Friday, 29 April 2016

Deepak Maharaj at the Sam Ved festival

By Sunil Kothari

Deepak Maharaj has a head start as the son of Pandit Birju Maharaj – scion of the Kalka Bindadin's Lucknow gharana. At 46, he is young yet mature, and is blessed with a pleasant stage presence and a melodious voice. He knows the tricks of the trade and is a professional performer.

Dancing in the 26th annual dance and music festival organised by Sam Ved Society (5-6 March), Mumbai, in memory of Kathak maestro Pandit Durgalal, Deepak Maharaj was in an exulted mood. With youthful exuberance, he regaled the audience with select gems from the Lucknow gharana repertoire. Starting with a prayer in Brijbhasha, a composition of his father Birju Maharaj, he evoked images of Krishna, and soon unleashed a series of energetic nritta pieces after reciting the bols – which showcased his exceptional command over laya and tala. Thankfully, he did not restrict it to a sheer display of technique, but laced it with grace and occasional humour. He recited the bols before executing the nritta pieces, and had the advantage of having his elder brother Jaikishan Maharaj accompanying him on the pakhawaj, and maestro Akram Khan on the tabla. While his brilliant execution had the audience eating out of his hands, he also proved that he was a true artistic legatee of his father who has emerged out of his shadow.

Several young Kathak dancers are found lacking in abhinaya – emoting to a poem, a song, a thumri. Prefacing the abhinaya thumri of Bindadin Maharaj, Deepak admitted that he is no match to the nuances of the thumri. He sang it in his melodious voice impersonating both Krishna and the gopis. However, he did not dwell upon the sanchari bhavas, but only embellished them with typical thumka. It was evident that Deepak Maharaj has been concentrating on presenting nritta with amazing energy and speed. If he could exercise restraint and invest the form with the lyrical grace of Rajput and Mughal miniature paintings (which Birju Maharaj has mastered in his performances), Deepak could earn brownie points. Gat bhava and gat nikas are salient features of the Lucknow gharana which enhance the nazakat or delicacy and khubsoorati or beauty of the dance form. Deepak Maharaj would do well to strike that balance. 

The finale – a jugalbani between Akram Khan's tabla and Deepak Maharaj's footwork. had the audience asking for more. On his part, Jaikishan Maharaj on the pakhawaj unleashed a pattern of paran like shooting an arrow. What a delight it was to relish Kathak in such a soiree! 

Kathak exponent and Sangeet Natak Akademi awardee Uma Dogra has been organising this festival in memory of her guru since 1991. This was the first time that theatre found a place in the music and dance festival – a musical theatre presentation by Shekhar Sen in his inimitable role of Soordas. Ronu Majumdar’s hauntingly melodious flute recital with Benaras gharana tabla wizard Kashinath Mishra was another bonus.

Uday Shankar's chitravenu on the world stage

By V Ramnarayan

Uday Shankar, a Chennai-based inventor of the chitravenu, a musical instrument he has invented, based on his training as a musician playing the chitraveena (which he learnt from maestro Chitravina N Ravikiran) and the bamboo flute (training under the late vidwan TS Sankaran), has been accorded recognition of a rare order, with his instrument and him being featured as the mascot of a World Flutes Festival to be held in Argentina. Here's a link to a news report on the event.

I have followed Uday Shankar's arduous journey to get the world to sit up and notice his daring invention in a perfect blend of scientific experimentation and musical creativity. Sruti wishes him great success with the chitravenu.

Thursday, 28 April 2016

Nartanam issue on Padma Subrahmanyam

The special issue of  Nartanam (quarterly journal of Indian dance) on Dr. Padma Subrahmanyam was released in Chennai on 2nd March 2016. N. Gopalaswami, (Chairman, Kalakshetra Foundation)  presented the first copy to 'TAG'  R.T. Chari.  N.Murali (President, Music Academy) presided over the function and Gopalkrishna Gandhi (former Governor of West Bengal) and Padma were the guests of honour.  Nartanam is published by Sahrdaya Arts Trust, Hyderabad and its Chief Editor is Madhavi Puranam.

Wednesday, 27 April 2016






(Joint Award)







S R D PRASAD                  - MARTIAL ARTS, KERALA
(Joint Award)




Tuesday, 19 April 2016

Born to Sing: A Shy Girl from Madurai

By Shankar Ramachandran

The title of the JustUs Repertory production, Born to Sing: a Shy Girl from Madurai, was as seductive as it was appropriate.  We at Dhvani, the India Performing Arts Society of Central Ohio, immediately booked the show for the first day of our three-day celebration of MS Subbulakshmi Centenary. I have seen and heard many of Gowri Ramnarayan’s theater and music productions and was aware of her ability to mould and wrest unique performances out of youthful performers. But a musical presentation about MS poses many challenges. I couldn’t but wonder how the group was going to pull it off. 

The song list was impressive and, like most of the songs in MS’s repertoire, these would be very familiar to many in the audience.

I was kept busy with logistical and other issues during the days leading up to the festival and my fears and concerns didn’t get much attention, care or feeding. 

One of the singers was unwell and watching the rather low-tech ministrations of honey, turmeric, garlic and pepper concoctions set my jitters in hyper mode again and didn’t do much to assuage my pangs. On the day of the show, by the time the stage lights dimmed at the packed theater, I was a bundle of taut nerves.

Once the programme began I realized that my fears were quite unnecessary.  Gowri Ramnarayan’s seemingly effortless and informal introduction immediately captured the audience and the team never did let them go till the final chant from the Gita marking the show’s conclusion. At the very beginning Gowri set the stage for introducing the iconically familiar MS to the audience under some less familiar lights. MS, the personification of South Indian traditional womanhood was revealed as having deep commitment to social and political reforms. As the programme wound on, Gowri skilfully painted an intimate portrait of MS and Sadasivam as a couple who effectively pursued their vision of a better India through the music of Subbulakshmi.

What about the musicians on stage? They too wove their spells as Gowri handed the reins to each of them in turn. Aditya and Sushma sang the familiar MS repertoire songs with involvement.  While their renditions revealed what must have taken months of training, their presentations were anything but casual. There was sincerity, concentration and worshipfulness in every phrase.  Aditya’s Khamas followed by Brochevarevarura  and Sushma’s Hindolam and Maa Ramanan were both weighty and mellifluous. Neither attempted to sing the same sangatis or the same alapana phrases that MS would have done. But both of them left the audience breathless and eager to hear more. Tagore’s Mallika Boney and a bhajan from the Khalsa tradition, Naam Japana, stole the show for their soulful poetry and expressions of deep human longing, which flowed through Sushma and Aditya’s imaginative renditions. Violin, mridangam, tabla and flute were interwoven in a collage of colourful sounds--subtle and heard without loudness. Shreya seemed to lead off effectively; switching slides seamlessly from song to song and from sruti to sruti.  The instrumentalists also provided a romantic interlude with the songs from Sakuntalai--a useful ploy in the structure to give the audience a break from the more serious and more demanding elements of the show.

It could not have been easy for these artists to leap from song to song, each so different in approach, style, structure, language and emotional impact, throughout the two-hour production. Practice and effort were evident as was each of their underlying talent and commitment to the production. Ramesh Babu and Thiagarajan rounded out this team, Ramesh with his seasoned fingering and gumki - used to change the impact and to create the illusion of changes in nadai- skilfully added another dimension to each and every song. Thiagarajan’s flute added the colours of innocence and of song, effectively creating a sense of storytelling, which was exploited by Gowri’s direction and her narrative.

True to Gowri’s introduction, the programme presented much more than a selection of the songs popularized by MS Subbulakshmi.  Each of the songs was chosen for a reason and weaving them together  was expert storytelling. Gowri told us about a young girl born in Madurai in a devadasi family. Along with music she also imbibes a sense of the nationalist values of the time.  Inevitably these values lead her to question the social mores and stigmas of the times.  Her passion and her intelligence lead her to quietly challenge (if MS’ voice could be called quiet) the conventional roles of her birth and her gender. In Sadasivam she finds a life companion who shares her passion for freedom and social justice. Together they work to use her music to promote an array of values and causes.  From the independence struggle, and the Kasturba Foundation to the Tamil Isai movement where her participation caused her to be banned for a time by The Music Academy, MS was no conformist.  The songs in Telugu, Tamil, Malayalam, Kannada, Hindi, Sanskrit and more flow together to portay a musician’s striving for national unity, religious tolerance, economic justice, social and gender equality and much so much more. 

The end of the show came reluctantly. The photograph of MS on the stage now seemed three-dimensional.  The audience didn’t want to leave and many of them milled about in the lobby in animated and excited discussions.  Everyone who attended could agree that it was a most appropriate beginning to Dhvani’s  three-day MS Centenary celebration. It was great entertainment, it was solid and soulful music, it was an appropriate semi-biographical introduction to MS Subbulakshmi, it was good theater and a sincere effort. 

No celebration of MS Subbulakshmi and her legacy would be complete without an effort to help others. In tribute and celebration of the life work of MS and Sadasivam, the members of the audience opened more than their hearts. They donated enough money to Free to Smile Foundation to perform cleft palate surgery for eight children.  They also donated money to to provide lunches for nearly 70 children for six months.

Tuesday, 12 April 2016

Getting to know MS

Columbus (OH)

By Nya Feinstein 

Born to Sing by JustUS Repertory
( A Dhvani offering)

"All I had previously known of the Indian culture was masala dosai that was eaten as fast as it arrived in gorgeously decorated restaurants. We all know Indian food is beyond comparison, but what about the equally rich and sublime musical culture surrounding it? Recently, I attended a remembrance celebration for M.S. Subbulakshmi by Dhvani.

As soon as the lights dimmed in the small auditorium, the smiling audience settled into their seats as Shankar Ramachandran introduced the musicians onstage. Amidst claps of appreciation, Dr. Gowri Ramnarayan's sweet and enrapturing voice transported us happy listeners to a warm day in India as she set the scene for the night's performance.

Sushma Somasekharan and Aditya Prakash sung hauntingly gorgeous melodies that were complemented by the soprano, sweet, song of the flautist, Ramani Thiagarajan. Shreya Devnath's impeccable violin playing lent a lavish melody and harmony to the perfect mix of instrumentation completed by Ramesh Babu on the mridangam and tabla, adding a lively percussion that made the listeners want to dance.

The music was in turn relaxed and flowing, fast and vivid, and a beguiling ceremonial feel. Though I didn't understand the words that were sung (but dearly wish I did), they resonated within the audience in a meaning beyond simple words in any language.

One thing I especially enjoyed was getting to know about M.S. Subbulakshmi and her numerous contributions to culture and society. I can't say I had heard her name before that evening, which surprised me. How could someone that had done so much not be so incredibly well known to the wide culture here in Columbus, Ohio? I can only hope that her name continues to be spread and remembered and can only appreciate and thank Dhvani for the wonderful cultural experience.


(The author is 15 years old)­

Monday, 11 April 2016

A Trip to Tamil Nadu’s Cultural Capital

By Pradeep Chakravarthy

If there was to be an award for Tamil Nadu or even South India’s cultural capital for the classical arts there is little doubt that Thanjavur will win the award. Bharathanatyam as we know it today owes its codification to Thanjavur. Carnatic music as we know it today owes its codification to Thanjavur. The temples, palaces of the district hosted some of the finest yakshaganas and theatrical performances a few that still happen. The perennial waters of the Kaveri supported Thanjavur in becoming a cradle not only for the performing arts but painting and all crafts. 

While writing Thanjavur – A Cultural History, I yearned for the day I could read out the music and dance passages in the locations and was therefore excited to host with Priya a group of 37 guests to Thanjavur in February.

We got to know each other in the train and headed out on Friday morning with the sun being kind to us. Our first stop was Kailasa Mahal, the resting place of the kings and queens, these brick and stucco structures are a well-guarded secret even in Thanjavur and sadly are ruined and encroached. We were dazzled by the delicate workmanship. Efforts are on by the palace devasthanam to conserve the structures and this must be supported.

Our next stop was at the palace and our guide became Vijayaraghava Nayaka himself. His Telugu kavya Raghunatha Nayaka Adbhuthayamu recounts one day in the life of his father Raghunatha and deserves to be a text book in schools for the minute details it gives of life in the palace. We passed each part of the palace reading passages translated by that wonderful scholar Pandit Vishwanathan of the Sarasvati Mahal. Lists were aplenty. Lists of the king’s costume and jewels were read just outside his bathing quarters. Lists of his elephants next to the stables, the story of Kshetrayya and his Yadukula Kambodhi Padam Vadarakka Po Poove outside the Sangeetha Mahal and details of the more than 30 dishes in the king’s feast next to the Rama Sowdham. His image in bronze captivated us as did two of South India’s earliest bronze Vishnu images casually heaped into the corner of a display case.

The small museum of the Sarasvati Mahal Library had very few of its vast music and dance manuscripts on display but the painted manuscripts, the tablets made in Maratha hospitals and the Thanjavur paintings had our attention riveted. We also went to see the Shiva Sowdham that has many Hamsa birds carved into the ceiling and pillars to remind the king to reward only the best poets. How many 1000’s of anklets and instruments these pillars would have heard!

Moving upstairs into Serfoji II’s private audience hall, we played TM Krishna’s rendition of Kanakangi in Todi. He is able to wring every last bit of yearning from the notes and it was not difficult for us to imagine devadasis' dancing to the same song in the same room in the 19th century.

On the way back to the hotel, passing Bangaru Kamakshi Amman temple on the West Main street  and the veena makers in the South Main street, we had more music to listen to. Sangam hotel had recreated recipes from 18th century court recipe books like the Sarabendra Pakashatra for both vegetarian and non-vegetarian tastes and we appreciated the unique blend of spices and gravies with many pages of recipe jotting. After all, what is the Thanjavur delta without good food and vethalai paaku?

The focus in the afternoon, after a quick visit to a church Serfoji II built for his dear mentor Father Schwartz, we spent time in Thanjavur's greatest gift to the world, the Brihadeeswara temple. I sang Karuvur Devar’s verse in Ahiri to the grand Adavallan image – the only one that remains from all the images Raja Raja gifted to the temple. Much time was spent on the inscriptions that detailed land and houses given to the dancers – all of them with clear door numbers, the list of gold musical instruments gifted and details of the plays enacted in the temple, including one that was also enacted in Thiruvidenthai near Madras!

The next day we headed out to another forgotten gem – the Maratha fort of Mahadevapatnam – near Mannargudi. Built by the second Maratha king, the temple an exquisite structure in brick is in ruins but the fort campus inside filled with coconut trees is idyllic. When the temple was built, Tulaja I wrote and had performed Shivakami Sundari Parinayamu and Navneet Krishnan was kind enough to sing a daru from the dance drama – this must be the first time in more than 300years the walls reverberated with the same raga and Sahitya!

On the way back we listened to a few songs on the Mannargudi Rajagopala but after listening to Viribhoni by the immortal MS, what other songs can we remember. The temple was another venue to read translations of many other yakshaganas that deserve to come back to stage. WE ended our Mannargudi stay with a sumptuous thalai vazha elai (full banana leaf) meal with the lip-smacking elai vadam or rice gruel dosa that we roll of the wet banana leaf and eat. 

On the way back as we entered Thanjavur we spent a few minutes outside one of India’s largest forgewielded cannons that has not rusted even now named Rajagopala Beerangi. Photos taken, we glimpsed the Vellai Pillayar temple that has an interesting Kuravanji on the temple as we headed back to catch our train.

The stunning architecture, music, dance and theater got the group together and gave us enough energy to wish for a wonderful year ahead and remind ourselves of Thanjavur’s stellar contribution to the performing arts.

Future tours this year will be to Pudukottai, Vellore and Tirunelveli to see the Kaisika Natakam in December. We are always looking at ways to incorporate the performing arts into the temples we visit. If you can help, connect with us on

Thursday, 7 April 2016


Vidwan RK Shriramkumar remembers MS

Lakshmi and Saraswati are in perfect unison, in an enchanting oneness of sruti. The sruti petti blends with them; Nada pervades. Amidst this heavenly space springs a mesmerising experience--ecstatic and blissful.  It is an experience that has brought endless joy to many, enriched many a life and enlightened many a soul.

Smt MS Subbulakshmi’s presence, contribution and impact in society, the musical arena of our country in particular, stand unparalleled.  Her music, replete with the power of purity, dignity and integrity, strengthened the artistic bond across the length and breadth of this great land, transcending caste, creed, class, language, region and religion.

The realm of Carnatic music has seen many a great musician. However, with the advent of Amma, as she was addressed with reverential fondness, it crowned itself with the glory of becoming global. Amma dedicated her life and soul to the cause of preserving, propagating and promoting this beautiful art form in its entire splendour.

Plentiful are the reasons why she shines as the Pole Star of Carnatic music. Numerous are the spaces where her music is heard. Unshakable were her dedication and conviction to present blissful music, faithful to every detail of its form, nuance, aesthetic and grandeur. Innumerable are the causes she lent her voice for. Countless have been the recipients of her philanthropy. Immeasurable were her love and affection to humanity. Unfathomable was her psyche that was deeply rooted in tradition, exuding the fragrance of true devotion. Many were the hurdles she encountered in her lifetime, taking it all in her stride, shedding the unsavoury. Intriguing was her trait to worry needlessly. Fascinating was her penchant for simplicity and inspirational was her persona of humility, charm and goodness.

Amma’s music was all encompassing in nature. Blessed with one of the best voices ever in the history of Indian music, she strove to keep it resplendent all through her life. Not a day would pass when Amma would not sing, to the nectarous drone of her twin tamburas Lakshmi and Saraswati, the varisais in Mayamalavagaula and Sankarabharanam. Her passion to learn and absorb the best from the doyens of the Carnatic world was incredible. She also embraced, into her fold, the music of the North, having been guided by many a veteran of the Hindustani world. Internalisation was her hallmark. From whomsoever she learnt, she made it her own, with her indelible stamp of flawlessness blended with naturalness.

Amma’s concerts were marked by a splendid selection of items, covering a wide gamut of ragas, talas, compositional forms, manodharma aspects, vaggeyakaras, poets and languages. Every composition was rendered with utmost care and fidelity to the music, to the lyric--its enunciation and emotion and to the complete experience of the oneness of sangita and sahitya. Her sruti consciousness was immaculate. It was the trademark of her music. Her articulation of the voice was a visual and aural treat that served as an ideal to be followed, especially by practitioners of vocal music. Amma’s commitment to dwell deeper into the pronunciation and meaning of each word of the composition helped her tremendously with her diction and emotive appeal.  Thus her rendering of a kriti or a padam or a bhajan would be true to its form and feel. Her raga alapana essays  had a perfect amalgam of gamakas, suddha swaras, brigas, jarus, different kalapramanas and most importantly raktitva. Her niraval and kalpana swara singing never sacrificed the raga swarupa. The cheerful and encouraging interactions with her accompanists on stage brought forth her spirit of camaraderie.  An inclusion of bhajans, abhangas, shabads, Rabindra Sangit and the like were also part of her concert repertoire. She presented them in all their correctness and enjoyable devotional fervour. On special occasions she even rendered compositions in such languages as Urdu, Bengali, English, Arabic and Japanese! The count of composers whose compositions she presented in her performing career is almost 200, verily a pan-Indian experience, and one of its kind. 

Amma’s music opened the eyes of the world to look up to Carnatic music. By her music she touched an emotional chord in many a mortal in this great land of ours and the world at large. Her all embracing attitude of humility, unflinching devotion to the art and her heavenly renditions make her matchless and adorable.

Probably not known to many, Amma was a wonderful teacher. A stickler for perfection and meticulousness, she would not let go any nuance from being grasped.  Be it a special sangati in the kriti  Sri Ganapatini that she still preserved, having learnt it from Smt T Brinda, or avoiding an excessive gamaka contour of the gandhara note in Todi, or a vallinam- mellinam concern in a bhajan, or even a silent pause between two phrases in a song – she would impart with utmost detail and watchfulness.

The afternoon music sessions at her home were such memorable moments. Amma would ask me to play along as she sang. She would recall and render, from her wide repertoire, a few compositions and impart the art of understanding and reproducing the compositions in all their beauty. She firmly believed in the fact that the effect would be wholesome when the violinist learnt the composition and played in tandem with her, shadowing each anuswara. Testimony to this was to hear my guru Sri VV Subrahmanyam play with Amma. It was absolutely overwhelming. Her reminiscences of her interactions with the who’s who of every walk of life would be awe-inspiring. 

As she was kindness personified, multiple are the occasions when I have been blessed with her motherly concern. Anxiety about practically everything was also her! From imparting musical and life ideals, to consulting an astrologer about how my stars were when I lost my violin, to requesting the past president of our country Sri R Venkataraman to advise me to get married soon, to find a safety-pin for my kurta after I donated my replaceable buttons to Semmangudi mama, to wonder in anguish about my dislike for coffee, to make me not finish my dinner without having sadam or cooked rice, on an Amavasya day, she had a host of things occupying her mind space!

Having grown up with Amma’s music all my life, to have been associated with her, to have been fortunate to learn so much from her, to have shared many a concert platform with her and to have been a beneficiary of her unconditional affection and care – words miserably fail to express the feeling of gratitude, happiness and honor as I recount these golden memories.

When I answered a telephone call and hung up saying, with all reverence and sadness, that I wasn’t available to play the violin (for an MS Amma concert), little did I realize that my dear friend Vijay Siva would admonish me in the toughest way possible. Graciously enough, Vijay arranged for another violinist to play for his concert at Madurai. Elated that my first concert with her was actually happening, I called back Amma to inform her that I would be available to play for her on the 15th of April 1989 at Sankara Nethralaya.  The Goddess of Madurai was more than benevolent to her ardent devotee!

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.