Music prof’s new book teaches the South Indian art of konnakkol

It is a human urge to imitate percussive sounds, says York music Professor Trichy Sankaran, whose new book, The Art of Konnakkol (Solkattu), delves into the rhythmic spoken syllables of south Indian drumming.

A master percussionist, Sankaran wrote the book and used selections from his albums Laya Vinyas and Catch 21 on the accompanying CD to outline and demonstrate the principal rhythmic concepts of konnakkol. He will launch the book on Thursday, May 27, at 8pm with a short concert along with members of Autorickshaw (featuring his daughter and York grad Suba Sankaran) and other special guests at The Music Gallery, 197 John St., Toronto. A reception will follow. Admission is free.

Konnakkol is the art of reciting drum syllables (solkattu). “Sol” means syllable and “kattu” means group, says Sankaran, who is a master of the south Indian drum, the mrdangam. “All the patterns played on the drum can be translated into spoken words. You can verbalize what you play and play what you verbalize. It can go both ways. These rhythms are structured and arranged in highly complex and comprehensive ways.”

Learning the art of konnakkol can enhance anyone’s rhythmic skills, he says, and not just a drummer’s –  it can help a vocalist, instrumentalist, composer or dancer improve their sense of rhythm. The book outlines the principal rhythmic concepts and contains numerous exercises and compositions suited for the beginners as well as the advanced. In addition, there are 42 tracks on the accompanying CD corresponding to different chapters and lessons.

This is Sankaran’s second major publication; both are instructional, as it is his goal to teach others and keep the art form alive. He was a pioneer in introducing konnakkol as a university course back when he first started teaching at York in 1971. Since then, other colleges and universities have followed suit. “Students have appreciated it and have immensely benefited by learning to adapt to their own instruments,” says Sankaran, a recipient of the Ontario Confederation of University Faculty Associations Award for teaching excellence and the Professional of the Year Award by the Indo-Canada Chamber of Commerce for artistic excellence.

 Left: Trichy Sankaran performing. Photo by Greg King.

Konnakkol has been widely used in the film and music industries in India in one form or the other. But it doesn’t stop there. “It has far-reaching effects. It’s a great art form,” says Sankaran. "Many artists are fascinated by these drumming syllables and this has really attracted many musicians from around the world. From simple counting to conceptualizing musical ideas to creating musical compositions, the konnokkal has played a major role.”

In his research in York’s Faculty of Fine Arts, Sankaran has traced the history and origin of konnakkol back to 2nd century treatise Natya Sastra. "This work is a dramaturgy dealing with dance, drama and music. So from the beginning solkattu has been part of drama, dance and music,” he says. The history of konnakkol is explained in detail in the book to give the readers a better idea of the context of the art form.

Indian music is essentially based on oral tradition and so there is no formal notation. Sankaran, however, has created a notation to help preserve the traditional way of playing the drum so students in the West who are used to reading music would better understand it. “That way they learn the fingering and hand techniques in the proper way, and so it won’t get changed along the way,” he says.

Sankaran, recipient of an honorary doctorate from the University of Victoria in 1998 in recognition of his contributions to music in Canada and abroad, has performed many concerts with leading Indian musicians and has given numerous solo recitals. He has also played with jazz, electronic, African and world music ensembles besides his own fusion band, Trichy’s Trio. He has also composed works for various ensembles. His recordings include Laya Vinyas (1990), Sunada (1993), Lotus Signatures (1997), Ivory Ganesh Meets Doctor Drums (1998) and Catch 21 (2002).

For more information, to purchase a copy of The Art of Konnakkol, to listen to or watch the art form being performed, visit Trichy Sankaran‘s Web site.

By Sandra McLean, YFile writer