The Rhythm of Devotion:

How an Isha Samskriti Student Became an Accomplished Mridangam Player

An Isha Samskriti alumnus and mridangam player, Ashwin Subramanian, allows us a rare glimpse into his journey from the early days of passion for rhythm, to imbibing the intricacies of this Indian classical drum, stage performances, and a life of learning.

A Life in Music

The sound of beating drums and rolling laughter is flowing from the Isha Samskriti area. In those days before the Mahashivratri celebrations, the young artists are practicing for their stage performances, where they are showcasing the Indian classical arts that have been their life and breath for years. As the students take a break and enjoy a ball game, Ashwin slips out to meet us and share his experience as an Isha Samskriti alumnus specializing in the mridangam, a two-headed drum.

During an exuberant performance of Carnatic music or dance, the audience may focus on the beauty of the dancers’ moves or the sweetness of the singers’ voices. However, it takes the skill of a gifted mridangam player to make the experience complete.

This two-headed drum is the main rhythm instrument for Carnatic vocal concerts and Bharatyanam dance performances. “The live orchestra gives the dancer or singer a boost of energy and adds to the mood of the whole performance,” Ashwin shares, saying, “For example, when the dancer is trying to express sadness in a specific piece, the musician by the side of the stage has to be able to pick up the depth of the emotion and convey it to the audience.”

Getting Into the Rhythm

Being able to perceive such nuanced details during a live performance is the result of years of focused training combined with a natural sense of rhythm. Ashwin has been a part of the Isha Yoga Center since he moved here with his parents when he was five years old. “My father plays the mridangam a little, but mostly, living in the ashram infused a lot of rhythm in me. I was constantly listening to it and developed a passion for it.”

He joined the first batch of Isha Home School in 2005 and was pretty settled there. But a few years later, change was on the horizon: “When Isha Samskriti opened in 2008, my father wanted me to join. Initially, I strongly refused but finally agreed to a trial period of one year.”

The curriculum at Isha Samskriti turned out to be quite different compared to that of Isha Home School. Ashwin went from focusing on academics to learning the intricacies of Indian classical music and dance throughout the day. “Suddenly, I was doing music, Bharatyanam, and Kalaripayattu for long stretches of time. But we are so involved in the activity, constantly on a packed schedule that it feels like we started yesterday.”

Still vividly remembering the satsang in which Sadhguru introduced their batch and gave them the Isha Samskriti clothes, Ashwin shares, “I cherish this moment so much. It was a fresh start for me. Those 10 years since then just flew by and left me transformed.”

Shining From the Stage Side

Initially, Ashwin took all the subjects in Isha Samskriti, and eventually specialized in the mridangam. Talent is only the beginning when it comes to mastering an art form. Ashwin says, “I had a lot of nuances to learn because I am not doing solo drumming, which has a certain structure and approach to it.” While many artists’ ambition is to take center stage and be in the spotlight, Ashwin’s role is of a subtler nature, without which an Indian classical music performance would not be complete. His training involved practicing with musicians and dancers, learning to play with them in a way that creates a coherent harmonious experience for the audience.

Being on the side of the stage has its own challenges, and it requires one to be very perceptive and quick to respond. “For me, the most challenging part is playing as an accompaniment for a dance performance,” he shares, “because you are not there to play your own music – you are supporting the artist. At the same time, you bring out the beauty of the mridangam.” Rooted in his love and appreciation for the instrument, Ashwin sits with the other artists to get a feel of the composition, figure out the beat of the dance and the artists’ expression, and play according to that. “Music and dance should always be matching,” he says with a smile.

Always a Student

Starting from the basics of rhythm, which involve a lot of mathematics, Ashwin practices, calculates, and analyzes the patterns of sounds, silence, and emphasis until they become second nature to him. “After spending a lot of time on that,” he says, “if the singer or dancer is doing something unplanned, you have to grasp it quickly and play accordingly.” At Isha Samskriti, students organically grow into this process, as they are exposed to a variety of teachers with different expertise and approaches.

“When you are with a teacher in person, it is not that they teach something and you repeat it. You see everything they do, how they maintain the instrument, how they tune it, how they approach the piece they play. You observe and imbibe it,” Ashwin shares.

With a sensitivity and attention to the smallest details, even after completing his education at Isha Samskriti officially, he finds that learning in many different ways continues to be a part of his life. Remembering the nervous jitters of his first time on stage accompanying a music piece, Ashwin says, “The nervousness is still there a little, but it has come down, and the focus has come up. I always see how I can sharpen myself, be a little more refined. After I finish a performance, I always look back to see what I could have played better.”

Seeing performances as a chance to grow in his craft, he says with a glimmer of excitement in his eyes, “Every time I get on stage, it’s a new experience all together. It feels fresh every time.” Ashwin also keeps evolving his skill when performing with or listening to other mridangam artists. “After a certain stage, when you listen to a piece that you like, you will be able to see what the artist is doing, adapt it to your style, and play it. You don’t have to wait for somebody to teach it to you. In that sense, the process is evergreen and never-ending.”

Reaching Out to Keep Indian Classical Arts Alive

“In earlier times, the body of the mridangam was made out of mud, but it was later changed to wood as people’s way of life changed,” Ashwin explains. Today again, with the changing times, the signs point to change: this time in the way the art is transmitted, to reach larger audiences. As a part of the music module of Project Samskriti, Ashwin helped build the online lessons that bring Indian classical music to every corner of the globe.

“As this is not a live session where the reception is of a different nature, online, we have to be extra careful what we convey and how we convey it so that people get it.” The level of accomplishment in their art combined with their devotion to what they are doing allows the Isha Samskriti students and alumni to maintain the integrity of their art forms in the new medium.

Although the approach to teaching is changing, the content as such is the same since ancient times. “We can offer some of it to people who may not have the time to invest in it that much. Whatever we can teach, and whatever they can imbibe from it, is the only way we can preserve the art. We make an effort so that people see the beauty of it, and so that these art forms do not disappear.”