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In Conversation: Kuzhalmannam Ramakrishnan (Malayalam)

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Mridangam artist, Kuzhalmannam Ramakrishnan, talks about the innovations that he brought to mridangam and his record-breaking performances.

Kuzhalmannam Ramakrishnan, hailing from a village called Kuzhalmannam in north Kerala, is a renowned mridangam artist. He is an A-grade artist with All India Radio and Doordarshan. He currently holds the Guinness world record of ‘Largest performance in any type of hard drum’.      

 

 

Edited version of the interview with mridangam artist, Kuzhalmannam Ramakrishnan

Sachin Anand: Can you share the memories of your growing years with mridangam?

Kuzhalmannam G. Ramakrishnan: It is true that I started at a very early age. My father, Gopalakrishna Iyer was the reason for that. To be honest, I had no interest in mridangam and music. But as a son born after five daughters, he had a special interest in me. It was his ambition to make me take this profession.

 

As I did not have any particular interest in the subject, I was reluctant in practicing it, especially when my father used to wake me up at 4 am in the morning for practice. He did not have any particular interest in my schooling but was strict about my mridangam lessons.  He made all sorts of sacrifices as a parent and a teacher and I am lucky to get that.  We live at a time when not many parents are open to their children pursuing arts. My family was not financially sound and I have always wondered why he compelled me to pursue mridangam.

 

After completing graduation, I decided to take up a job for the family as one of my sister was yet to be married. However, my father advised me not to take up a job for the family but to pursue what I really wanted. He was very keen that even if we were to wallow in poverty, I should keep up this art! I am indebted to my father for all achievements.

 

My grandfather did not have any interest in my father learning mridangam. But out of his own passion, my father started learning mridangam at the age of 35. At that time, he was already married and was running a small hotel in Tamil Nadu. He learnt mridangam secretly as my grandfather did not approve the idea.  He travelled five kilometers to Tanjavur by train. His first teacher was Tanjavur Kunju Iyer.

 

 

When we hear all these stories, we feel immense respect for him.. He had to face a lot of difficulties to learn mridangam. But he was always haunted by the fact ─that he could not shine in the field as he started the art late in his life. He had his own family constraints and responsibilities. But I have been able to achieve certain amount of fame as a mridangam artist. 

 

I did a painting called Thalam (rhythm), which took me over a year to finish. Whenever I get an idea, I would  scribble it down or paint it. I love to paint. There is a reason why I started this painting. One day while studying the theory, I happened to read about a myth. Lord Shiva was dancing his thandava and one bell fell off frm his chelanka (dancer’s anklet), and four sounds reverberated─tha, thi, thom, nam. This are the basic sounds of mridangam. All the basic lessons in mridangam is based on these sounds.

 

In most mythological texts, we can find this theory. So I started drawing the painting based on that concept─the sounds that came from the chelanka of Lord Shiva. After a while I understood that this was the rhythm that resonates throughout the universe. Not just the mridangam artist, but everyone who handles different instruments, understand this rhythm.

 

If I place my hand upon my heart and speak, then it is the rhythm of the heart. That is the ‘thalam’, the rhythm of the universe. When we all think in a micro perspective, localization happens. Carnatic music, South Indian Music, Sopana Sangeetham, folk music. It comes down to a localized perspective that we create for ourselves.

 

Genres might have begun with a localized perspective to a micro audience, through different points in history. When we think to combine all these genres, Western Music, Carnatic, North Indian music, we understand that the greatest rhythm is the rhythm that is in sync with the heart, the rhythm in which hearts unite. 

 

 

S.A.: Can you talk about how mridangam evolved through history? It is said that it was made out of mud in the beginning.

 

K.M.: In theory, the word mridangam can be considered in two ways. One is mrudu-angam, mrudu means soft, an instrument that is handled softly. Next is mriti-angam. In Sanskrit, mrithi means earth and angam means body.

 

When we look back, we can say that Sanskrit was the language spoken in India. I asked so many people about this clay mridangam. I have not seen one. It may have been lost in time because of the difficulty in handling it. A mud mridangam would easily get damaged if we do not take good care of it. You can imagine how hard it must have been to carry it around.

 

The only earthen instrument, as far I know, now used in Carnatic music is ghatam. Ghatam has not changed much from the old days except that now you get lighter ones. I have seen only mridangams made in wood since my childhood. When I started playing mridangam, it was made in wood. My father too had done some experiments with the instrument.

 

We cannot do anything without the help of people who make mridangams. Mridangam-makers are like our gods. The quality of our presentation depends on their work. Even when mridangam-makers put their heart and soul in making the instrument, only a few perfect ones come out. When they work on minute details, then the output is better and that is what the audience hear. If a mridangam does not have good quality, we cannot deliver our best. 

 

So when I started, the mridangams were made of wood. The wood should have good weight, it should have good kathal. Kathal means the wood should be old. So much attention was given to these things during earlier days. We get such wood today as well. But its value is very high and is difficult to get.

 

Wood of jackfruit tree is mostly used to make mridangams. Another wood is that of the golden shower tree. They are also made from the wood of coconut tree and palm, but that is rare.

 

99% of the mridangams are made from jackfruit wood. (Pointing to a mridangam kept behind him) This one is a mridangam made in wood of jackfruit tree. It was made by my father from a jackfruit tree that grew in our home. Though the tree wasn’t too old to be cut, my father decided to use it to make mridangam as he believed it had grown hearing rhythm. So he cut down the tree and made some pieces. Likewise (pointing to another mirdangam) this one is made from the wood of golden shower tree. My father said that he bought it from Tamil Nadu for a bargain. The tonal qualities of all these mridangams are really good. That is because of the purity of my father’s heart. I believe so. That passion made him all these things perfectly. i have been hearing about fiber mridangams for 10 to 15 years. Umayalpuram Sivaraman sir is the one who took real interest in fiber mirdangams. He dared such experiments even at the peak of his career. But I don’t know whether he used it or not. But he was the first one to talk about the possibilities of fiber. Fibre mridangams are available. The ones we get in Kerala are heavy. So it beats its own purpose; the requirement is weightlessness.

 

All artists including me used to carry heavy mridangams. The minimum weight advised for mridangam was ten to fifteen kilograms. My father also advised this. He used to have mridangams of different sizes up to 26 inches. After experimenting with all these I felt that some changes were necessary.

 

Earlier we used to carry mridangam covered in a cloth on our shoulders. Now we have bags. It will be protected from rain while we travel. The packing is good nowadays. But earlier we had to take real good care to make sure that it did not get wet or damaged while we traveled. All of us have undergone such hardships. 

 

In my childhood I went with my father to play ghatam. He did this to take away my stage fright. After he familiarized me with mridangam, at some point, he asked me to stop playing ghatam. He said that would ruin my hand. I have learnt many things. I used to play tabala for light/film music concerts. I used to play both tabala and mridangam. Most tabala players have strong roots in mridangam. I have learnt violin. My father made me avoid all these fearing that it might shift my focus from mridangam. Later on, I became attached to mridangam. That is what happened.  From very early I came to be known as Kuzhalmannam Ramakrishnan. Kuzhalmannam is the name of my place.

 

So while I used to travel for concerts, they would fail to recognize me, because,   they generally assumed from my name that the artist would be an elderly person. In those days, as communication was difficult, they would invite me by post. But at the venue, even the secretary of the program committee would not recognize me even if I passed in front of him. It has happened many times. So from my young days, the instrument mridangam and the place were there. I was just a mediator. So the connection with mridangam will remain throughout my life.

 

S.A.: What are your contributions in the field of mridangam, like the sad-mridangam?

K.M.: I don’t think I have anything to contribute. I have made some changes, that’s all. As I said earlier, the thought, why not, was the origin. If we consider violin, changes are happening. Changes are happening in Carnatic music. In earlier days, tambura was indispensable in classical music concerts. Now, even the shruthi box is not being used any more. People are playing it from their mobile phones. If those changes can be accepted, then why a Carnatic music enthusiast is resilient towards changes in mridangam?

 

S.A.: Tell us about mrudu and sad-mridangam.

K.M.: Mrudu was invented four or five years back. I did some research before that. This urge to try changes must been passed down to me from my father. I used to go to fusion performances with violin and flute artists. We cannot really define what fusion is. It is a collaborative art. It is a kind of form that satisfies its audience. A few years ago, I used to get invitations for fusion concerts. While the mrithangam artist sits stuck to a place, others perform moving around the whole stage. They found possibilities in all those areas.

 

The guitar and keyboard artists also have the freedom to move around. When the mridangam performer cannot move around, then the performance with that specific group will be affected. They cannot do the magic or gimmick that other artists in the troupe do.

 

To look lively in that particular stage, he needs to move. I am not talking about classical concerts. I am emphasizing on that. Mridangam is generally used for classical music concerts and dance. I have never tried to bring changes in these areas.  

 

I have gone to many music festivals like Thiruvayyar Tyagarajothsavam, Kalpathy Tyagarajothsavam, Chembai sangeethothsavam. So there is a custom called unjavruthi. It is considered as one of the most sacred customs as far as music is concerned. It is done in tribute to the great legend in music Tyagaraja Swamikal, who was one of the Carnatic music Trinity. Tyagarja swami earned his living by going from house to house and singing. He lived a hermit’s life. In his honour a singer dresses up like him and goes from house to house. The singers and players accompany him.

 

During this unjavruthi, the mridangam player would hang his instrument from his neck and play with much difficulty. It is really hard. I have seen many famous mridangam practitioners dance while playing during unjavruthi. So I tried to implement what I have seen. First I tried it in wood, then later on, changed to fiber. I tried finding more possibilities. We designed a beautiful belt for attaching it to the body. When I presented it on the stage I gave it a new name, because that instrument was not the conventional mridangam. I don’t like to change mridangam from its conventional construct. It won’t change just because of me.

 

So I gave it a new name mrudu. Mrudu means weightless. I can walk around the world hanging this instrument on me. It is easier to perform. If it was the conventional mridangam I had to sit somewhere, set my microphones and then play. Nowadays, cordless microphones are available. Earlier there were artists who conducted concerts without microphones.

No mridangam player today will play without adjusting the sound system. They seek the help of sound engineers for perfection. Every instrument uses these facilities. Mridangam should also be audible enough. We depend on microphones for maximum output and perfection.

 

S.A.: Yes, they add to the quality of the performance.

 

K.M.: There is nothing wrong in it. A person got me the first microphone from Dubai. I wanted to try it out and asked the sound engineers here. But they were not confident enough. But I did not want to step back. I found out the possibilities in it and fixed two cordless microphones and played.

 

The microphones were introduced to me by a sound engineer in Kuwait when I went to perform there. He only had one microphone. I got the idea from there and I bought two microphones for that and it is more comfortable for me now.

 

For fusion programs, solo performances and for inaugural and other invited functions I do not need a place to sit down and set up. I can play standing. I am still trying to figure out more possibilities.

 

S.A.: Could you talk about sad-mridangam?

 

K.M.: I developed mrudu to perform for fusion and solo performances. But my thirst for new things was not quenched.  Sometimes we have to carry two or three mridangams with us for multiple performances. And also, one concert may be with a male singer, the other one may be with a female singer and a third concert may be instrumental.

 

For male and female vocalists, the sruti of mridangams vary. And also, with every male vocalist, the sruti changes. So sruti is the main problem. We refer to it as katta. It is the variation in sruthi. So we need to carry more mridangams with us if we concerts on closer dates. If we think about such difficulties we would be more interested in cancelling the concert. I have avoided many concert because of this issue.

 

The main concern is not the stage performance but how to get the instrument to the stage. I don’t think vocalists and violinist have these difficulties. For a violin artist, they can change the string or bring two violins in a double box. It is easier for them. To carry three mridangams is a very difficult task. The major difficulty is that of the transportation. The expenditure for that is very huge. No one says it aloud because of the love towards his art. So I have been thinking about it for some time. I thought that it needs to change. When I discussed it with mridangam workers, they discouraged me. You can’t blame them. They believe what they do is the correct and only way to make mridangams. So I tried a lot of things to make a change.

 

First I tried doing it in fibre. But it did not work out well. So once I went and talked to the owner of a surgical shop here. He took an interest in this.  He was more excited than me. His name is Krishnadas. So we thought about how to work it in steel. But the people who were making this thought  we were crazy. Even for minute corrections, I used to visit them.

 

So I made it the instrument in three parts, the middle part is hollow. For a mridangam artist like me, it was a dream come true. From a small five-inch long column we got the same tone that would be produced from a 24-inches long and one-inch thick instrument. I felt that I had witnessed something magical. A thought became a reality. Then I went on to apply it for different sruti. Both male and female sruthis and instrumental sruthi could be achieved in this smaller instrument. So we made it into five sections which have five different variations.

 

I have never seen anything like that in my life. From my 35 years of experience as an artist, I found it the most useful. I thought that the next generation should not face such hardships. I demonstrated this in front of the audience on the 15th August, 2015 in Kuzhalmannam. I showed it to them packed in a very small bag. The audience were expecting a 24 inch mridangam, but I showed the bag and told them that I was going to perform in the equipment in the bag.

 

Then I set it up in front of them. It was 22 inches long after setting it up. For us the output is the most important thing. We don’t have to know what is inside the instrument. If I had not revealed that it was a new instrument no one would have imagined it to be. They would have thought of it as a conventional mridangam. That performance was a success as far as I am concerned.

 

 

S.A.: I want to ask you was about the continuous concerts that you do. You even hold a Guinness world record for that. What is the motivation behind such efforts?

 

K.M.: I have five sisters. The one I loved the most, passed away in 2004. It was a big tragedy in my life. That was the first death that I had witnessed in my family. Till that time I had feared death. While I was studying my masters in the music college, one day, a doctor very close to me called and told me that my sister was going to die soon. So to see Prabha everyday knowing that she wouldn’t be with us for more than six months was traumatizing.

 

I discontinued my studies and came back to my old parents, and tried to cope with the situation without telling them. That was when I really knew the intensity of the disease. Prabha had lung cancer, there was no escape. I did my first continuous performance in her memory.

  

The first Guinness record was that of 36 hours. Many people were against it when I performed it in Swaralaya Fest. In my own place, Kuzhalmannam, there was a situation that I cannot perform it here. That is why I went there to perform. I did not do it alone there. Many people like T.R. Ajayan helped me out. One hundred and thirty singers sang that time. All of us together made it happen.

 

Then I did a 101 hour performance in Kannur. In Kannur the reason was my students there, most of them were older than me and in high profession. So there was an orthopedic doctor among them. He asked me how I was able to perform continuously sitting without feeling any pain. So I said that I would show them how it was done.

 

My first record was the longest mridangam performance. The second one was of the hand drum marathon. There was a record someone made in jazz; it was of 72 hours, so I got an approval to beat it. So the award is named as drumming marathon. It was a successful performance. It was the hardest as well. Even if I have done a 501 record as well, the 101 hours was much harder to me. It was very intense. It had just fifteen minutes break during 8 hours. This record, even if was difficult for me, it had its pros. I became known after that.

 

After that I did a 301-hour performance in Coimbatore Nehru College. It was done for young people. Most of the youth today show interest in learning western instruments like keyboard, guitar, jazz etc. So to instill love in those children for Indian musical instruments, I performed at their college for 13 days. The performed was titled ‘Mrudu’.

 

After that, in the hospital where my sister died, Nandavanam Hospital at Ottappalam, I did a performance of 501 hours. It was titled ‘Rhythm therapy’. As there is a relationship between music and a patient, we should know the relation between rhythm and a patient.

 

Music is understood deeply only after learning about the ragas, but rhythm is always present in our hearts. I did a lot of experiments based on that, even now I relate to the rhythm of heartbeat while performing in a stage. It was because of that experience.

 

S.A.: Can you explain that connection between the rhythm and diseases?

K.R.: The ultimate aim of any meditation is to control our heartbeat. To be at peace. When we are angry, our heartbeat increases, so controlling it is necessary. During those 21 days I did a lot of experiments, I will not be able to do that if I am doing different concerts. Neither is it an experience gained while practicing mridangam.

 

While I was on that continuous concert, I felt an out of the world experience. The hospital management was very co-operative and encouraging. They provided sound systems in all the rooms, so that the patients could listen to me playing at night from their rooms. Many patients came to hear. Some would give their opinions. It was observed that the blood pressure in patients was getting under control. I played the mridangam not in the usual style, but in sync with our heart, the communication between the instrument and our hearts should happen.

 

We can call it sixth sense or something else. We understand this because we are hearing it right? So when we are listening to it peacefully, we get a good sensation from it. The sensation of rhythm. That sensation is peace or the meditative condition. It can be achieved through meditation as well, I am not negating that, but I think talam can also do it. Some changes were observed in mental health patients too. Based on this experience I recorded a disc and distributed to patients in some hospitals. Apart from playing in concerts, if I could make my art more useful to the society like this experience, it is a good thing.

 

S.A.:  You have done marathon performances, solos, fusions and classical concerts. What are the differences in style in all these performances?

 

K.M.: Even from childhood, I was really attached to the Guruvayoor Chembai music festival. My father was one of the organizers in the festival. The festival lasts for 15 days. Earlier it used to be seven days, then it became twelve, and now it is fifteen. From my childhood I attended the festival. My father did not ask to attend school during the festival. So I took leave and was with him for seven days. I would also join him in everything.

 

I also had to share some of the responsibilities. Then when he became old, I took over all those responsibilities. In those days, the festival got over at three in the morning. Now it is not allowed. Those days the festival happened inside the temple premises, now it is conducted outside. In those days the cold and the blessings of the god combined together to give a great sensational experience. In those days the performances started from five in the morning and continued till three the next morning. So when we left the temple at dawn, people would be waiting outside to enter to attend the early morning rituals, outside the gate.

 

That was a unique experience. So the dedication to the art was drilled in me. Probably that was why I have the confidence to go through this long concerts. My sister underwent a lot of pain in her deathbed. So I decided to go through severe pain at least once in my lifetime. So the performances were mainly for my sister. One of my friends told me about the prior record of 30 hours and I wanted to beat that. My confidence was my experiences at music festivals like Chembai. I don’t think that one could gain such experience by practicing at home. It is not nice to promise and then not doing it.