Magic fingers, The Hindu Jan 27, 2012

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Mridangam maestro Trichy Sankaran on popularising the Pudukkottai style.

He has made an indelible mark not only in the country but in international circuits too through his performances, compositions, teachings and extensive collaborations in the field of world music. Presently, he is the senior-most professor in the Department of South Indian Music at York University, Toronto. He has made rich contributions to the academic field in the past four decades and taught many Western musicians, including Jazz drummers. Mridangam maestro Trichy Sankaran was awarded, early this month, the coveted Sangita Kalanidhi title conferred by the Music Academy, Chennai.

Sankaran had his early training in mridangam under his cousin P.A. Venkataraman at the age of five. Subsequently, he came under the direct tutelage of the legendary mridangam maestro, the late Palani Subramania Pillai, and had his formal arangetram concert (musical debut) at the age of 13, performing in tandem with his guru in the concert of the Alathoor Brothers in Trichy. He cultivated and infused a new dimension to the art of drumming, making his style innovative yet traditional. Before his arangetram took place, Sankaran's first public appearance was in Delhi in 1952 at the age of 10 for a Harikatha presentation when he moved here along with his first teacher, Venkataraman.

In an e-mail interview, Trichy Sankaran takes up a number of questions, including those on his teaching techniques. Edited excerpts:

How do you feel about being conferred the Sangita Kalanidhi title?

I feel elated. I have been performing at the Music Academy since 1956. I am also honoured to be the first recipient from the Pudukkottai school of percussion.

How did you happen to take to teaching in Canada and what is your approach there in imparting the intricate laya techniques?

I got an invitation for the teaching assignment through late Jon Higgins. Jon and I were the co-founders of the Department of South Indian Music at York University, Toronto. I teach mridangam, ghatam, kanjira and konnakol, besides courses in ethnomusicology. Rhythm requires no separate language, unlike in vocal music. Foreigners are fascinated by our rhythm system, the techniques used in playing and even how the nadam in mridangam is generated. I have introduced my own drumming notation system in my teaching. My approach is a holistic one aimed at developing the rhythmic skills. I also invite artistes from India and conduct lecture-demonstrations and concerts. I have published many articles and authored two books, “The Rhythmic Principles and Practice of South Indian Drumming” and “The Art of Konnakkol”, for the benefit of learners of percussion instruments.

You wear two hats, the traditional and the contemporary. Your contribution in the traditional side is well known. How would you describe your contributions to contemporary music?
In the contemporary side, I have performed with leading Jazz musicians, African drummers and performed in a variety of world music ensembles. As a composer, I have created and performed many pieces in the genres of Gamelan, Western Classical, Jazz, and other world music percussion ensembles. Many of my works have been broadcast by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation.

Your plans to pass on this tradition to the next generation?

I have already been passing on the Pudukkottai style with my own artistry (Trichy style) to several of my leading disciples. Many young mridangam players have been influenced by this style.

What are the hallmarks of the Pudukottai style and how is it different from the other school of mridangam playing, the Tanjore style?

Intricate laya, unique compositions (of korvais and moras), subtle tonal nuances, rhythmic compositions and the art of accompanying are the hallmarks of the Pudukkottai style. It would be difficult for me to explain it here in words. But these (salient features and differences) could be demonstrated and I have been doing lecture-demonstrations on this. But let me tell you that the Pudukkottai and the Tanjore styles are not poles apart.