In Chennai for the Season, Trichy Sankaran recounts her fascinating journey as a percussionist
Known for her nuanced and sensitive accompaniment, Trichy Sankaran jokes, “Accompaniment requires an IAS – involvement, attitude and aesthetics, and superior drum patterns.”
The mridangam veteran and scholar, who turns 80 next year, has performed for many mainstays including Maharajapuram Viswanatha Iyer, Musiri Subramania Iyer, Chembai Vaidyanatha Bhagavatar, Ramnad Krishnan, Madurai Mani Iyer, GN Balasubramaniam (GNB), MD Ramanathan, KV Narayanaswamy, Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer and Flute Mali.
He began his training in Tiruchi, with his cousin Poovaurr Venkatarama Iyer, before joining the maestro, Pazhani Subramania Pillai. The best known of Pillai’s students, in 1971, at the behest of Jon Higgins (popularly known as Higgins Bhagvathar), Sankaran moved to Toronto. Now retired as a professor at York University, he’s been a regular on the Deember music season that many don’t realize he doesn’t live in Chennai.
Concerts this year
Sankaran has several concerts this year including at Sri Parthasarathy Swami Sabha, Mylapore Fine Arts, Thyaga Brahma Gana Sabha and more. Tomorrow he is performing at Chennai Fine Arts with VV Subrahmanyam and VVS Murari. On Sunday he performs with Lalgudi GJR Krishnan and Vijayalakshmi at Sri Krishna Gana Sabha. âI have played for so many great musicians at Krishna Gana Sabha,â he remembers fondly, âincluding during Lalgudi Jayaraman’s first violin duet with his sister Srimathi Brahmanandam alongside my guru. Krishnan and Viji do a great job of upholding the legacy of their illustrious father.
Much of Sankaran’s learning came on stage playing double mridangam with Pazhani Subramania Pillai, starting with his debut for the Alathur brothers in 1955. âSeeing my guru adapt his playing for each artist was fascinating. For example, his accompaniment for GNB would be very different from the way he played for Madurai Mani. Pillai being left-handed and right-handed Sankaran helped further, allowing him to clearly watch his guru’s technique.
Speaking of the evolution of approaches to playing mridangam, Sankaran said, “I wouldn’t want to generalize, but the playing is more sollu-ful (full of rhythmic syllables) than soul.” He advises young enthusiasts to attend concerts and indulge in âcreative listeningâ – paying close attention to why something is being played, where and when. He thinks percussionists should think about “the intent of the content” rather than breaking everything down into digital sequences. âYou have to be careful in selecting the germinal or fundamental patterns of a song. For example, one cannot play the standard misra chapu sollus for ‘Ninnu vinaga mari dikkevarunnaru’ (Purvikalyani), which is in viloma chapu. We have to pay attention to the walk of the room, how the sangatis are stacked, and just add the perfect sollus to increase each sangati.
Since Sankaran is known for his ability to uplift a concert, do the young musicians he plays with consult him? He says a lot of artists do. âHowever, I am not imposing my opinion. If requested, I offer suggestions. Some artists include songs I like or try out new korvais (end sequences). He cautions against the tendency to incorporate mridangam-based korvais into music. âIt’s going to lack aesthetics. Remember, korvais made for music are intended for a particular ragam and song.
Recalling how old musicians and percussionists worked in tandem, he says, âMadurai Mani would linger on mel shadjam. My guru would take that up again in the chapu, knowing that Mani would stop there. Only the meettu sollu and chapu would then be heard. Madurai Mani loved him so much that he left about four avartanams free for the gentleman to play. Sankaran agrees that when singers, flautists and string players dwell on notes or make space between notes, it prompts percussionists to come up with imaginative rhythmic patterns. There were other classic combinations such as GNB-Pillai, Ariyakudi Ramanuja Iyengar-Palghat Mani Iyer, KVN-Palghat Raghu, and Semmangudi-Sankaran, all of which showed great mutual understanding.
Sankaran has always been a strong supporter of sarvalaghu (spontaneous “flow of time” models) on kanakku (mathematically focused sequences). From the start, he focused on the music as a whole rather than percussive calculations, and strongly recommends that percussionists learn vocal music as well. He thinks that even if one should know the kanakku, it should only be used when appropriate and with discretion. It also emphasizes playing the entire concert, including korvai and tani avartanam, without any predefined calculations, like the methodical and targeted accumulation of sangatis in a song.
According to Sankaran, virtuosity should only be demonstrated in tani avartanam, which should not last more than 10 minutes in a two-hour concert. âIt would be nice if all the percussionists on stage played with mutual understanding proportional to the whole concert. Anything that is overdone is not pleasant.
Sankaran has nothing against the current standard of short concerts, and says they can have an impact with the right planning. âYears ago All India Radio launched 60 minute and 90 minute programs. In addition to choosing contrasting ragas, opt for different kalapramanams (speeds) and not just a variety of tala. You can deliver a great gig with a few common talas if the speed and songs are correctly selected.
During the confinement, Sankaran worked on a composition, “Chaapu Tala Maalika”, set on a tala of 24 beats counted as 3 + 5 + 7 + 9 (tisram, khandam, misram and sankirnam), based on the Karaharapriya or Dorian mode. . He presented it last month in Vancouver as part of a program called “A Life in Rhythm”, hosted by his student Curtis Andrews. âWe had a guitar, vibraphone, mridangam, drums and more, and we were also joined by Carnatic violinist, Kaushik Sivaramakrishnan, from Edmonton. He has also worked on some Korvais and different approaches to nadais which he will present during his next Margazhi concerts.
âMy guru said I have to go his way but create my own style. I think I managed to do it, âsaid the veteran.
The Chennai-based author writes about Carnatic music and musicians.