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Praveen Sparsh — Taking mridangam beyond traditional settings

Along with a fine sense of laya, Praveen Sparsh brings to the stage a thoughtful and gentle creativity

Praveen Sparsh's recent passion project, ‘Unreserved,' puts the mridangam in non-traditional settings and marries it with sounds recorded in public spaces, creating a cohesive piece perhaps in a genre of its own.

To hear music in noise — or what the vast majority interprets as noise — is but one of the abilities that this perceptive young musician possesses. Whether traditional concerts or funkier music collaborations, film and productions or creating his own tracks, Praveen straddles several creative spaces seamlessly. And as an accompanist he has earned the respect of a wide array of artistes for whom he has played the mridangam, including S. Sowmya, T.M. Krishna, Aruna Sairam and Bombay Jayashri.

Praveen, 28, also known as Thanjavur Praveen Kumar, is the grandson of mridangist Thanjavur Upendran, and great-grandson of thavil exponent Valangaiman Shanmugasundaram Pillai. Articulate, soft-spoken and thoughtful, the qualified engineer hides a steely resolve behind his impassive countenance. No topic is off-limits and he ruminates over each question carefully before giving a reply.

The training years

Praveen's family never intended for him to take up music. Seeing the child tap on everything constantly, his mother, K. Kumutha, Upendran's daughter, casually enrolled him in a mridangam class, where the teacher identified his potential. Praveen then learned from Nellai Balaji for four years before joining Guruvayur Dorai — first learning from Dorai's senior student Uzhavoor P.K. Babu before starting lessons with Dorai himself. After winning The Music Academy's Spirit of Youth competition at 14, Praveen went on to bag the Best Instrumentalist Award at the regular season the same year.

Sowmya says Praveen's remarkable sense of proportion belies his age. “It is particularly difficult to play for padams, but he plays sensitively, enhancing it and making it stand out. If I were to perform an exclusive padam concert, I would choose only Praveen.”

Veena exponent Kannan Balakrishnan, for whom both Upendran and Praveen have played, says, “Praveen echoes his grandfather in his playing.”

T.M. Krishna says, “I think of Praveen for any ‘alternative' idea or project. There is an unusual warmth in his presentation — even while playing aggressively, he never sounds harsh. He never over-projects his playing, but its impact is felt in the entire music.”

For Praveen, the difficulty in the art is not in executing techniques or lessons. “It is in achieving the impact you have felt while listening to others. Merely reproducing what they did sounds flat. You keep listening to get a grip of the feeling, but then you add your creativity to achieve that impact.”

Peers as influencers

As to what he strives for in a concert, Praveen says, “I try to listen, react appropriately, and I egg on the other artistes — the trigger should be inspiring enough to kindle and take off from. The idea is to be an ensemble — support and influence decision-making healthily to make some magic happen together.”

Besides obvious aspects such as concert duration, the music performed, the pace, and the mood of the artistes and audience, the other percussionists on stage influence Praveen's tani avartanams. The sessions begin as a blank slate and he then builds on it.

Praveen says that Krishna has had a significant influence on his music. “I learned to connect with the vocalist and the violinist. He helped me to listen to everyone on stage better and get used to the different kalapramanams, particularly the slowest ones, and to realise that it actually makes sense to not play sometimes.”

“Carnatic musicians on stage are often seen in a pecking order,” points out Praveen. “The vocalist is first, the violin second, the mridangam third, and the ghatam, kanjira or morsing fourth. But each one of these artistes is individually talented and immensely skilled. What happens if you take that hierarchy away and mix it up? I have been learning that from Krishna anna. Why is violin and percussion called ‘support'? The goal is to artistically collaborate on stage — very difficult to achieve but it can happen.”

Praveen has scored and played music for Gowri Ramnarayan's productions. Gowri says, “Scoring music for plays requires complete erasure of ego. Praveen does that, always putting the needs of the art first. For someone so young to assimilate a range of emotions and make music appropriately is remarkable.”

In these difficult times, Praveen is not afraid to engage in discussions on sticky subjects, whether gender and caste discrimination or the specific repertoire for instrumental music. This ability to speak his mind sets him apart as much as his intuitive music.

The author writes on classical music

and up-and-coming musicians.

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