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Sunday, January 19, 2020

Audiences come to enjoy music, not to see your mathematical wizardry: Neyveli Venkatesh

From a nondescript industrial township where he was once pushing the wheelbarrow, Venkatesh has travelled the world with his percussion instruments, performed with leading Indian and international musicians. Excerpts from his interview.

Written by G Pramod Kumar | Chennai | Updated: December 14, 2019 5:54:32 pm
Venkatesh is noted for his soothing style that enhances the overall concert experiences than his rhythmic wizardry.

When barely in his twenties, Venkatesh was desperate to find some work to support his family although all he wanted to do in life was to play the mridangam. He had been learning the instrument from his father AS Balaraman and accompanying his violinist-sister ever since he could remember. He had won accolades from all around, but that wouldn’t bring home any money. So, when he got the job of a temporary industrial worker at the Neyveli Lignite Corporation (NLC) in Tamil Nadu, for a daily wage of Rs 13.5, he was happy.

But it was more menial than he thought. Transporting industrial waste wasn’t something a sharply dressed Venkatesh had in mind. He instantly realised that he had gotten into a rut and if he didn’t find a way out, he would have to bid goodbye to his passion for percussion. So one day, he took his mridangam to a nearby temple and started playing while many musicians, small and big, kept singing for him non-stop for 28 hours. He began the concert at 6 pm and ended at 10 pm the next day. It was a record-breaking marathon that became the talk of the town. Looking back, he is still not sure if it was a planned feat to get noticed or not, but it did work.

The NLC Chairman noticed the rave reviews of Venkatesh’s feat in local newspapers and without much delay made him a permanent staff member of the company and allowed him to work for its the cultural wing. What it meant was that he didn’t have to do anything but pursue his music. And that’s what he has been doing ever since.

From a nondescript industrial township where he was once pushing the wheelbarrow, Venkatesh has travelled the world with his percussion instruments, performed with leading Indian and international musicians, collaborated with stalwarts of percussion from different parts of the world in multicultural projects, and taught hundreds of students in various countries.

Venkatesh in his early days with his violinist-sister.

Today, this humble and mild-mannered man is one of the foremost practitioners of mridangam and is a global citizen with a discernible percussion imprint in many European countries, Canada and in countries such as South Africa and Reunion Islands. He began touring the world as early as 1996 and has played with musicians such as the great Jazz violinist Stephan Grappelli – along with L Subramaniam – percussionists such as Hakim Ludin, Dave Weckel, Wener Schmitt and Luis Conte, and almost all Indian instrumentalists on their overseas tours and concerts in India. He has also performed with most of the popular Carnatic singers.

What makes him famous in India, however is that he is the mridangist of choice for Sanjay Subrahmanyan, the superstar of Carnatic music. He is one of Sanjay’s “Men in White” as the fans call the popular Sanjay ensemble and along with ace violinist S. Varadarajan, an unmissable part of his premium programmes.

Despite all the experiences he has gained across the world and adulation of students from various countries during the last three decades, Venkatesh still feels it was his association with Sanjay that got him noticed. “It was he who singlehandedly brought me into the primetime slot. Since then, I have been with him. I am what I am today, largely because of Sanjay,” he says. He also fondly remembers his gurus such as Ramanathapuram MN Kandaswamy Pillai, who was a disciple of well known mridangam exponent Palani Subramaniam Pillai, and Tavil exponents Perumpallam Venkatesan (Tavil Vidvan) and Thirunageshwaram Subramaniam.

Venkatesh is noted for his soothing style and strokes that enhance the overall concert experiences than demonstrating his rhythmic wizardry. “In today’s time, the audiences come to enjoy the music, not to see your mathematical wizardry. It makes no sense to the lay people. If you start some circus or bombastic mathematical formations, people are not willing to listen because it doesn’t appeal to their aesthetics. You can’t blame them because they don’t understand. Music is to enjoy, not to understand or marvel at wizardry. That’s why they leave when you start playing the solo,” he says.

Venkatesh accompanying his guru for KJ Yesudas.

Neyeveli Venkatesh speaks to us about his remarkable life and career.

Let’s start from the beginning. Unlike most others in Carnatic music, you are not from a traditional family of musicians. How did you get into this?

Yes, there was no musician in our family, but my father was somehow interested in mridangam and learned it in Chennai from a guru named Srinivasan who was a disciple of mridangam doyen Palani Subramaniam Pillai. In Chennai, he played a little bit for the spiritual teacher Kripananda Variar. Famous ganjira player Harishankar’s father was my father’s roommate in Chennai and that too could have influenced him. He later shifted to Neyveli where he worked as an electrician at NLC. Because of his strong interest in music, he trained my sister in violin under well-known violinist TK Suvulu, who used to play famous musicians such as Brinda-Muktha and Balamurali Krishna, and me in mridangam. In fact those days, my father had organised several concerts for Neyveli Santhanagopalan – now a famous vocalist and teacher – in and around Neyveli so that we – my sister and myself – would get a chance to accompany him.

I started learning the mridangam at about six years of age and started playing on stage at 10. I played in all kinds of settings and concerts, but it was still not a profession that helped me earn a living. Therefore, I had to take up a contractual job at NLC, but I was still single-minded about my music and finally it paid off. NLC gave me the freedom to pursue music and I started playing for concerts outside Neyveli as well.

With Sanjay Subrahmanyan and S Varadarajan in concert

The opportunity that I was looking for still didn’t come for years although I got to play with Mandolin Srinivas and KJ Yesudas in Neyveli, as the second mridangist to my guru. I slowly started playing in concerts, but mostly on ganjira. Those days, I was called Ganjira Neyveli Venkatesh. Even with Sanjay, I had started with ganjira. If you look at old recordings, you would see that I was his regular ganjira player and Arun Prakash was mostly the mridangist.

The big break happened in 1994, when Enver Govender, a mridangam enthusiast from South Africa known to my guru, organised a tour to his country in which I played both ganjira and the mridangam. Almost at the same time I also started playing mridangam for Bombay Jayashree when she was singing at the noon slot at The Music Academy. Even at that slot, which is marked for upcoming artistes, her concerts were exceptionally well received and I continued to play for her for about 5-6 years.

Accompanying Bombay Jayashree in her early days

How did you get that break with Bombay Jayashree?

I really don’t remember how exactly it happened. I think I had accompanied her on the ganjira for some concert and she asked me if I would play the mridangam and our combination seemed to have worked. I mostly played for her domestic concerts. She was an extremely busy musician. Those days, I was to her concerts what I am to Sanjay’s now.

How come you are not playing for her now?

I don’t know, after 5-6 years it just stopped. It happens in music. One doesn’t need to stick with you for ever. There are so many other talented mridangists out there.

And when did you start playing with Sanjay?

Since 1994, I was doing quite a bit of overseas concerts and by late 1990s, I was regularly touring with most of the instrumentalists such as Kadri Gopalnath (saxophone), Ganesh-Kumaresh duo (violin), Master Shashank (flute), Lalgudi Krishnan and Vijaylakshmi (violin), Mandolin Raju, Mysore Brothers (violin) and so on. Those days, I was also playing ganjira for Sanjay who was already quite a popular singer. And it was he who put me on the mridangam at the prime time slot straightaway. And I owe it to him. The Neyveli Venkatesh you see today is mainly because of Sanjay. Since then I have been playing the mridangam for him and for the last 10-15 years I don’t miss his concerts as much as possible.

How important is the mridangam for a Carnatic concert? How do you balance the different parts of a concert such as neraval, kalpanaswarams and pallavis because each demands a different aesthetic and also different techniques. On top of that, you also have to demonstrate your mathematical-rhythmic prowess to be considered a good mridangist by the connoisseurs of thalam.

Honestly, the mridangam can lift the concert or mar it. If you look at the kriti accompaniment, you can see how it plays a role in supporting the singer in the pallavi, builds up for anupallavi and moves on to charanam. It sets the rhythm and the tempo for the listener.

Coming to the specifics, when playing for neraval, it’s totally sarvalaghu based playing, which is like a groove. The pallavi (in Ragam Thanam Pallavi-RTP) is mathematically oriented while in kalpanaswarams, the mridangist has to finish it off with a good crescendo. We have to build it up to a peak and whatever rhythmic calculations the singer does at the end (korvai), we too finish it off with that. We may or may not know the korvai in advance. If we know it, it’s easier; if we don’t, we will stop for a round, figure it out and then carry on with the second and third rounds and finish it off. In other words, if we don’t know the korvai they are singing, we might not play it immediately, but once we get the formations correct, we join in and finish it off with a bang.

Venkatesh with jazz exponent Stephane Grappelli

As I said before, the pallavi in RTP is mathematically oriented in which the words are exactly played on the mridangam. There’s no groove in it. The mridangist has to play with the three speeds of the pallavi and the words have to be exactly reproduced. Usually, the vocalists set their own pallavis.

The singers know the pallavi they are going to sing, but you don’t. In such situations, how do you pick up on the spot?

There are two ways of doing it: if it’s a nadai pallavi, we get a recording or some information on it in advance. Playing on the spot for every pallavi that we are totally unfamiliar is practically not possible. The singers compose the pallavis taking considerable time and effort and we just cannot accompany it on the spot without any preparation. So, as I said earlier, we will leave a round, listen in intently, pick up the formations and join in. You learn to adapt from years of performing experience and practice.

How many nadais do they usually employ?

It could be any of the five nadais. If the pulse per beat is too high, say 11, it won’t be aesthetic in vocal music. You won’t be able to hear anything. It will sound like some gibberish even if the singer is able to attain that speed.

The “Men in White”

For a mridangist, which is the most tricky part of a concert? And what does it make complicated?

I guess it’s a mathematically oriented pallavi (of RTP) that we are totally unfamiliar with for the reasons I described earlier. The thaniyavarthanam (the percussion solo) can also get tricky if one doesn’t continue with the emotion and mood that the song has already created. As you know, thaniyavarthanam is the continuation of the song.

So if the song is unfamiliar, do you have to think on the spot even while you are playing? It’s quite a long piece and you don’t get a break to think through.

Yes, the singers cannot always tell you all the songs there’re going to sing because they may also change on stage . If the song has deep emotions, you just can’t bang a thaniyavarthanam – thani in short – to show off your skills. If there are kalpanaswarams in that song with a lot of mathematical combinations, then we too can play like that. But, if it’s an emotionally moving melody, then it’s better to employ sarvalaghu and gumkis and create a mood to sustain or even enhance the atmosphere that the singer has already created with his/her song. It all depends on the song and how it’s played. The mridangist has to be be mindful of the fact that the song and the thani is a single piece.

No wonder you show a lot of emotions on your face when you play the mridangam with Sanjay, both during the composition and the thaniyavarthanam

Yes, I get very emotional with Sanjay’s singing. It’s unavoidable. It just happens and I don’t even realise what’s happening to me until I see a recording.

On stage with famous international percussionists

Does that also mean that you have to be a singer at least in your mind? Do you silently keep singing while you are playing the thani or while you are accompanying? I have noticed some mridangists lip-syncing while playing the mridangam.

Yes, if you know the song and know how to sing, it is certainly better. Then, you can clearly see that the aesthetics is better.

How do the vocalists make their choice of the mridangist?

Some people prefer mridangists that don’t disturb their singing. Say for instance, if you keep good sarvalaghu going, any layman will shake his/her head. If you throw in random sollus (mathematical variations) it can disturb the main artist and most of them don’t prefer that. Most prefer playing easy during the singing and allow whatever the mridangist wants to do during the thani.

The mridangist’s job is to lift the song without hindering the vocalist. An example was the great Palani Subramaniam Pillai. Apparently, the great vocalist Madurai Mani told my guru that Pillai was like a candle on stage: one that allows oneself to melt to bring brightness to the concert. That’s also the principle I want to follow. I want to be a candle, not a headlight.

Venkatesh with international drummer Hakim Ludin

At the same time, the mridangist can show that he’s there on the stage. That’s the most important role of the mridangist. “You have to be a candle, you have to melt and submit to the singer and lift them in a golden plate. You will feel good, the singer will feel good and the audience will also feel good.” There’s no point in playing mathematical stuff throughout, people won’t enjoy. Some may think that sarvalaghu is simple, it’s not. There’s layam in it and it’s very difficult to sustain it for a long period. Give some variations along with the sangathis in the song and build it up – that is the role of the mridangist. Don’t overdo maths, some songs don’t need them at all.

But some mridangists cannot control themselves

There are individual styles. If the singer likes that style, it’s okay.

When do you make the decisions to make basic strokes or add some variations?

It depends on the song. Suppose it’s going well synchronously, we get that mood, you don’t need any variation, but sarvalaghu. It will be more than enough. Think about the song Nijagadasa by Sanjay. What’s the point in trying anything else? It will kill the beauty of his song.

But when the songs are unfamiliar, how do you decide because some times giving those pauses, adding some variations, doing some syncopations etc enhance the song and add colour.

It’s a tough call. Sanjay sings a lot of new songs. One week ago he showed me a clipping of Balamurali sir in which he’s gesturing to his mridangist to stop at a particular point. So he guides me like that. So we get to know that we need to pause at certain positions to make the song more beautiful, Some times, when we don’t know the new songs, we hear the recording and correct it the next time.

How do you keep pace with the new compositions and new ragas?

(Laughs). There are a lot of new varnams, a lot of new thillanas. It’s actually difficult and challenging. Some times if they are singing new thillanas, we will ask them for a recording; some times if there are complicated pallavis, we ask for a recording then too. If you hear it and practise, we can be prepared and have it in mind.

Sometimes, you may get an idea of a pattern even if it’s new, don’t you?

Yes, that comes out of experience. The safe side is always to fall back on the groove.  So that means besides your mridangam practice, you also listen to a lot of music, particularly compositions? Yes, certainly.

Yet another successful programme with Sanjay Subrahmanyan

Coming to korvais, the mathematical rhythmic compositions, how can there be new korvais all the time? Are the possibilities infinite?

Yes indeed. It’s an ocean. There is no limit at all. I think I am influenced by the tavil in my korvai structures. Of late, I have been trying five jathis. That’s the influence of tavil. The tavil master says, “there’s no end to this”. The permutations and combinations can go on without any limit.

Do you keep some korvais ready for a concert?

If I know the song and where the position is, I may have a plan.

What’s the ideal way of playing the mridangam? As you also may have experienced, in Chennai people leave the concert hall for their toilet and coffee breaks the moment thani starts. Isn’t it a failure of the mridangist?

To some extent, yes. You shouldn’t employ too much mathematics. In today’s time, the audiences come to enjoy the music, not to see your mathematical wizardry. It makes no sense to the lay people. If you start some circus or bombastic mathematical formations, people are not willing to listen because it doesn’t appeal to their aesthetics. You can’t blame them because they don’t understand. Music is to enjoy, not to understand or marvel at wizardry. That’s why they leave.

Inauguration of his 28 hour concert with his guru and vocalist Chengalpettu Ranganathan and violinist TK Suvulu

That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t get creative or innovative with your rhythms, but should be sensible. If we use the mathematical possibilities wisely along with a nice groove that makes them feel good and attentive, it will be very pleasing. Actually, the onus is on us to make them stay back.

Moreover, in my view, the thani should be proportionate in length. In a 2.5-hour concert, it shouldn’t exceed 10-12 minutes. If you are going to play for 20-25 minutes, nobody is willing to listen. You would just keep banging on the mridangam and people would be either out of the hall or talking to each other.

What’s the average length of your thaniyavarthanam?

A maximum of 15 minutes in a three-hour concert, even if there is a sub-accompanist such as ghatam or ganjira. Or 10-12 minutes in a two and a half hour concert.

How do you play for chittaswarams? It’s impossible to know all the compositions and their preset swarams and the vocalists may not necessarily tell you in advance if he/she is going to sing some compositions with complicated chittaswarams that you don’t know?

Chittaswarams (the arrangement of notes that’s preset within a composition) sometimes don’t have a structure. We can call it melodic or aesthetic mathematics. The only way to play well with chittaswarams is by rote-learning it. If we know the chittaswarams, we exactly follow, but if it’s a new composition, or we don’t know the notes, we follow the groove to align with it and keep it safe. Otherwise, it will disturb the singing. Trying to attempt chittaswarams without knowing them will be a mess.

What about kalpanaswarams? Do you figure out the pattern early?

Yes, to some extent yes we pick up early. For about 75 per cent, there will be an outline structure. We try to build on that structure and makes it interesting. Sanjay certainly innovates on the spot. There will always be a few new lines in every concert for sure.

Venkatesh is known for his expressive style. (Source: Rajappane Raju)

Do you also recognise the musical notes?

Although I don’t sing, I guess to some extend I do. Tell me something about your style of playing and innovation.

Occasionally I try to innovate by playing a certain number of notes per two beats whereas in the usual style, the number of notes is precise to a beat. To explain it more clearly, I may play 11 notes per two beats, which means that per beat, it’s a fraction of notes and not a precise numeral. Some people will say it’s wrong. It’s a controversial subject and about the views of two schools of rhythm. In terms of speed, I can go upto 27 notes per two beats. Whichever school of style you belong to, speed and the control of thalam is what’s required. Whatever school you follow, it’s still fun.

If the main artiste loves it, I try to do it.

What about playing the gumki (using the lower part of the palm and the middle and fore fingers of the left hand) that marks your style?

Gumkis are very difficult to play. Not at all easy. It adds so much beauty to vocal music. The school of music that I belong to is that of Palani Subramaniam Pillai. He was a master of gumki- playing that nobody has been able to match even today. In those days when there were no fancy audio systems that could enhance your sounds, he used to produce impossible gumkis. The old timers say he could produce sounds that resembled the cooing of the pigeons.

Does Sanjay love your gumkis?

He loves it!

Are there areas of rhythm that you haven’t explored, but would like to try given a chance?

We mridangists usually use only about 10 out of about 35 thalam structures, but there are actually many more that are unusual and unused, but aesthetic. For instance, the Thiruppugazh thalam. It’s is something where the thalam is set for the lyrics and not for music. I haven’t explored such thalams. Those thalams sit on the lyrics and not on a thalam structure. That’s why they are not used. So the number of notes can be a fraction, even or odd. Palani sir used to employ them in his thaniyavarthanams. Probably that’s what I would like to do, given a chance.

Stage performance with international percussionists

How does the rhythm-sense of the vocalists help their music?

The vocalist is the main attraction of the concert and he/she has to have everything in the right balance. As they say, melody and rhythm are like mother and father. The vocalist needs to know both very well. Otherwise, they won’t be able to handle critical components of a concert such as RTP, Kalpanaswarams and Korvais. You just can’t sing melody throughout a concert, people won’t like it. You need mathematics too. For kalpanaswarams, mathematics is absolutely necessary. In other words, without a thorough knowledge of rhythm, you cannot be a Carnatic musician.

How’s the percussion in Carnatic music different from Hindustani where tabla appears to be more like a timekeeper than an active participant

In HIndustani, the tabalists keep the basic teka, but they also play short solo versions. Our music is more rhythm-oriented. It’s a different style altogether.

Do they also have some mathematics?

They do have mathematics, but it’s not as structured as ours. And we follow certain rules and regulations. It’s not random.

Suppose we play three fives. Three fives are 15, the third five will have to end in a samam (when the song begins on the first beat of a thalam). If there are 32 matras in a cycle, we push 17 notes and then start three fives to come back to 32. So there’s a mathematical structure. They too have it, but I would say ours is more precise.

And the Hindustani singers don’t keep a thalam like Carnatic musicians do?

Yes. They also gradually increase the speed. But ours is not like that. We literally double or we do the one and half or five in one (khandam), three in one (thisram), four in one (chathusram) etc. In thaniyavarthanam, we raise the speed just like that because of our enthusiasm, but technically speaking that’s not right.

How does the Hindustani singer keep the thalam cycle?

They have the understanding with the tabalist, they also get used to it.

Even in Carnatic, some people don’t necessarily keep the thalam. How do they manage avoiding a mess?

See for instruments, the thalam is in the mind. When there’s a solo instrument, the thalam will have to be there in the mind. So some singers have it in them. It will be running instinctively because of years of practice and embodied learning.

Workshop for European percussionists

So even in mridangam, the thalam cycle is running in your head, right?

Yes, otherwise we can’t play. Moreover, we have to give the theermanam (korvai) at the right time. Both the singer and the mridangist will have to have the understanding and the thalam has to align perfectly.

Means you have to register the thalam structure in your mind before start playing and if you lose concentration, everybody is in trouble.

Yes, no doubt.

First the main artiste will look at you, then the audience will look at you. And soon nobody will call you. End of story!

Very often, the audience put the wrong thalam and they are quite visible and loud. Wouldn’t it distract or mislead you?

(Laughs) Yes, it happens and it sometimes makes our job difficult. We can’t ask them to stop because they are doing it out of respect for us and also because of their love for music. Let them also enjoy.

I guess most of the people must be putting the wrong thalam?

Yes, a lot of them. See, there’s a chemistry among us musicians on stage and that will keep the rhythm going even if there are small variations such as a little plus or minus here and there. For a layman to follow it and put the correct thalam is difficult. Anyway no complaints because they are coming for concerts and enjoying the music. We are nobody without them. So, it’s absolutely fine.

What about those overt physical actions that some in audience show to express their appreciation?

Probably sometimes musicians may be happy if it’s within the reasonable limits, but overdoing can be distracting. But at the end of the day, if the response is positive, that energy is certainly good for us.

Usually the audience-response is an indicator to see if a concert is working or not. Generally people know where exactly you are excelling because that’s when they clap and make those noises of appreciation

Exactly, that’s our job. And we are happy if it happens, it may not happen every time. See, we may not be successful in all our concerts.

But if the response is good, you will certainly get a high.

Yes, if there’s an overwhelming response. It’s actually very strange too. Sometimes, we would think that we had performed very well, but there would be no response at all. But sometimes, we may have done something very normal, but the audience would respond more enthusiastically than you thought. Some people even come to the green room and appreciate us. A musician’s life is interesting. We come across many happy, strange and interesting situations.

Venkatesh has travelled the world with his percussion instruments, performed with leading Indian and international musicians. (Photo credits: Rajappane Raju)

Let’s now talk about the tavil since there seems to be an increasing appreciation of Nadaswaram among carnatic musicians. Some even have tried to replace mridangam with tavil in some concerts.

Using tavil for indoor, auditorium concerts is not a good idea because the tavil artistes are used to playing in the open. You can’t ask them to play softly.

Tavil is not a Sruthi vadyam, there’s no pitch for it and it cannot be tuned. So how does it match with regular Carnatic concerts?

For violin, mandolin etc, the sound and rhythm will be synchronous and hence it would work; but for vocal, it’s difficult for both. For any instrument with a “pickup” it may be suitable. However, there were tavil players who used to play it like a mridangam. An example was Valangaiman Shanmughasundaram Pillai whose style was softer when he played for musicians such as Mandolin Srinivas.

Neyveli Venkatesh with his Mridangam collection. (Express Photo by G Pramod Kumar)

But I must admit that their maths is like an ocean. Even now I go to tavil masters in Kumbakonam and learn from them. There’s limitless level of mathematics and calculations in tavil and it comes so naturally to them. I really don’t know how. Not without computers or any gadgets (Laughs)

They are not even mathematical wizards, right?

Yes, that’s the beauty of their art.

What are the main differences between tavil and mridangam?

Other than the sound, which is obvious, I think it’s the mathematics. They are more advanced than us. From the moment they start learning, they are in a different league. Their calculations and mathematics are beyond our reach. Each time I come out of a tavil class, I realise where I stand. I feel extremely inadequate. I tell myself: “Oh my god, I know nothing. I have played so many concerts, still I am nowhere near them.” I have played all over the world, in so many halls, played with so many big people, got a lot of ovation and have so much ego; but when I come out of a tavil class, I would keep my head down in humility.

How much has your tavil exposure shaped your music?

We cannot implement everything that we learn from them. After watching them play and internalising, we use our judgement and adopt whatever is suitable for us. Sometimes, I may have learned something new and might use it in Sanjay’s concert and he would immediately spot it and would look at Varadarajan. That’s a bit of fun among us as well.

With his sister violinist Neyveli Lalitha

Do the tavil masters compose the jathis or do they come spontaneously to them?

Some are spontaneous, some are registered in their minds. But interestingly, some times they may not even remember what they had taught us the previous day, that’s how naturally these mathematical rhythms come to them. They would remember only if we tell them. And it’s really cool. They are thinking on the spot. Their basic training itself is like that. They are trained in this mathematical structures from very early age. However, not all tavil sollus are suitable for mridangam.

I apply these principles in my teaching. For instance ,in Europe, I wouldn’t ever allow my students to repeat a mora korvai.

In many cultures, drums have different pitch positions and they can even play melody. Can we do it in mridangam?

Not on mridangam. On the left part of the instrument, some people try to make sounds close to the notes and make it resemble a melody. In tavil also they do it. I play the gumkis. If the playing surface is well-behaved on a particular day, we can do some interesting things. We can’t guarantee it will work on all days.

How does the pitch change in a mridangam? Some mridangists are constantly struggling on the stage to keep the pitch constant.

On stage with famous international percussionists

Depends on the instrument and the physical conditions. See the beauty of mridangam is that if it’s the skin of a dead animal, it can’t be used to make it. That black thing you see is a powdered stone mixed with rice and applied layer by layer till it gets that right sound. Think about it – how it produces such a beautiful sound. You can actually say that the nadam (musical sound) is coming from a stone. It’s fascinating.

MAKING AND REPAIRING THE MRIDANGAM, THE SUB-ACCOMPANISTS

I wanted to ask you about the unsung role of the people who make and repair mridangams, which in fact was the theme of a movie by director Rajiv Menon. All mridangam artistes would take them to concerts, sometimes asking them to even sit on the stage in case the mridangam needs their attention. Also mridangams worn out easily.

Yes, as you rightly said, their role is unsung. If they are not there, we are nowhere. We need to repair the mridangam after every handful of concerts because the playing surface needs to be redone. It’s half a day’s job. I am eternally grateful to Ezhumalai from Kadamaliyur for the jackwood and the makers Navaneetham and Surendar.

I can use the right cap only for three or four concerts or five maximum. So on overseas tours, I carry three mridangams. The black spot will go away and we can get it redone only on our return.

What’s the role of the sub-accompanist? They are another unsung group, particularly in terms of renumeration.

They play a very important role because they boost our performance and also the overall impact of the concert.

How does a singer choose which sub-accompanist to use on a particular day?

There are many considerations. The ganjira doesn’t have pitch. It’s like tavil. Once you bring it to the bass sound, that’s it. But the ghatam is not like that. It comes with a pitch that cannot be tuned/altered, except that it can be fine tuned by applying a little clay. So if a singer is very particular about Sruthi, they prefer ganjira because the ghatam cannot be fine tuned beyond a point. If it’s in perfect pitch on that day, it’s okay, but if the singer decides to reduce the pitch by half a note or something, it’s a problem with ghatam. The ganjira can be played with any sruthi. The ganjira player is the luckiest fellow (Laughs loudly)

Why do the singers keep changing accompanists? Why don’t they keep it like a trio or a quartet or quintet like they do in the West? It will work well for concert tours and productions.

That’s for variety, rotation of artists etc.

A remarkable feature of your career has been your body of work overseas. Many may not know that you had collaborated with the great Jazz musician Stephane Grappelli quite early in your career. Can you recall that experience.

Yes, it was in Royal Albert Hall in 1995 for a collaborative programme between Sri L Subramaniam and Grappelli. Subramaniam saw me playing in South Africa in 1994 and invited me to this event in London. It was a new world of music for me. I hadn’t been exposed to Jazz or any other traditions of rhythm before. It actually opened the door for more collaborations.

One half of it was solo by Subramaniam and the other half was with Grappelli. They were Subramaniam’s compositions and I played Indian rhythms.

Neyveli Venkatesh during a concert. (Source: Rajappane Raju)

Playing mridangam at the International Rhythm Festival in Germany in 1998 must have been an equally exciting experience

Yes, one of the best in my life. There were percussionist from other countries and different forms as well. It was a music conservatory, where the participants both taught and collaborated with each other. We also performed in pairs and as a group. There were bilateral productions and group productions. It was all about commonality of rhythms in all cultures and innovating within them. Like a rediscovery of the rhythm of life.

Looks like the Sri Lankan Tamils mostly sustain Carnatic music and percussion in Europe?

Yes, in countries such as Denmark, Norway, Australia, Germany, England and Switzerland, it’s mainly them. Also in Canada. Among my students, Indians are fewer in number, the rest are Sri Lankans. Some of my students – Ram Sivasubramaniam from London, Janardhan Sivarupan from London, Kanesh and Varnen from Toronto play during the Margazhi season every year.

And finally, the question that most music lovers would probably want to ask you. How has been your experience of accompanying Sanjay?

I am so blessed that I am playing for this genius. When there are so many highly talented mridangists, including some electrifying youngsters, he still prefers me. That’s an absolute honour! I am so lucky.

Like many of you, I too am a great fan of his music. Besides everything else that people rave about in his music, the emotions that he evokes are matchless. I still remember his concert in France some years ago where the audience was primarily Sri Lankan Tamils. They had fled their country because of the war and persecution and were settling down in France under difficult living conditions. Only people who could personalise such situations would know what that uprootedness really meant. And when Sanjay sang the Virutham “Oorinile Kaaniyille…” they were all in tears. How do you explain this? His overseas concerts attract massive audiences.

I must also tell you that as a person, on-stage and off-stage, there’s something very special about him. He considers his co-artistes equal. This man is a gem.

And outside music what exactly is the “Men in White” trio like?

Sanjay is an encyclopedia, He can discuss any topic under the sun. Violinist S Varadarajan is a wizard, I call him the “computer brain”. I am the least talented among the three. But we are like a family. Sanjay’s wife Aarthi Sanjay ensures that we are taken care of well.

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