An Interview with Trichy Sankaran
Few percussionists are able to make a name for themselves as solo performers. But Trichy Sankaran, the mrdangam maestro who heads the Indian Music Studies program at York University, is a multi-faceted exception. With the dexterity of a craftsman and the wisdom of a philosopher, Sankaran has elevated the mrdangam, a South Indian barrel drum, to the rare position of a solo instrument. This interview was conducted by Richard Klecka during Sankaran’s 1996 USA tour.
How did you come to reside in North America?
In 1971 I received an invitation from York University, Toronto, to co-found a South Indian music program along with the late American singer, Jon B. Higgins. He was one of the very few accomplished American singers of Carnatic music studying and performing in India. We played several concerts together and since I showed an interest in teaching, the University asked me to join the faculty. I’ve been directing the program for over 25 years and I teach at both graduate and undergraduate levels. I also started teaching and giving demonstrations at other Universities such as Wesleyan University in Connecticut, San Diego State University in California and Simon Fraser University in British Columbia.
What was your childhood like?
When I was very young my family moved from the village of Poovalur to the town of Trichanapoli (Trichy). My cousin, P.A. Venkataraman, who was a drummer and musician in our family, noticed some innate skills in me as a child, tapping the drum when I was about 4 or 5 years old. He gave me beginning lessons, followed by more serious lessons starting at the age of 7.
Was becoming a drummer a conscious choice of yours?
It just happened naturally. I was always fascinated listening to my cousin practice in his music room and at concerts. I studied with him for about 4 years. I was going to school like a regular kid but I was asked to undergo special discipline. I was forbidden from going out and playing with other children. Instead, when I came home from school I’d get my drum and practice. I would start my daily practice at 4 o’clock in the morning, so I was the wake up call for the whole townhouse complex. If Sankaran was drumming then it was 4 o’clock. My cousin then got a teaching job in Delhi. In the meantime, I was put under the care of his friends and other mrdangam players who supervised my practice. During summer vacation my cousin asked me to come to Delhi to continue my studies with him. He would give me lessons and I would practice 8 hours a day. He was displeased with the quality of the school, so I discontinued my other schooling and studied with him intensively for a year. By that time he had gotten a job with All India Radio, Delhi. So I would often go with him to the station and play solos for other musicians at the studios. That was the first time I met Pandit Ravi Shankar. He used to be the orchestra conductor there and he listened to my playing and even recorded one of my solos when I was only 10 years old. By the time I was 13, I went back to Trichy, and my first major appearance was in 1955 with my other guru, Palani Subramania Pillai, a legendary maestro. I then went to Madras to study with him for a year, and I had the rare privilege of playing together with him. In this way I was introduced to many of the top-ranking musicians of the time. In the meantime, with my guru’s permission, I earned a BA and MA in Economics. I am considered to be the prime disciple of Sri Pillai, who died in 1962. I’ve been playing in the concert field for over 40 years.
I know that in Indian music, great maestros are often awarded titles. What honors have you received?
One of the earliest was the President’s Award at the All India Radio competition in 1958. I have received the titles of Tala Vadya Prakasa, Laya Sikhamani, and Mrdangam Maestro from various Indian cultural organizations in North America and Canada. Perhaps my highest honor was being awarded the prestigious Palghat Mani Award from The Percussive Arts Centre in Bangalore in 1992. Palghat Mani Iyer was a great mrdangam master, a contemporary of Sri Pallai.
What about your collaborations with other musicians?
In traditional settings, I’ve performed with leading tabla masters such as Shanta Prasad, Zakir Hussain, and Swapan Chaudhuri. My collaborations in North America range from jazz and electronic into the most contemporary idioms. I have played with the Jazz Orchestra of York University and with Charlie Haden, Anthony Braxton, Dave Brubeck and Glen Velez. I’ve also played with Nexus, the percussion group from Toronto, and with World Drums, a great drumming ensemble.
What was your most memorable transcendental experience while playing?
Once, I was playing in Bangalore at a festival in honor of Lord Rama with M.D. Ramanatam, an excellent singer with a marvelous bass voice. It was hard to accompany him, not because of the sonic quality of his voice, but because of the tempo at which we performed…it was very slow. During the concert, one particularly serene song overwhelmed me…I tried to match my patterns with his melody and it sounded fine, although for some reason I was not pleased deep inside. The music continued to evolve and at one point, I simply stopped playing so I could concentrate on the music. I was totally overcome.
How did you become involved with Music of the World?
I was introduced to Bob Haddad by Glen Velez. At that time I had prepared a collection of my mrdangam solos and sent them along. Since then Bob has been very receptive of my ideas, and we’ve worked together on many projects. Laya Vinyas
(MOW120) was released in 1990. A few years later I invited Karaikudi Subramaniam, a vina player, from Madras. At that point, Bob invited us to North Carolina to record Sunada
(MOW127) in 1992. Sunada was a finalist in the ’93 Indie Awards. Lotus Signatures
(MOW141) was recorded in India with Dr. N. Ramani, one of the finest flute players in South India. The ensemble includes flute, violin, mrdangam, and also the addition of a tala vadya kacceri (percussion ensemble). The percussion ensemble includes morsing (jaw harp), kanjira (lizard-skin frame drum) and ghatam (clay pot). With Lotus Signatures, the listener experiences the power of a live percussion ensemble comprised of top musicians. I think people will really love this recording.
Do you have any specific plans for the near future?
I have a continuing interest in publishing scholarly articles and I have recently published a textbook called Rhythmic Principles and Practice of South Indian Drumming which is now being used in several colleges.
I continue to play concerts in India and I also do research in Kerala in southwest India. I would like some day to make recordings of temple music in Kerala. The musicians there use a unique set of percussion instruments including the chenda, a cylindrical drum worn over the shoulders and played with sticks and hands. It sounds phenomenal. It’s karnatik based music yet it’s wholly unique. On the performance side, I want to continue my traditional playing as well as satisfy my interest collaborating with musicians from different idioms. I find that the more I diversify, the stronger my roots become.
Laya Vinyas: Indian Drumming
(MOW 120): Highlights the mrdangam. In addition to solo performance, this recording features kanjira (frame drum), and vina, one of the oldest stringed instruments of the Indian subcontinent. This is highly rhythmic and pulsating music an excellent representation of the pure sound and complex nature of South Indian drumming.
(MOW 126): Trichy Sankaran, together with Karaikudi Subramaniam (vina), creates a recording of many dimensions and textures which appeals to all levels of listeners. The sound quality is superb, and extensive descriptive notes on the artists and music are included.
(MOW 141): Multi-textured rhythms & melodies from South India by Dr. N. Ramani and Trichy Sankaran. Includes mesmerizing segments with mrdangam, kanjira (lizard skin frame drum), ghatam (clay pot) and the rarely-heard morsing (jaw harp). Unique & dynamic sounds within a traditional framework.