FRIDAY REVIEW

A pot of gold, a touch of magic

ANJANA RAJAN

THE CLAY MASTER T.V. Vasan doesn't believe in accompanist-solo divide.

THE CLAY MASTER T.V. Vasan doesn't believe in accompanist-solo divide.  

They say people who start off young stay young. It's a debatable issue, but when you look at T.V. Vasan, the diminutive ghatam exponent, whose grizzled hair and beard do nothing to make his impish smile look 50-ish, you might just agree. Vasan, who has made a formidable name for himself as a percussionist, started learning to play the mridangam at the age of three. His guru was his eldest brother, the illustrious T.V. Gopalakirshnan.

Trained in mridangam and ghatam, besides the tavil, the pakhawaj and the maddalam, Vasan is perhaps best known for his ghatam accompaniment. What led him to specialise in the clay drum was his family circumstances, says Vasan. "My father was already retired. My guru recommended I learn the ghatam and would take me along when he accompanied artistes on the mridangam. I am very grateful to him. He would share his remuneration with me. Also, as there were lots of mridangam players and less ghatam players, there were more chances in this field." But money wasn't the only advantage. Accompanying his guru meant a wealth of learning. "It was training along with performing. He taught me about when to play, when to refrain, when to join in with him, how to play with neraval (improvisation with lyrics), with swara passages, how to be alert when others play."

Having begun his career as a nine-year-old accompanying the great Chembai Vaidyanatha Bhagavatar, Vasan has garnered a treasure house of experience, which is an asset in an improvised art that requires skills of anticipation.

Vasan shy smile lights up his face. "They say I have immaculate anticipation." He quickly adds, "It comes with the survival instinct!" Being too quick to anticipate can land an accompanist in trouble, he submits, recalling how once as a youngster, he thought he knew the arudhi (ending cadence) the mridangam artiste would play, and started on it. "He stopped playing, telling me, `You go ahead'. "

On the whole though, it helps to be watchful, says this top ranking ghatam artiste of All India Radio. Having been employed with AIR for the past 28 years, he has also produced a number of features related to music and drama. There are few countries Vasan has not visited. Europe, the U.S., South Asia... that delicate clay drum so unique to India has visited them all. Vasan, whose disciples have been ranked in AIR's A-grade and among whom A.S. Murali is making a name for himself as a percussionist, is not bothered by the accompanist-solo divide. "If you are good, you will automatically come into the limelight," he says.

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