Song of Surrender

Saturday, 5 August 2017

B Muthukumar

Musicians for Classical Dance

By Anjana Anand

Vocalist B. Muthukumar hails from a family of musicians. The first flautist of the family, Muthukumar has made a mark as a soloist as well as an accompanist for Bharatanatyam. An ‘A’ grade artist of All India Radio, Muthukumar is known for his musical depth and adaptability. Today, he is one of the few musicians who continue to straddle both worlds with ease. He speaks to Sruti about the joys of being a sishya of Dr. N. Ramani and his experience in the Bharatanatyam field.
You come from a family of mridangists. How did the flute become your instrument of choice?
Everyone in my family was a mridangist—my grandfather V. Vittal Iyer, father N.V.  Balakrishnan who was known as Adyar Balu, and brother, dancer Rajesh. Strangely, I was the only one who did not try  playing the instrument. Our house always resonated with the sound of the mridangam. My grandfather used to teach mridangam and my family including my cousins would gather around him, playing and learning from him. I watched from a distance but did not have any desire to join them. It was solely because of my grandfather’s interest in the flute that I started learning the instrument. My grandfather and T.R.  Mahalingam were neighbours in our hometown. Somehow grandfather had a special liking for the flute and used to cajole Mali to play for him. My interest in the flute was inspired by my grandfather.
When did you start formal training?
It was only after my grandfather’s demise that I started my formal training in flute. I learnt from Mayavaram Saraswathi Ammal for six years. My mother used to take me to class at that age. She gave me a packet of fried peanuts at the end of the class, and that was a big incentive! In 1991, I started training with Ramani Sir. My grandmother always wanted me to learn from him as he knew my grandfather well.
How was your experience as his student?
The two decades I was with my guru were the most fulfilling  years of my learning. I was studying B.Com at Vivekananda  College and his house was just behind the college. One of the clerical staff who was related to him would often inform me in class that I should accompany him on the tambura in a concert. I think I spent more time with my guru than at college! I was like a member of his family. I learnt so much from just being around him.
Did you decide to become a full time musician at that point?
I graduated in 1996 and was planning on joining a computer course in NIIT. It was expensive and I was wondering how I would finance the course. It just happened that that year, my father was to join Menaka Thakkar in Canada to play for her programme. There was some visa issue with the Odissi accompanists for the same show. As they could not make it, Kalanidhi Narayanan recommended that I join my father on the tour. That was probably a turning point in my career choice.
I completed my NIIT course in 1997 but by then had started travelling abroad. I went to Japan with Seetarama Sarma.  In 1998, I went to the US to play for Viji Prakash. In 1999, I  was part of the production ‘Abhyasa’ curated by Uma Ganesan and worked with Rathna Kumar of Houston. That year, I stayed in the US for five months. Since then, I have been travelling regularly abroad and associated closely with Rathna Kumar’s work till today.
Were you playing for Bharatanatyam in Chennai?
Yes. It was a natural choice for me as my grandfather and father were in the field. My grandfather taught mridangam at Kalakshetra in the early years and my father was an established mridangam artist for Bharatanatyam.  I started playing for dance in 1994. Amongst the seniors then, I used to play regularly for Krishnaveni Lakshmanan, Chitra Visweswaran, Lakshmi Vishwanathan, Sudharani Raghupathy, Alarmel Valli, the Dhananjayans, C.V. Chandrasekhar, the Narasimhacharis and Leela Samson. Other artists I accompanied included Srinidhi Chidambaram, Bragha Bessel, Urmila Satyanarayanan and Uma Maheswari. In the last few years, I have worked closely with Kishore Mosalikanti, Divyasena,  Sheela Unnikrishnan and Sheejith Krishna, to name a few. All these artists have been of great support to me and I share a wonderful rapport with them.
You have also pursued a path as a Carnatic music concert artist.
Yes. One of my memorable concerts was playing with my guru Dr. Ramani as part of a five-flute ensemble at Coimbatore and Neyveli. In Chennai, we senior students of Ramani’s Academy of  Flute performed at Mylapore Fine Arts  and were lauded by the Hindu’s critic for our perfect coordination.
I was very interested in also establishing myself as a concert artist. In 1994, I won the endowment prize for
flute in the solo category from Mylapore Fine Arts. In 2000, I was chosen as the best solo flute performer in the Spirit of Youth festival and in 2001 the best junior flautist at the Music Academy. I enjoyed the opportunity given by Iyal Isai Nataka Manram to perform in various parts of Tamil Nadu. I received the ‘Yuva Kala Bharathi’ award from Bharat Kalachar in 2004. I also performed regularly at Indian Fine Arts Society, where I received the best sub senior flautist award in 2006. I feel it is possible to balance a career as a concert artist and Bharatanatyam musician if we dedicate our time to this art.
Is it difficult to find opportunities to perform as a solo artist once you become a Bharatanatyam musician?
I think it is important that we do not label musicians as belonging to only one field. My grandfather was one of the early mridangists at Kalakshetra and both he and father were exposed to both worlds. We know great musicians who worked in Kalakshetra who contributed musical masterpieces in Rukmini Devi’s dance dramas. Ramani Sir and T.S. Sankaran Sir also worked in Kalakshetra for some time. I remember my grandfather recalling an incident when he and my guru travelled together. The whole troupe of musicians was on a ship on the way to a performance in another country. My grandfather loved to mingle with people and when the captain of the ship got to know that there were musicians on board, he requested them to perform. My grandfather and  my guru performed for their co-passengers and were upgraded to first tier accommodation as a reward for their beautiful music. Grandfather  insisted that all the musicians travelling with them also be upgraded.
Today, there is a lot of collaboration. Concert musicians like G.J.R. Krishnan, Neyveli Santhanagopalan, and R.K. Shriramkumar are composing music for dance. I feel we should keep our minds open; the only criterion should be good music!
How being a Bharatanatyam vocalist shaped your music?
Being in this field, I have been exposed to so many ragas. I have had a chance to learn many traditional varnams and that has enriched my raga bhava.
What are some of the changes you have noticed in the Bharatanatyam field over the years?
The traditional margam format has undergone a change. I see fewer dancers using traditional compositions. Newer varnams are structurally different with longer pallavi and anupallavi. I have also noticed that these compositions are heavy in sahitya, although most of the sancharis chosen are from the common pool. Some padams and javalis are still being performed. There is a trend for newer compositions sand lighter ragams.
Earlier, there were always string and wind instruments in every Bharatanatyam performance. Many times today, there is only one accompanist besides the percussionist. This is especially true during the December season. Perhaps rehearsal schedules and cost are some factors responsible for this change over the years.

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