I was just thinking about this while listening to a recording of a Classical Carnatic concert I had attended in Chennai years ago:
The way most mrudangam vidwans are trained, and the way most mrudangam vidwans become popular as accompanists, is by anticipating and reproducing the structure of the song (as performed by the main artist) on the mrudangam as closely as possible. What that means is that as much as we give primacy to sarvalaghu as a mode of accompaniment, closely matching the sangathis, swaram, and niraval is what really scores points. Of course, the logical conclusion from this is that the most successful concerts are those in which the mrudangam vidwan has frequently performed with the main artist. For most serious Carnatic rasikas, this is so obvious that it does not even bear mentioning. GNB-Palghat Raghu, KVN-Palghat Raghu, SSI-UKS, U. Srinivas-Thanjavur Upendran, and even Sowmya-Neyveli Narayanan sir are some of the most enduring combinations in Carnatic music history.
So while this is all fine and dandy, the thought on my mind was specifically this: “If we are specifically trained to accompany only Carnatic pieces, how then can you fit the mrudangam into the wider scope of international music?”. Granted, even in a traditional Carnatic concert you always have to be prepared to play for pieces you have not heard before, but whenever that happens, the overall impact will never be the same as if you were accompanying a piece you are familiar with. Most mrudangam artists would not feel comfortable playing for jazz pieces without extensive and thorough rehearsals, but can play at ease for Carnatic concerts impromptu. I feel like whenever you play for a piece with extensive rehearsal, the charm of what makes the mrudangam unique as an instrument is lost; this is primarily because in a Carnatic concert, almost 90% of the concert is unrehearsed. The krithis may be familiar, but the improvisational aspects (such as raga alapana, kalpana swara, niraval, thani, Ragam Thanam Pallavi) are more or less on the spot.
I remember showing my friend (who had no background in Indian music) a recording of Karaikudi Mani’s Sruthi Laya as a way of easing him into Carnatic Music, and after listening to it for a few minutes, he immediately IM’ed me and remarked “this is way too rehearsed…is real Carnatic Music like this?”.
Maybe I am just spoiled after hearing too many live Carnatic concerts and directly experiencing the raw, unfiltered creativity of the world’s top percussionists firsthand…