I thought of writing this yesterday, when I was in discussion with one of my colleagues. We were discussing the challenges of being a classical musician on a stage.
We have seen how original a main performer (be it vocal or instrumental) can be in his/her concert. Since they are the directors of the concert, they choose the raagaas, the kritis, and they can choose the pace and decide its duration. To put it short, the main artiste has the maximum freedom on a stage.
The situation is not very different for the main percussion support (E.g., Mridanga). They can stick to their own style of play and manage a kriti (composition) even if they do not know it, by just following the TaaLa.
The same cannot be said of a violin or a upa pakkavaadya (supporting percussion). A violinist is expected to follow the main artiste in all of his/her endeavors on the stage. Here, following will be from swara to swara (note to note). They are expected to be the shadow of the main artiste; not to dominate the main artiste; repeat whatever the main artiste does promptly and many other things. In the process, they face the challenge of “not crossing the line”. They cannot be themselves. (Although, following the main artiste promptly is an identity within itself, it also curbs the spontaneity of a violinist). If they do not know a kriti, then the situation becomes much tougher. Good performers somehow manage a good show.
It is a rarity that a Mridangam player would not know a common TaaLa. They have the freedom to play what they want during a Thani Aavarthana. They can always ask questions (through their play) to a Khanjira/Ghata/Morsing player (supporting percussionists). They decide what route the solo performance would take. The supporting percussionists always need to be alert and should be able to pick up what a Mridangist plays within no time. The situation becomes much harder when the styles of play (lesson structures) are drastically different. Again, good performers manage a tough situation by taking a minimalist approach or by keeping it brief. Some of the best supporting performers not only answer the questions asked by the Mridangist but also (very politely) question back.
Many a times the challenges of being a supporting artiste are underestimated by both experts as well as public. In many ways, being a main artiste is easier than being an artiste who adds value by a supporting (meaningful, tactful, uncompromising and respectful) participation in a classical concert. The main performer and the main percussionist have the challenge of doing justice to the freedom they enjoy. The supporting artistes have the freedom to add value and to do justice to their challenge. Do you see any difference between the two?