Noted kanjira player Guru Prasanna believes that patience is the key to perfection
After being a performer on the concert stage for several years, when the 24-year-old student approached his new guru, this is what he was told: “You cannot touch the mridangam for five years. I have to teach you new fingering techniques.” The student was G. Guru Prasanna, the noted kanjira artiste, who has shared the stage with veterans and rising stars alike. The guru was C.P. Vyasa Vittala, who reshaped Guru Prasanna’s perspective in the nuances of the Harishankar style of kanjira.
The temple opposite his house drove Prasanna to music. “There were regular processions of nadaswaram and thavil artistes. I used to be so mesmerised by the music, that I often followed them. My parents, in turn, followed me with a plate of food.” Later, his parents enrolled him at the Ayyanar College of Music where he learned from R. Sathya Kumar for five years. When Prasanna got the three-year Karnataka State Scholarship in 1987, Sathya Kumar suggested that he continue training under Anoor Ananthakrishna Sharma, son of violinist Anoor S. Ramakrishna.
Prasanna is probably unique in having played concerts in three instruments – mridangam, ghatam and kanjira. “I had an identity crisis for some years. When called for concerts, I would ask which instrument I was supposed to play. When I started learning at age six there was only one small mridangam available. As younger students joined, it became unavailable to me and the bigger ones were too big for me. So, I started playing the ghatam.” Later, when he went to Ananthakrishna Sharma, the teacher was worried that his fingers would get too callused for the mridangam and asked him to play the kanjira instead.
A class with Ananthakrishna Sharma would often go on for four to five hours. “Sir would play for an hour after which I tried to reproduce what he played.” But Prasanna did not once think these long sessions were tiresome or onerous. He says he builds a mental picture of the intonations of a nadai, a note where a sollukattu begins, and the overall pattern as well – “it is like a multi-layered gudbud ice cream (a popular dessert in Mangalore).”
On Sivaratri, Ananthakrishna Sharma would keep two bowls from which students had to pick out a chit to find out who they were paired with and what talam and eduppu they were to play. After half an hour’s preparation, they had to present a 45-minute laya vinyasam — an invigorating if slightly unnerving experience.
A laya vinyasam in 1993 featuring Karaikudi Mani and G. Harishankar made a deep impact on Prasanna. He decided to specialise in the kanjira. For seven years, he played it using mridangam fingering. On October 21, 2001, he performed at a packed auditorium in a concert featuring P. Unnikrishnan, H.K. Venkatram and V. Praveen. “I could not keep up with what Praveen sir played that day.”
He spoke to his mentor Ananthakrishna Sharma, who contacted C.P. Vyasa Vittala, a student of G. Harishankar. And Prasanna began his formal kanjira training. “It was the most difficult phase. I had to literally unlearn everything and start all over again.” The challenge began with the simple ‘ta di gi na tom’. Vyasa Vittala asked him to work that single phrase for two months, and when he still did not get the right tone Vyasa Vittala explained the stress point, and within a few minutes everything was sorted out. “Sir, why didn’t you tell me this earlier?” asked Prasanna. “I wanted to see how hungry you are for knowledge,” replied Vittala. “While I have learnt the science and logic behind percussion from Ananthakrishna Sharma sir, I learnt the art of practising and presenting complex structures from Vyasa Vittala sir,” says Prasanna.
Ability to adapt
According to vocalist Saketharaman, “Guru Prasanna’s paattu gnanam is amazing, especially of Purandaradasar Devarnamas.” Kanjira exponent B.S. Purushotham says that Prasanna’s strength is his ability to adapt to the various styles of mridangam playing, while mridangam player Arjun Kumar of Bangalore says that his approach is very fluid – “He can weave a korvai using any nadai with appropriate sollus to land perfectly on the eduppu.”
Says Prasanna: “Sometimes you don’t play because the silence speaks volumes.” He plays only when he believes it will add value to the overall music. “My favourite words are practice, patience and perseverance.”
The author writes on classical music
and upcoming musicians.