From Tiruchi to Toronto, The Hindu
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From Tiruchi to Toronto
Tiruchi Sankaran will be honoured with Sangita Kalanidhi by The Music Academy on January 1.
“The birth centenary year of Palghat Mani Iyer begins in 2012 and now it is the 50th memorial year of my guru, Palani Subramania Pillai, and I will be conferred the Sangita Kalanidhi title by The Music Academy. The timing could not have been better,” begins mridangam vidwan Tiruchi Sankaran from his residence in Canada in a telephonic conversation with this writer. He continues, “Being the first ever recipient of this award from the Pudukottai tradition, I am overwhelmed but want to dedicate this award to the entire percussion fraternity.” Tiruchi Sankaran then takes us through his journey from Tiruchi to Toronto.
Subbaraya Iyer and Subbulakshmi Ammal, Sankaran's parents, moved to Tiruchi when he was three years old from Poovaalur, their native village. Noting Sankaran's penchant for rhythm, his cousin P. A. Venkataraman started teaching him mridangam. He laughs, “I was four yet no concessions. He was a tough task master”.
His practice served as the wake up call at 4 a.m. daily for the 15 odd-households in Panju Iyer Store, on Salai Road. A store meant families living in single or two-roomed dwellings within a compound. “Practice was for about five hours a day before and after school”.
“It was evacuation time and mridangam vidwan Palani Subramania Pillai had moved to Tiruchi. Impressed by my dexterity, he wanted to take me as his disciple but my parents were against it as I was just seven years old. When my cousin left for Delhi I continued with Ramanathapuram M. N. Kandaswamy Pillai, another disciple of my guru.”
Later foregoing school for a year, Sankaran went to Delhi to continue his mridangam lessons with his cousin and also made his debut at a Harikatha programme.
Returning to Tiruchi when he turned 11, Sankaran came under the direct tutelage of Palani Subramania Pillai, which went on for about eight years. Sankaran's first major concert was at the famed Nandrudayan temple in the East Boulevard Road in Tiruchi Town, where he played alongside his guru Palani Subramania Pillai for Alathur brothers. “I had the rare opportunity to play with my guru for musicians of the highest order,” he says.
The Pudukottai bani
About his guru, he says, “He belonged to the Pudukottai School of mridangam. His father, Muthiah Pillai, and Dakshinamoorthy Pillai were disciples of the great maestro Manpoondiah Pillai, who founded and moulded the Pudukottai bani. My teacher was a good singer too. The unique gumuki technique of Pillaivaal gave a new definition to the art of mridangam playing. He was particular that his disciples should never imitate him and was always ready to teach them intricate mohras and korvais.”
Sankaran got many opportunities to play for stalwarts of the past as a solo accompanist. He completed his Bachelor's and Master's in economics at Vivekananda College, Mylapore, in 1966.
Thereafter he was busy playing in concerts, when in 1971 Prof. Jon B. Higgins offered him a job to teach at the York University in Toronto, Canada. “It was a tough decision to sacrifice a career that was at its pinnacle. Today, I am the Director of Indian Music Programme that was initially co-founded by Higgins and myself. I have created a hybrid system of eastern and western methods of teaching, including the use of my own specially devised notation, comprehensive lectures and analysis. I have published many articles and two major textbooks, ‘Rhythmic Principles and Practice' and ‘Art of Konnakkol'.” Sankaran has taught in many universities in the U.S. and has toured widely around the world for concerts and lecture demonstrations.
Do you miss India? “ I do,” he says repeatedly, but explains: “Staying abroad has helped me to accomplish more in performance, writing, teaching, and composing with ease and has also given me a unique perspective of my own culture and the music of India, which I share with a global audience. As a torchbearer of the Palani style of mridangam playing, I have been visiting Chennai for the December music season every year.”
His second daughter Suba Sankaran has a Master's degree in Ethnomusicology from York University and is trained in western classical (vocal, piano), Jazz (vocal) and Carnatic music, with Indo-Jazz fusion being her main forte. To carry on his legacy, he has disciples across the world. His other interests include composing and continued research in different traditions of drumming. He also teaches ganjira, ghatam, and konnakkol.
In retrospect, he says, “I have to thank my parents, my guru, vidwans and all those who shaped my career. My abhyas will never stop and it will be more of contemplation, ‘structure-oriented' and laya dhyanam. Life is Rhythm and Rhythm is my life,” he sums up.
-Dec 1, 2011