Between the left and right
It is a tribute to the two greatest legends of the mridangam, Palghat Mani Iyer and my guru Palani Subramanya Pillai,” said mridangam maestro Trichy Sankaran, a few minutes into his lecture demonstration “The logic and magic of laya” for Ranjani Fine Arts in Bangalore, recently. The affable and unassuming Sankaran, commenting on the topic of the lecdem: “I perhaps can speak about the logic of laya, but I certainly do not know of its magic. All I know is that it is extreme hard work and if it is executed properly, maybe it results in magic.” In saying this, Sankaran was at once speaking of the highly complex nature of Indian
classical music and the unpredictable nature of the creative process.
A scholar and academic that Sankaran is, laya for him is not merely as we understand it in terms of rhythm and its complexities. “Mridangam is an essential percussion instrument for vocal, instrumental and dance. It plays dual role – that of an accompaniment and as a solo instrument.” Nevertheless, even at the cosmic level, everything revolves around layam. “Layam is the bedrock of time,” he explained. To explain layam as speed in all its varying degrees is to explain only its temporal existence. Even melody, for instance the alapana in Carnatic music, which is not bound by the rhythmic framework, has rhythm in it. Likewise, even rhythm has melody, he added. To explain this, Sankaran played the chaapu side (right) of the mridangam as against the gumki side (left) of the mridangam, explaining how there was both melody and rhythm in it. “Layam is not always that which is measured,” and hence it can be understood both from rhythmic and melodic perspectives. “There is no singular meaning to anything, one gets an integrated view only when we see things from a multi-dimensional perspective.”
Switching over to demonstration, Sankaran put forth the many manifestations of each tala. Speaking of the universal meters – chaturashram and trayashram as the Natyashastra calls it – he demonstrated the various permutations and combinations that were possible within each tala cycle. Sankaran’s nuanced understanding of the art and aesthetics of the mridangam was breathtaking, “there are endless possibilities,” said the virtuoso.
The sollukattu or the syllabic approach is central to the understanding of rhythm, and the highest art form of sollukattu is Konnakol. Paying his tribute to Mannaragudi Vaidyanatha Pillai, Sankaran said sollukattu is similar to jazz singing and the Carnatic tradition of konnakol has attracted several westerners. “Voice,” he observed, “is the greatest instrument and you can bring in sounds of various percussion instruments in human voice.”
Sankaran who has collaborated with many Western musicians has played for some of the greatest stalwarts of Carnatic music. When his lecdem came to the final part where he played along with G. Ravikiran’s vocal recital, Sankaran was a picture of restraint. “The nature of ragas like Anandabhairavi and Sahana are such that it expects the mridangist to be mellow. A good mridangist is one who also has a good knowledge of the vocal tradition,” he emphasised. He recalled his guru Palani Subramanya Pillai’s mridangam support to a legendary vocalist, “at one point my guru began to play the higher, sharp note on the mridangam, and the vocalist began his swara prasthara in the higher octave. A good percussionist must know to anticipate. ” For the Salagabhairavi “Padavi Nee” Sankaran played a vibrant, brisk accompaniment, and for “Marivere” in Anandabhairavi it was majestic, and enhanced the meditative quality of the piece.
It was just a glimpse into Sankaran’s rare artistry, but an effective one nevertheless.
- DEEPA GANESH
The Logic and Magic of Laya