Karaikudi Mani puts the mridangam on the global stage

Mridangam exponent Karaikudi Mani, who is part of many cross-cultural projects

Mridangam exponent Karaikudi Mani, who is part of many cross-cultural projects

Monjo is reluctant to let me in till the watchman intervenes. To befriend him, I gently pat his head. The handsome brown Labrador then follows me till the door of his master Karaikudi Mani’s room. He decides to sit outside till the interview is over.

It’s a warm Sunday afternoon and the celebrated percussionist is relaxing in his modest house, ‘Layapriya’, in R A Puram, Chennai. He is just back from Melbourne after the premiere of his latest collaborative project ‘New Springs.’

The seeds of this collaboration were sown when Karaikudi Mani joined hands with the Australian Art Orchestra (AAO) in 1996, establishing a long-term link between jazz and Carnatic music. This resulted in a piece titled ‘Into the Fire’ that was released as an album, followed by ‘Two Oceans’ and an extensive world tour (including South India).

“It was a Bahudari-Ranjani composition that facilitated this musical alliance. The Orchestra’s founder and artistic director, pianist Paul Grabowsky, felt it was a piece that would accomodate jazz tunes seamlessly,” says the Vidwan.

‘New Springs’ takes a fresh look at the partnership. Renowned Australian jazz musicians and Mani-admirers Sandy Evans and Adrian Sheriff put together an ensemble to once again celebrate the beauty of the two musical forms. Sandy and Adrian had been part of AAO’s projects with Mani. Bassist Jonathan Dimond, drummer Adam King, violinist V. Raghavendra Rao and ganjira artiste Guruprasanna complete the ‘New Springs’ line up.

Mridangam exponent Karaikudi Mani with Sandy Evan, Adrian Sheriff, Jonathan Dimond, Adam King, Raghavendra Rao and Guruprasanna

Mridangam exponent Karaikudi Mani with Sandy Evan, Adrian Sheriff, Jonathan Dimond, Adam King, Raghavendra Rao and Guruprasanna

“At this age (he turned 75 on September 11), long flights and rehearsal sessions are exhausting. But it is difficult to quieten the artiste in you. Rhythm still keeps playing on the mind since I have connected with the world only through it,” he says running his hand over his neatly combed hair.

Though he is not frequently seen on the concert platform these days, nothing has changed about the ace mridangist. Long beard and crisp white shirt and dhoti still define his personality as much as those beats with a soul that emerge from his mridangam. His drumming is often the force that drives a concert’s hormonal energy. Technically flawless, his incredible rhythm patterns are a blend of intuition and ingenuity. Like his idol, percussion wizard Palghat Mani Iyer, he made the tani avarthanam a much-looked-forward to section of a kutcheri.

“To stop people from treating it as a tea break, percussionists need to make it creatively elevating. You have to project your individuality even while adding value to the group interaction. A great kutcheri is as much about the supporting artistes as the main,” says the veteran, who has shared the stage (he is averse to the word ‘accompanist’) with stalwarts of the Carnatic world.

If the training under Karaikudi Rangu Iyengar, T.R. Harihara Sharma and K.M. Vaidyanathan gave him a thorough understanding of the instrument’s grammar, it also gave him the confidence to explore and express it in his own style. Mani has undertaken several initiatives to turn the spotlight on the mridangam. The Sruthilaya ensemble, started by him, is one such. It transformed the style of mridangam playing and brought together, for the first time, Carnatic instrumentalists on the same platform. Mani came up with an exclusive repertoire for the ensemble’s concerts. “Also, when opportunities to put the mridangam on global platforms come my way, I try to make the most of them,” says the Vidwan, for whom cross-cultural exercises have never been planned experiments.

Mani forayed into the collaborative space in 1998 with Eero Hämeenniemi, composer and artistic director of Finland Philharmonic Orchestra. Eero invited him to perform with the 90-member orchestra in Helsinki and named the composition — and Mani’s house — Layapriya. He has also collaborated with the popular American singer-songwriter and winner of 16 Grammys Paul Simon (of Simon and Garfunkel).

Karaikudi Mani with popular singer-songwriter Paul Simon

Karaikudi Mani with popular singer-songwriter Paul Simon

“I didn’t make much of it but Jamey Haddad, an American drummer, who learnt the nuances of Indian rhythm from me, made sure that I say ‘yes’ to the project. He told me, ‘you don’t realise how huge this is’. I remember it was an eight-hour recording in a Manhattan studio. The composition ‘Dazzling Blue’ was part of Simon’s much-talked-about album ‘So Beautiful or So What’.”

You cannot miss the excitement in Karaikudi Mani’s voice when he speaks about ‘Steps in Time’, the album with the shakuhachi virtuoso John Kaizan Neptune.

“An amazing artiste, he stunned me with the inventive tunes that his bamboo flute produced. The international musicians I work with understand my classical sensibilities and the strong desire to not deviate from the tradition. They also realise that there is no space for gimmicks or one-upmanship. These are not ad-hoc jamming; they are well-thought presentations.”

Mani feels that he has gained a lot from these exchanges. For instance, as incharge of the rhythm section of the 130-member Sai Symphony (put together to mark Sai Baba’s 90th birthday), a composition of German composer Mike Herting, he got to interact with the African drummer Pape Samory Seck.

Karaikudi Mani

Karaikudi Mani

“Though he didn’t know the mathematics behind different rhythmic calculations, he had the uncanny ability to pick up any beat. We performed in Puttaparthi, Delhi, Germany, China and plans are on to go to Japan. Multi-genre ensembles open your mind to new sounds and broaden your perspective of art,” he says.

Karaikudi Mani’s rhythm language is not about loud sounds and thrilling strokes, it’s more about subtle expressions and conveying the intricacies of laya.

“Beats can keep a count of both time and emotion,” says the mridangam exponent. Monjo seems to have been keeping count of the 60 minutes I spent talking to his master. As I get up to leave, he rushes to the gate to see me off.

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Printable version | Aug 8, 2022 10:29:17 am |