‘The Happiness Road’ is a weekly Series on this Blog that appears on Sundays where I share my conversations with people while exploring their idea of happiness!
This Sunday we feature the 73-year-old Ghatam maestro, Padma Bhushan and Grammy winner, Vikku Vinayakram!
|Photo by Vaani Anand|
Vikku Vinayakram’s home in Triplicane in Chennai houses his study-cum-meditation room on the second floor. The room is sparse for most parts. Huge portraits of the seer of Kanchi, the Paramacharya or Maha Periyava, Sri Chandrasekharendra Saraswati Mahaswami (1894 ~ 1994), in different styles, adorn the walls – from posters to paintings to stained glass works.
In the middle of the room, on a colorful rug, a jamakaalam, sits a Ghatam. It is a souvenir that a ghatam-maker gave Vikku. It has Vikku’s face carved out in the clay. He doesn’t prefer talking about that Ghatam though – “The person who made this was over-enthusiastic. Out of affection for him, I have retained this in my study. I had him make another one with Maha Periyava’s image; that one’s in my Poojaroom.”
|The Grammy Winning Planet Drum Team
Photo by Vaani Anand
The shelves and cupboard tops, and even some cartons, are full of awards that Vikku has received in his over 60 years as a performing artist. He wants to show Vaani and me his Grammy memento – which he had won in 1991 for playing for American percussionist Mickey Hart’s (who once was part of the band Grateful Dead) Album, Planet Drum; the Award was for the Best World Music Album that year. But Vikku can’t find his Grammy memento among all his other awards. He manages to locate a plaque that all artists who played for Planet Drum have signed on the occasion of winning the Grammy. What Vikku says when his search for the Grammy memento yields no result is deeply spiritual and awakening: “Parava illai! It’s okay! It’s here somewhere. For sure. What is important is that I enjoyed myself playing for Mickey Hart and with the other artists. The process of playing the Ghatam, to me, overrides any recognition that I have got.”
|Photo Courtesy: Internet|
Now, the man who’s saying this is the world’s best Ghatam player. In fact, he’s credited with putting the humble Ghatam on the world music scene. He’s always played with all-time greats in Carnatic music – Chembai Vaidyanatha Bhagavathar, M.Balamuralikrishna, GNB, Madurai Mani Iyer, Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer, Ariyakudi Ramanuja Iyengar, Maharajapuram Santhanam and M.S.Subbalakshmi (not a complete or exhaustive list). And he’s played with many Hindustani music stalwarts too – Hariprasad Chaurasia, Zakir Hussain, Shivkumar Sharma and Amjad Ali Khan (not a complete or exhaustive list). More important, he’s among those first artists from India who were bold enough to experiment playing world fusion music despite a very strong, conservative, classical orientation. In the 1970s, Vikku played with English guitarist John McLaughlin’s Shakti alongside Zakir Hussain (Tabla), L.Shankar (Violin) and Ramnad Raghavan (Mridangam). And then, of course, came Mickey Hart’s Planet Drum – and the Grammy.
But Vikku is untouched by all this glory. As he sips filter coffee from a davara-tumbler, he nods his head furiously when I suggest to him that he must be very, very content with himself – what with a “lifetime in music and an era in greatness behind him”? “No saar. Your question needs review. The Ghatam has been around from the time of the Ramayana and Mahabharata. It is the only instrument that is made from the earth – one of the five elements, one of the pancha bhoothas. Who am I to take credit for making the Ghatam famous or for all this glory that has come on account it? I am most content playing good music with good people for good people to enjoy and energize themselves. I consider myself to be a postman, a messenger, a mere instrument for music to reach people. How can any instrument take credit for the music?” he asks.
|Photo Courtesy: Internet|
To understand and celebrate Vikku’s humility better, his story must be told in some detail. Born along with his sister, Seethamani, as a fraternal twin, Vikku’s original name was Ramamani. His father, Harihara Sarma, a Mridangam artist and teacher, was advised by soothsayers that only one of the two children would survive; if both had to survive, one of them had to be given away in adoption. Sarma chose to give Ramamani in adoption to his favorite deity – Lord Vinayaka. And so the name Vinayakram came about! Although Sarma lost one of his fingers in an accident, he taught young Vinayakram to play the Ghatam by giving him beat-based instructions orally. Sarma’s only vision was that Vinayakram play the Ghatam so well that the instrument becomes famous across the world. “My grounding comes from my father’s vision. He did not urge me to play well for money or fame. He always taught me that music and the Ghatam are much bigger than me,” reminisces Vikku.
The big break came when a 22-year-old Vinayakram was “accepted” by M.S.Subbalakshmi’s husband T.Sadasivam to accompany them on a US tour in 1964. Owing to the Indo-Pak war that intervened, the trip was postponed; but it eventually happened in 1966. That was the first time any lead artist was willing to allow the Ghatam as an accompaniment on the world stage. That tour gave Vinayakram a feel of what it means to play music to a global audience. It also gave him his nickname, Vikku, which has since stuck on. “My father’s advice that music is divine, that it does not have boundaries and is not limited by styles and languages, resonated with me so much on that trip. Just the experience of performing with MS Amma was so transformational. Ghatam owes its gratitude to MS Amma for giving it global stature,” he says.
Vikku has been very faithful to his father’s advice. He has always chosen music over anything else in Life. In the mid-70s, when he received an invitation from John McLaughlin to perform with Shakti, he was on the verge of accepting a “permanent” job as an All India Radio (AIR) artist. Choosing the AIR job meant a steady income and job security. Going with Shakti meant short-term financial gains but infinite joy! Vikku chose joy! “I learnt the value of inner peace and joy from MS Amma and ‘Veena’ Balachander. Both of them told me, like my father always did, ‘do only what gives you joy’. I simply followed their advice. Today, when I look back, I am glad I did what I did. I would have never been happy with anything but playing my music, my way,” he explains.
|Photo Courtesy: The Hindu/Internet|
Isn’t Life as a musician, despite all the highs it offers, pretty unpredictable in a practical sense? The income is not consistent. And then there is age – and the question of staying relevant in an ever-changing world. How does Vikku deal with these factors? His one-word answer is ‘faith’. He says you have to have faith that a higher energy will take care of you. To Vikku, that higher energy has always been the Kanchi Maha Periyava. “His grace is immense. It has guided me thus far and I have implicit faith that it will stay with me forever,” he says. He shares an anecdote to amplify this point. Vikku was recently diagnosed with an eye condition that required a neuro-surgery that would necessitate that he cannot play the Ghatam for at least 18 months. Vikku says he just “could not accept the medical advice that I must not play the Ghatam.” “I went into my Pooja room and prayed to Maha Periyava. I left it to him. Then I went for my final, pre-surgery, tests. And the tests came good! I would not need a surgery, the doctor told me. Now, how do you explain this? Everyone is searching for God. I have seen God in human form – and that is Maha Periyava,” he says.
As we get ready to leave, he adds this simple – yet so profound – perspective: “Nambikai – faith – is key to live happily. With faith comes nimmadhi – inner peace. With inner peace comes anandam – happiness. I have always had total nambikai. So even when worry arises or sadness comes, I invoke my faith. Saar…Amma…desires ruin happiness. You can keep on desiring this and that and achieving this and that. As long as you are on this vicious cycle you will always be unhappy. Take Life as it comes, with whatever it brings! Drop your desires and all you will be left with is anandam– brahmanandam. Happiness – total bliss!”
As we stepped on to the street to find transport to take us home, Chennai was getting flooded by a torrential downpour. I wasn’t worried that we were not going to find a way to get back – Chennai’s notorious for public transport failing when it rains heavily! I was thinking of what kind of an evolved man he must be who doesn’t really agonize that he can’t find his Grammy Award memento! To be sure, Vikku lives the philosophy of a desire-less state that he spoke about. And that’s why he’s so simple, grounded, happy and at peace with himself. Undoubtedly, he’s a rockstar in his own right, but one who’s obsessed only with his music, and never with the trappings that rockstardom brings along with it – the Grammy included!