Thursday, 11 April 2013

Rhythm & hues

Percussion has the potential to play a role beyond rhythm; it can become a medium for communication. See how...
Akshay Ananthapadmanaban
 Perception of rhythm is an innate skill for humans. There is scientific evidence that infants can sense rhythm even at the age of eleven months. As a percussionist, this got me thinking. Our instinctive qualities must allow us to infer more from percussion as we become mature listeners. To me, this can be explained by the connection between language and percussion.
Diction, accent and intonation are the three dimensions of verbal language that allow for impactful communication. Diction is your choice of words. Accent is the emphasis you place on those words. For example, people from different parts of the world speak English with varying accents. Intonation is the variation of pitch in accordance with diction. It is a subtle yet powerful element, because intonation alone can provide context without words. Sometimes, it can even alter the meaning of a phrase. For example, intoning at certain points within a phrase can alter the tone of a statement to one of sarcasm.
These three elements can also be extended to the language of percussion, especially when using the Mridangam as the medium of communication. Diction is your choice strokes that form a percussive phrase. Accent is the emphasis on certain strokes that gives a recognizable shape to the percussive phrase. The accent alone is sufficient to cause the audience to tap along with rhythmically predictable phrases -- a phenomenon often visible when a Mridangam artiste plays Sarvalaghu (pattern that exemplifies the basic running rhythm of a Thaalam). Intonation is harder to perceive for the listener. Intonation on the Mridangam can be achieved in two ways: by controlling the tension of the bass membrane (Thoppi), or selectively ordering the pitched strokes on the right membrane (Valanthalai).
As you can see, percussion has the potential to play a role beyond rhythm -- it can become a medium for communication. For a novice listener, a lack of familiarity with the language of percussion may seem difficult to overcome. Have you ever watched a foreign movie with subtitles? Think about the instances when you subconsciously ignored the subtitles, because you were able to gather an understanding simply from context. Or think about a time when you travelled to a new country, with little fluency of the native language. You may not have understood the language, but you were able to appreciate the emotions being conveyed through context. In similar light, the language of a particular percussion instrument may not be comprehensive to the audience, yet listeners can appreciate and relate to the musical emotions being conveyed. The rhythmic aspect of percussion, or accent, is often recognized first, though it is just one of the three elements that makes percussive language impactful. As a performer and listener, I have experienced the inspirational conversation that takes place between the performer and audience, when the three elements are applied in proportion with tact.
My primary inspiration for this thought process is my guru Sri T H Subash Chandran. Not only is he revered as a great Ghatam artiste, but also as a living legend of Konnakol (vocal percussion). I have had the very unique experience of learning to mimic his Konnokal on both the Mridangam and Kanjira. Subash Mama’s Konnakol is as fluid as spoken language. The vocabulary he uses while reciting Konnakol is derived from South Indian percussion stroke nomenclature. Although it is said to have no meaning, there is a bhava element in his delivery that makes the listener understand the pallet of emotions he is conveying. That bhava is a natural combination of (1) his choice of words in a defined order, (2) his emphasis on those words, and (3) the tone he associates with those words -- diction, accent and intonation respectively.
 Proof of bhava in a Mridangam performance is evident in audio music recordings of many legends -- vidwans such as Palghat Mani Iyer, Pazhani Subramanya Pillai and C S Murugabhoopathy, to name a few. Although I have never had the opportunity to watch them live in concert, listening to their recordings has nonetheless enlivened this concept of bhava for me. ese artistes honed Mridangam techniques and molded their own unique performance styles, several aspects of which have been passed down for generations. ese styles, however, can be classied as dissimilarities in accents. Going beyond styles of performance, these artistes set themselves apart with their uncanny ability to give life to their music. While the Mridangam may have the potential to be a talking drum, the wielder of the instrument alone possesses the ability to paint intonations and shape meaningful tones. In my opinion, the oneness among diction, accent and intonation is nally what inspires -- it is the usage of bhava in tandem with skill that has made music timeless.
The writer is a global percussionist who plays the Mridangam and the Kanjira and collborates with different genres of music

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