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Posts Tagged ‘Madras Kannan’

Veteran Mridanga Vidwan Madras A Kannan passed away earlier today. Here is my interview of his from 2010.

Interview with Madras A Kannan

I met Madras Kannan in January 2010. In the internet age when locating an artiste is just a Google search away,  I managed to get his phone number with great difficulty. Ever eschewing the limelight, Kannan was reluctant to meet me when I called. Upon repeated pestering, he finally yielded.

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When I walked into his apartment at the V.M.Street, he greeted me at the door.  Neatly clad in a Silk kurta and a spotless white dhoti , Kannan looked like a man leaving for a concert. My doubts were reinforced when I saw the grand angavastram on his shoulders and several chains, including a Navaratna haram with a Tiger claw pendant, adorning his chest. I had  started cursing my luck as I didn’t believe the interview would last for more than ten minutes.

Before I could ask him anything, Kannan with a child like astonishment said, “Thambi!, I’m watching interviews in television. The interviewee recounts even the minutest details of the past, as if he is watching his life on a video tape. I’ve always wondered how they are able to do that. I will never be able to do that. It may take several hours for me to recollect incidents in my life. I hope you are in no hurry”.

I was relieved to know he was not going anywhere and when I mentioned what went through my mind when he opened the door, he just smiled and said, “I am always dressed like this. My father brought me up this way”.

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I started the interview with the customary question on his year of birth, he thought for a second and went on a tangential note, “Semmangudi and I were living in the same street at Lloyd’s road. Once I told him that I’ve listened to his concert with Dakshinamurthi Pillai as an accompaniment. He was surprised and asked my age. I replied, “I reveal my age only to my doctor”. But don’t worry, I’ll tell you my age”, he said with a twinkle in his eyes. For a man who was born in 1920, Madras Kannan is supremely young.  “Age has caught up with me. I have some difficulty in carrying out some the activities that were easier to do a few years back. But, thanks to the grace of my father and Guru, even today if I sit with Mridangam, my fingers can play what my mind says.”   It is indeed not difficult to believe that this man can still maintain his trademark  erect back posture while caressing the mridangam, as I’ve seen him do in the YouTube video of T.M.Thiagarajan.

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While most of the musicians of his generation hailed from the Kaveri belt, Kannan was born in Royapetah. Although not hailing from a traditional musical family, His father, Aadhimoolam, was a businessman with deep interest in music and spirituality.  When asked about his father’s business, Kannan thinks hard and says, “Actually I don’t remember. I started playing in concerts from a very young age and from that time my father had given up his business and concentrated on building my career.”

Kannan’s initiation into music happened thanks to the recommendation of his headmaster of the Primary School. “He noticed me drumming on the table and suggested to my father to initiate formal musical training. On an auspicious day, I started learning Vocal and Veena from Krishnasami Naidu and Mridangam from Pitambara Desai. These days one person is an expert on many fields. Those days we believed if you want to become an expert in one you have to give up others. So I gave up Veena and Vocal for Mridangam.’

Pitambara Desai was a popular guru with expertise in Violin, Veena, Thavil and Nadaswaram, apart from Mridangam. Madras Venu Naicker and Govindasami Naicker, are some of his star disciples. He too was spiritually oriented. He frequently visited Thiruvannamalai and closely interacted with Ramana Maharishi. When Kannan was 8, Pitambara Desai took him to Ramana Maharishi to seek his blessings before arranging for a formal Arangetram.

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“Tiger Varadachariar sang for my debut. Parur Sundaram Iyer was on the violin and my guru accompanied me on the Mridangam. Immediately after my debut, my guru took sanyasa.” recalls Madras Kannan.

Kannan’s father was worried as he had dreamt of a career in music for his son. Like many connoisseurs of his generation, he too literally worshipped Ariyakudi and Dakshinamurthi Pillai and would meet them whenever they came to Chennai for a performance. After Pitambara Desai’s renouncement, Adhimoolam approached Dakshinamurthi Pillai and sought his guidance. Dakshinamurthi Pillai promised to take care of Kannan’s future and within a few months arranged for Kannan’s learning under Thanjavur Ramadas Rao.

“After my debut, I had played for Chitoor Subramania Pillai and Ramadas Rao had come for the concert. So he had no issues in accepting me as his student. But, I was the only child for my father and my mother had passed away when I was very young. Those days, a career in music was not something that was looked upon with respect. There was fierce resistance from family for  me doing a Gurukulavasam with my guru in Thanjavur.”, Kannan pauses his reminiscences and starts off on a different note, ” Even today, if somebody raises an objection, I just stop what I was planning to do. I try to avoid contradictions. But, my father was a very determined man. He will do what he set out to, no matter what. If not for his firm stand, I would not have taken music as a profession.”

Kannan quit his school education during the years of his Gurukulavasam in Thanjavur. Later, upon coming back to Chennai, he joined the Hindu high School, Triplicane.

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Our conversation slowly drifted towards his guru’s playing style, ‘He hails from the famous Thanjavur Percussion School and had learnt the art from Narayanasami Appa. His specialty was his fingering and the naadham he produced. If you watch him play the Mridangam, it will be impossible to make out that he is actually playing the Mridangam. Not even his hands would move. It was just the gentle movement of fingers that would create magic. Till today I’ve not seen anyone achieve the balance my guru achieved between his left and right side.  I’ve seen both Palghat Mani Iyer and Pazani Subramania Pillai attentively listening to my guru’s playing on several occasions. The beauty of his playing was, it will sound so simple while listening. But, you will realize how deceptive it was only when you try to play it. To decipher the right combination of sollu he had used to create such mesmerizing naadham is a difficult task. For all his greatness he remained a simple man.’

Dakshinamurthi Pillai had a special liking for Kannan and would visit Ramadas Rao’s place whenever he visited Thanjavur and check on Kannan’s progress. “Many artists have achieved very high levels of scholarship in Mridangam. But Dakshinamurthi Pillai was not the just an artist. He had reached spiritual heights attained by siddars through his Mridangam and Kanjira playing. Have you heard the Devaram, “Kaadhalaagi kasindurugi’? It is an emotional outpouring that can move anyone who reads it. Pillai was able to create the same effect just by his playing.”

Kannan suddenly remembers a concert while we are discussing on Dakshinamurthi Pillai, “I don’t remember if I have shared this with anyone before. It happened in 1935 during the Congress Exhibition. Parur Sundaram Iyer and Dakshinamuthi Pillai were supposed to play for Tiger. Unfortunately, Dakshinamurthi Pillai’s train got delayed. They had to find a replacement immediately. Tiger had suggested my name as I had already played for him. The concert had started and after an hour or so Tiger gave me a chance to play a thani. Just as I completed my thani, Dakshinamuthi Pillai entered the hall. I started to raise and make way for him. He came on stage and sat next to me and asked me to continue playing. After Tiger finished the next song, Dakshinamurthi Pillai continued maintaining the tala and asked me to play a thani. I was very embarrassed as I had just played one. Tiger too egged me to play one more thani. I played a short one. After my thani, Dakshinamurthi Pillai raised and said, “idhu maadhiri (pointing to himself) adhuvum varaNum (pointing to me). It was only after that concert the name ‘Master Kannan’ became a popular one.”

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In the same year, Kannan accompanied Dwaram Venkatasami Naidu at Allahabad in the All India Music Conference. Dwaram presented him with a gold medal as a token of appreciation. Master Kannan had finally arrived. Earlier, in 1932, Kannan was invited to Mysore to perform at the Dussera festival. He had accompanied hHrikesanallur Muthiah Bhagavathar, Gottuvadyam Narayana iyengar and Veena Subbanna in Mysore. Maharaja of Mysore honored him with a shawl and continued to invite him in the following years too.

Even as a teenager he had accompanied the likes of Naina Pillai and was a regular accompaniment of Chitoor Subramania Pillai. “Those who understand the laya intricacies should be able to follow Chitoor’s singing. But Naina Pillai’s Kanakku can baffle even the well-informed. His complexities were not explicit. Even a person with no knowledge in laya will be able to appreciate his music just for the Raga bhava.” says Kannan. Needless to say that Naina Pillai’s style left a deep impact on Kannan’s playing. Experts opine that the very attribute that Kannan described beautifully about Naina Pillai has been  his hallmark too.

Even before the arrival of Arrival of All India radio, Madras Kannan had provided several performances for the Madras Corporation Radio. in 1943, Madras Kannan joined All India radio as Staff Artist, upon insistence of the then Station Director and grandson of legendary Veena Dhanammal, Vijikrishnan. “When they introduced Ragam Tanam Pallavi concerts in the AIR, I was the first one to play in it for Mazavarayanendal Subbarama Bhavathar”, says Kannan. He also has the honor of being the first staff artist of AIR to reach Top Most Grade in AIR. He feels AIR never hindered his career. “I always had enough time to play for my concerts. AIR facilitated interaction with several musicians and resulted in a lot of learning. AIR gave me the opportunity to conceive and produce several programs. I’ve composed many Pallavis for RTP programs”, says Kannan.

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By the time he was in his twenties he had performed with all the leading artistes including Ariyakudi, Chembai, GNB, Semmangudi, Maharajapruam Viswanatha Iyer.  “You can hardly find a concert of Dandapani Desikar without my accompaniment”, says Kannan. Kannan also shared a special relationship with Mali. “Some may feel Mali would get into laya exercises to put the accompanist in a spot. While playing for Mali I have never felt he did anything deliberately to trouble me. He was playing according to his creativity. I had accompanied him from a very young age, so it was never difficult to play with him.”, recalls Kannan.

When I asked who were the major influences on his playing style, Kannan paused for while and said  ” I’ve played for a long time now. But till date I’m not able to reproduce the ‘chaapu’ played by my Guru. Dakshinamurthi Pillai and Tavil maestro Needamangalam Meenakshisundaram Pillai have left nothing to be explored in the field of laya. I don’t know if they have all influenced my playing. I can only say, I’ve tried for lifetime in trying to reproduce what they have done. If I continue trying, may be in my next birth, I will get there.”

As we speak on Kannan’s career, he talks about his illustrious senior contemporaries. “There were two people who were just born for Mridangam and nothing else. one was palghat mani iyer and the other was Pazani Subramania Pillai. They gave ‘gauravam’ to this art.”

In a Career spanning well over 80 years, several honors have adorned Madras Kannan. In 1955, the then Tamilnadu Chief Minister awarded him the title ‘Laya Ratnakara’. in 1959, Swami Sivananda Saraswati conferred the title ‘Mridanga Samrat’. He nominated by the Government of India to be a part of cultural delegation for a three month long Concert tour of Africa. Emperor of Ethiopia and the president of Liberia honored the team with gold medals.

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In 1974, the legendary violinist and the then President of the International Music Council had invited Emani Sankara Sastri and Madras Kannan to perform at the Silver Jubilee celebrations of the council.  Their performance was voted as “The Concert of the Century”. 1978, the council voted Kannan for the ‘Asian Music Rostrum Award’ at the international selection committee held at Alma-Ata U.S.S.R.

“Palghat Mani Iyer had read about this award in the newspaper. He immediately paid a visit to my house and congratulated me. I consider this as the greatest honor bestowed upon me.”, says Kannan.

Grand receptions and felicitation functions were held in Chennai upon Kanann’s arrival after receiving the award. The station director of All India Radio made a special request to conduct an ensemble. Kannan conceived an ensemble, ‘Bhu Kailasa Vadya Sangamam”, depicting the dance of Shiva Parvati. The ensemble consisted of several instruments including some of the western instruments. This program was a big hit and is being telecast on several occasions over the years.

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While he has won several awards, there have some notable omissions too. The Sangeet Natak Academy Award eventually reached him only in 2004. When asked if it had to do anything with his Non-Brahmin roots, Kannan vehemently refuses. “Dakshinamurthi Pillai was not a Brahmin. But he has won the greatest of honor that any human being can achieve. His disciples have built a samadhi temple for him in Pudukottai and he is being worshipped as God. Can any award equal this honor?”, asks Kannan. By nature, Kannan is not the one to project himself and is happy just take what comes along his way.

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When asked whether he will be a satisfied man when he looks back at his life, he says, “I  have got much more than what I deserve. Whatever I have today, is only because of my father and my Guru. Without their blessings I would be nothing”.

In 2002, he completed 75 years in the music field. Sruti Foundation honored him with the Vellore Gopalachariar Award. Several other felicitations followed. Nalli oganized a grand function at the New Woodlands hotel. Karnataka Government honored him for this achievement and awarded him with the title ‘Pancha Nada Kalaratna’.

Over the years, Kannan has produced several students who are now spreading his fame all around the globe. Some of the notable ones are Ramakrishnan, Rajan, Srinath, Suresh and Deenadayalan.

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As we speak, Madras Kannan inadvertently looks at the clock, “oh! I’ve spoken for more than four hours. You must be tired listening to ramblings. Thambi! If you spend even an year with Palghat Mani Iyer he would not spoken this much. Here I am blowing my own trumpet for several hours.”, says Kannan with a blush in his face.

As I bid good bye and walked out into reality after a trip down the memory lane, the wonderful fragrance of attar and javvadhu kept following my trail.

 

 

 

 

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