As Vikku Vinayakaram turns 80, the ghatam star talks about how his journey to the worldwide stage turned the highlight on the instrument

It’s a moist afternoon. Away from the bustling streets of Triplicane in Chennai, Vikku Vinayakaram is quietly having fun with his filter espresso sitting within the minimalist lounge of his dwelling. The many awards he has obtained in his six-decade musical journey jostle for area inside a glass showcase. On a wall hangs an enormous black-and-white {photograph}, with a detailed up of the arms that create magic on the ghatam. It’s in these arms that the standard instrument turned edgy and experimental, because the orthodox accompanist reworked into an open-minded and influential collaborator.

From sitting behind the primary artiste at Carnatic kutcheris and ready for the tani avarthanam to show his virtuosity over the ‘upapakkavadyam’, Vinayakaram moved on to the worldwide stage in 1975 by becoming a member of the trailblazing East-West band, Shakti. In the method, he impressed a complete technology of classical percussionists to look past the traditional repertoire and hierarchical live performance construction.

“Though I initially learnt to play the mridangam, it was at the insistence of my father and guru, Harihara Sharma, that I took to the ghatam. He felt the instrument’s immense rhythm possibilities needed to be explored and popularised. It was probably divine intervention that he chose me for the task,” says Vinayakaram.

Intense coaching and sharing the stage with legends reminiscent of Chembai Vaidyanatha Bhagavatar, Balamuralikrishna, G. N. Balasubramaniam, Madurai Mani Iyer, Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer, M.S. Subbulakshmi and Maharajapuram Santhanam ready him for the lengthy haul — discovering a definite area for the ghatam on the earth of music.

“I learnt a lot by closely observing mridangam stalwart Palghat Mani Iyer’s intriguing approach and style. His playing had as much emotion as maths. His pauses and silences conveyed more than perfect beats. He made me realise percussion is not just about thunderous strokes and mercurial crescendos, restraint mattered too. The aim should be collective appeal of a performance and not projection of individual abilities. I applied these precious learnings when I became part of international cross-genre projects,” says Vinayakaram.

Both as an artiste and guru, the ghatam exponent believes in unfettered creativeness. He devised novel rhythm formulation, launched Sanskrit verses into percussion patterns, and performed concurrently on ghatams of various pitch and tone. This, not surprisingly, propelled the ghatam to centre stage.

A younger Vikku Vinayakaram with members of the Shakti band

Turning level

“I was regularly accompanying MS amma at her concerts when Shakti came my way. But she gave me the go ahead. It was the most challenging phase of my life. I was confused if I was doing the right thing. I had put my musical career at stake. I knew once I stepped out of the traditional set-up, it would be difficult to go back to it and, more importantly, be accepted. But my father and the art gave me the courage.”

Despite his fears and apprehensions, Shakti proved to be a turning level. He bonded together with his co-artistes and world audiences via his music. “Or through sign language,” he laughs. “Except for L. Shankar, a Tamilian, I could not converse with John (McLaughlin) or Zakir (Hussain), the other two members of Shakti. Yet we pushed musical boundaries like never before.”

As he chased his dream of bringing the instrument into the limelight, Vinayakaram remembers situations of how he needed to persuade authorities at airports overseas that the clay pot, specifically made for him at Manamaadurai, is an instrument. At San Francisco airport, he needed to even play the ghatam to point out them.

“I am no experimenter or innovator. It’s all there in the classical system. If your training has been thorough, you can eventually find your own individual expression by letting your music evolve. A musician should learn to tweak the presentation to establish a rapport with the co-artistes and the audience. I remember when performing with jazz saxophonist George Brooks at Dinkelspiel auditorium in Stanford University, U.S., instead of korvais (rhythmic pattern set to a metre), I opted to play some simple and rare (seven and a half) beats. As I was explaining the talas through claps, I saw many in the audience trying to keep count.”

Vikku Vinayakaram with Ustad Zakir Hussain on the Ustad Allarakha tribute live performance in Mumbai

Shakti threw the doorways extensive open for him and he collaborated with many main Western instrumentalists. He was a part of American percussionist Mickey Hart’s Grammy-winning 1991 world music album, ‘Planet Drum’. “When I first met these flamboyant percussionists from across the globe for a jam session, clad in my white panchakatcham and kurta and with the ghatam in hand, I wondered how I would fit in. Sensing my nervousness, Mickey walked up to me and said, ‘Vikku, just be yourself and play your music’.”

The Planet Drum group toured extensively and with each live performance Vinayakaram understood what makes a collaboration real. “Here, you don’t come together to compete, compare or clash. It has to be a perfect collage of styles, put together through improvised sessions that capitalise on the exciting aspects of the genres involved. Over the years, these multi-artiste projects helped me engage with my art and myself in a renewed manner,” he says, however concurrently warns younger fans to not enterprise into such workout routines with out a robust basis in a single’s personal artwork.

In 2005, at an interview earlier than a live performance with Vinayakaram in Chennai, Ustad Zakir Hussain had spoken of how Pt. Ravi Shankar bridged the musical hole between India and the West and musicians like Vikku Vinayakaram cemented the cultural ties. They have laid the trail for the following technology of musicians to succeed in out to a worldwide viewers, he had stated, after which, placing his arm round Vinayakaram, had added, “Thanks to him, the ghatam is on a roll.”


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