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Mridangam sans borders

K. PRADEEP

Veteran mridangam exponent Karaikudi R. Mani is at home playing Carnatic music, Western music and fusion.

PHOTO: SHIV KUMAR PUSHPAKAR

Rhythmic beats Mridangam exponent Karaikudi R. Mani.

Of all the elements united in a concert, rhythm is perhaps the most natural to us. When Karaikudi R. Mani weaves intricate patterns on his magical mridangam some of the most complex and unexpected combinations turn simple, beautiful and inevitable. There is in Mani's mridangam something special; there is the Karaikudi Mani bani (style), precision, virtuosity, sound quality ... all which blends so well with “scholarship, sense and silence.”

Mani is a classicist, his style and training founded in a traditional system. If this is what makes him a much sought after guru, Mani is equally at home playing with the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra or the Australian Art Orchestra. With the Sruthilaya percussion ensemble Mani elevated the mridangam to the centre stage. He performs in Thripunithura this weekend. In an e-mail interview the maestro shares his thoughts on his music, trends and more…

The mridangam is an integral part of fusion ensembles. Is there a difference in which the mridangam is used in different genres?

The mridangam plays a vital role in a classical concert. When played in fusion it takes a different dimension. One should understand that a mere cluster of Indian and Western instruments on stage and performing together is not fusion. It requires complete understanding of the concept, individual roles and commonalities of melody and rhythmic patterns. The uniqueness of every instrument, its tone, subtleties need to be given due share. A mridangam player should avoid playing continuously; the entry must be at the right occasion, must avoid heavy classical strokes, phrasings sequences and complexities.

Young practitioners of the mridangam concentrate more on the taniavarthanam. Should they play for the music or for the tala?

Unfortunately most of today's mridangam players play for tala than the kriti. It is a wrong attitude to be prepared for just the tani, which occupies just one-sixth of the concert duration. It is imperative that the mridangam artiste should understand the sentiment of the song and give a supportive, elevating embellishment. Youngsters should have bhakti towards guru and parents, work hard and be patient about gaining recognition.

You have associated yourself with so many Western ensembles. What has been your experience and how is the mridangam used there?

One of my senior students, Ravi Ravichandra in Melbourne, is the coordinator-teacher of Sruthilaya Kendra there. Adrian Sherriff, the musical director of Australian Art Orchestra (AAO) and a trombone player, learns mridangam from Ravichandra. AAO is a unique modern jazz band comprising reputed solo performers from across Australia. When AAO was to tour India as part of Australia's 50th independence celebration 15 years back, they had found in my Srutilaya ensemble album a piece titled ‘Burst of Springs' with two ragas – Bahudari and Ranjani– with different emotions, suitable for their jazz orchestration. They came to take my permission to use my composition, and later decided to include the mridangam for the first time! Thus a wonderful bond was established. We have toured Australia and Europe, performed in many festivals and released two albums (‘Into the Fire' and ‘The Chennai Sessions').

Eero Hammeniemi, composer and artistic director of Finland Philharmonic orchestra, is a regular visitor to Chennai. He requested me to play in his composition with the Philharmonic Orchestra in Helsinki. He named the piece ‘Layapriya,' the name of my house in Chennai! That composition was choreographed by Jonathan Hollander, the artistic director of Battery Dance Company, New York, and performed worldwide. This year in January, I had the opportunity to perform with the Symphony Orchestra of Helsinki. I also introduced the chenda for the first time in the Symphony Orchestra.

What made you turn to Western music?

I was confined to the classical arena till the advent of my classical band Sruthilaya. The quality of music and rhythm in it has been attracting musicians from other genres towards me. I also have gained considerable knowledge about their music, harmony, synchronisation and coordination. John Kaizan Neptune, a shakuachi player from the United States, when working with me on an album called ‘Steps in Time,' said he had been dreaming about working with me for more than 10 years. Paul Simon, of the Simon-Garfunkel duo, recorded my mridangam and konnakkol in 2007 along with his drummer Jaime Haddad, who had been my student, for his new vocal album which is to be released shortly.

Tell us something about Sruthilaya...

When the great Palghat Mani Iyer played, people used to come just to listen to his tani. After him, we saw the ‘tani time' being used for a tea break. I resolved to change this. My aim was to put the mridangam on centre stage. I composed melodies based on my rhythmic patterns and formed the Sruthilaya comprising of mridangam as the lead (each piece would start with a rhythmic idea on the mridangam). My original rhythmic ideas, musically arranged with the right choice of ragas, clicked. Sruthilaya has also motivated many groups to emerge as fusion bands.

First Sruthilaya, then your gurukulam, Layamani Layam magazine… What next?

Every step I take aims to glorify the mridangam. My mission is to make the resonance of the mridangam reach unexplored regions of this universe.

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