Talking to Thetakudi Harihara Vinayakram, affectionately addressed as Vikku Vinayakram in music circles, is like moving through a maze of varied rhythm signatures and intricate beats. He breaks into a new beat every few minutes, reciting the complicated rhythmic structures, imploring you to listen carefully. “The three-fourth beat can be complicated to understand while I sing it to you. So, concentrate,” says Vinayakram, as he sings the taalas and creates sounds of a ghatam during a telephone conversation from Chennai. All this without thrumming his humble earthen pot, the one he has single-handedly put in the spotlight. “It’s all about hard work. In our times, there was no other way,” adds Vinayakram, who will be performing at Banyan Tree’s Kala Virasat Festival on Friday.
For somebody who has been playing professionally for more than half-a-century, Vinayakram’s enthusiasm is heart warming. “The energy of the beats is what has sustained me. I fall sick if I don’t perform,” says the 72-year-old, who in 1991 became the first Carnatic classical musician to win a Grammy for his collaboration with violinist L Shankar.
Vikku Vinayakram has done to the ghatam what Zakir Hussain did to the tabla. He zealously fashioned a revolution by bringing a simple accompanying percussion instrument, the one on the fringes, to the main stage by meshing rhythmic and resonant elements into flurries of various rhythm structures. And the world saw it in the ’70s, when a short man in a white shirt and bordered mundu sat alongside John McLaughlin and Hussain to perform for the superband Shakti and crunched in inconceivable quantities of beats together on what the world thought was a way to store water in India. “Before Shakti, I was playing in the south Indian kutcheri (concert) circuit regularly. But after Shakti and performances everywhere in the world, people began opening up to the idea of ghatam being an important classical instrument. Now that I’m not a part of it anymore, I miss all the boys a lot,” says Vinayakram, whose son V Selvaganesh replaced him after Vinayakram could not travel extensively.
The only extra thing he does in his performances — he tosses the instrument up in the air and catches it back. “I love doing what I do. It was never just a source of livelihood,” he says.
He has also collaborated with The Grateful Dead’s drummer, Mickey Hart, on the project Planet Drum. Another important event was a performance with MS Subbulakshmi at the UN headquarters in New York. In the past few years, he has accompanied Balamurali Krishna, Bhimsen Joshi, Hariprasad Chaurasia and VG Jog among others. But his solo performances are equally famous — the ones where he sits with almost eight ghatams around him and causes a whimsical blur by playing all at the same time. “On Friday, there will be no melodic instrument accompanying me. All the sounds will be created by the ghatam,” he says. The concert will also feature sitar maestro Dhujaat Khan, violin duo Ganesh Kumaresh and saxophone genius George Brooks.
Born to a mridangam player named Kalaimaamani TR Harihara Sharma,in a house where beats was all he heard, Vinayakram began by learning the mridangam. “I really liked ghatam. But I come from a very poor family and mridangam players used to be in demand at that time. So to earn money, knowing how to play mridangam was important. But I used similar techniques on ghatam and it produced equally dexterous rhythms and sustained the notes,” says Vinayakram, who soon breaks into a child-like laughter. “I don’t know how to do anything else. This just works so well,” he says.
The concert will be held at Kamani Auditorium, on October 31, 6.30 pm onwards. Entry by passes. Contact: 43503352