IN A RARE CHAT, THE GRAMMY AWARD-WINNING PERCUSSIONIST AND HIS SON VOICE OPINIONS AND STRIKE HIGH NOTES [ AN HTBRUNCH EXCLUSIVE ]
“WE NO LONGER SEE A SWELL OF LISTENERS AT CONCERTS IN INDIA”
“BUT THE APPEAL OF PURE RHYTHM WILL NEVER DIMINISH!”
“THERE ARE A LOT OF YOUNG PEOPLE TAKING UP PERCUSSION INSTRUMENTS, WHICH IS HEARTENING” — VIKKU VINAYAKRAM
O ver 10,000 people are gathered under the light of a waxing moon at the Abahani Grounds at Dhanmondi in Dhaka. It’s Day 3 of the Bengal Classical Music Festival in the Bangladeshi capital, and ghatam Vidwan Vikku Vinayakram is playing Ganapati Talam along with his son Selvaganesh and grandson Swaminathan, both on the kanjira. The evidently enraptured Dhaka audience keeps beat and shows its appreciation in loud applause and even the occasional loud cheer.
“It was a special experience,” says Vinayakram. “The sea of people, their knowledge and enthusiasm, the stage, the setting, it all came together to make a memorable concert.”
It was the first time in Dhaka for this widely travelled artiste and he is pleased at being able to establish an instant connection with the audience. Percussion instruments, he says, have the edge of being able to surmount language barriers, which also allowed more listeners to enjoy this particular concert. “It is pure rhythm, laya, and the sounds can reach and touch anyone,” says the Vidwan who is credited with taking the ghatam from its status as an accompanying instrument to a percussion instrument in its own right, enthralling even the lay listener with his scintillating rhythmic structures.
Selvaganesh agrees the Dhaka festival was a unique experience. “We do not see such a swell of
listeners at concerts in India, even at open-air venues,” he says. That, though, is not to be construed as a dwindling interest in Indian classical music, according to these two accomplished artistes. Vinayakram, who has a special ability to engage with audiences allowing them to participate in the rhythms he is creating, says that the typical listener has changed over time. “Earlier, you could play classical music in its purest form and that is what the audience would come for. Today, you have to offer an element that attracts the masses,” he says. “The appeal of pure rhythm, though, will never diminish and there are a lot of young people taking up percussion instruments, which is heartening,” says the maestro.
Having spent over 60 years mastering the ghatam, Vinayakram is always ready to innovate and add excitement to his concerts. To mark his 75th birthday in August 2017, he played 75 ghatams at one concert.
Selvaganesh is also all for innovation, including fusion, to keep audience interest in classical music alive. “Few people, except the staunchest purists, have the patience for the traditional Carnatic concert anymore,” he says. “It’s like everything else in life – whether food or entertainment – people want it fast and in an easy to access form.”
All music, he says is bhakti. “I can express my bhakti in a temple, following rituals and strict codes of worship. Or I can commune with the divine in my own space. Then there are no rules to follow. But I am still connecting with the divine and expressing my bhakti. It is the same with music. You can either follow the strict classical traditions or allow other influences to flow in.”
OLD AND NEW
The challenge, according to Selvaganesh who has collaborated with several Western musicians and was part of the Remember Shakti quintet, is to find the middle path between preserving the purity of music and still hold appeal for the masses, especially young people.
Vikku Vinayakram won a Grammy for Planet Drum, a project anchored by Grateful Dead drummer Mickey Hart. “If you experiment, it doesn’t mean you are abandoning tradition,” he says. “Of course, there was criticism from some quarters when I agreed to work with Western musicians, but you must have conviction and confidence and plough ahead. All music speaks the same language and beautiful things can emerge from collaborations. You should be able to set aside your ego and play alongside another artiste.”
In an indication of the directions musicians who came after Vinayakram’s generation are taking, Selvaganesh has also forayed into film music, something classical musicians of an earlier age may not have attempted. He scored the music for Tamil films Kola Kolaya Mundhiri
ka and Vennila Kabadi Kuzhu and will also be working on the sequel to the latter.
“It’s a different field altogether,” he says. “Filmmakers come with their own ideas of what will work and sometimes want only to replicate what they think is a hit song. So I have to choose my projects carefully, ensuring my creative freedom is not curbed.” According to Selvaganesh, unlike in, say, the ’90s, today there are so many new names entering the popular music scene. “But today’s singing sensation is forgotten tomorrow,” he says. “I’d say artistes in the classical realm have a lot more staying power.”
“WITH MUSIC, YOU CAN EITHER FOLLOW CLASSICAL TRADITIONS OR ALLOW OTHER INFLUENCES TO FLOW IN, LIKE BHAKTI IN A TEMPLE”
— SELVAGANESH “IF YOU ARE EXPERIMENTAL, IT DOESN’T MEAN YOU ARE ABANDONING TRADITION”
— VIKKU VINAYAKRAM
A DIFFERENT DRUM
His son Swaminathan has also been drawn to the classical and now accompanies his father and grandfather on the
kanjira regularly. “It was his decision,” says Selvaganesh. “My father was very clear that there should be no pressure to take up music. My son studied Arts and then chose to make the kanjira his career.” This immensely talented trio of musicians call themselves 3G and when they are jamming together, they exude the sort of energy that has audience truly captivated.
With their unique approach to percussion performances, this family of musicians finds its tour calendar packed through the year. In the winter, it’s music festivals across India. During the rest of the year they are usually travelling abroad, performing. The school for percussion they have set up in New York City also demands the attention of Selvaganesh and his father. “Musicians, including jazz artistes, are our students. It’s an opportunity for them to learn the concept of South Indian rhythm and weave it into their chosen form of music,” Selvaganesh says.
Vidwan Vinayakram’s journey dedicated to his art and the commitment of his son and grandson to continue the tradition are an intrinsic aspect of the vast canvas that is Indian classical music. At the Bengal Classical Music Festival and elsewhere, their approach proves that musicians must adapt to changing times, even as they keep the classicism of their divine art intact.
“MUSIC FOR FILMS IS DIFFERENT... I HAVE TO CHOOSE MY PROJECTS CAREFULLY, ENSURING MY CREATIVE FREEDOM IS NOT CURBED”
MADE FOR MELODY Vikku Vinayakram (75) with his son V Selvaganesh (45)
Theauthorisa seniorfeatureswriter basedinBengaluru andspecialises infood,traveland lifestylewriting.