Aalaap

Thursday, 29 March 2018

S. Nagarajan

Musicians for Classical Dance

By Anjana Anand


A versatile percussionist, S. Nagarajan has been accompanying senior Bharatanatyam artistes for the past two decades. At  Kaladarshanam, a school he founded, his wife Kirushanthy and he train students in Bharatanatyam and mridangam. He aspires to take percussion to the layman, and believes that an artiste should be adaptable and true to his art.

All your family members are involved in the arts.

My father, Shanmugalingam, an Odhuvarmurthy,  was active in singing pannisai at the temple in Yazhpanam, Sri Lanka. He was also a tambura artist, though he was a goldsmith by profession. All his activities were connected to the temple. He specialized in making ornaments for deities.  My mother is a rasika and is still involved in singing bhajans. They have been a tremendous influence is my life. My father passed away some years ago, within a week of being diagnosed with cancer. I think it was his devotion to Goddess Kamakshi that allowed him to leave this world without suffering.

All my siblings are involved in the arts. My brother, Gnanaguruparan is an artist specialising in painting. Another brother, Davaguruparan, is a tabla vidwan. Umaguruparan is a vocalist. Kumaraguruparan is a drama actor, while my sister Sarumathy is a veena artist. I married a Bharatanatyam dancer and my children are learning Bharatanatyam under her guidance.

What was your early exposure to music like?

I was born in India but spent my early years in Sri Lanka. Jaffna was very active in promoting music through the university. My father was the tambura artist for many senior visiting musicians. I started my training in mridangam. My guru, Kalaimamani Durairaj, was a disciple of A.S Ramanathan. Besides learning formally, I used to accompany my father in pannisaikucheris. My life revolved around school, the temple and concerts.

Yazhpanam was unique in its nurturing of artists, wasn’t it?

Yazhpanam was very rich culturally. I gained a lot of exposure playing for senior artists, as musicians encouraged young artists like me. Looking back, my early years in Jaffna shaped my approach to and understanding of music. It was such an open minded  cultural ambience. A good mridangist was expected to play for all genres of music, be it Carnatic music or  bhajanasampradaya recitals or Bharatanatyam. We learnt to adapt to different ways of playing depending on the kind of music being performed. If it was a Bharatanatyam programme, a percussionist was expected to know the adavu system, the nuances of bhava, the entries and exits of the characters and the modulation involved in playing for nritta and abhinaya. The same mridangist was adept at playing for a full-fledged kutcheri. I grew up in that kind of atmosphere, watching my own teacher play for different art forms.

How did you decide to pursue a career as a mridangist?

I completed my degree at Hindustan Engineering College. I was keen to further my training in mridangam and joined the Music Academy for a course under Umayalpuram K. Sivaraman Sir. It was a six-year course but I was fortunate to gain admission into the fourth year. I completed my Diploma in Mridangam in 2002.

My entry into dance was through Hariharan and Prameela in 1994. As I said earlier, I was open to playing mridangam for all kinds of performances, so it was a welcome opportunity. At that time, I was working for the Shriram group. I was leading a team and had a lot of responsibilities. Soon, I found it difficult to do justice to my music and a full time job. In 2003, with the encouragement of all my peers, I quit my job and became a full time musician.

Interested in Western and Indian rhythm, I decided to do an MA in Indian music (Rhythmology – Mridangam) at the Madras UnI was iiversity. I graduated in 2009 with a first class. In 2011, I went on to complete an M.Phil in Indian music (Rhythmology  -Mridangam).

In what way can dancers and accompanying musicians work to ensure quality of performance?

As a mridangist, I find it easy to work with dancers when they are very clear about the compositions or choreography. This way we can support them to the best of our ability. It helps us if they send us the jatis before the rehearsals and clear any doubts regarding kanakku before the other musicians arrive. This will ensure that time is not wasted during full rehearsals.

How should aspiring mridangists for Bharatanatyam prepare themselves for a career in this field?

I think sincerity and humility are important traits to develop. Regardless of the standard of the teacher or the performer, our job is to support the dancer and aim for a successful performance. There are many things for us to learn on this journey even if we have received the best training. Being open to working with fellow artistes and improving our knowledge will go a long way in enhancing the quality of performance. I find that every performance contributes to my learning. The same composition is handled in a multitude of ways depending on the dancer’s bani and creativity. We have to be ready to adapt without having rigid ideas. To do this, a sound foundation in technique is important. With that we can create wonders.

I think the reverence we have for our instrument is something we should never forget. My first allegiance is to my mridangam. I only play after doing puja to my instrument. It is not something I can be careless about. Whether it is for Bharatanatayam, Carnatic music concert or a bhajan, the moment I touch my instrument, it is with full dedication.

What are the challenges when playing for recordings?

Time constraint. Within our scheduled time, we have to finish our parts understanding what is required by the choreographer. I feel it will be more effective to have a rehearsal before the recording so that time spent in the studio is optimised.

Do you play any other instruments?

I have formally learnt the mridangam but along the way, picked up the khanjira, tabla, tavil, morsing and dholak while playing for bhajans. This helped me when I started using the rhythm pad. It is important to know the basics of these instruments to create an authentic soundscape on the rhythm pad.

Tell us about your new venture, the Madras Drum Circle.

My friend Soundararajan and I were very keen to take percussion to the masses. We bought some djembes (an African percussion instrument) and started conducting workshops for interested groups. Till date we have worked with IT professionals, children and teenagers at different events. We were recently invited to conduct a birthday party event where children enjoyed themselves thoroughly. In fact, the parents joined in too. The best part about these workshops is that there is no hierarchy. Everyone plays simple rhythm patterns together with everyone else and the output is amazing. This has been useful as a team building activity in the corporate world as it promotes camaraderie amongst team leaders and their group members. We are very active on Facebook.

It takes a lot of time and energy as my friend and I handle the events personally. However, the reward of seeing the smiles and enthusiasm of the participants is worth every moment. It gives me great satisfaction to reach out to people.

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