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Keeping pace with the world

Giridhar Udupa has travelled the world to share his beats, and it all comes from a strong grounding in Carnatic music

Giridhar Udupa: `Our music is so complex and has so much depth that you can gel with any kind of music.' -- Photo: Sampath Kumar G.P.

IT DOESN'T take very long to guess Giridhar Udupa's profession. His hands constantly drum rhythms and he willingly flips his palms over to reveal calluses and bruises that have resulted from years of playing the instrument that has lent itself to his name — the ghatam.

Ghatam Giridhar Udupa will have you know that he is the first percussionist from Karnataka to be conferred the title of Yuva Kala Bharathi. His renowned mridangist father Ullur Nagendra Udupa initiated him into percussion at age four, when Giridhar was least interested in learning, he cheerfully admits.

The first public show changed the course of his music. At a temple performance, along with well-known singers, he was forced to opt for the ghatam since someone else was already playing the mridanga.

The instrument fascinated him despite its challenges. "Getting the sound was hard," he confesses.

"The ghatam I played — the Mana Madurai ghatam — weighs between eight and 12 kilos whereas the others weigh about a kilo."

Mastering the ghatam

Overcoming the challenges of his ghatam and mastering the art of playing has now led Giridhar to many unusual collaborations. Still just in his mid-twenties, he has worked with flamenco artistes and Celtic musicians, and is part of a band creating world music even as it retains its roots in Carnatic music.

He began touring abroad in 1998 and has played with some of the biggest names over the past two to three years: L. Subramaniam, Pandit Jasaraj, Sivamani, Mandolin U. Srinivas, K.J. Yesudas... all the heavyweights in the business have kept time to his beats.

Inspired by early gurus such as Sukanya Ramgopal and Vikku Vinayakram, Giridhar Udupa decided fairly early that the ghatam would be "his" instrument; a decision his father both welcomed and encouraged. By age eight, he was already averaging about 10 concerts a month.

Having an accomplished mridangist for a father meant Giridhar was guided by an experienced hand and exposed to the best performances right from the start. But while his father could guide him on mainstream collaborations, Giridhar soon evolved to reach a phase where he moved beyond the boundaries of traditional Carnatic music.

Although he emphasises the versatility and wide embrace of Carnatic music, stating proudly that "for an Indian percussionist, our music is so complex and has so much depth that you can gel with any kind of music", Giridhar has moved on to lend his beats to international performances.

The first of these internation-al collaborations began when a Celtic musician heard him perform at a festival in Mumbai and invited him to Parthenay in France. "People there are not exposed to a cosmopolitan culture; it's out in the countryside... nobody speaks English," Giridhar exclaims. So he packed up all the instant food he could lay his hands on ("I just don't know how to cook!") and talked to himself (for company!) while introducing the ghatam to the haunting strains of Celtic music.

Percussion ensemble

Although the overwhelming influence in his life comes very obviously from Carnatic music, in college Udupa formed a percussion ensemble called Layatharanga with some of his friends.

All the group members are trained in Carnatic music but make what Udupa calls "world music... the main aim is to attract youth and experiment around the borders of south Indian music and collaborate with others." Layatharanga has made three CDs, with Udupa often playing many instruments himself; "an art that comes easily, once you have mastered the mridanga".

Venturing into unchartered territory might prove problematic for some musicians but Udupa seems to thrive on it. "Travelling abroad and performing in the countrysides of France and Germany, sitting in the middle of famous musicians... " he sighs. "I enjoy it like anything!" He has never felt intimidated, he says; he loved to play.

Unlike many musicians his age who retreat into their own self-contained worlds, Udupa comes across as a hugely social person. A commerce student, he says despite a hectic schedule stretching to include recordings and classes, he always managed to make time for friends. Most are CAs, "but they all come to my concerts and push me," he says. "Music and friends are very important to me, and I do regular things with them: watch cricket matches, movies... even if I have to meet them late at night, I make sure I do that."

Some of them might help him realise his dream of a percussion institute in Bangalore over the next five to 10 years, a need he felt sorely while he was a young student. The institute will focus on Indian percussion, but invite artistes from everywhere, he emphasises. For all his international exposure, Carnatic music is still where his heart is. "Every now and then I play for Carnatic music. It's the main thing. It gives me my energy."

Giridhar Udupa's website is

Daily Bread is a weekly column that features people who've chosen offbeat professions. Our guest list has included the likes of scuba divers, potters, perfume makers and ballet dancers.


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