Musicians in Classical Dance
By Anjana Anand
Mridanga vidwan Professor KP Anil Kumar is a talented musician who hails from a traditional family of musicians. He has made his home in Kalakshetra, where he has been for more than thirty years. One of the few mridangam accompanists adept at both music and Bharatanatyam concerts, he is an A’ grade artist with All India Radio, Anil Kumar is known for his keen sense of humour and quiet confidence. He talks to Sruti about his decision to remain in Kalakshetra away from the limelight.
How did your training in mridangam begin?
I come from a family of musicians. My father and first guru K.P. Bhaskar Das, a mridangist based in Calicut, also played for Bharatanatyam. He was working in an institution where Kalamandalam Chandrika was teaching dance. They used to travel a lot performing with the dance-drama troupe. I used to accompany my father for these programmes and assimilated a lot by participating. I played the mridangam and tabla for many of their shows and this continued till I was about nineteen years old. My siblings are also in the arts field. My brothers play mridangam and tavil and my sister is a dancer.
You came to Kalakshetra in 1979. Tell us about that experience.
I came to Kalakshetra to continue my training in mridangam. I also studied under Pudukode S. Krishna Iyer and Palghat Raghu during my holidays. I learnt vocal music while I was a student and even a little Bharatanatyam with Sarada Hoffman! After three years, I left Kalakshetra to work outside and came back in 1984 as a staff member.
I have to say that my extensive practice and confidence also come from playing for Kalakshetra dance-dramas for almost 30 years now. Even today, playing for Rukmini Devi’s Ramayana series gives me the most satisfaction.
What was the first dance-drama that you played for in Kalakshetra?
In 1980, Athai (Rukmini Devi) began working on Ajamilopakhyanam and they needed a mridangist to be present during choreography. That was how I was first introduced to dance-dramas. Adyar Gopi used to play for the dance-dramas in Kalakshetra then. For the first show, he played mridangam and I played the maddalam.
After you left Kalakshetra, did you work with other dancers?
Yes, I worked extensively for Adyar Lakshman. I must say that it was he who gave me sound training in playing for dance. I also worked with Chitra Visweswaran.
How did you come back to Kalakshetra?
In 1983, Rukmini Devi invited me as a guest artist to play for the dance-dramas. In November 1984, I joined Kalakshetra as a teacher.
Was the mridangam training in Kalakshetra exclusively directed at Bharatanatyam?
No, it was a regular course. I would like to introduce a certificate course to train mridangists who are interested in playing specially for dance.
What are the challenges for concert artists face as accompanists for Bharatanatyam?
The base is the same for both. The difference lies in how we adapt to the needs of the other art form. One has to have a basic understanding of the adavu system and learn to respond to the footwork of the dancer. Instinctively, as kutcheri players, we play for the sahityam or the jati composition. However, if we follow the footwork then the dancer gets support from the percussion. In a jati, the pattern of the adavus composed may not necessarily go with the jati kanakku. There are cross rhythms created and the dancer’s footwork gets enhanced if the mridangam can play those patterns. To put it simply, it is like learning to swim in a pool after swimming in the sea. One has to adapt.
Did you make a conscious decision to be a Bharatanatyam accompanist?
As I grew up watching my father play for Bharatanatyam, it was a natural decision to continue in this line. I came to Kalakshetra mainly to get a recognised diploma and stayed on in this field. However, I continued playing for kutcheris. Till today, I am comfortable switching from one to the other. I have recently been auditioned for the A-top grade at All India Radio.
How difficult is to straddle both worlds?
Although the initial training is the same, the application is completely different. If one loses touch with playing for kutcheris, then it is not easy to get back to that line. The fingering may be the same but the chollukattus are different. Bharatanatyam accompanists who have been only playing for the adavu system will find it difficult to be mainstream performers. Manodharma is common to both, but a mridangist must develop his skills to manage a tani avartanam in a kutcheri. That requires a different kind of practice.
Many mridangists are now composing jatis for dancers. What is your opinion about this recent trend?
In the olden days nattuvunars composed jatis because they knew dance and had a strong command of tala. There are certain chollukattus which are meant specifically for dance. A mridangist who has been in the dance field is an ideal person. However, in my opinion, it is better not to mix traditional mridangam chollus with natyam chollus when composing Bharatanatyam jatis.
Having been in Kalakshetra for many years now, any regrets about not being a freelance musician?
I have no regrets. I did try to start my career outside Kalakshetra in the 1980s but found that it was not financially viable. In those days, a show in Delhi or Kolkatta would take me out of Chennai for a week because of the travel. I could only accept two or three shows a month.
Being in Kalakshetra has not only given me financial stability, but has kept me busy in the field that I enjoy. Besides the work at the college, I have time to develop myself as a kutcheri artist. It is the best of both worlds.
Any advice to young artists who wish to take up mridangam as an accompaniment for dance?
I think it is very important that they spend time practising mridangam in a dance class and learning how the adavus are executed. It is not enough to play well. One has to know how to support the dancer without distracting. After all, it is teamwork which makes a performance successful.
(The author is a Bharatanatyam dancer and teacher)
[Note: Anil Kumar referred to his gurus and peers respectfully with the usual salutations. We have edited these out]