When I went down to the basement of Vijaya Apartments on 5th Main Road, I felt like Aladdin stepping into the cave of wonders. From the outside, one could never imagine this to be the backdrop of one of Chennai’s new art hotspots, Edge Studio. Here, I was to view a lecture demonstration by Ghatam Dr. S. Karthick. As I waited for Karthick, who had called in saying he was running late, I took the liberty to check this exquisite looking studio. Dimly lit, with an air of urban chic, it was the ideal place for something unique. The room became more crowded, and loudness naturally proceeded. Then there was silence, as heads turned above the stairs. It was none other than the man of the hour, well, the next three hours to be exact.
Suresh Thommandram introduced Ghatam Karthick as one of the leading percussionists of today’s Carnatic Scene. The orchestrator of the sensational Heartbeat ensemble has performed in over 25 countries. He’s given numerous lecture demonstrations, workshops, and trains students worldwide. Aside from performance, he has composed several thillanas, kritis, varnams, instrumental orchestrations both in Sanskrit and Tamil. Recently, he was awarded with the Ustad Bismallah Khan Yuva Puraskar Award. Thommandram concluded his introduction by saying, “He is truly a big man”. Karthick smiled and expressed his wish to become even bigger.
As far as he can remember, Karthick has always lived in the moment. “When you drink tea, live with the tea”, he began. Karthik had no idea as a boy that ghatam was an instrument, but always loved the idea of banging on pots to make music. Moreover, he was fortunate enough to live right next to the great Sri Vikku Vinayakaram, “A double blessing” he calls it. While most students join their first music class on Vijayadasimi, Karthick landed at Vinayakaram’s house on Vaikunta Ekadasi. At first, Vinayakaram asked him to try playing the mridangam. Karthick wasn’t too hot about it and this was evident in his facial expression while ‘banging’ it. Next Vinayakaram gave him a ghatam. Karthick’s face changed, and so did history.
Ghatam’s got Edge
When describing it’s flexibility, Karthik likens the ghatam to a Potato. “Potatoes go with everything: Chicken, Masala, Kootu, it pratically gels with all types of cooking”. With it’s unique sound, the ghatam jells with any instrument, as it doesn’t have a sustained sound like most percussion instruments. It threatens the flow of the music at times making dissonant sounds. Karthick explains, “Mridangam sounds amazing with a composition like, Mutthuswamy Dikshatar’s “Kamalambam Bhajare” but not for “Let me take you far away” by the Scorpions!”
So-and-So and Party
Years of practice and accompaniment had brought Ghatam Karthick to great heights in Carnatic Music. Except for the late great Sri. Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer, the ghatam vidwan has played for everyone from M.S. Subbalakshmi to present generation stars. Yet, even with all his talent and skill, he was after all an uppa pakkavadyam (an accompaniment to the accompaniment!). As the great mridangam vidwan, Sri Umayalapuram K. Sivaraman put it to Karthick once, “Just remember, we will always be so-and-so and party”. No amount of out-of-the box thinking would significantly change that, an unsettling reality considering that pakkavadyam too plays a significant role in a concert equation. “Vibes”, Karthick explains, “are important for a memorable concert”. In films, one often hears of the good/bad chemistry between the hero and the heroine. The same concept can be applied to a concert scenario between artist and accompanist.
Many percussion artists face the reality of their stature as an accompanist. However, Ghatam Karthick, is not like many percussion artists. He enjoys every moment in life and that philosophy is constantly transposed to his music. As an accompanist, he never sounds the same when paired with different people. “When I play with Sivaraman sir, I play differently. When I played with Ramabhadran, it was different.” As a composer, his unconventional way of thinking has earned him praise since his college days studying at Vivekananda College. “Being greatly influenced by Swamy Vivekananda, I wrote a piece on him. I called it September 11th.” I need not go into detail of why the world remembers September 11th. However, a fresh perspective, something which Karthick is ready to give at any moment is that September 11th, as he explained was the day Vivekananda spoke at Parliament of Religions in Chicago. It was in it’s own way, a bomb.
Hearbeat and beyond
Karthick has contributed greatly to Carnatic as well as World Percussion. OMKAR, A konnakol (verbal percussion) drama, are some of the many unique and interesting projects under Karthick’s belt. His group, Heartbeat was an instant sensation and is known for attracting all music lovers, be it Carnatic or any other genre. Reknowned dancer, V.P. Dhananjayan asked Karthick why he chose the name Heartbeat, to which he said, “Because, people don’t want to only hear about Vishnu, Shiva, and Parvathi. People want to hear about Jesus, Mohammed, or whatever they can relate to.” The focus of Heartbeat, Karthick explains, is to attract people of all musical interests to understand and appreciate Carnatic music. Heartbeat, he explains is 2012 Carnatic Music. “Our music is very sacred, and it is of utmost importance to adhere to tradition”, Karthick says. At the same time, he stresses that we must not be close minded to attempting something new. Creativity is also present in tradition.
Balamuralikrishna once asked Karthick, “When Thyagaraja first composed Endaro Mahanubhavulu, wasn’t it a new composition that day?”. Tradition by default always spurs creativity. By creating more you are feeding that tradition in hopes for it to gain lusture and richness. Carnatic Music, according to Ghatam Karthick, should be progressive. Musicians he feels, should explore other rare compositions and composers to approach their art holistically. Be it the ghatam, the voice, or any musical instrument, the capablities of each instrument would take many lifetimes to master, and it would be shame to approach the art form with a rigid mentality.