2nd July 2000
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Percussion: a source for expression and communication of mankind

By Tennyson Rodrigo
It was a racy fiesta of percussion that filled the auditorium of the Indian Cultural Centre (ICC) on Tuesday, June 12. Imagine singing saucepans, sizzling plastic bags, tingling tin cans , pulsating body muscles and beating drums - in unison! For the packed and assorted audience at the ICC's auditorium it was stunning, interactive entertainment, crafted by Krishna, Ravibandu Vidyapathy and their talented team. Yet all that rhythmic percussion was not just a torrent of clang-bang cacophony. For me, there was a deeper throbbing, a throbbing that prompted me to indulge in some reflection.

The saucepans, tin cans and other paraphernalia was peripheral to the evening's performance. From a more discerning perspective, there were underlying elements in the program that were in the realm of serious cultural interest. For one thing , Krishna and Ravi, entertainingly and strikingly attempted to demonstrate that from time immemorial rhythmic percussion has been a primordial medium of expression and communication for mankind.

The programme was structured so as to narrate and display the history , infinite variety and synthesis of percussion. Krishna recounted how during Yehudi Menuhin's travels in search of traditional forms of African music, he heard in the distant hills the echo of an exchange of drumbeats at twilight. 

The acutely perceptive Menuhin inquired from his guide what was going on. The guide's reply was that two good friends were saying good night to each other! 

And again, I believe that much of the rhythmic repertoire of the legendary Gene Krupa's drumming that electrified Benny Goodman's Jazz Quartet in the 1930s and 40s, was gathered from traditional drummers in Indonesia and Sri Lanka. Implicit in all this was the underlying statement that percussion has been rendered eclectic by a continuous process of adaptation that has transcended ethnic boundaries. And, innovative percussion could enrich any form of musical genre without in any way contaminating its essence. Percussion's tremendous vitality that is vividly conspicuous in jazz, reggae, the full spectrum of Indian classical music and dance in modern fusion forms, supports this thesis.

By interspersing spirited demonstrations between readings from prepared texts, Ravi and Krishna underlined the enormous diversity of traditional improvised percussion products. The stage was adorned with a colourful array of percussion instruments -the tabla, ghatam, gongs, cymbals, tympanis, bar chimes, clay-pot drums, bongos, bells of varying sizes and shapes-many of which have been locally contrived as innovative variants of their counterparts elsewhere. Citing examples from what is embodied in the ancient Sinhala chronicles, Ravibandu drew reference to Panchaturya Bhanda, the classification of musical instruments-comprising for example, Atata, Vitata, and Atatavitata- and identified their contemporary forms as the Getabere, Thammattang, and Dhaula. These forms were cleverly combined with other percussion instruments to create a dramatic impact on the evening's performance.

To reflect any further on the impact and content of percussion is to shift the spotlight away from Ravi and Krishna- two fantastically versatile and exciting artistes. 

Ravi is the grandson of Algama Kiriganitha Gurunnanse the greatest guru and exponent of Sri Lanka's drumming and dancing.

Ravi's father Somabandu Vidyapathy belongs to a pioneering galaxy of artistes whose accomplishments first evoked some interest in the 1940s and 50s. That was when J. D. A. Perera, Chitrasena, Suriya Shankar Molligoda, Lionel Edirisinghe, Premakumar, Pani Bharatha, Vasanthakumar, Sesha Palihakkara, Somadasa Elvitigala and others infused respectability to the serious forms of Sri Lankan and Indian dance and music.

Ravi acquired a sound foundation in choreography from the Chitrasena Kalayathana and has performed at celebrated venues around the world. How delightful it was to see the supple bodies of Vajira and Upekha seated statuesque on the floor of the auditorium watching and listening to their protege with serene pride!

Unlike Ravi, Krishna did not have to carry the mantle of a great ancestry of traditional dance and drums.

He hails from the hill country in Kandy where from early days his raving talent for music and drums made him a restless young man searching for expression.

He first learnt Sanskrit shlokas from Buddhist priests and a little drumming whilst rambling in the village temple. Life was experimental and unfulfilling until he got a scholarship to India to study music. 

The most ecstatic moment in his life was when the foremost exponent in India of the art of ghatum-playing Vikku Vinayak Ram accepted Krishna into his fold. In the true guru-shishya tradition, Krishna persevered for several years at the feet of his guru with total dedication. And he became unarguably the most accomplished ghatum player in Sri Lanka.

One has only to watch and listen to Krishna embracing the ghatum close to his exposed abdominal muscles to believe the mystifying rhythm and tonality he produces. The ghatum remains Krishna's classical forte. Even to this day he seeks sanction from his guru to play the ghatum in public.

But Krishna is an unstoppable percussionist deftly wrestling with the tensions of a dual identity-triggered by the conflicts between guru-shishya traditions and the permissive freedom of fusion music. 

He describes himself as an ethno percussionist; in that role he jets around the world drumming furiously with the likes of Paul Simon and Diana Ross. Next July he will perform at Stanford University's Summer workshop on jazz music. 

Clearly Krishna and Ravi are two great artistic personalities contributing something out of the ordinary to Sri Lanka's cultural landscape. 

Each of them in their own way is a wholesome blend of the classical and modern.

Their feast of percussion was an extraordinary evening of enthralling entertainment, which incidentally (and entirely unintentionally) could well have been a fitting farewell to R. K. Sachdeva, the founding Director of the ICC, who made a fine contribution during the formative years of the centre towards achieving its objectives.

Something Old, Something New

"Something Old, Something New" will be staged at the Lionel Wendt Theatre on July 14, 2000 at 7.30 p.m. Kanthi Ranchigoda together with Anusha Perera, Kevin Nugera, Niloufer Peiris and Channa Wijewardena have organised this evening of superb entertainment for discerning theatre lovers young and old alike. The music will be by "Footworks" and lighting by "Cool Tempo". These lithe, lissome and spritely dancers will be backed by the youth choir of St. Mary's Church, Bambalapitiya and the Peterite choral group.
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