Rhythm of Life – Tracking the beats of Vikku Vinayakram

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A few days before Chennai hit the headlines for the floods in 2015, I went to meet Vikku Vinayakram for an interview at his residence in Triplicane. The below interview was published in The Times of India in a special curtain raiser for the Margazhi festival that year.

The year 1966 gave a proud moment to not only the world of Carnatic music but the whole nation, when MS Subbulakshmi performed at the United Nations General Assembly. The strains of her Jagadodharana and Maitreem Bhajata still refuse to fade away. It was also an important year for the ghatam artiste who accompanied MS in her tour to the US, his maiden trip to a foreign country . The performance of this ghatam artiste was punctuated by several applauses from the audience and the world saw the genius of T H Vinayakram, who went on to be known as Vikku Vinayakram.

The man who popularised the simple ghatam across the world began his career learning the mridangam from his father Thetakudi Harihara Sharma.“During a visit to Madras (now Chennai), my father got his ring finger badly damaged in a tram accident and had to switch to morsing. He was working in AIR Trichy and supported a huge family. Then came a time when AIR banned the use of harmonium and morsing in Carnatic performances as they didn’t see them as classical instruments. Having lost his job, he came to Madras and found a career as a morsing artiste in films,” says Vinayakram, looking back at his early days.

Harihara Sharma trained his son in ghatam in an year’s time. “He developed a system to teach without the instrument and also started the school of percussion Sri Jaya Ganesh Tala Vadya Vidyalaya, which was first headed by the legendary Musiri Subramania Iyer.He did a lot of research in the teaching of the percussion instruments. When the noted vocalist Chittor Subbulakshmi was to perform at the Dakshinamurthy Swamy temple in Tondiarpet, the ghatam artiste Nagaraja Rao could not come and I was called to replace him. This was my first performance,” says Vinayakram.

Moving to Chennai also gave him many opportunities in cinema and concerts. “I played the ghatam for several music directors including G Ramanathan, Chalapathi Rao, Ghantasala and KV Mahadevan. I began accompanying greats like M K Thaygaraja Bhagavathar, Ariyakudi Ramanuja Iyengar, GNB, Chembai Vaidyanatha Bhagavathar, Lalgudi Jayaraman and Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer.”

His work with Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer brought him in touch with MS Subbulakshmi and from 1964, he became the regular ghatam artiste for her. The UN concert with MS opened a world of possibilities for Vinayakram. The 1960s was also a great time of churning in music across the world, when they were being acquainted with Indian music. “Pandit Ravi Shankar and Ustad Vilayat Khan had already made a mark in the west. But they were instrumentalists. It was MS who broke all barriers for vocalists and shot to international fame. She could sing in several languages and would know what to deliver to the audience. With her, I also got my share of fame,” he says. He also got a permanent job at AIR in 1976 but it didn’t last long, for another opportunity knocked at his door. The music band Shakti was on the lookout for a ghatam artiste. It was a tug of war between a stable career and possible fame abroad. His father asked him to choose the latter. “He wanted the fame of ghatam to spread worldwide.Besides, MS Subbulakshmi and S Balachander also counseled me to take up the opportunity . My father also knew that this would bring more respectability to ghatam back home. I went to the US for the next three years and did several world tours.”

But back home, Vinayakram had been missing from the scene in Madras for quite a long time. On his return, he began performing with several Hindustani musicians. “I already knew Ustad Zakir Hussain well because of Shakti. After my return, I began performing along with Ustad Amjad Ali Khan, Pandit Jasraj, Pandit Shiv Kumar Sharma and Pandit Hari Prasad Chaurasia.”

It was yet another international collaboration that brought home fame for Vinayakram. In 1991, musician Micheal Hart was working on his album Planet Drum, in which top percussionists from across the performed. Vikku Vinayakram and Zakir Hussain participated from India. Planet Drum went on to win the Grammy Award for Best World Music Album of 1991.

“Back then, not many in India knew about the Grammy Award. It was only after A R Rahman won the award a decade later that more people got to know about it. The funny part is I gave several interviews on my winning the Grammy award after Rahman won the award,” says Vinayakram, who was the first south Indian musician to win the Grammy .

Over the years, Vinayakram began experimenting with solo ghatam kutcheris to the accompaniment of Tevarams and shlokas. “People who go for a vocal concert are the ones who know the kritis and look forward to it. But in the case of instrumental music or percussion, there is no language. Margazhi is a time when people come from across the world to this city. As of now, I am doing a series of concerts called 3G, where three generations of musicians in my family, my son V Selvaganesh and grandson, are performing with me.“

As a parting note, he shares the story behind his nickname Vikku.“MS Subbulakshmi’s daughter Radha had the habit of giving nicknames to people and her daughter called me Vikku. When I joined Shakti, they wanted me to give a shorter name and Vikku popped out of my head. The name just stuck on!”

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