When you first meet him, what you will see is a young man with a pleasant disposition, a permanent smile and a passion for Carnatic music and the mridangam. What you won’t see is any hint of the other, rather busy, corporate life he leads, as Senior Vice President at WNS Global Services. While you may then be impressed by how he balances his corporate career and concert life admirably, it is actually his unassuming, down-to-earth attitude that will bowl you over. Meet R. Ramkumar, mridangam artist and disciple of Sangita Kalanidhi Shri Umayalpuram Sivaraman.
When and how were you first exposed to Carnatic music? What was the music scene like in your home and in Delhi?
My first exposure to Carnatic music was through songs my mother used to hum at home. Dad had a small collection of audio cassettes which he used to play at times.
Delhi had its own small music circuit. Concerts used to be organized in temples and other venues mostly during festivals like navaratri. A sabha called Shanmukhananda Sangeetha Sabha used to organize annual concerts featuring popular artists from Chennai.
When did you first start learning the mridangam and from who?
I wanted to learn the mridangam from a very young age but my parents wanted me to focus on academics. I guess they had to eventually give in to my repeated requests! So I started learning mridangam from Shri T.R. Dhandapany in Delhi when I was in Class 9.
Shri Dhandapany is a very well-known musician and teacher in Delhi. He learnt from Shri Harihara Sharma (father of ghatam maestro Shri T.H. Vinayakaram) and from Shri K.M. Vaidyanathan. He is one of the most humble and simplest persons I have ever met. He and his wife have always treated students like family. Even though the money he earned from classes was his primary source of income and was absolutely essential to run his family, he has taught so many needy and interested students for free.
When did you realise you were so passionate about the mridangam that you wanted to become a performing musician?
I was very passionate about percussion from when I was a child. I think the thought of wanting to become performing musician came after listening to two audio cassettes — Drums of India by Shri Umayalpuram Sivaraman and Shruti Laya by Shri Karaikkudi R. Mani and team. These two recordings are inspiring even today!
When was your first concert?
My first concert was in Delhi when I was 14 years old. It was a tala vadya performance along with a few other students of my guru.
Meanwhile, what was happening on the academics side?
I went on to do my engineering from Delhi College of Engineering and then worked for a few years in the semiconductor industry. Then I did my post graduation in management from the Indian School of Business (ISB), Hyderabad.
I can’t imagine you had much time for music when you were doing your engineering or MBA…
I did play concerts whenever I got the opportunity, especially when I was doing my engineering. The only issue was that I couldn’t go on concert tours since I couldn’t take long leave from college. My guru in Delhi, Shri T.R. Dhandapany, was well known for his percussion ensembles and there were a few opportunities to go abroad on long concert tours with him — but I couldn’t because I was pursuing my engineering.
During MBA, it was much tougher. The programme at ISB is just a year long instead of the usual two years and the schedule is very hectic. But I did practise regularly and performed on a few occasions in ISB and in Hyderabad.
So when did you revive your learning? I assume this was when you moved to Chennai…
Chennai didn’t have many options for those working in the semiconductor industry. One of the main reasons I did an MBA was to move to an industry that would allow me to set up base in Chennai. There were two reasons why I wanted to move to Chennai: The first was that Chennai is the Mecca of Carnatic music. The amount of live classical music you can hear and immerse yourself in, in this city is unparalleled. The learning is immense! The second was that I wanted to learn from Shri Umayalpuram Sivaraman, who is based in Chennai. Having learnt earlier in a style that had a slight bias towards the mathematical aspects of the art, I wanted to learn from Sivaraman sir to imbibe his style that gives so much importance to sound production and the aesthetic aspects.
So how did you get to learn from him?
I first met Sivaraman sir in 2006 when he had come to Bangalore for a concert with Shri T.N. Seshagopalan. I was working for a short period in Bangalore at that time. I approached him and requested him to teach me. He said he couldn’t travel to Bangalore to do that. I told him I would move to Chennai to learn from him, and followed up with him a few times later as well. He didn’t give a definite answer. So I looked up his house in Chennai on Wikimapia/Google Maps, searched in the neighbourhood and moved into a house near his! I think it was then that he was convinced about my seriousness to learn from him and accepted me as his student!
How has learning from Shri Umayalpuram Sivaraman changed your playing?
Learning from Sivaraman sir has impacted my playing in three main ways:
- I try to give a lot more importance to sound production and aesthetics than I used to do earlier.
- I play with much less strain, which has to do with his technique.
- I play for songs better than I used to earlier.
How did you go about getting concert opportunities in Chennai? Being a Delhi lad with not much experience performing in Chennai, were you nervous when you started performing here?
I was not nervous, but it was definitely not easy since I didn’t know many people in Chennai. I am thankful to Smt. Jayalakshmi Balakrishnan of Naada Inbam for having confidence in me and giving me my first concert opportunity in Chennai. The violinist in that concert liked my playing and asked me to play for a violin duet concert she was playing a few days later with her sister. Slowly I started getting noticed and started getting more and more concert opportunities as well.
In comparison to some of the other up-and-coming stars we have today, would you call yourself a relatively late ‘blossomer’ (because your academics and work took priority for a while)? Did you ever think you were too old to become a full-fledged performer?
I can definitely be called a late starter and consequently a late blossomer when compared to many other artists who are performing today. But I guess it’s never too late to pursue your passion. Though I never felt I was too old to become a full-fledged performer, I definitely feel it is easier to become one earlier in your life when you have fewer commitments. You can then build your life around it and take key decisions accordingly.
Being Senior Vice President of a company can’t be an easy job. How many hours on average do you spend at work every day? How often and how long do you practise? Do you accept concerts on weekdays? How do you manage time?
It is definitely not easy as it comes with a lot of responsibilities and can consume almost all the time I have at my disposal. To add to it, on the personal front, family commitments and the need to provide attention to close relatives who are aging and have health issues also takes away a lot of time. But since I have been playing the mridangam along with a hectic work/personal schedule for quite some time now, I have kind of learnt to balance both. Would I love to have more time at my disposal for music? Definitely!
I usually try to practise at least 30 minutes every day and try to keep increasing this as much as possible. I accept concerts on weekdays as well, but do it judiciously. For example, I might perform concerts only on one or two working days in a week so that I can organize my evening office meetings and calls during the other days in that week.
Over the years, what kind of/how many hours of practice and hard work has gone into honing your mridangam playing?
I try to identify specific areas of improvement that can help me hone my playing skills and try to set related goals. The listening, learning and practice is then towards achieving those goals. A lot of practice and hard work has gone into achieving those improvements.
What do you learn from each concert you play? Do you go home and review your playing? How do you ensure continuous improvement?
Almost every concert is a learning experience. There is so much learning from co-artists and from reviewing how you could have played better. Also, the ambience is different in each venue and you learn to adapt to the different conditions you can be exposed to.
Often, I go home after a concert, play recordings of the masters and listen to how they have played for the same songs that were performed in that day’s concert.
You are involved in several music-based projects. Tell us more about the series of articles you’re writing for Saamagaana.
The series of articles I am writing for “Saamagaana – The First Melody” is on the science of music. The intent is to help readers understand the science behind music and musical instruments and to enhance their appreciation of the same. The articles can be accessed at https://ramsabode.wordpress.com/articles/
Before people knew you as a performing mridangam artist, I suspect many knew you as the guy who ran ramsabode. How did the idea of publishing concert schedules online come about? When did you start doing it?
I started publishing concert schedules on my blog http://ramsabode.wordpress.com in 2005 when I was in Hyderabad. There were hardly any sources of information about concerts happening in Hyderabad, so I felt an online resource of this kind would be beneficial to music lovers in the city. I continued doing it when I moved to Bangalore in 2006. When I came to Chennai the same year, I was so happy to see concerts happening almost every single day of the year! But, to my knowledge, there was again no resource that listed concert schedules in advance to help people plan. So I continued publishing schedules on my blog after I moved here.
How has marriage and a kid impacted your music?
My wife has been very supportive of my musical pursuits. My son and my nephew, though only 2 years old, seem to like classical music a lot. I play a lot of music for them at home and in the process get to listen to a lot myself. My son is now able to identify about 35 ragas.
You were also involved with kutcheris.com. How did that happen?
Carnatic musician T.M. Krishna had proposed the idea of having a website for the music season in 2009 to Vikram Raghavan and a few other students of his. They started theDecemberseason.com. Since I was publishing concert schedules throughout the year, Vikram felt it would be good if we joined hands. So we started kutcheris.com. The website grew to offer information about concert schedules, artists, organizations and venues to readers in nearly 50 countries, and became one of the most popular and authoritative sources of content for Carnatic music and dance. We also launched a mobile app that could be used to view this information on the go.
What other projects have you been involved in?
We have recently moved kutcheris.com to musicrux.com which is a digital platform that aims to make information about the Indian performing arts universally accessible. In a field that is largely brick and mortar and unorganized, we are using technology to connect different participants in the ecosystem and to make information well organized, aesthetically presented and easily accessible.
The annual Chennai December music season is the largest music festival across the globe. Our digital platform and ready reckoners are widely used every year by artists, organizers and audiences to plan, connect and participate in this festival. We have been working with Mr Kannan for many years now to publish the popular annual Nalli December Season ready reckoner.
Tell us about your Abhishek Raghuram mania…
I am a big fan of good music/musicians and Abhishek Raghuram is one of my all-time favourites! I get so much inspiration and learn so much every single time I hear him sing!
Do you see yourself becoming a top mridangam player in the next 5 or 10 years? What are your aims?
My aim is to be happy, and one of the things that keeps me happy is listening to or playing good music. I want to keep listening, keep learning and keep improving myself and perform with many more musicians.
Watch Ramkumar in concert at Nada Inbam (2014) with Maalavika (vocal) and Shraddha Ravindran (violin), webcast by Parivadini.