‘Everything has changed, so too our music’

Trichy Sankaran. Photo: K. Ananthan   | Photo Credit: K. Ananthan

M.S. Subbulakshmi was stopping over at Toronto during her tour of the United States (U.S.). Trichy Sankaran was among the Indian expatriates waiting to see her. Sankaran, who was teaching at the York University, was overwhelmed when MS Amma agreed to his request to visit his house. During the conversation Sankaran enquired about Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer. “He misses you a lot,” said MS and Sankaran could not hold back his tears.

Sankaran was at the peak of his career when he made that very difficult decision to migrate to Toronto in 1971, after accepting an invitation to teach South Indian music there. “Of course, it was a very, very tough decision. There was this invitation from York University which then was planning to start courses in world music and I was invited to teach South Indian music. I accepted the offer and for the past 43 years I have been in Canada,” says Sankaran, mridangam virtuoso, composer, scholar and educator.

Teaching was something Sankaran always enjoyed. As Palani Subramania Pillai’s main disciple, it was Sankaran’s responsibility to teach the basics of mridangam to the few others who studied under Palani. Jon B. Higgins, the American musician, scholar and teacher, came to Chennai on a Fulbright Scholarship in the early 1960s.

“I had an American as my student. Higgins came over once or twice to listen to my classes and we met. It was Higgins who suggested my name when York University was looking for someone to join him to start the South Indian music programme. We together created the programme and set it rolling. In 1978 Higgins returned to Wesleyan University leaving me to head the Indian music programme.”

A post-graduate in Economics from Vivekananda College, Chennai, Sankaran started early music lessons from his cousin P.A. Venkataraman. When his guru moved from Trichy to Delhi, Sankaran also moved with him.

“One of my best memories of Delhi was meeting Pandit Ravi Shankar. He was then a music conductor at AIR and my guru once took me along to play the mridangam for one of the recordings. Ravi Shankar invited me to his house. He had arranged a sort of chamber concert for a select audience. And I played solo. This must have sometime in 1952.”

Later, Sankaran returned home and came under the tutelage of the legendary Palani Subramania Pillai.

“It was the gurukula system and my guru felt that I was ready for arangetram after three years. I performed along with my guru for a concert of Alathur Brothers with Lalgudi G. Jayaraman on the violin.”

“I was fortunate to play with my guru for artistes of repute such as Ariyakkudi Ramanuja Iyengar, Chembai Vaidyanatha Bhagavathar, Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer, Madurai Mani Iyer, G.N. Balasubramaniam, Alathur Brothers, Mudikondan Venkatarama Iyer, Flute T.N. Swaminatha Pillai, and many others.”

For nearly 11 years, this double mridangam of Palani and Sankaran continued to regale audiences. It ended with Palani’s death in 1962. By then Sankaran was being hailed as the rightful successor of the Palani style. “I cannot forget my first Music Academy concert. I was playing accompaniment to the noted flautist N. Ramani with V.V. Subramaniam on the violin. My guru (Palani) was there among the audience and so also the great flautist T.R. Mahalingam (Mali).”

Sankaran developed his identity as a mridangam artiste, creating new dimensions, turning innovative but never straying away from the traditional Palani school. It was at this phase of his career that Sankaran moved to Toronto.

“I had teething problems as a teacher. Not surprising for someone who had grown up under the gurukula system where the guru was never questioned.”

Sankaran was beginning to enjoy the challenges. “I learned the Western notation system as it was essential here where students read and write their music. So, I taught korvais and moras through western notation system. I wrote my own notation for all the mridangam strokes in a way that the students could understand the various fingering techniques and the use of hand to weave intricate patterns.”

This was a phase that saw the transformation of a master mridangam artiste into to a master teacher. But Sankaran longed to be in Chennai for the music season and turned nostalgic every time he thought about the Tyagaraja Aradhana festival at Thiruvaiyaru. “I made it a point to be in Chennai for the season and play in the concerts.”

Sankaran founded the annual Tyagaraja Festival in Toronto and also inspired many similar ones abroad. He has numerous published articles on Indian music, written two books, The Rhythmic Principles and Practices of South Indian Drumming and The Art of Konnakol.

“You could, in a sense, say that I’m a pioneer in introducing a study course in konnakol in York. I now have students doing their Ph.D. in solkattu. What I did was introduce study pieces for students and dance compositions. Many of my korvais written in solkattu form the content for my second book.”

Sankaran collaborated with various artistes and their music. “I love gamelan music and I have collaborated with a group in Toronto, composing for them. My first composition was premiered in 1984 and since then I must have composed seven to eight pieces. In one of them, I introduced ‘Mridanga Tarang’ where the mridangam was tuned to gamelan scale and an added solo piece.” Sankaran wrote a Mridangam Concerto, a whole western classical piece, that was premiered in Winnipeg in 1998.

He has some advice for young musicians. The gurukula system no longer exists. Everything has changed and so too our music. It has become fast. Students are restless and tend to jump from one teacher to another. Music is widespread but thin; it has breadth but no depth. Of course, there is a lot of talent. But it is imperative that they put a stamp on their music, without veering away from tradition,” Sankaran concludes.

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Printable version | Oct 26, 2020 6:09:17 AM |

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