Mridangam vidwan Music

Yella Venkateswara Rao: ‘I am still a student’

Mridangam maestro Yella Venkateswara Rao propagates face-to face learning from gurus

Yella Venkateswara Rao became a performer even before he became a student! He was barely seven years old when he gave his first mridangam performance without having had any formal learning.

A completely untutored child, he still impressed the audience. “It was Vinayaka Chavithi and I just took to the stage with only enthusiasm and love for the instrument as my motivators,” he recalls with a laugh. “I must have absorbed the music from the atmosphere around me at home. I am the fifth-generation musician in my family. My father was a violinist and student of music-icon Dwaram Venkataswamy Naidu, my uncle was Yella Rao Somanna and my forefathers too were trained in Carnatic music.”

Today, Carnatic musician Yella Venkateswara Rao has come a very long way — he is considered a legendary percussionist, a mridangam maestro with over 28,000 performances to his credit, and a list of awards and honours which runs into several pages and students whose numbers run into hundreds. He also has the reputation as an activist for the cause of classical music, having influenced the founding of many music departments and institutions related to classical music. Moreover, as a guru, he belongs to that rare breed who teaches only in the old-fashioned style of face-to-face classes and solely based on merit and talent, and without charging his students any fees. His intuitive understanding of the complexity and intricacy that Carnatic music percussion involves, a fertile musical imagination and vast experience have together made him a master of his art. Born in Bhimavaram, Andhra Pradesh, he now lives in Hyderabad. And yes, he did undergo formal training after that initial performance. He was born into a family with a rich musical heritage and he learnt the mridangam under his uncle Somannawho was disciple of Palghat Mani Iyer. “I still consider Palghat Mani Iyer and Palani Subramanya Pillai as my idols.”He adds, with a laugh: “Actually I have had other teachers too — every concert was my guru! I learnt something every time I performed, especially with great artistes as also with upcoming ones.”

He has accompanied with elan, both nervous youngsters as well as icons and maestros of Carnatic and Hindustani classical music.Many of these were jugalbandis.

It is challenging to be an accompanist, he says. “Every main artist has a different baani and style of playing. We have to understand it, adjust to it and provide percussion support in sync with that baani and complement it effectively. We have to add value with our support and enhance and uplift the concert."

A good accompanist quickly makes the main artist comfortable with him/her so that the audience senses and enjoys a good chemistry between the two of them. This is what Yella Venkateswara Rao does with his rich imagination, great skill and dexterity. He thus contributes immensely to the overall beauty and soukhyam of the concert.

He’d also earned a formidable reputation as a solo artiste. His scholarship combined with rich creativity have made his solo concerts crowd-pullers. The first concert happened entirely by chance. As he reminiscences, “It was around 1970 when I was at Nagarjunasagar to accompany a senior musician who did not turn up. I began playing just to engage the audience on their request as they waited for the main artiste and had to keep continuing as he did not come at all. Finally, the whole concert became a three-and-half-hour solo recital by me. It was God’s grace, or sheer destiny. It was an exhilarating experience and I realised that I had the potential to be a solo artiste. I became aware of the untapped creativity within me and that I had so much more to give to music lovers!”

Indeed, he has given a great deal to the world of classical-music. He has to his credit hundreds of lec-dems and workshops on topics like laya-vinyasam, percussion support, aesthetics of sounds, mathematics of mridangam and tani-avaratanam for mridangam. He has curated many percussion events with unusual themes. His name is part of the Guinness Book of World Records for playing mridangam non-stop for 36-hours. He played for the inauguration function of Ravindra Bharathi, Hyderabad.

The latest award he received is the Sangeeta Vignana Visharada by Vignana Samithi, Hyderabad.

After all these honours and critically appreciated performances, does he have any dreams left. “Oh yes! First I have a great deal more to learn — I am still a student, albeit a senior one. Secondly I would like to establish a dedicated music university in the two Telugu states. I would also like to organise a music show featuring performers of classical music and dance, and folk music and dance.”

What is his advice to aspiring musicians and students of classical music? “Do not be in a hurry to ascend the stage and perform. First strengthen your art and knowledge with untiring practice. Learning should be the focus rather than earning. Today unfortunately people are turning into teachers even as they are still undergoing tutelage and hence are under-equipped to teach.Even at the peak of my career and after receiving many honours I used to do relentless sadhana as I wanted to better myself. Secondly, listening is also very, very vital and not enough time is devoted to this. In our youth, attending a live concert was the only means to access a concert. However, today’s students have so many avenues to listen and learn like YouTube, Facebook streaming, videos, I-Pods, audio archives. I request them to use these resources wisely and enrich their knowledge. Also, face-to-face learning is better than online lessons.This is my advice to music-teachers too.”

Yella Venkateswara Rao also appeals to every parent to introduce their children to classical music. He also advocates classical music and dance classes at the school level. Not all students will become performers or professional musicians, he says, but the exposure to music will enrich their lives in so many ways and stay with them all their life.

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Printable version | Feb 20, 2020 4:58:32 PM |

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