Seasoned performer

Maestro

Eyes sharp with a piercing gaze. A sandal paste mark that runs up a broad forehead. Lips quivering, perhaps in some intricate rhythmic calculation. A computer like memory.

As if a personification of the Kannada adage ‘small in stature, but big in fame’, eminent mridangam artiste Dr T K Murthy comes across as a repository of knowledge and erudition couched in a small frame.

Perhaps one of the last surviving giants of the previous generation of mridangam stalwarts, T K Murthy may be on the verge of 90, but when he touches his instrument, he is transformed into a sturdy youngster. Such is his mastery over it.

Born into a family with a musical lineage going back to more than five generations, many of whom were court musicians of the Travancore Palace, known as the Mullamodu Bhagavatars, Murthy inherited this rich musical legacy, which expressed itself in his liking for the mridangam.

Noteworthy of mention here is that one of his ancestors on the maternal side was Nilakantha Sivan, the eminent composer. In Murthy’s own words, “I never learnt mridangam systematically until I was nine, but I could still somehow play on the instrument correctly.”

In what was to be the first in a series of propitious occurrences, he was noticed by the then reigning ruler, Maharaja Chittira Tirunal, who awarded him a gold medal. Then came the turning point when Thanjavur Vaidyanatha Iyer, the mridangam maestro, heard him at a concert and offered to take him under his wings.

For young Murthy, this was like a dream come true, for he had long nursed the ambition to study under this preceptor. Moving to Thanjavur, Murthy was treated by Vaidyanatha Iyer as his own son.

“Iyer was a simple soul who generously taught me all that could be possibly taught. At the same time, he was a strict disciplinarian, who did not hesitate to deprive me of food when I could not reproduce the lessons. The method of reducing complicated rhythmic passages into discrete bits through precise mental calculations gave me the capacity to improvise instantly suitable patterns called mohras and korvais,” says Murthy.

Murthy’s mental acuity comes through as he gives a small peek into his phenomenal prowess when he demonstrates the mind-boggling Simhanandana Tala, a tala with 128 counts. Murthy shows his perspicacity when he splits up the 128 beats into four quarters of 32 beats each, which are again multiples of the 8-beat Chatushra Triputa Tala, commonly known as the Adi Tala.

The certitude with which he commences is almost mesmeric. Murthy has trained his students along the same lines. This streak of innovativeness and enquiry showed early on in his 16th year itself, when he studied the ancient palm leaf manuscripts at the Saraswati Mahal Library in Thanjavur to obtain information on the ancient 108 talas mentioned in music treatises.

With help from an expert, he decoded the symbolic representations and devised rhythmic passages for these talas. It may be noted here that Ramaswamy Dikshitar, father of Muthuswamy Dikshitar, composed his mammoth Ashttothara Shata Raga Tala Malika in 108 ragas and talas, a major portion of which is now lost. Murthy has preserved his work on these talas for posterity in a DVD.

Unique talent

As an accompanist, he has been on the stage for a stupefying eight decades and is still going strong. It would suffice to say that there has been and there is no vocalist or instrumentalist whom he has not accompanied. Having played for M S Subbulakshmi for nearly five decades, he has travelled widely abroad.

“At a dinner in Jawaharlal Nehru’s residence with MS, Nehru requested me to represent India at the Edinborough Festival. On seeing my hesitation due to the language barrier, he at once arranged for a translator, thus making my visit a memorable one,” recalls Murthy.

Observing Murthy’s playing, what immediately strikes the listener is his ability to correctly gauge the pace of the main performer and anticipate the musical expressions through his calculated rhythmic accompaniment, simple and straightforward at times, exciting patterns woven into aesthetically apt passages at others, all together embellishing the performance into a wholesome and enriching experience. In his solo turns, the wizard in him emerges. This master still practices daily, lest, as he says “the skin of the hands and that of the mridangam forget each other”. He is also adept in konnakol, the art of recitation of the percussion syllables.

The Chowdaiah Award, conferred on him recently, is the latest in a string of awards, including the Sangeetha Kalanidhi and the Sangeet Natak Academy Fellowship. By giving him a standing ovation, the audience conveyed its deep sense of reverence and admiration to this ‘little master’.

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