Song of Surrender

Tuesday, 5 April 2016

Nellai D. Kannan

By Anjana Anand

Nellai D. Kannan has been active in the field of music and dance for more than four decades. A proficient performer whose vocal and mridangam skills have made him a consummate artist, Nellai Kannan is unassuming and forthcoming. He has made a mark in the Bharatanatyam field while being recognised as a noted kutcheri performer. 

He is the recipient of several awards including the Kalaimamani Award from the Eyal Isai Nataka Manram (2001), Best Mridangam Player Award from Narada Gana Sabha, Chennai, Natyarangam's Award for Mridangam Accompanist, Best Player Award for Carnatic Music from the Music Academy, Chennai, Nada Laya Ratnam from  Saraswathi Gana Nilayam, Chennai, Laya Kala Vipanchee from Vipanchee Trust, Chennai (2015) and Senior Musician Award from Kartik Fine Arts (2015).

Do you come from a family of musicians?

My father and guru, Nellai P.S. Devaraja Iyer, was a mridangam player and we come from a family involved in the bhajana sampradaya. In fact before I began playing the mridangam, I was singing with my father and his group at different temples. I grew up in Tirunelveli and only came to Chennai during my 11th standard. I also learnt mridangam from Kutralam Viswanatha Iyer.

In those days there was not much status for artists in our field. My father was one of the first to sing and play the mridangam simultaneously during performances. He also accompanied  several leading vocalists on his mridangam when they came to Tirunelveli. Unfortunately, he did not receive the recognition he deserved but that is the case with many talented artists in our country. When we moved to Chennai he was already in his sixties, and the music scene here was very new to him. He was not keen that I become a full time musician but fate had other plans for me!

How did your association with Bharatanatyam begin?

As a youngster I had watched many performances by artists like Padma Subrahmanyam and Vyjayanthimala. I first played the mridangam for Vyjayanthimala at Calcutta and Bombay. After that, I played for the Narasimhacharis for their Kuchipudi performances, but till then I had no plans to become an accompanist for dance.

Natyacharya K.N. Pakkiriswamy Pillai was the first president of the Association of Bharatanatyam Artistes of India (ABHAI). Through him, my father found a job at the Music College where he taught mridangam. Once, he requested me to play for some final year dance students at the college. After this, Karaikudi Krishnamurthy, who was a close family friend, encouraged me to start playing for Bharatanatyam. My father was initially reluctant but realised that it would give me more opportunities to perform and give me some financial stability. We had musical giants in Chennai in those years and it was difficult for a youngster like me to get a break in the field.

What is your connection with Kalakshetra?

In 1978 K. Gopinath (Adyar K. Lakshman’s brother), who played the mridangam for  Kalakshetra dance-dramas, was unable to perform one evening and asked me to stand in for him. Bhagavatulu Seetarama Sarma was singing that evening and Rukmini Devi was present for the show. It was a memorable experience. To this day, I cite Kalakshetra dance-dramas as an example of aesthetics and quality. Even now, the dance-dramas choreographed by Rukmini Devi draw packed audiences. There are no gimmicks to dazzle the audience. They uphold  pure classicism and high standards and keep the audience riveted.

You always acknowledge Adyar K. Lakshman and K. Gopinath as your gurus. How did you meet them?

A guru is not only someone who teaches you directly. The bond also develops through interaction with great masters. It was like that for me with Lakshman Sir. I was travelling for a performance once with Arunachalam Pillai, an excellent  nattuvanar and Bharatanatyam guru. He introduced me to Gopi Anna who was working with Lakshman Sir. I attended one of their student’s arangetram a few days later and met Lakshman Sir. He asked me to come home and play for him. After he heard me play for Jayajanakiramana, he asked me: "Kannan, have you played for bhajana performances before?” I reluctantly admitted that I had not only played for the group but could sing all eight charanams of the composition. I am indebted to Adyar Lakshman Sir and Gopi Anna for my entry into the Bharatanatyam field. I learnt so many things from them just by observation.

Is there  an unsaid hierarchy amongst mridangists playing for Bharatanatyam and kutcheris?

Yes, personally I do not subscribe to such divisions nor do I judge a musician’s capabilities by the field that he works in. Finally, only a skilful musician can excel in his chosen field. Playing for Bharatanatyam requires a different understanding and approach. If your  foundation is not strong as a musician, it will show in your performance. Playing for Bharatanatyam is not easy. We have to have a strong musical sense to follow the vocalists at times and the dance at other times. Playing for dance-dramas is even more challenging as the mridangist is responsible for the correct entrances of characters and scene changes. The seamless flow is in the hands of the nattuvangam artist and the mridangist. Most importantly, we have to be sensitive to the mood of the song and the emotions the dancer is portraying. A good mridangist can heighten the abhinaya of the dancer. Of course, a good memory and spontaneity are essential as we have to play the rhythmic patterns set by the dancer so that the music and dance flow together. 

Can you tell us about the changes you have observed in the dance field over the years?

I have seen many great nattuvanars and performed with them. I remember particularly, playing the mridangam when natyacharya Kittappa Pillai was doing the nattuvangam. The jatis were so beautiful and the adavus set were woven in so cleverly. What struck me was the musicality of the rhythm. He and others of his class did not just create complicated ‘kanakku’ and fit it into the jati. The choreography and jatis were like two sides of a coin. Their secret was that they were all good musicians. They set the jatis and adavus in such a way that they could sing and wield the cymbals for them. The adavus were set so that the dancer could execute the movements with grace and ease. This ensured that the jati flowed and any complication in the cross patterns only enhanced the beauty of the jati. These days I often find that Bharatanatyam teachers set complicated patterns which they cannot sing and do nattuvangam for simultaneously. Of course, they are technically correct but at what cost? At the cost of beauty and saukhyam?

Do you feel that we are losing our ability to enjoy simplicity in art?

Yes, I think we are forgetting that music is for the soul! Maybe we are thinking more with our head than our heart. It is true that we have evolved in terms of complexity in every field. Young artists are trying hard and there is a lot of talent in the new generation. I am concerned that we should not compartmentalise each art form, but we must remember that classical dance is an amalgamation of music, rhythm and poetry. Only if these are in sync with one another will an art form touch our hearts.


What are the challenges you face as an accompanist for Bharatanatyam?

It is important to be alert at all times because the cues for the dancer depend on us. I have had many wonderful experiences with artists like S.K. Rajarathnam Pillai and the Dhananjayans when we have gone on stage with just one rehearsal. Those were some of the best performances because we were so tuned into each other that the music and dance came together as one unit. I feel it is better for a dancer to work with the same team of musicians for long periods so that there is mutual understanding between the artists. That kind of team spirit can lift the whole show.

In some dance performances the mridangist  has to adjust the kalapramana during the  performance which may not be technically accurate, but that is the beauty of two art forms coming together. It is that joy of sharing and supporting which creates magic for the audience. I always compare it to a husband and wife relationship. In life, each supports the other through many ups and downs because they share a common goal. It is this ‘give and take’ journey, which though imperfect in some ways, makes the performance a success. Art is not very different from life!

Any advice for up-and-coming accompanists?



As I mentioned, there is a lot of talent in the field. It is up to each artist to stop and reflect on what this art form means to him and how best he is using it to reach the audience. For that, it is not enough to just perform. You must watch a lot with an open mind. Listen to good musicians of the past and analyse what made their music appealing. 

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