harikumar, who is based in Tiruchirappalli, was in Thiruvananthapuram recently in connection with a one-day workshop on the mridangam organised by Surabhi Sangeeta Sabha. Excerpts from an interview…
How it all began
It started when I would tap my fingers in accordance to the beat of various film songs as a child. My parents felt I had talent. That is how I started learning the mridangam under Master Vazhappally Chellapa at the age of seven. Although I had no prior knowledge about the mridangam, but once I began learning the instrument, I was hooked. My thoughts and sleep were filled with the mridangam. Studies took a back seat. I started accompanying bhajans and kutcheris on the mridangam at various venues at the age of nine.
The right direction
Through all my formative years I was lucky to have people pointing me in the right direction. It was Master Chellapa who suggested I learn more about the mridangam from Kaithavana K. Madhavan. I started learning under him when I was 10. He in turn suggested I study under Mavelikara Velukutty Nair when I applied to Sree Swathi Thirunal College of Music. Mavelikara Velukutty Nair is my guru till date. I received a Central Government Scholarship to study under him. A disciple of late mridangam maestro Palakkad Mani Iyer, he trained me under the same bani. Style mantra
The most important part is to follow. How are you following the vocalist or the leading instrument? It will vary according to the style of the vocalist, the mood of the song, the tala and even the raga. The percussion should never overpower the song. I have developed a style of playing, which is primarily rooted to the ‘Mani Iyer' style. But I have also imbibed the subtleties from other banis like the ‘Palani' school, for instance. When it becomes a synthesis, it gives you your style.
Importance of taniavartanam
Throughout the concert, the percussionist has to accompany the vocalist and the predominant role there is to support. Even for the taniavartanam, the vocalist decides the tala, jathi and edams. Many a time it's a surprise and challenge to the accompanists. The success depends on how one would interpret and innovate the challenge spontaneously. I always try to ensure that I never repeat myself be it koruvas or kurappukal. This ensures that there is always something new to the audience.
I have accompanied various top ranking vocalists and instrumentalists for more than 30 years, all over the world. I have accompanied many maestros such as K.V. Narayanaswamy, P.S. Narayanaswamy, Dr. M Balamuralikrishna, Madurai T.N. Seshagopalan and T.V. Shankara Narayanan, to name a few.
Chemistry of instruments
I have participated in various jugalbandhis with maestros such as T.N. Krishna and Zakir Hussein, Vishnu Mohan Bhatt, Mysore Nagaraj, Kadri Gopalnath and Ronu Majumdar. Playing jugalbandis is a different ball game. From a typical Carnatic style of playing, one has to adapt to the chemistry of jugalbandhi. While maintaining your identity, one also has to show the flexibility to reach the confluence. Otherwise, both Carnatic and Hindustani, or even the mridangam or tabla, will remain only as islands.
It needs team work to make a concert a success. It is not just enough that the vocalist has a melodious voice; the percussionists need to be in key too. It is sad that the media rarely acknowledge the role percussionists play in a concert. Our performance and role is often described in a word or two. Without a description on our part of the concert, how will we know if something needs to be amended in our next performance? Also, like any artiste, we would like to know when our performance deserves a word of praise.
I have had several requests asking me to train children in the mridangam. I often have to turn them down. This is because my work at AIR and concerts take up most of my time. That is why I am in favour of seminars and workshops. Such events do not eat up much of my time and yet, I can share my knowledge of the instrument to interested students. In fact, I enjoy my role as a travelling guru and try as far as possible to spare a day or two a month to conduct such classes.
Generation Now students
I feel there are more students learning Carnatic music now as compared to my days as a student. This could be because most parents are now open to music as a career for their kids. The children today are also more dedicated; they have to be, as it is now a competitive field with so many talented students coming up. Albums
I have accompanied maestros such as T.N. Seshagopalan, T.V. Shankaranarayan and Sikkil Guruchalan in various albums. I recently accompanied Dr. M. Balamuralikrishna in a yet untitled VCD. It contains five varnams composed by the maestro himself. Instead of the violin, the veena played by Ashwathy Tirunal Rama Varma accompanies him, and I, on the mridangam. There is also a VCD titled ‘Raag Rang,' a jugalbandhi by Kadri Gopalnath (saxophone), Pravin Godkhindi (flute) and myself (mridangam). I am planning to do albums with a focus on the mridangam soon.
The percussion should never overpower the song.