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Mridangam has made me look inward,
says Mannarkoil J. Balaji
A post-graduate degree in English literature, a post-graduate diploma in journalism, a diploma in computer applications and a Certified Associate of Indian Institute of Bankers (CAIIB), he has a rich academic experience. Mannarkoil J. Balaji is a well-known face in the Carnatic music world. Mridangam is an integral part of his life. ``I find rhythm everywhere,’’ says he. In this candid interview, this perfectionist-artiste opens up his mind on very many issues.

Since when are you playing mridangam?
I started learning when I was in 8th standard on the auspicious day of Vijayadasami in the year 1977. I started playing concerts from 1981 on a small level. In 1984, I played my first December music season concert at Indian Fine Arts. Since then, I have been continuously playing concerts, completing 25 years of music season concerts during the December 2009 season.

Who are all your teachers? What kind of learning have you been put through by them?
In 1977, I joined under Tanjore Shri R. Ramadoss, who is a disciple of legendary Palghat Mani Iyer. I learnt from him till 1984. Later, I came under the guidance of Ramanathapuram Shri M.N. Kandaswamy, who was a disciple of another legendary mridangam player Palani M. Subramania Pillai. Shri Ramadoss was a taskmaster. He put me into the habit of rigorous training. Shri Kandaswamy opened me to the wide vistas of laya, specialization in playing for Thiruppugazh Chanda Talas and also for other regular compositions of different varieties.

Why mridangam? Is there any special reason for picking this instrument?
Right from my age of 5 I used to tap on the mud pot (which was used to keep water during summer season as there was no fridge in our house) whenever I heard some music. As my mother was keenly interested in Carnatic music, our house was filled with music. She used to make me listen to All-India Radio music programmes such as Arangisai, Ilaya Bharatham and Vadya Vrinda. She also saw to it that I listened to the thani avartanams of stalwart mridangam artistes and then only she allowed me to go out and play in the ground. At that time my uncle was staying at the opposite house of Tanjore Ramadoss and, hence, they decided to request him to teach me mridangam..

By deciding to pick this one (mridangam), you have acquired the tag “accompanist”. Does it affect you any way when people refer you as an “accompanist”?
I don’t tag myself as an accompanying artiste. I also don’t have any inferiority or superiority complex on that terminology. I create music along with others on stage. I have defined my role as an mridangam artiste. And, I try to fulfill the requirements on the stage along with others. If we notice deeply, the audience comes to a concert to enjoy the concert in total and not in bits and pieces. For the music to reach the audience, I strongly feel in the concept of team effort. Towards this end, I always endeavour to fit in, accommodate and accustom as early as possible on stage and try to merge with the music that is being rendered. I feel that all the artistes on stage form an integral and inseparable part of any concert and one cannot thrive without the other.

What does this instrument mean to you as an individual, as an artiste and as a professional?
Mridangam has become an integral part of my life. I find rhythm everywhere. I even try to create rhythmic patterns out of tap water droplets, movement of dry leaves and pouring rain on asbestos sheets. As an artiste, it has given me immense satisfaction. I am really proud of having chosen this instrument. As a professional, I try to always upgrade my knowledge by constant listening, comparison, elucidation and assimilation and, finally, by applying all these in real concerts and introspecting on failed and successful attempts.

What mridangam has done to you?
Mridangam has made me look inward into myself. It has taught me discipline, the fruits of rigorous practice, the evolution of thought process, retrospection and application. It has strengthened my sense of time and its advantages. I have never been late to a concert in my entire career. It has also brought awareness as to the purity of sound and also has increased my alertness with which anticipation on the spot has become a habit. It has also made me enjoy the finer aspects of life as a whole.

Are you into this art form full time?
No. I m not a full-timer. But I have always wanted to take it as a full-time profession. I am sure the day is not far off.

In this modern world, can one be happy simply by pursuing an art? What has been your experience?
Any classical art form has been created with the sole purpose of self-realization. A realized soul is always happy. If a person confuses himself and looks for something else other than the purpose for which it has been created, then it becomes difficult for him. My experience with mridangam has always been one of a blissful and soul-stirring, which I am constantly trying to transport to the listeners.

In former times, learning art was a full time vocation. But these days formal education is unavoidable. What kind of a change do you see in modern day artistes? How much formal education has helped you to further your art pursuit?
In modern times, almost all the artistes are either graduates or post-graduates and some hold even doctorates. The on-going research in the field of Indian music has already opened up many corridors of learning and analysis and, hence, formal education is very important to communicate with the rest of the world. In order to reach our music in the world music arena, it is absolutely necessary to properly communicate our greatness through the medium of language particularly English. Hence, formal education will be of immense help in carrying forward the torch further and farther. Personally, I hold an MA in English Literature and an MA in Hindi Literature besides holding a P.G. Diploma in Journalism apart from various other qualifications in Computers etc. Formal education has certainly helped me in logical exploration, scientific re-thinking and systematic expression search.

How do family members view anyone pursuing madly any art form (as opposed to say IT or banking or any other highly rewarding options)?
As far as India is concerned, I think every parent is proud of their wards coming good in any of the art forms. There may be some extreme negative reactions and they are negligible, as exceptions don’t make rules. By and large, art is being encouraged in Indian families and also being held in high esteem in the society. Music is quite rewarding financially and many big time professionals have quit their primary income- earning propositions and turned towards music as their livelihood and are quite successful. At this juncture, I would like to graciously look back on the immense support provided by my parents, in-laws, wife and children.

What is vital to a laya vidwan? How to achieve this?
A laya vidwan has to find out the intricate and inherent rhythm going on incessantly inside any kriti and find out how well that inherent and in-built rhythm can be musically and aesthetically expressed and enhanced. In order to achieve this, one must keep on constantly listening to the kritis of various composers in the strict traditional patantara way and also by practicing with a vocalist on a regular basis apart from adding to knowledge from various other sources. The best way to learn is to listen to the masters and assimilate and internalize them and express them in your own inimitable style.

What is the role of a percussion artiste in a successful staging of a concert?
Firstly, a laya vidwan has to set the pace of a kriti and play for the kriti according to its mood. Secondly, he has to provide both rhythmic and sruthi-based support to the vocalist or instrumentalist. Thirdly, he needs to give appropriate pauses to enhance the listening pleasure and also to highlight the intricate phrase in a kriti. Fourthly, he has to play adequate sarvalaghu patterns so that the flow of the kriti and singer is not hindered. A percussion artiste’s first and foremost quality is adaptation and the better he adapts the more will be the demand.

Do you think that percussion artistes are getting their due in the modern world?
Percussion artistes are always in demand and there is an ever-increasing demand for them in the modern world, as there are a number of performing artistes in Carnatic music. In order to keep up the demand, one must constantly update and upgrade.

What kind of adjustments a percussion artiste (especially main pakka vadya vidwan) needs to make 1) while playing for different artistes and 2) while playing for female artistes?
According to me, it is only psychological adjustment at the first and on stage it is just volume adjustment for different type of artistes. I don’t differentiate between male and female artistes. Artistes are artistes and art has no gender.

What is the role of a percussion artiste in traditional dance like bharatha natyam?
I literally don’t have any experience at all in this aspect and, hence, I cannot offer any fruitful comment on this.

Why do you play mridangam? Whom do you play it for?
I approach music for bliss, self-realization and pure aural treat. God has given me mridangam and the ball was set rolling since my young age, till now for about 33 years. I am happy that every day I find new combinations to explore, share, express and enjoy by myself and find ways to make others also a part of the enjoyment. I play it for myself and for the blissful experience that it gives me. I also try to pass on these to the listeners.

What is your aspiration as an individual, as an artiste and as a performing professional?
All three are one and the same for me. I am an individual who is already an established artiste of a high performing professional career and, hence, I don’t see any separate aspiration for each of them. My aspiration is to retain the traditional glory by continuing the traditional methods of learning, teaching and performing. I think my contribution would be in not breaking the chain of tradition for the sake of gaining cheap popularity, fame and excitement. I want to maintain the pristine purity of our Carnatic music as envisaged and envisioned by our forefathers.

What code of conduct do you envisage for an accompanying artiste in a concert?
There is absolutely no code of conduct provided one is able to immerse himself completely into the music while enjoying himself and constantly striving to find aesthetic expressions. Where music reigns supreme, you will find everything else is lost totally.

Do you prefer to play accompanist in concerts? Or, do you love to organize your own tala-led orchestra?
I am very happy with traditional Carnatic concerts. I will strive hard to enhance my skills as a skilled mridangam player. As such, I don’t have any intentions of forming an orchestra.
Thyagarajan -
I have gone through the article written about Mannarkoil Balaji. He is a very good mridangist. He had learnt under Ramdoss, a student of Palghat Mani Iyer. Unless one has dedication and discipline, one cannot become an artiste. Without rhythm, nothing possible. He is a good percussionist and perfectionist. I wish him all the very best

T.T.Srinivasan -
Excellent interview with apt answers by Shri Balaji.We both played together for Shri P. Unnikrishnan in Bangalore about 25years ago. Since then I know him both as a good artiste and a nice friend. He is highly knowlodgeble mridangam artiste, who is much sought after. May God bless him for everything!

Sangeeta -
A very interesting article. My best wishes to Balaji sir.

Ghatam Vaidyanathan Suresh -
Shri Balaji is my good friend for more than 25 years now. We are two of the founder members of the Youth Association for Classical Music, which is celebrating its silver jubilee now. Balaji has indepth knowledge of laya and a wonderful accompanist on mridangam. I love to listen to his mridangam playing as much as his interesting conversations!

Amiruthavalli B -
Nice article. Wishes to Mannarkoil J Balaji for a bright future.

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