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Karaikudi R. Mani

Mridangam Maestro – Part 1

Andrián Pertout speaks to mridangam maestro Karaikudi R. Mani and ghatam player T.V. Vaasan about the explosive nature of South Indian 'Carnatic' percussion.

Karaikudi R. Mani is one of South India's most popular mridangam players, and duly a celebrated and respected composer, performer and educator, as well as musical director of several internationally acclaimed Madras based percussion ensembles.  His unique style, virtuosic ability and rhythmic ideological innovations for the mridangam have attracted the support of students from around the globe, namely the USA, Canada, UK, France, Switzerland, Australia, Singapore, Malaysia and Japan.

How did your musical education begin?

KRM: "Actually, I started with vocal music at the age of three.  My father is also a musician come teacher, a high school teacher, and he used to sing a lot of songs and everything, so he trained me this way for two years.  Then one day I went to one of the festivals in South India, and you know how in the temple there is a procession of the deities, well in the night hours the procession was there, around the temple.  And in front of the deity the music was going on, with this long piper, we call it nagasvaram (conical oboe), and also accompanied by tavil (double-headed barrel drum), the big drum.  I very much interested in the tavil playing, but the procession was on the roadside and there were people standing all around the musicians, and because I was very small I couldn’t see these musicians.  So my father takes me on his shoulders, and when the percussion player starts, immediately I start to play on his head.  And that is how he found out that I was interested in percussion.  So when I was four or five he put me on to a master, in my native place, it's called 'Karaikudi'.  Karaikudi is the native place where I was born, the 'R' makes my father's initial, that's his name, because my father's name is 'Ramanathan'.  So we use the birthplace, the father's initial, and my name, you see all the musicians signing like that.  So I changed over to the mridangam, and I gave a concert at the age of nine.  You know that with these kinds of arts, at least ten to fifteen years you have to study, like education.  When you've got that degree, BA or MA, then it becomes a doctorate, like that.  The same matter with this art side also, but in my case it was different, because within three to four years I was a fully-fledged player.  My teacher said something about this in a percussion lesson, he said that it was in my blood, because whatever he gave, within five to ten minutes I could reproduce, so my lessons were going fast, very fast.  And my father trained me to accompany, because he would sing, and then ask me to play, accompany.  He would also turn the radio on, and whenever a concert was going on, he would ask me to copy the same beats, and play along to the radio.  So he trained me like that to accompany, and my first concert was at nine years old, in my home city."

Tell me about the mridangam, and its role as the principal percussion instrument of South Indian ‘Carnatic’ music.

KRM: "The most important percussion instrument in South India is the mridangam, because it's the king of percussion, and all over the world I can say that.  Because when you are a good player, mridangamists can train in other drums in a very short time.  And very great people accept it, that it's the king of percussion instruments.  So without the mridangam there is no concert in South India, even without the tabla there is a concert in North India, because they can use the pakhavaj (double-headed drum)."

How is it constructed?

KRM: “The mridangam is made from the jackwood tree, jackfruit also is very tasteful, very sweet, only available in our country.  So we make the jackwood shell using machines or by hand, both sides fully hollow.  On the right side we use goat and cow skin, and on the left side buffalo and goat skin, and the two heads are tied with buffalo skin.  On the right side there is also a black spot, and that black spot is made from a kind of iron ore powder, a very soft powder, mixed with this cooked rice, without oil.  There is a combination for this, one by three like that, three spoons of powder and one spoon of rice, it depends on the way the paste is coming, not so much of stick, like that.  So we basically do a small round circle and spread over evenly and rub it with this polished stone.  Then you go higher and higher, layer by layer, we have to work on this.  We have repairers for this in our country, it is very sensitive, this instrument.  Climate wise it gives a lot of troubles, because the black spot can fall down.  It takes at least four to five hours to do, and you can't play immediately, because it takes at least three or four days to dry, and you can’t it keep under the sunlight either, inside only.  When we are playing in concerts, sometimes it comes out in the first song, so in our country we always carry two or three spares for our concerts, but when we come to foreign countries it's very difficult to handle this."

Could you describe some of the accompanying instruments, such as the kanjira, ghatam and morsing?

TVV: "Kanjira (frame drum) is just like a tambourine, it's covered with Varanus, a monitor lizard, you know, it's a big lizard, and you can find it in the tropical areas.  It is covered with that skin only on one side, and it has small jingles, like metals pieces attached to the right side of the circular wooden frame, they used to be copper, but now they are brass.  With one hand they play it, they hold it with the left hand on the ring side, and they give these glissandos with the left fingers."

KRM: "Kanjira is the first side accompaniment, after mridangam."

TVV: "The next important one is kanjira, then only comes ghatam (clay pot)."

KRM: "Ghatam is made from clay, a special clay, and morsing (jew’s harp) comes after that.  Without morsing, or without ghatam, or without kanjira we can make a concert, but without mridangam we cannot.  The mridangam is the very most important percussion instrument.  Some very good players, and very highly intelligent people can play anything from the world of percussion within a short period of time, but in that same period you can't play the mridangam "

TVV: "It's a mathematician, a scientist, and an artist put together in mridangamists (laughs)."


The second part of this interview was published in Mixdown Monthly issue #59, March 1999.  In this article he discussed the art of ‘Konnakkol' and ‘Thani Avartanam’, his work with Paul Grabowsky and the Australian Art Orchestra, as well as his percussion ensemble ‘Sruthi Laya'.

'Mixdown' Monthly ~ Issue #58, February 3, 1999


All rights reserved. All text, graphics and sound files on this page are copyrighted.
Unauthorized reproduction and copying of this page is prohibited by law. Copyright © 1999 by Andrián Pertout.

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Karaikudi R. Mani: Laya Chithra

Mridangam Maestro – Part 2

Andrián Pertout speaks to mridangam maestro Karaikudi R. Mani and ghatam player T.V. Vaasan about the explosive nature of South Indian 'Carnatic' percussion.

Karaikudi R. Mani’s prominence has also consequently been influential in revolutionizing the traditional accompanying role of Carnatic percussion, and will henceforth be a major force in popularizing the concept of the 'Thani Avartanam' or percussion interlude in the future.  With his main ensemble 'Sruthi Laya', Mani has released various notable albums, and his latest offering titled 'Pushkaram' stands as yet another testament of his mastery over this South Indian drum.

A characteristic element of mridangam performance is the art of ‘Konnakkol’.  What is the essence of this percussive vocal technique?

KRM: "Whenever the mridangam player plays, the vocal is also necessary, because whatever we play we have to vocalize, that's very important.  When keeping the tala, whatever we are playing, the same thing should be said, because there is a small difference from the playing matter and the speaking matter, yet the difference is there.  There is also a group of styles, two or three styles in percussion playing, and the players can create variations this way."

What is the nature of the ‘Thani Avartanam’ or percussion interlude utilized in your compositional structure?

KRM: "Thani Avartanam is the most important part of the concerts, because the Thani Avartanam is like a solo concert to expose our intellectual parts, our thinking, our thoughts, our practice and spontaneous combinations, permutations.  So there is a place for us to show our skill.  Of course the accompaniment side is also there, because accompaniment is most important as we are elevating the concert, we are elevating the vocal or instrumental music, we are creating a higher side, because we build it up.  And we also cover the drawbacks of the musicians, we don't show to others that he is weak on this or that, so we cover all these things, we are like a family."

The performance of ‘Vasantha Pravaaham’ by Paul Grabowsky and the Australian Art Orchestra stands as an impressive representation of your work as a composer.  How do you perceive this western interpretation of your music?

KRM: "Paul Grabowsky happened to listen to some of my music, and he found that this music is very suitable for jazz.  He was impressed with this music, and so he wanted to do some more, we have to work on this, some more music pieces.  This was two years ago, because he happened to visit then, and Adrian Sherriff is my student, who lives in Melbourne, Ravichandhira's student also, and because he knows the Indian music and percussion he helped them, he made arrangements of my piece, so it happened like this.  You know, I hear so  much of western music, and I like jazz so much that very often in Madras I go to see some, and I've always been interested in western music, so we are used to it.  Recently we went to Finland for the Helsinki music festival, and we played with the Philharmonic Orchestra, together with one of the great composers in Finland, Ero.  Mr. Ero has been coming to Madras to listen to every concert for the past eight to ten years, and Ero is very much interested in our music, and he happened to come to my concert, for my Thani Avartanam solo concert, and he was impressed and inspired.  He wanted to do something with this percussion instruments and the Philharmonic Orchestra, so he composed exclusively for the four instruments.  It was very successful, and that music gave me the title of 'Laya Priya', that is my house name.  So that music now is choreographed for dance companies in other countries.  So we are used to it, playing with these western musicians."

Tell me about your percussion ensemble ‘Sruthi Laya’.

KRM: "In 1986 I started this company, but we don't call it a company in India (laughs), it's a group.  In those days I wanted to create an awareness for percussion among the audience, because you know that at some of these performances, when the player is playing Thani Avartanam some of the people will go out for a tea break.  The artists will play continuously, but there is a very small gathering, and after finishing they come back.  And what I though is that it is bad for the future, so you want to alert the people.  The Thani Avartanam is very important, and it is also a very interesting piece, so I started this group, and I picked some of the best players from the East on these instruments.  I chose one the best players in our country on the kanjira, ghatam and morsing.  Morsing players are only very few in our country, five or six people only, and the best one was playing in my group.  We started like this in '86, now we play only in foreign countries, not in India with this group."

‘Melodyssey’ is your musical orchestration of cultures, and includes the collaboration of forty artists.  How did this project come about?

KRM: "It's called Melodyssey, because I'm very much interested in western music and the fusions.  And one of my friends is a master of this western music in India, Mr. V.S. Narasimhan, so I asked him to compose a piece like a western piece, because he knows western music and Carnatic music, he's a violin player.  So he composed the melody, and on the rhythm side I composed, so we worked together."

What are some of your future aspirations for the ‘Sruthi Laya Seva Trust’?

KRM: "We started in 1988, to give training to advanced students in India, some foreigners come also.  We give short-term classes, and we have now started branches in London, in Melbourne, and other branches in Madras and Mysore.  And we are not only training the people, but we are also helping artists.  You know, sometimes poor artists can't play because they are worried about medical assistance, or marriage, marriage in our country is very expensive.  So we help in these ways, because we've founded a charitable trust, so we help these kinds of musicians and artists.  All over the world people are following my method of playing, so there are foreign students and local students.  And students only help me for funds, no other people are helping me, because I am not backed by any rich people or companies like that for sponsorship.  I appeal to my students, the students help me, and in London there are two hundred and forty students studying the mridangam in my institution.  But my senior students are living there, four or five people living in London, they are looking after that, like Ravichandhira here in Melbourne.  So they go to the classes and then train the people, they have been doing that for twelve years, and I can go there and see how they train, and train the teachers and the students.  I have also been running a music magazine for three years, it's called the 'Layamani Layam'.  I wanted to do something for information, education and entertainment.  I concentrate on these three things, and I am the chief editor of this English magazine."

“Pushkaram” distributed by the Gramophone Company of India, EMI.  For further information write to C/- Karaikudi R. Mani, The Sruthi Laya Seva Trust (Centre of Percussion Art), 14 Layapriya, Jeth Nagar 1st Main Road, R.A. Puram, Madras 600028, India, or visit the Art India Web Site: Karaikudi R. Mani.

Karaikudi R. Mani's set up:

As a South Indian percussionist, the mridangam features as Mani's main instrument.  In this Carnatic tradition there is also the kanjira (frame drum), ghatam (claypot) and morsing (jew’s harp), which are the side accompaniments.


The first part of this interview was published in Mixdown Monthly issue #58, February 1999.  In this article he discussed his beginnings, the role of the mridangam as the principal percussion instrument of South Indian ‘Carnatic’ music, as well as some of the accompanying instruments.

'Mixdown' Monthly ~ Issue #59, March 3, 1999


All rights reserved. All text, graphics and sound files on this page are copyrighted.
Unauthorized reproduction and copying of this page is prohibited by law. Copyright © 1999 by Andrián Pertout.

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