Master Musicians : Kanjira Ganesh

Natarajan Ganesh Kumar, very popularly and affectionately known as Kanjira Ganesh has undeniably immortalized the Kanjira, a tiny frame drum from South India and placed it on the pedestal that it belongs.


On the eve of his 53rd birthday, we decided to ask him what his 5 decade long journey looks like from his own perspective.

Q : At what age did music ‘happen’ to you ?

A : Music was always around, consciously or unconsciously. Having been closely associated with Vikkuji and my Guru T.H. Subhash Chandran, I took up music very early on. It was a very logical progression of events for me to have been interested in learning an instrument. I started at the age of 7 !

Q : You spoke about international drummers being worried about the complexities of the drum, what do you mean by that ?

A : As someone who learned under the maestros and was lucky enough to find full time guidance for all the instruments, I took up the Mridangam. The Mridangam is the mother drum for Carnatic percussion and it is very difficult to master. I can very well compare this to pursuing a degree in medicine. After five or six tedious years of practice and theory, you finally get to choose what you want to master in, Cardiology, Pediatrics, and Oncology… All of which are equally grueling and demanding but eventually you get something priceless. I began my basic training under the guidance of percussion maestro Shri T R Hari Hara Sharma and learned the Mridangam for over 8 years. I learned the Ghatam, Konnakol and also the Kanjira. After understanding the technique for all these, I decided to move on with the Kanjira.

I had the access to these great maestros and hence I had the good fortune of learning under them. But not everyone is as fortunate as me and people are afraid to pick up the Kanjira which looks like a small drum. But they are eventually astonished by the capacity that this drum can demonstrate which can be a little daunting.

Q : One can’t help but wonder, why did you choose the Kanjira ?

A : Can you imagine being able to produce an enormous range of sounds from one instrument ?

And then that one instrument is a tiny 7 inch drum that fits into one hand ? I remember having heard my seniors and their gurus perform in concerts and I was completely blown away from the tremendous range that this instrument can display. In the beginning of the 80’s there were very few musicians who took the Kanjira seriously. You know, the best example I can give you is that the Kanjira is like a curry leaf in a grand feast of music. If you look at it, its nothing, but if you observe carefully, you cannot deny that it packs a punch !

Traditionally, the Kanjira has been an “Upa pakka Vadyam” which is a musical instrument mostly used for accompaniments with the Mridangam. So, when I requested my Guru for guidance, he suggested that I take up the Kanjira which fit perfectly in my plans.  

Q : You took the Kanjira on an international platform. What were the difficulties you faced while you were struggling with this? Were there any doubts?

A : I became a professional musician and began performing with the stalwarts in the mid 80’s to the late 90s. No one played the Kanjira back then. Well, not no one. Very few people played it. Over this 15 year span, I have had so many experiences of all kinds. I remember being asked to travel in the second class coaches while the main players travelled in the luxury coaches. I remember being allotted Non A.C. rooms while the others stayed in A.C. rooms while travelling abroad. This made me feel embarrassed at first. By the divine grace, around early 2000’s I got the Fulbright scholarship which turned my life upside down. I got to travel across the US and I went to various universities and met so many great percussionists, Jazz players, vocalists.

One incident I remember from 2002, very vividly is that I was waiting to present my Kanjira at a prestigious music institute and the drummer before me was very intimidating. He had this gigantic collection of drums and I was to follow him after his performance. When I walked on the stage with one 7 inch drum which anyone could easily slip into a backpack, people laughed at the naivety of a musician from India.  After the first 20 minutes of my performance, no one was laughing. I was able to replicate everything the drummer did on one 7 INCH drum which I held in the palm of my hand. The texture, the sound, the minute technique and the mathematics involved in the playing of the drum were all very overwhelmingly impressive to the listener. That day, after I saw the faces of a stunned audience, I think every doubt from my mind disappeared.

Q : So, how did the “Art of Kanjira” come to be ?

A : Internationally, there were very few Indian Kanjira players back then. I released the Art of Kanjira because it was a necessity back then. People viewed the Kanjira as an instrument with a very constricted range. I wanted to change that. We released the DVD and then I got worried whether the people will receive it the way it was meant to be. Surprisingly, everyone who came across it, began to approach me for in depth training for the Kanjira which was a very heartening sign for the future of the instrument.

Q : What advice would you give the younger musicians ?

A : I’ll just tell them not to think so much before they choose the Kanjira. It’s easy to just dive into it and go with the flow. No point in waiting for a right moment. The Kanjira has the power to grasp one’s attention and can produce some wonderful music which is unparalleled. Be involved in the art fully and learn the intricacies.

Q : You turn another year older in two days, what are the aspirations for the next year ?


A : For traveling musicians like, the years just come and go, the days just follow through one after the other. It’s difficult to keep track, but as this year ends and the new year begins, by God’s grace, I hope that better things will keep coming. I look forward to making new and exciting collaborations, travel across the world and give the Kanjira its due by taking it to new and unimagined heights! 

---As told to a UGM representative.