Rhythm and meter are building blocks of many musical styles, but they are rarely as eloquently—or dynamically—expressed as they are in the music of South India, and particularly in the hands of such master artists as V. Selvaganesh and his percussion ensemble. Their performances fuse their profound musical inheritance with exhilarating playfulness and innovation.
Within any piece of Indian classical music—whether from the north (in the Hindustani music tradition) or south (Carnatic music)—the two primary and fundamental principles at play are the raga (ragam in Carnatic parlance), or the melodic mode, and the tala (Carnatic thalam), or rhythmic cycle. Over the course of many centuries, these two pillars of Indian musical theory have become codified into extremely organized and sophisticated systems. The aesthetic ideas of the raga/ragam form have become more familiar to Western audiences, thanks to some world-famous Hindustani classical artists who play melodic instruments, such as sitarist Ravi Shankar 10 Things to Know about Raga. But there are far fewer Carnatic artists playing any instrument who have gleaned a comparable level of cross-cultural renown, and so their southern Indian musical traditions are not nearly as familiar internationally.
The tala/thalam is as uniquely complex and essential to Indian classical music as the raga/ragam. A tala/thalam can last anywhere from three beats to 108 per cycle—and multiple cycles can be strung together into even longer rhythmic ideas. Not only do percussionists strike those beats out on their instruments, but there is a whole system of spoken syllables and hand gestures, called solkattu, that is used to communicate the thalam and its elements. (It is not just musicians who rely on solkattu for learning and communicating that framework; dancers in classical styles also utilize solkattu.) Carnatic percussionists have also inherited a tremendously vibrant tradition of konnakol, in which they speak percussive syllables of solkattu in rapid-fire patterns; each syllable represents a certain type of stroke that they would use on their instruments. Konnakol is a teaching method, but also a performance tradition—for audiences, hearing konnakol performed is simply a breathtaking experience.
V. Selvaganesh is heir to one of the great musical lineages in India and one that has thrived on innovation, generation to generation.
Historically, however, artists playing melodic instruments have been the primary focus of the concert stage, and percussionists have been relegated to accompanying roles. In both the Hindustani and Carnatic traditions, it has only been in the past few decades that innovative drummers have become solo concert artists, either at home in South Asia or abroad. The late Alla Rakha and his son, Zakir Hussain, have served as the primary ambassadors of the Hindustani percussion tradition; in the Carnatic style, this kind of solo stardom has largely become the realm of the family of this evening’s featured artist.
V. Selvaganesh is heir to one of the great musical lineages in India and one that has thrived on innovation, generation to generation. He is the son of T. H. "Vikku" Vinayakram, the Grammy Award–winning drummer who was in turn the son of another celebrated percussionist, T. R. Harihara Sarma. Along with his more traditionally minded performances, Vinayakram has been one of the most central Indian artists in bridging tradition with other styles. In the mid-1970s, along with British guitarist John McLaughlin, violinist L. Shankar and Zakir Hussain, Vinayakram was one of the founding members of the influential band Shakti, which married Hindustani and Carnatic music with jazz; in turn, Selvaganesh joined Remember Shakti, an offshoot project, around 2000. In recent years, Selvaganesh has also begun to work as a film score composer and even a film director.
The Carnatic percussion instruments in the November 1 performance are strikingly different from the more commonly known Hindustani tabla drums. Selvaganesh plays a hybrid drum kit as well as the ghatam, which is a simple clay pot frequently used in Carnatic music. Traditionally, a ghatam player controlled the instrument's tonal color and even its pitch by using his belly to cover the pot's open mouth, though that technique has become less popular over time. The other Carnatic instruments in the ensemble include the khanjira, a small, tambourine-like frame drum with jingles on its sides, and the morsing, a petite mouth harp.
For the November 1 concert, Selvaganesh honors his father’s singular legacy by inviting him to the stage for a special guest appearance, in which Vinayakram is playing what he calls the chatur ghatam—a group of ghatams, each differently pitched. The whole ensemble is very much a family affair: Vinayakram's younger son, V. Umashankar, also plays ghatam in the ensemble, while Selvaganesh's son, Swaminathan, plays the khanjira. A. Ganesan, a senior disciple of Vinayakram, plays the morsing.
Anastasia Tsioulcas is a reporter and producer for NPR Music. She appears regularly on NPR's flagship national news programs to profile artists across many genres and discuss music from around the globe. She was formerly an editor of Gramophone and columnist for Billboard.