Whither the born drummer? A Mridhangam Vidhvan who never was

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My Childhood nostalgia series – Chapter 4

Updated on November 4, 2014

After issuing a post card and collecting 10 paisa for it from the villager, I was about to leave the room when I noticed the Mridhangam kept in a corner of the room. It was the Headmaster’s room of our elementary school, which also functioned as a rural post-office extension counter. Being a smart boy of the 4th standard, Head Master Rangu Sir freely used my services to do errands for him and one of my jobs was to issue post cards or stamps to villagers when they come to the Post office while Rangu Sir was taking class.

Who brought this Mridhangam here? For what?

I became instantly curious. Right from childhood, I had a taste for Carnatic music, thanks to my father’s interest in listening to radio; anything playing in Carnatic music means he would not switch it off, even though he had very little grasping power for its nuances. Thus Carnatic music kept flowing into my ears unconsciously and I seemed to have some inborn leanings towards it too. At that young age, I could identify some 6 or 7 raagas just by listening to the alapanas. On the percussion side, Mridhangam’s sound was very attractive to me. I would try to reproduce the sounds of mridhangam from my mouth when I was alone.

I silently closed the doors of the room; tip-towed towards the Mridhangam and tenderly knocked both the sides to produce some sounds. I was thrilled! Oh! If only I can try to play it for a while!

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In our little village, there was no scope for learning either singing Carnatic music or playing related percussion instruments. Perhaps some such facility would have been there in nearby towns like Kumbakonam or Mayavaram (Mayiladuthurai). In any case, in a middle class family struggling to meet ends, there was no question of even wishing to learn such luxuries. My two elder sisters too had some taste for Carnatic music and they used to listen music course taught by Voleti Venkateswaralu those days (45 years go) aired by the All India Radio. This way, they had learned to sing some 7 or 8 kirthanas and they would practice singing them in the evenings.

On several occasions when they sing, I would appoint myself (to their utter dislike) as their uninvited percussionist. We had an old wooden box, which, when knocked at the sides, would give nice bass sound at one side and treble sound at other side, like a hopelessly crude equivalent of a mridhangam. I would sit on the box and start playing my own “mridhangam” in it to accompany my sisters’ singing. At times they would bear with me; at times they would stop singing half way and shout me out of the scene!

Hardly one month before my sighting the Mridhangam at the Head master’s room, I had the rare opportunity of seeing Mridhangam played by a well trained percussionist in close quarters. A Radha Kalyanam festival was arranged in our village by some senior citizens of our village and the venue happened to be our house (which was quite spacious to accommodate large crowds in the hall andMutram).

Since I was the the boy of the house, I was allowed to sit very close to the music troop and I sat adjacent to the Mridhangam Player to watch how well it was played, over the two days of the function. I noticed many things — the way the player used his fingers to produce different sounds, the stroke patterns for different Talas, the way Mridhangam was tuned to proper Shruthi and the way the bass sound was made deeper by applying a wet paste of rava and so on.

At nights, I used to dream of my playing Mridhangam those days!

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And now, here, at the Head master’s room this Mridhangam was lying and luring me. After having a quick lunch at home (as my home was at a walkable distance from school) I returned to the school early. Our Head master too used to go to his home for lunch and I took the opportunity to go into his room, closed the doors, sat in front of the Mridhangam and started playing it in my own way, by trying to reproduce the finger strokes and Talas that I had observed in the Mridhangist during Radha Kalyanam.

The Mridhangam was totally out of tune with any shruthi and the bass sound was not “bassy” at all. The sound was rather raw, but I was thrilled beyond measure. Suddenly, the door of the room opened and Rangu Sir was standing in front of me, with surprise writ large on his face!

I got scared and jumped up to stand in a jiffy!

“Hey! What are you doing?”

“Er.. hm… Sorry sir! I… I… just curious…” I mumbled.

“Oh, boy! Come on; you never told me that you know playing mridhangam!”

“Sir, I really don’t know”

“It’s okay; come; play a little more” he signaled me to sit down and continue.

I felt very relieved and started playing a few more strokes in my own fashion for the next three to four minutes; by that time, hearing the sound, Seenu Sir too came into the scene and several of my class mates to gathered around the place.

“Sir! This fellow has some talent! Why not we put him as the Mridhangist for ourKathakalakshepam program?” Seenu Sir commented in an exciting voice. “That’s precisely what I was thinking” said Rangu Sir.

I was standing there, a little proud, a little scared and a little confused. Then it dawned to me what they were talking.

For the past 15 days, Rangu Sir was deeply engrossed in preparing aKathakalakshepam (Musical discourse) penned and music-composed by him, to be performed by a couple of our 5th standard students on 5th September, the Teachers Day which was celebrated every year as a mark of respect to Dr Sarvapalli Radhakrishnan, a scholar, philosopher and an ex-president of India.

Sarvapalli Radhakrishnan

Sarvapalli Radhakrishnan

Rangu Sir had that creative bent of mind in him always. Many times, it would look as though he was more interested in teaching music, drama and dance to students than formal studies! Out of his own interest, he had meticulously written a brief life story of Dr Radhakrishnan, prepared the presentation style in the from of a kathakalakshapam interlaced with songs, that were tuned resembling to some popular Carnatic Keerthanas as well as Carnatic based film songs. There were dialogs too with a touch of humor added to it, as a part of a little conversation taking place between the main Bhagavatar(narrator) and his co-singer during performance.

Since none of the boys in the fifth Standard were smart enough in rendering music or in memorizing the whole story for narration that lasted about 30 minutes, Rangu Sir trained two girls to do the performance as though they were male bhagavadars!

Since Kathakalakshepam is essentially a musical discourse, percussion was a must and perhaps Rangus Sir had borrowed a Mridhangam from somewhere and brought it to the school with the idea of bringing some trained mridhangist from somewhere, for which he could not obviously afford to spend money!

So, my toying with the Mridhangam came as a blessing in disguise for him and he didn’t think a second for any other better alternative.

From the very next day, rigorous practice sessions began. While Rangu Sir, who had some Carnatic music blood running in him was seriously coaching and correcting the girls in their singing, he left the percussion playing part totally to my own discretion, as he didn’t seem to have much of idea about it himself!

Funnily, the untuned Mridhangam played by me was sounding totally out of tune with the Singers’ Shruthi though I managed to catch up with the taalam (beats) reasonably well. During the Radha Kalyanam, I had observed how meticulous and particular both the singer as well as the percussionist were to bring the tune of the mridhangam to the Shruthi of the singer. I have seen the percussionist frequently adjusting the tension of the leather ropes that fasten the playing side of the leather disks, by hitting up or down at the wooden ring. They would keep their ears close to the “sadham” portion (black patch on the right side disk) and tenderly knock it to hear the “chappu nadham” (sounding “thung”) and finely match the shruthi.

But to Rangu Sir, it looked as though the non-tuning of my mridhangam was immaterial! Even today I feel surprised how, as a little boy, I had the keen ears to know the need for tuning, but the musically inclined Head Master never bothered about it! I also knew that tuning was an expert’s job and definitely it was beyond my reach and capacity at that age.

The practice sessions were too regular, frequent and a shade boring too. I heard the story and music rendering so many times that it got into my head automatically, and without my knowing it consciously, I had memorized the whole stuff. (It had its consequence too. That is yet another story, reserved for the next part of my hub!)

Just a day or two before the final performance, I came to know that the venue was not our elementary school, but a higher secondary school at Kuttalam (a small town adjacent to our village, hardly 2 km away) where the Teachers day was to be celebrated in a bigger scale. I became jittery. Performing within the school amidst known boys and girls was alright, but how about performing somewhere outside before a stray audience?

Stage fear started gripping me more and more; on the previous night before the day of performance, I was really scared. What if I fumbled and fouled while playing? What if the leather disk of the Mridhangam tgave in while I play? What if someone who really knows about proper playing of Mridhangam starts laughing at me for my amateurish playing?

On the d-day when I woke up, I was feeling feverish. I told my parents that I was not feeling well and that it would be better if I skipped the program. They brushed aside my complaints and packed me off to school. Out school had arranged a bullock cart to take all the performers along with the paraphernalia to Kuttalam. The two girls had their make-up made already – with their hairs tucked like “kudumi”, ashes smeared at their foreheads, a panchakacham (dhoti worn in a traditional style as done by brahmins) at their waist and so on.

My heart was beating fast and I walked like a zombie as I climbed the stage to take my seat along with my Mridhangam. I could palpably see my body temperature rising and I was sure I had got fever. Everything seemed to be taking place in a dream. The performance started and fortunately, with all my palpitations inside, I managed to play my Mridhangam. My confidence increased little by little as the program progressed.

Once I got stabilized, my keen sense of observation was working in full swing again. I noticed several things and they are quite vivid in my mind even today. My number one observation was that except for a few teachers who had gathered there, practically none of the school boys or girls were eagerly listening the program! The keenest person to watch the program with pride writ large on his face was Rangu Sir, who seemed to be thrilled to see the flawless rendering of the story by the girl who donned the Bhagavathar role.

Yet another depressing observation I made was that my Mridhangam playing went totally unnoticed by anyone! A potential child prodigy totally ignored by a “tasteless audience”, so to say! Suddenly a gripping desire to show my presence there came in to me. I had seen during Radhakalyanam that the Mridhangam Vidhvan, once in a while, when singing is not taking place, will tap the “sadham” portion of the mridhangam and produce the “thung” sound to ensure that the tuning is still right.

So, while the Bhagavatar was engaged in prosaic outpouring, I hit my mridhangam’s sadham portion a bit too loudly a couple of times, as though I am a professional, checking and ensuring the shruthi. Rangu Sir, who was keenly engrossed in lapping up the rendering of the story, got irritated and signaled to me to stop my “dirty tactics”! I felt humiliated! My body temperature seemed to raise up again.

Some how the program got over. I was still in a state of dream-like condition and I feebly told Seenu Sir that I am having fever. He touched my neck and he told Rangu Sir, “Sir, this boy has got fever”. Rangu Sir was proudly talking with other teachers mentioning that it was he who penned the Kathakalakshepam and was busy pocketing their appreciation. He opted to ignore my feverish condition.

In a dream-like state, our return journey took place in the bullock cart. In a dreamlike state, Rangu Sir took all of us to a small restaurant on the way and treated with ‘Pal Boli’ (A special milk sweet) but I found the taste bitter owing to my temperature running high.

The next two days were spent by me in sick bed to recover from my fever. When I got up alright on the third day, my father gave me a nice and shiny new fountain pen saying “When you were lying in bed sleeping deep, Rangu Sir came to the house, showered lots of appreciation for your playing of Mridhangam and handed over this present for you!”

I was thrilled. I still remember the unique color and the texture of the pen.

That was perhaps the last time I ever played Mridhangam. After growing up, somehow I never felt like reviving my interest in playing Mridhangam or to undergo some coaching under some guru to play the instrument in the right way. I don’t really know why.

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