The Right Chord Music

Akshay Anantpadmanabhan — at home in any genre

Akshay Anantpadmanabhan   | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

About 50 uniformed children, age group 5-10, happily clap their hands and recite konnakkol phrases to a refrain of instrumental music. An hour later, eyes bright, the children have bonded with their master of ceremonies and learned about the mridangam, ganjira, konnakkol and the cajon.

Akshay Anantapadmanabhan is immensely articulate, deconstructing complex thoughts into comprehensible nuggets, as in the workshop mentioned above. Probably the most recognised face of IndianRaga, Akshay spent his early years in India, followed by 15 years in the U.S. and many years travelling between both countries.

Akshay has accompanied them all — stalwarts, Sangita Kalanidhis and the young brigade — R.K. Srikantan, Sudha Ragunathan, O.S. Thiagarajan, N Ravikiran, Lalgudi GJR Krishnan and Lalgudi Vijayalakshmi, P. Unnikrishnan, T.M. Krishna, S. Shashank, Ranjani-Gayatri, Sikkil Gurucharan, Ramakrishnan Murthy, Sandeep Narayan, Vignesh Ishwar, Sriranjani Santhanagopalan and so on.

Ramakrishnan Murthy, who has known Akshay professionally since 2005, states, “Akshay is the quintessential millennial mridangist, straddling genres from pure Carnatic music to contemporary Indo-Western fusion. Maintaining purity of the classical art form and meeting the requirements of a fusion calls for an open mind and versatility. I have been amazed by these qualities in Akshay.”

Akshay responds: “When you create music outside your comfort zone, you may actually discover something new.” Besides solo performances highlighting Indian rhythm in non-traditional contexts, he has been recently involved with Carnatic 2.0 Reloaded, and The Thayir Sadam Project, whose production Crazy Little Thing Called Chakravakam (with Ranjani-Gayatri) reached over one million views on Facebook.

Engaging in Carnatic and independent music, contrary to popular belief, has been synergistic. “In the recording studio, just aligning the instrument to the sruti perfectly is very difficult, yet critical to make sure what I play is exact and tuned to perfection,” he informs. Sudha Ragunathan affirms this cognizance in kutcheri-s too, “Akshay is very conscious of the quality, timbre and resonance of his mridangam,” she says. “When unsure of my instrument, I play it for 1.5 to 2 hours before a concert. The mridangam really is like a person. The more time you spend with it, the more you are aware of its mood swings.” observes Akshay.

Between two spaces

He enjoys moving between the two mind spaces. Studio productions go through multiple iterations, artistes knowing exactly what, when and where they are going to play, effectively acting out roles. “On the other hand, in a traditional kutcheri, we are always creating content, constantly composing, forcing us to keep thinking outside the box,” he expands.

Sudha Ragunathan appreciates Akshay’s quick discernment of varying sound conditions. “He ambiently balances his instrument whilst ensuring that the vocal is heard above the mridangam.” According to Akshay, few Carnatic artistes are aware of how their instrument sounds through amplification. “It is important that the entire stage is balanced,” he says.

Akshay started training at age five in Mumbai with T.S. Nandakumar. Passion set in when he moved to the U.S. (where he learned from Venkat Natarajan, student of T.H. Subash Chandran), kickstarted by preparing to accompany his sister’s vocal programme (in 2001 at age 12). At the Cleveland Aradhana competitions in 2004 and 2005, Akshay won first prizes. Before long, he came under the tutelage of Subash Chandran. Challenging concerts piqued his interest. He mentions accompanying R.K. Srikantan — “I was 18 and he, about 90,” he says. “Senior artistes would teach me even as they sang — particularly noticeable with Srikantan mama.”

Seriously into tennis, Akshay juggled sports, academics and music. “I would frequently fall sleep on the mridangam,” he says. Akshay studied at The Cooper Union in New York City, getting a flawless 4.0/4.0 GPA in his Master’s degree. “On weekends, I lugged my mridangam to clubs, pubs, the metro and got exposed to jazz and other music too.”

Akshay keeps his tani avartanams short — usually no more than 10-15 minutes in a 2.5 hour concert. “I like the notion of keeping things compact, striving towards choosing meaningful phrases that reflect what has already happened.”

Lalgudi GJR Krishnan says, “Akshay is a pleasure to be with, has an open mind and the ability to adapt. He has the right temperament and his playing is focused and unobtrusive.” On his tranquil demeanour, Akshay says: “I like to plan for what might happen and account for it.”

Always elegantly attired, Akshay believes in the visual element, crediting his wife, dancer Sudharma Vaithiyanathan, for selecting fabrics and combinations. His kurtas are frequently custom-tailored, often with a complimentary mridangam cover too.

“I strive for my own identity as a mridangam artiste. In the olden days, people came to listen to specific artistes or combinations. I would like to establish myself similarly in the present 21st century scenario,” concludes Akshay.

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Printable version | Sep 17, 2021 10:42:37 AM |

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