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Meet Rohan Krishnamurthy

Ranjani Saigal

When you meet Rohan Krishnamurthy he appears to be a typical Indian American teenager talking about the Simpsons and high school life while saying polite hellos to aunties and uncles. But when he sits to play the Mridangam you know that this is no ordinary youngster. “Your skills are well beyond your age. I am amazed that you have gathered enough skills to perform in concerts in such a short time” said Bharat Ratna M.S.Subbalakshmi, when she heard him play at the age of 10.

Only sixteen, he has already performed with maestros like R.K. Srikantan, Flute N. Ramani, R. Vedavalli, Neyveli Santanagopalan, S. Sowmya, T.M.Krishna, Flute S. Shasank, O.S.Thyagarajan, etc.. and is a sought after artist in the famous December music season in Chennai, India. A student of the great Guruvayoor Dorai for the past six years, he has won many awards including the very prestigious Yuva Kala Bharathi Award. He is the youngest recipient of this award and one of the few foreigners to win this award. Recently he was in Littleton, MA presenting Kanjira accompaniment for the Arangetram of one of my students. I had the distinct pleasure to know and work with this young man. Here are some excerpts of my chat with him.

Lokvani: Living in Kalamazoo, Michigan how did you learn Mirdangam and develop such a passion for it?

Rohan: come from a musical family. My mother is a singer and dad is very interested in music. It was sheer coincidence that in the small town of Kalamazoo, my first Guru Shri. Damodaran Srinivasan, a student of the Ghatam maestro Vikku Vinayak Ram came as a graduate student. I started lessons with him. I studied one-on-one for about two months, but then he got a job and moved to Massachusetts. It could have been the end of Mirdangam for me, but he kindly agreed to continue teaching me over the phone. I would have lessons once a week and by then since I learned the fingerings, he would vocally present the lesson and I would play it for him over the speaker phone. The system worked out very well. I also came and spent a month with him here in Massachusetts. His dedication was key to my success. In another purely coincidental move, I met Guruvayoor Dorai as he was going to perform in a concert in Michigan. He asked me if I would be interested to sit with him on the stage. The concert went for five and a half hours. He was impressed that a ten year old could sit with him for that long. He offered to teach me. I went to India over summer holidays and took lessons. The rest as they say is history. Dorai sir came to Kalamazoo as well and stayed at my home and taught me for some time.

Lokvani: How did you get to start performing in concerts at such a young age?

Rohan: People who heard me recommended that I apply to perform at the various academies in Madras during the concert season. I applied and was selected. I started playing in a few lesser known places in afternoon concerts. Word about my playing got around and I started getting offers to perform with senior artists in top institutions.

Lokvani: At this time do you take formal lessons?

Rohan: My formal lessons have always been limited because of lack of access to my teachers. But playing in concerts is the greatest learning experience. I set aside time everyday to listen to concerts. I have put a great deal of effort in collecting some good music especially recordings of the great Trinity of Mridangam, Palghat Mani Iyer, C.S. Muragabhubathy and Palani Subramanium Pillai. While there is no formal training, I am constantly learning.

Lokvani: You are now a senior in High School. Are you planning to major in music?

Rohan: I am planning on a double major. While music is my passion, I am also very interested in Chemistry. I do well at school in many areas. On the practical side, taking up music as a career is a risky business. I hope Chemistry can also provide me with a safety net.

Lokvani: Did you have any issues with your peers as you were persuing something so unique?

Rohan: Well Kalamazoo is a small town. We do not have many Indians. So my whole way of life is an oddity for my friends. Mridangam was just one more thing. Some ignored it completely. But others find it very interesting.

Lokvani: You have won many awards at a young age. Has it gone to your head?

Rohan: I do not think so. It is wonderful to have one’s talent recognized. But I am fully aware that I have so much to learn and I always try to look ahead.

Lokvani: What do you think your future holds for you? A Grammy?

Rohan: (Smiling) Grammy would be nice...I am looking forward to learning more. I hope that if I major in music I can gain from the knowledge of other forms of music. Someday it would be nice to get a position as a professor of music so that I can do more research in music and teach music. I think teaching is a great way of spreading the art form. I hope I can continue to grow as a musician.

Lokvani: What advice do you have for young aspiring Carnatic musicians?

Rohan: Keep up regular practice. Listen to good quality music. The internet now has many resources for Carnatic music aficionados. You can find mentors on forums like Sangeetham.com. Music India online is a great resource to listen to good music.

Lokvani: How did you enjoy playing for an Arangetram?

Rohan: I really enjoyed it. I have realized that playing for dance is different from playing for concerts and is extremely challenging in its own way.

Lokvani: Anything else you would like to share with our readers?

Rohan: I have a request of your readers. Essentially, this year marks my guru's 60th year of public performances and his students around the world have planned to celebrate this momentous occasion by holding a one day function for him in Madras on December 13th. Moreover, we are starting a trust in his name which is intended to promote the percussive arts. My guru is most generous about sharing his knowledge and I hope we can do more to reach out. We truly appreciate everyone's contribution towards this cause. To get more information, please send me email at rohan_krishnamurthy@rohanrhythm.com and check out my website at www.rohanrhythm.com.

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