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Veejay Sai is a well-known award-winning writer, editor and a culture critic. He has written and published extensively on Indian classical music, theatre, food, travel, fashion and performing arts. He loves traveling and researching literary and cultural history. He can be contacted on firstname.lastname@example.org
Sai is Indian classical music/dance critic and
It was the summer of 2004. Far away in Reunion Island, off the Mauritius coast was one of the biggest music festivals ever held in the world. Artists from all over flocked to showcase their talent. The great violin maestro Dr.L.Subramaniam was invited with his entourage of artists for the same. Giridhar who took a flight from Bangalore to the venue via Mumbai was as much, if not more excited to be a part of this international summit. After all it was one of his earliest world tours. As he checked out of the airport with his baggage and into the plush venue, he was welcomed by the biggest shock an artist could ever face. He opened his baggage to find his instrument shattered to pieces, because of the rough handling of baggage on transit at airports. He sought help from every possible artist he could. But far away in that part of the world, there was almost no hope for him to find his instrument, or a remote replica of it. As the news of this disaster spread amongst the artist community, all that little Giridhar could do was to sit back and be panic-struck and make a silent prayer. I probably put in the prayers of my lifetime which I never did, like investing all the punya of your deeds of a lifetime, he says. And when prayed to by a pure heart, god has no choice but to answer those prayers. Faith, as they say, moves mountains, and here it did make its own magical moves and before anyone knew, someone suggested a Tamil-speaking family in that far off island had a similar instrument, but with a big fat crack running right across the body of it. I had initially discovered that a certain gum could do the trick of fixing the instrument. So I tried it, recollects Giridhar with the same amount of anxiety in his eyes, almost half a decade later. And it worked! It not only worked, it also matched to the right pitch of the great maestros violin! I couldnt believe myself. And added to that another artist who was touring around volunteered to donate his instrument seeing my pitiable condition, and to my surprise that was also the same pitch!, recollects giridhar. And that was one of the most memorable concerts ever played by Dr.L.Subramaniam on the violin and Giridhar Udupa on the Ghatam which went down in the annals of music history. I think it was the blessings of my gurus and god that I was lucky enough to overcome such a trauma, he adds with a sigh of relief.
The Ghatam or the pot is not a popular instrument for students of music. Very far and few have taken to it with passion and commitment. The one name that immediately comes to everyones mind is that of the legendary Vidwan Vikku Vinayakram who popularized this instrument to western audiences while he was a part of the Shakthi group along with John mc laughin , L.Shankar and Ustad Zakir Hussain. Over the years very few artists have managed to master the art of handling this instrument. Amongst the current generation of youngsters if there is one name that stands out, it is Giridhar Udupa.
Born into a family of musicians, Giridhars father Vidwan Ullur Nagendra Udupa was a renowned Mridangam artiste. Having accompanied some of the greatest stalwarts of carnatic music on stage, he trained his son from the tender age of four to appreciate the art of percussion instruments. Giridhars attraction to the Ghatam and its sound changed the course of the very instruments ascend into modernity in Carnatic music. He was sent under the tutelage of his gurus vidushi Sukanya ramgopal and vidwan ghatam V.Suresh. Under their guidance, he blossomed and mastered the instrument like no one ever did.
There are about three places that used Ghatam in their music. The Bangalore ghatams are more rounded in shape, weigh about one to two kgs and produce an entirely different sound. Then there are those in madras. The best ones come from this little remote village in tamil nadu called Manamadurai. They weigh about 8 10 kgs and are little more oval in shape. Even the sound they produce is unique says Giridhar explaining the manufacturing of a ghatam. It takes a lot to make a proper ghatam. The soil has to be of the right kind, it has to be heated at the right temperature and still maintain its humidity. If you make about 100 ghatams, then about 15% of them are likely to come out decent. But if you want to pick the right ghatam, how would you know which is the right one? I usually go there to the village and play all the 100 ghatams to pick about 10 right ones of varying pitch, scale and tone for me, he elaborates on this diligent procedure. And it is truly a vegetarian instrument, made purely out of the five elements, he adds in excitement.
Over the years Giridhar has accompanied a whole long list of artists. Often tani avartanam or the percussion interlude in a Carnatic classical concert is taken for granted and one of the reasons for this has been accounted to the ultra boring , tediously long percussion sequences of artists who are otherwise looking very bored and lack any energy during the concert. But just go back into the records of stage concerts and you can find Giridhar being a bundle of energy on the stage, elevating a concert experience by his sheer involvement with his instrument. In addition to playing the ghatam, he also does the Konnakol (vocal percussion) and also plays mridangam with the same ability. The finesse of his fingering, the dexterity of his playing, the incomprehensible speed of his intricate rhythmic designs often make a stage concert more interesting.
He has not only played classical but also experimented with jazz and other fusion bands. He was the founder member of a band called Laya tharanga where he along with few other Indian artists experiment with Indian fusion music. He teamed up with Fabrice de Graef and Mishko MBa to become part of the global band Nasha that offers Celtic music fused rhythmically with Indian Percussions. Being the core percussionist for the band, Giridhar adorns Celtic music with rich Indian rhythmic patterns. He is also a member of Poland based Flamenco Band Indialucia featuring Miguel Czachowski, Jan Kubek and Adam Glosnicki. A long list of international concert tours, an impressive line-up of awards and several wall-shelves filled with a good number of Ghatams fill his small little terrace house in old Bangalore. Radio France, Polskie Radio (Polish Radio), Radio Luxembourg and several radio networks have broadcast his solo concerts and interviews.
As a constant innovated one can find Giridhar sitting home, when not on concert tours, and relentlessly tapping his fingers on the ghatams or drums around him. His latest discovery is an innovative bamboo percussion instrument invented by John kaizan Neptune called the Uduboo which he flashed with excitement in his eyes. It is a combination of a double headed drum and the African Udoo drum which is a ceramic pot with two sound holes. Hitting the hardened membranes produces sharp percussive sounds, while modulated bass sounds are made by forcefully covering the sound holes, he says making an exciting sound as our meeting concluded. Seeing the energy and enthusiasm from someone like Giridhar Udupa, we can say that Indian percussion is in safe hands. And for someone like Giridhar, it is just another way of expressing the magic he can make with his ten fingers. May his tribe increase!
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