Chronicling the virtuosity and struggles of Indian classical music, mridangam maestro V V Ramana Murthy, puts Vizag on the global music map.
Contemplating his story with a wide-eyed gaze, it’s apparent that Ramana Murthy still approaches his musical journey with a sense of childlike wonder.
Raised in Vijayangaram by a family of musicians his upbringing was infused with classical music – as he mastered the ‘mridangam,’ a percussion instrument.
A child prodigy who began performing from the age of eight, the soulful beats of his hand-drum transformed the audience in his first concert in Vijayanagaram. From then on, there was no looking back.
Now in residence in Vizag, he lives with his wife, a Veena exponent and his two children – who lean to classical vocals and the violin. A first grade artist in All India Radio and a supportive father at home; he encourages but doesn’t force his children into music.
In fact he prefers they didn’t pursue music as a full-time career: “Traditional music has been in decline partly because of the lack of opportunities, especially in Vizag.
The journey is rough and I can’t help in cautioning my children to avoid music as a profession,” he worries.
Talent is not the only inheritance from the family as the artist’s abode is home to century old mridangams – handed down from his forefathers.
The most cherished one being the first mridangam he played which he “owes his life to.” He considers himself as an aural caretaker of traditional music and defies a re-purposed version of the instrument.
“I play on antiques in all my performances,” he says. “I do welcome advancements but I believe the mridangam is an embodiment of god; I cannot detach it to suit my convenience,” he defends.
Listeners tune in
Performing across five continents in the last three decades, Ramana Murthy not only transcended culture and geography but also had no difficulty drawing a genial international audience.
“My performance will be the same in India or abroad –however the reception varies. The response abroad is much better because music lovers overseas attend concerts to listen and not judge the performance.
Back home, only people in the know, like the critiques, attend my concerts. It is unlikely that an audience will turn up to only enjoy music in Vizag.”
A serious study
Stereotyping instrumental music into a hobby worries him. Ramana Murthy agrees that in India, music is cornered to mere amusement or used to supplement education. “I am taken aback when children learn music only to help them score better in studies. Music is a science on its own and it is not a commodity to fetch better grades,” he exemplifies.
A taste for music, a taste for life
At the crossroad in his journey, he “sacrificed” a lucrative career in commercial cinema to preserve his ancestral claim over classical music.
“I left big banner films to set up a little world in classical music. It was pure luck that I could represent my city and my family’s devotion to music everywhere I went. It was a fair trade.”
Now, bubbling with energy and a sense of accomplishment, the mridangam artist finds himself planning his long-term goals. He desires to lure the Andhra audience to classical music with a philharmonic gathering of national musicians in Vizag.
Having made a presence in global music, the artist has accompanied Indian classical music’s finest with the likes of Pandit Tanmoy Bose, Padmavibhushan Dr Sri M. Balamuralikrishna, Padmabhushan Dr Sri L. Subramaniam, Dr Bombay Jayashree and others.
He remembers performing live in the United Nations’ headquarters in the presence of the then Secretary General, Ban-ki-Moon. However, his most memorable performance was much closer to home.
“My concert in November 2016 in Kalabharati, Vizag, is unforgettable. It was the last time my father and I performed together in public; a week after which, he passed away,” the maestro signs off.