One of the premier world music band was ‘Shakti’, comprising of English guitarist John McLaughlin, violin player L. Shankar, percussionists Zakir Hussain on tabla, Ramnad Raghavan on the Mridangam, and T. H. “Vikku” Vinayakram on Ghatam. Around the time when ‘Shakti’ was at its peak, Vikkuji’s son Selvaganesh Vinayakram was born.
The first music that Slevaganesh heard was of ‘Shakti’. It was like he was born for it. Years later he would replace his father in the now renamed band called ‘Remember Shakti’.
“I knew all of them since I was born so it was like playing with my family members. I knew the platform I was on but I did not feel overwhelmed because of their love and affection towards me,” recalls Selvaganesh.
Selvaganesh’s initiation into music
The kanjira maestro’s self-initiation into music was because as a child he would watch his father tour the world to perform. The urge to travel the world was taken over by the passion for music once his learning began.
Selvaganesh was initiated into kanjira by his grandfather. His advice to the young Selva was practical but also laden with emotional. On learning about his liking for mridangam, the core instrument in Carnatic music, his grandfather explained the amount of hard work and patience it would require for him to be recognised as there were numerous mridangam exponents. Kanjira, on the other hand, had few performers and was a dying instrument. Kanjira was largely ignored as it is a tough instrument to play. The other percussion instruments are played using both the hands while on kanjira the exponent has to use one hand to perform a similar role.
“As a kid I would be involved in demonstration of percussion instruments to foreign delegates. My grandfather could not force other children but he could force his grandson to play the kanjira. So I was forced to be a kanjira player to keep the tradition and legacy alive,” smiled Selvaganesh.
The ace percussionist’s father is regarded as the best ghatam exponent of our times. It was under his grandfather, father and uncle that he learnt his music. Sitting and learning with other disciples, Selva’s perception towards Vikkuji developed more as a guru than a father.
Dedication and practice
During his learnings, he became aware of the two golden words for musical success, dedication and practice. To practice one has to dedicate them self. Often gurus make their disciples play the same notes for 2-3 months. This can get frustrating so one needs patience as only the guru knows the timing for their next step.
“When I was learning, we used to practice like a game. We would practice in a group and try to match each other or try to get better than them. Even now when I practice I play the same phrase for hours at time. Practice is a part of my life,” said Selvaganesh.
Apart from the kanjira, the ghatam also did fancy the young Selva but a single sentence from his guru/father drove him back to the kanjira.
“When I asked about taking up the ghatam my father said “you cannot be Vikku Vinayakram so you better take up the kanjira” and that was it,”
“If I had chosen to be a ghatam player I could never have played with Zakir bhai as for him ghatam means only Vikku. Nor could I have performed alongside my father. God has written my script. I believe in destiny. So I followed my grandfather’s advice.”
Exploring world music and instruments
This has not stopped Selvaganesh from exploring other percussion instruments from across the world. One cannot just start learning or playing any instrument. It is like learning a new language. If you know a language it is easy to express and emote yourself. That is the basic idea. There is always an inspiration behind it. It maybe the way the instrument sounds, feels or even looks. At times it’s the exponent. The latter holds true in Selva’s case.
“I travelled a lot with Zakir bhai and watching him play different instruments I got inspired. Once In America he took me for a jamming session with Mickey Hart and others. Zakir bhai was not playing just the tabla but many other instruments. He asked to jam with them with my kanjira followed by djembe, congo and other instruments. That was my first inspiration,” quipped Selvaganesh.
The percussionist has since toured the world, performed alongside numerous world musicians and explored various genres in world music. Selvaganesh has also composed music for a number of movies. He has worked alongside maestros like A R Rahman, Smt M S Subbalakshmi, Remo, Jonas Hellborg, John Mclaughlin and others. He also performs with his son, S Swaminathan and his father.
The beauty of kanjira
Hailing from a Carnatic music background, Selvaganesh opines that it is funkier than its northern counterpart. In fusion, Hindustani music will maintain its ‘theka’ or the ‘taal’ while Carnatic music goes with the flow. There are lots of grooves and improvisations in Carnatic music. The kanjira is also very adaptive to fusion. Though it looks like a tiny instrument compared to the big band sound of jazz, it maintains its ground. The non-linear nature of kanjira makes it adaptive.
“Kanjira is among few Indian instruments which does not have ‘sur’ or scales. So it goes very well with the fusion music model. When I was in America I would carry one kanjira in my backpack always. I would jam up with musicians in clubs or concerts when possible. As my father says there is no end to music and sound, the search is always on,” asserted Selvaganesh.