When Paul Simon Sought Out Mridangam Maestro Karaikudi R Mani

Karaikudi R Mani, one of the finest exponents of the Mridangam that the Carnatic world has known, took rhythm centrestage, right up to the point where there would be concerts starting off with the thani avarthanam, featuring the Mridangam, the Ghatam, and sometimes the Khanjira and the Morsing. On the occassion of his 75th bithday, CSP features an interview with the maestro.

 The intricate rhythms of Carnatic music have long fascinated those who take rhythm seriously, but to this day, it is almost acceptable for rasikas to get up and go for a leisurely stroll when the thani avarthanam -- the rhythm section of a Carnatic concert -- begins.

But even those audiences who see this as offensive and like to stay put, would admit that they have not cultivated a level of taste, appreciation and knowledge of rhythm to match the raga knowledge that they might boast of.

Emphasising the importance of rhythm, Karaikudi R Mani says that while music tastes differ from person to person, “rhythm is common across genres.” There is no action without rhythm. But unlike how other instruments were made global by various artists, no one took Mridangam to a greater level before he brought it to the centre stage in 1984.  He says he did it with a lot of apprehension. “So many questions—will it be accepted? Can we play it for two hours as a full-fledged concert?” On the advice of his spiritual guru Sri Suraajananda, he went ahead with it.

According to him, just “quality or brilliant playing alone would not suffice” to maintain interest in the rhythm, a lot of hard work, practice and thought went into the effort. He played the thani avarthanam first for 45 minutes, then accompanied the vocalists. This way the audience could come for the initial rhythm solo or come later.

He would still have a problem though – on some occasions, audiences began to leave after the rhythm section, before the ‘main artiste’ the vocalist, began to play! “The main artistes took offense to this and I stopped experimenting after the first series as it was very sensitive,” he smiles, speaking in a rare interview on a visit to Bangalore.

But at least Mani says that in those days, people believed that it was also because of the accompanists that the audiences came, unlike now when the unhealthy attitude of ‘the crowds came because of me’ has entered youngsters.

He believes in helping audiences to educate themselves. For several years, he would play only in one nadai for a whole year. “I wanted to train audiences on nadai. I took one nadai each year -- one year Misram, one year Kandam. Soon audiences could recognise them. Thus the audience remembers the tempo and when they hear a song with the same tempo, they will be able to recognise and identify it. Rhythm is automatic. You don’t need to know the grammar to appreciate it. People might not know the nuances of the rhythm. But in Chennai, now, people are able to follow and differentiate the playing style. It takes time for the common man to internalize this. Only by constantly educating them will things change.”

As for students, he says he defines rhythm and tempo to them sometimes by comparing it with cine music. Once they sing or hum a song they like, then the same is compared with beats and taught to them, making it easy to understand.

Mani, who has worked with Paul Simon on his album ‘So Beautiful or So What’ and with John Kaizan Neptune, a shakuachi (Japanese bamboo flute) player on the album ‘Steps in Time’, says that he also has many foreign students, like drummer Jaime Haddad who learnt the mridangam under him and was the one who brought him to Simon. “The foreigners had interest in our complex patterns. The main difference is that ours is permutation combination based, and for them, it is completely showing variety in beats.”

Once in the US, Simon asked him to play rhythmic pieces for each tempo – both slow and fast and he would record it. Mani played for six hours - an experience he describes as ‘deploying reverse logic’. “I had to keep in mind how I would play as an accompanist and bring variations for each tempo and each nadai (sub-division of beats). Simon wrote the lyrics, set the tune and composed music according to the rhythm.” The song Dazzling Blue on the album, features both Konnakol and Mridangam by Mani. Simon has described the album as his best work in two decades.

On the importance of Konnakol is Indian music, Mani says, “You don’t need to separate Mridangam and Konnakol. Any mridangist should be able to convey his idea vocally and that is called Konnakol or sol-kattu.” In his opinion, Konnakol is a language like how there is a language for dance, and it is not just presenting what you play, but presenting it with the right modulation, and with solid content and meaning, without which it will be like a speech. He has plans to release an album on what Konnakol is and how it ought to be presented. He says that since it does not gel with music, it is difficult to be included in concerts and so does not attract audiences and has been reduced from being in full-bench concerts by Madurai Somu or Chittoor Subramanya Pillai to being played in sabha concerts.

EARLY LIFE

Mani started learning to sing from the age of three from his father who made him learn the Pancharatna krithis of Thyagaraja first along with other krithis. But it was an incident during a temple procession when Mani kept the beat on his father’s head while listening to the rhythmic beat of the Tavil that he started learning to play the mridangam under Rengu Iyengar, in his village of Karaikudi in Tamil Nadu.

Mani recalls an incident where he skipped a class to play downstairs with his friends, but was able to play the next day as he was able to absorb what was being taught upstairs even while playing with his friends. “I would play the correct phrases in the next class without having learnt it consciously. Since laya was in my blood, learning was quick.”

A lot of his learning came from listening to All India Radio. He would tune his different instruments according to each musician and would play along while the concert was being aired on radio. “I would boast that I had played for Ramanuja Iyengar, GN Balasubramaniam. In some ways, I can say I trained myself. I am largely a self-taught person.”

Karaikudi Mani had trained under Harihara Sharma, father of ghatam legend Vikku Vinayakaram, who changed his playing technique from the Karaikkudi Muthi Iyer style to the Thanjavur Vaidyanathan Iyer style. Harihara Sharama guided Mani to his cousin K M Vaidyanathan, also a ghatam artiste, for advanced lessons. This tutelage led to an explosion in his fingering techniques, composing and clarity of thought.

The generosity of the guru is something very close to Mani’s own journey as a guru. He says that in the old days, “gurus took care of the sishyas like their own child. For instance, Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer’s prominent shishya was TM Thiagarajan. But, he was treated on par with the family members. Gurus expected you to be with them always. They would not fix a time frame to teach. Learning took place all the time.”

Mani, who stayed with Harihara Sharma in the gurukula way, says, “In those days, gurus took care of the sishyas (students) like their own children.” The teacher and student were like father and son, and the pupil was expected to be around all the time, done primarily to imbibe good qualities from a guru, that being the reason for “gurukula vasam.” These days, he says, it has become mechanised. “Any art must be learnt directly from a guru—I don’t believe in Skype because I believe only direct interaction improves quality.”

Mani vehemently opposes the idea that there are any other roadblocks to learning Carnatic music. If Carnatic audiences are not expanding it is due to differences in audience interests rather than any exclusiveness practices by musicians, he avers. The aesthetics have to appeal, he says.

“For all of us musicians, it is only music that is important. In the olden days too, if you sang or played well, you would be noticed and recognised. Madurai Somu, TM Thiagarajan, Chitoor Subramnaya Pillai were popular musicians,” says Mani.

Mani says that the only barrier in learning Carnatic music by other communities even in the old days was the popular leaning towards a ‘dramatised’ version of music which has never been the norm among classical rasikas or practitioners.  “SG Kittappa, KB Sunderambal have sung excellently, but their music was more for drama and cinema. The Carnatic aesthetics are different.”

"The aesthetic music, is what matters,” says Mani.

(Photos courtesy Udupa Foundation)