(MENAFN - Muscat Daily) It seemed almost a foregone conclusion that Kuzhalmannam Ramakrishnan would find his calling in music.
Rhythm had come to him early. At the daily evening ''concerts'' at home, where his mother and sisters would sing.
At his father's feet, listening as his fingers drummed timbered notes out of his mridangam (a traditional percussive instrument). The pampered youngest child, doted on by five older sisters, Ramakrishnan preferred carefree play to demanding tutorials and long practices after school. ''I would even cry at times during the practice sessions,'' he said.
''I was not very interested. It was my father who was determined to make a musician of me. ''The part I played in my becoming the artiste I am now is negligible. I owe everything to my father.'' And so the practices went on. And the recognition came. A state-level award while still in school. A big deal for his small village in the south Indian state of Kerala, but its import was lost on the teenager who thought his playing ''just a hobby''.
The worries of his middle-class upbringing weighed heavy. ''Being the only son and, with a sister still to be married, I was going to work after graduating. My father convinced me not to.''
Some 30 years on, Ramakrishnan is a record-setting mridangam exponent who brings the sonorous yet somehow still subtle pleasures of his art to crowds bigger and more far-flung than his first audiences at home. Earlier this week, he made his first visit to Muscat.
But in those early years, it was steady, if unspectacular, going on the concert circuit, and Ramakrishnan was content to hone his skills in the security of anonymity. ''I didn't think I could incorporate my culture and tradition into the instrument and I wasn't bothered about doing anything more.''
That changed in 2004, when he had to watch his sister suffer from and finally succumb to lung cancer. He wanted to honour her memory through music. ''I wanted to do something that people would talk about. And when they did, they would think of her.''
For a day and half, accompanied by 130 vocalists, Ramakrishnan played the mridangam without pause. His first marathon performance.
A year later, against medical advice, he would set the bar higher, frenetically doling out beats in a 101-hour concert over five days. He had set a Guinness World Record for the longest solo performance on a hand drum but couldn't remember doing it. ''It seemed at times that my hands have a mind of their own. They were not following the orders my tired brain was sending them. After the first three days, I was in a different world, completely unaware of what was going on around me. People were setting off firecrackers in celebration and I didn't even know what notes I played.''
The Guinness regulations allowed for only a 15-minute break after every eight continuous hours of play, during which he would seek medical treatment for the pain shooting up his back and the angry blisters on his hands. He would revisit that trance-like state two more times in the years to come.
In 2008, his performance clocked in at 301 hours over a period of nearly two weeks. The ''longest hand drum performance'' ever and it was considerably easier, he said, than the first time. A revision of the rules allowed for a 20-minute break every four hours C if only after the first 100. ''I was just thinking about harmonising the rhythm of my playing with the heartbeats of those watching it. Everything has its own pre-set rhythms and it's easier to communicate with the audience through rhythm than music. When people clap in tune with the rhythm, it's an indication that they are enjoying it.''
In this way, he said, it's a way to bridge hearts and cross divides. That was the rationale for his idea for ''rhythm therapy'' as a way of using the heartbeats of the musician and his instrument to heal the audience.
An idea he first tested out at the hospital where his sister died. Over three weeks in 2009, near five years after her passing, Ramakrishnan put on a 501-hour performance for both patients and the general public. It is, and will likely remain, the longest solo performance by an artiste. The spotlight brought out as many accusations as accolades. Charges of commercialising and cheapening music were thrown, but, Ramakrishnan contends, the marathons ''just happened''.
''I did not learn or practice the mridangam with the idea of achieving a Guinness world record. That would not have been why I attempted the performances four times in spite of the physical hardships.'' That motivation has gone, he said, rejecting the possibility of another attempt.
''Today, I usually perform for two hours (the performance here lasted 15 minutes) but it doesn't matter how long you are performing. All that matters is if you are able to win the hearts of the people