David Nelson spoke on the above subject at the Music Academy on 18th December 2010. He is an American who has been studying our music for over 40 years. His gurus on the mridangam have been Ramnad CS Sankarasivam, Ramnad V Raghavan and T Ranganathan. He has learnt music from Dr S Ramanathan, Jon Higgins and T Viswanathan. It is also his 11th year as a teacher of the mridangam. In America he has accompanied artistes such as N Ramani, Ranganayaki Rajagopalan and T Viswanathan.
Nelson came to Madurai in the 1970s as a student to learn Tamil. He also decided to learn Indian music though he knew nothing about it. He was taught vocal music by Dr S Ramanathan who also took him to learn mridangam from Sankarasivam. Nelson remembers the first meeting and as to how he could not understand a word of what Dr Ramanathan and Sankarasivam said to each other. The decision to teach him was arrived at after Sankarasivam had ascertained the he was a ‘yank’ and not British!
The lessons on the mridangam began in right earnest. Nothing had prepared Nelson for the energy, focus and intensity of the classes. Everyday he had to repeat all that he had learnt till then. His guru also wrote down everything that was taught. When the tutelage ended, Nelson did not know how was to cope without the guru. Sankarasivam then suggested that on returning to the US he could continue training under Ramnad Raghavan at the Wesleyan University.
T Viswanathan and T Ranganathan came to Wesleyan to perform during the Navaratri celebrations. Nelson operated the Sruti box for them. The brothers were then at the California Institute of Arts and he decided to apprentice himself under T Ranganathan. The learning continued for 13 years. During this period, Ranganathan gradually turned over some students to Nelson for teaching. It was then that he realised that Ranganathan did not teach all students the same way. Rather he tailor-made lessons to suit the aptitude and ability of each student. This meant Nelson often had to cope with lessons he had never seen before. This also resulted in long conversations with Ranganathan.
In 1987, Nelson came to Chennai and did field work by recording the mridangam accompaniment of five artistes – Vellore Ramabhadran, Palghat R Raghu, Trichy Sankaran, Karaikkudi Mani and TK Murthy. They were all accompanying for the same song – Kaligiyunde gada and all except Trichy Sankaran were accompanying DK Jayaraman. Sankaran alone accompanied T Viswanathan who played the song on the flute. Interviews with each of the maestros were also conducted.
Over the years, Nelson created strategies and a conceptual framework for understanding the art of mridangam play himself. He now uses these to tools to teach non-Indian students. Nelson has evolved definitions for terms such as mora, korvai etc in terms of phrases and gaps. The latter he is quick to point out, is not silence (without phrases) but merely involved the absence of sound. The phrases and gaps are then built up into patterns. He demonstrated these phrases and patterns by reciting sollukattus for various talams even as he showed on screen the way he has formulated them.
It is difficult for me to put this down on paper and so I am avoiding that here. It was a very clear presentation and it is worth pondering over how much of background work would have gone into it. At the end of it I thought Nelson must be called in to conduct a workshop on tani avartanam appreciation here. This might prevent the mass exodus that takes place when the tani begins. I stick around because I like percussion but I really dont understand much of it.
Trichy Sankaran spoke at length.