By Anjana Anand
Mridangam artist Vedakrishnaram is so much in demand that it is said that dancers first check his availability before they book an auditorium for a performance! Son and disciple of mridanga vidwan the late C. Venkatesan, Vedakrishnaram knew for sure that he wanted to play the mridangam for Bharatanatyam performances even as a young boy. Perhaps it was the hours he spent watching his uncle, mridanga vidwan the late D. Bhakthavatchalam, play for Bharatanatyam recitals that inspired him to learn the nuances of playing for dance.
Today Vedakrishnaram has many awards to his credit, including Laya Kala Siromani, the Best Bharatanatyam accompanist (V.D.S. Arts Academy) and Sangeeta Natya Kala Bharati (Bharat Kalachar). An artist with a calm unflappable demeanour who offers the utmost support and attention to every project he is involved in, Vedakrishnaram speaks to Sruti about his experiences in this field over the last three decades.
You come from a musical family.
Yes, my father and all my uncles played the mridangam. My mother used to play the harmonium and sing, but did not take up as a career. I learnt mridangam from both my father and uncle, but it was not until my tenth standard that I began to show a serious interest in pursuing mridangam as a career.
Initially, I would accompany my brother (who learnt from my uncle) to his mridangam lessons and spend time playing outside while the classes were on. However, my attention was always on what was happening inside. Once I recall that when my brother was struggling with a certain nuance, I ran in, grabbed the mridangam from him, played it and quipped, “Don’t you know even how to play this!” From that day onwards, I began learning mridangam formally.
Was it your choice to start playing for classical dance?
Very much. My uncle wanted me to play for music concerts and apply for AIR grades but from a young age, I was drawn to the world of Bharatanatyam. I used to watch mesmerised when my uncle played for Bharatanatyam performances. At first he tried to dissuade me, but he came round after seeing my persistence.
What are the challenges you face as a mridangam artist for Bharatanatyam?
A mridangam accompanist must have a lot of patience. I say this because it is not only about what we want to play, but it is our role in the performance as a whole that matters. I am very clear that the dancer’s ideas and choreography must be supported and embellished. Understanding the lyrics fully is essential, so that we can play to enhance the mood the dancer creates. As an accompanist, I have to be alert to each dancer’s requirement.
How does your playing change for each artist?
A mridangam artist should be clear about the choreography and the adavu combinations. If it is a junior dancer or a student performing an arangetram, then we must be helpful and adhere as closely to the kanakku as possible. If it is a senior artist, then we can take more liberty and improvise in certain sections. There are many aspects that we have to pay attention to, such as jatis (beats), sahityam (lyrics), kalapramanam (speed) and creating the right mood, to name a few. At the end of the day, it is all about team work.
Who are some of the senior Bharatanatyam artists you have accompanied?
I have accompanied several senior dancers such as Yamini Krishnamurthy, Swarnamukhi, the Dhananjayans, Sudharani Raghupathy, the late Udupi Laxminarayan, Viji Prakash and Guru Kalyanasundaram.
You have worked extensively with the Shakti Foundation in Los Angeles. How did this opportunity come about?
In 1992, I travelled with the Dhananjayans to the United States for a performance and they introduced me to Viji Prakash, Director of the Shakti Foundation. I was a lead percussionist for their school for many years.
What would be your advice to aspiring mridangists?
“No pain, no gain!” There is nothing to beat hard work and focus. I don’t mean just about your career. The time that we invest as students at an early age is very important. That is a time when we do not have other distractions or commitments. I remember spending hours with my guru, sometimes staying up till the early hours, discussing music-related topics with him. We used to talk about playing for dance and various techniques to enhance the performance. An important aspect for any aspiring mridangist is kelvi gnanam. Listening to good playing and letting it soak in subconsciously are an intrinsic part of maturing as an artist. Listening to kutcheris to observe different styles of playing – often to know what not to do! – is also part of the process.
What are your interests besides playing the mridangam?
Besides mridangam, which occupies most of my time, I love nature and being in natural environs. Sometimes I think I would have been happy as a farmer working in the fields!