We’re informed that a spectator who came down from Mumbai to watch Karaikudi Mani, Abhishek Raghuram, Ghatam Suresh and Lalgudi Krishnan perform together at Ravindra Bharathi the previous weekend had to return disappointed for the unavailability of a seat. The sound of the applause dominated the tani avartanam at the concert, something that mridangam artiste Karaikudi Mani strived for all these years. The 70-year-old returns to Hyderabad after a two year gap and is happy to see the combination concert materialise so well. “These are rare moments, you never know if this can even happen, a decade from now,” the veteran mridangam artiste sports an honest smile, as he readies for a conversation dressed in his white dhoti.
Karaikudi’s focus when he performs is on the anubhavam, he says the reception is dependent on the musician’s effort to go beyond the words and the talam. “When I’m on stage, I forget about the audience, I don’t bother if someone’s leaving or sitting back to listen to me. My focus is entirely on the music, it’s like sitting in a puja.” Karaikudi says he has moved on with time, even as he informs us that he still doesn’t know how to send an SMS. “Technology aids us, but my world is beyond that.”
While vocalists and violinists have had several pioneers for every generation who’ve re-emphasised the form’s significance, it is to the credit of only a handful like Palghat Mani Iyer, Palani Subramania Pillai that mridangam got its due beyond an accompanying instrument. So much that vocalists, violinists and flautists regardless of their other commitments agreed to perform at a date that was convenient for the veterans. The 80s was when Karaikudi took on the onus from them. “The tani avartanam that my gurus popularised meant a tea break for many. I was disturbed by the trend and went onto establish Sruthilaya, an organisation to get mridangam back to centre-stage. I wanted percussion to embrace its yesteryear glory, my focus also was to ensure knowledgeable rasikas, who are aware of the nadai, if it is khandam or a tisram and go beyond merely appreciating the lyrics and the rhythm.” While there are temples that revere dance, for instance the Chidambara Natraja Swami, the only temple that celebrates music is a god known by her instrument, Mridanga Saileswari in Kerala. “How privileged must we be for that?”
He’s particular about addressing mridangam players as supporting artistes and not accompanists. They do more than just accompanying the other musicians, he says. Yet, despite all the reverence for the instrument, it’s not often that you spot a woman playing a mridangam. There have been all-woman percussion ensembles occasionally, but it’s hard to believe that it’s a male-dominated arena. The reasons that Karaikudi states are quite practical. “People think twice before they rope in a woman who plays the mridangam. The attire is one, sometimes people are worried if she might grab more eyeballs than the other musicians. When a female vocalist isn’t coming forward to organise a concert with them, it’s tough to take things forward. Gender isn’t a roadblock to art and I firmly believe women can be as good as men.” In fact, the only M.A student enrolled for mridangam from Hyderbad’s Potti Sreeramulu Telugu University is a woman.
Regardless of the gender barrier, it’s an open fact that not many opt to be a mridangam artiste by profession in the Telugu speaking states. Karaikudi in fact had even advised a few to not take up mridangam as a career. “I must admit opportunities to perform here are lesser. The organisers are more interested in hosting two-three concerts a year more as a token gesture and feel their job ends with that. Then there’s the issue of remuneration, there are insecurities. Many compare mridangam artistes as pet dogs, they are treated well, but they are only pets and not humans. It’s saddening that the land that gave birth to the likes of Tyagaraja and Annamacharya struggles to produce new artistes.”
He says it’s time that organisers relook at concerts more than a package deal. “When the organiser takes personal interest on the people he wants to rope in for the concert, then there’ll be a purpose to it. It’s like how we go to a hotel and eat whatever they serve us, these days we never ask what we want. Music has become like that.” The musicians should know where and when to alter their presentation, according to changing tastes, he adds. “If you keep rehashing the same content, the rasika too will be tired. The artistes today are content too easily.”
What he does differently is to cater to the younger lot more. Most of his students across Chennai, London, Australia and other parts of the globe are in their late teens who take him as an example for his time-bound experiments with the instrument. Karaikudi took up fusion when it wasn’t the norm with an Austrailian jazz-troupe and continues to do so for a period of two decades now. He played mridangam to a poem in one of his albums too.
“An artiste isn’t known by his name, it’s for the art in them. You should travel with music and be like a yogi. Fusion isn’t merely about blending different western and classical instruments on the stage. Besides knowing our roots, it’s essential to know how the other instrument blends with ours. We should make an extra effort to understand their music and don’t merely trust the instrument to do the talking. You need to be patient to produce good results, to gather experiences. Just like how a different measure of ingredients livens up a dish, music also deserves a right combination of cultures. If you just combine instrument sounds, it’s noise and not music.”
He’s willing to collaborate with people for more albums in the future, but understands the digital-turn of the music industry. He’s in fact accepting of the change to add, “Online platforms are safer and more feasible for musicians now. I played with the American musician Paul Simon (of Simon & Garfunkel) who’s earning millions out of the avenue. I haven’t composed for an album after Anudrutham, but the online way, the musician getting the direct benefit is appreciable.”
“In the rhythm sense and ragam-taanam-pallavi, D K Pattammal once played three notes for a dhrutam and a laghuvu, where the talam changes to tisram the second time around. It was a challenge for me to match up to that. With M S Subbulakshmi as I performed, her efforts to ensure a bhakti bhavam without compromising on the mass appeal are staggering. I enjoyed both their styles equally.”
On Rajeswari Sainath’s rhythm sense
“I never work as a percussionist in a dance item except for my niece Rajeswari Sainath, who has a high quality of rhythm sense. It’s either Adi tala or a Rupaka tala varnam for dance items, she went onto orchestrate a piece in Tisra Triputa that had totally 21 beats. She also did one to emphasise the role of Vishnu and Shiva’s friendship and on them being the protector and the destroyer. The artiste is challenged here, but the respect for him/her is thereby increased among rasikas.”