Master of mridangam

Maestro

Master of mridangam

One can almost visualise it distinctly. A genial, portly gentleman, presiding over his thriving business of hotels and lodges.

But who knows where and in whom the muse will decide to take up lodgings, firmly and permanently? Anyway, one occupation’s loss is another field’s gain. For, the world of Carnatic percussion has been enriched immensely by V Kamalakar Rao, one of the seniormost contemporary mridangam artistes of India.

Hailing from Andhra Pradesh, Kamalakar Rao is a leading and much sought after accompanist, who brings to bear upon his art the richness and erudition of a tradition of learning that has all but disappeared today, characterised by a thirst for knowledge stemming from a connate gift for the instrument, coupled with a burning passion to learn more from an accomplished master.

Born in 1936 to G Varada Rao of Rajahmundry, perhaps the most significant heirloom that Kamalakar Rao inherited was a father who was a culturally enlightened man who enjoyed music and who had contacts with the leading musicians of those days. At the weekly Saturday evening bhajan sessions in his house, Varada Rao noticed his son’s interest in mridangam and decided to engage a tutor for him.

After the initial training from two local mridangam artistes, young Kamalakar Rao was apprenticed to Yella Somanna Garu, one of the disciples of the legendary Palghat Mani Iyer. The first thing the teacher noticed in the pupil was the latter’s mental acuity. Observing his student’s ability to immediately grasp and reproduce whatever that was taught, the guru diligently mentored him with all that he knew and then advised him to seek higher knowledge under Palghat Mani Iyer himself.

This was the turning point in Kamalakar Rao’s life. It is clearly discernable that Kamalakar Rao experiences a feeling of catharsis when he speaks of his tutelage under Mani Iyer. “I was only 13 when my father took me to Mani Iyer’s house in Palghat and requested him to take me under his wings. Mani Iyer treated me as his own son. I was one of the fortunate few whom Mani Iyer actually taught hands on, on the mridangam.

He would wholeheartedly praise me when I would accurately reproduce some complicated passage which he played in a concert. He would ask me to play it before him and then embellish it further, explaining to me the subtleties and nuances. There was none of the supercilious airs about him, so rare in one who had scaled the peaks of fame.

Though he was reticent by nature, I was one of the favoured ones who got to see him during his moments of artistic abandon, when he produced wave upon wave of dazzling mohras and korvais. I had to memorise everything.

Jotting down was unheard of and moreover, any attempt to write down would deprive me of that one instant of sheer bliss and awe at the brilliance of it all. If at all I am recognised as an artiste today, it is because of Palghat Mani Iyer,” says Kamalakar Rao.

Mark of a maestro

Observing Kamalakar Rao’s playing, one can discern all the hallmarks of the Mani Iyer school. Right from the tuning of the instrument and the frequent checking of the pitch alignment to the momentary pause before commencing play and the significant moments of silence in between. Here again he quotes Mani Iyer — “If you know when not to play, you will know when to play. The brief silences will heighten the overall effect.”

As he accompanies the lead artiste, one can notice his sensitive approach, keeping the overall pace and mood of the music in mind. There is nary a hint of dissonance anywhere, creating an overall effect of wholesomeness and richness. But it is in the solo interludes that Kamalakar Rao comes into his own. An enchanting combination of succinct percussive phraseology and mathematics, it is food both for the soul and the intellect.

As he effortlessly segues from fours to threes to fives and back in the same cycle, as he syncopates the beats that roar and sing to produce a sonata of exquisite beauty, as he executes that muktayi with finesse, one recalls the solos of Mani Iyer, deceptively straightforward at times, but a treacherous minefield for the main artiste, lest his attention waver.

Kamalakar Rao attributes his success to the encouragement he received in his initial days from senior musicians. He particularly remembers centenarian Dr Sripada Pinakapani, who convinced doubtful people that a youngster could effectively accompany a veteran.

Late T K Rangachari had exclaimed that it was unnecessary for other mridangam vidwans to come to Andhra when Kamalakar Rao was there. Similar thoughts were expressed by violin maestro Late Dwaram Venkataswamy Naidu.

Prof T R Subrahmanyam has been another of his mainstays. Listening to him talk, one is struck by the gentility of his bearing. This globetrotting septuagenarian, winner of innumerable awards and citations, including the Central Sangeet Natak Academy Award, who has also played alongside notable Hindustani musicians, remains a paradigm for youngsters with his commitment to the art.

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