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Meet the Japanese thavil player

By Shobha Warrier
Last updated on: October 21, 2015 20:10 IST
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'I like talking in Tamil, and I enjoy eating thayir sadam (curd rice), dosa and idli. My dream is to play at the Margazhi Dance and Music Festival in Chennai, which is held in December. If I make enough money from sangeetham, I will stop working in companies. After all sangeetham is my life.'

Hidenori Ish talks to Shobha Warrier/ about his fascinating journey from a small town in Japan to Tamil Nadu, for the love of music.

It is funny talking to a Japanese person in Tamil, but then Hidenori Ishi is almost like a true Tamilian now. He can speak Tamil way better than English; he enjoys eating idli and dosa; and dreams that someday he'd perform at Chennai's Margazhi Festival. Being fluent in Tamil, he also prefers the interview to be done in Tamil.

Music indeed has no boundaries, and Ishi's story bears witness to how music can truly alter a person's life. In 2007, he made Tamil Nadu his home, and since then there has been no turning back.

He learnt the local language, travelled to unknown places in search of a guru, and also learnt to play kanjira and thavil. Today Ishi has a job with the Customer Service Department of Nippon Express (India), and when he is not working, you'll spot him playing thavil and kanjira at temples and at marriages. Despite his father's objection, Ishi continues to live in India and presently has no plans of returning home, as sangeetham is his life now.

The inspiring musical journey of 33-year-old Ishi from Japan to Chennai is one filled with awe and wonder.

Growing up in Japan

'I grew up in Kamakura, a small town which was once the capital of Japan. It is famous for its Zen Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines. My family consists of my grandparents, who are farmers, and my parents. My father worked in a government department, while my mother is a housewife.

'Though there are no musicians in my family, I was drawn to music because of a close friend, Kohei Ueda, who plays the guitar and the mandolin beautifully. Back in school, Ueda used to have musical concerts in our city, and I never missed a single concert of his. Fascinated by the musical instruments Ueda played, I wanted to join his band. However, back then I couldn't afford to buy a musical instrument, and my dream remained unfulfilled.

Lessons in English

'Ueda and I were so crazy about music that the news of an American band performing at the Hawaiian Islands prompted us to make a trip there. It was my first trip abroad, and I didn't know a single word of English then. Though we had a great time there, we found it difficult to communicate with people. We then decided to learn English, and the very next year, in 2003, Ueda and I headed to Canada. We were there for a year with a working visa so that we could work and also learn English at the same time.

'Armed with a working knowledge of English, we decided to visit India. After all, it is the land of Buddha, and we have so many Buddhist temples back home. We had heard many stories about India from friends. Then, I started reading about India and the places to see.

The Indian Chapter

'In 2005, we landed in Delhi, but our first experience was not a pleasant one. It was night and we had to go to the railway station to board a train for Goa. We were looking out for a bus to take us to the station when a person approached us and offered to drop us to the railway station for the same price. We agreed, but they took us to a hotel instead. When we protested, they said there were no trains headed to Goa at that hour. Obviously they were lying. We were dropped to the railway station, but we ended up paying more than we would have paid as bus fare!

'We then travelled to Goa, Agra, Mumbai and also visited Ajanta and Ellora caves in Aurangabad. When we were in Mumbai, we heard that (Ustad) Zakir Hussain was performing. He has performed in Japan, but we never had the good fortune to hear him live. Not wanting to miss the opportunity, we attended the performance which was brilliant; I still remember every moment of it!

'From Mumbai, we went to Kashi (Varanasi). A visit to a music school there got us interested in learning to play the tabla. That was the first music class I ever attended. Apart from the classes, I also looked forward to the delicious Bengali food of rice and fish served at the lodge where we were staying.

'Two-and-a-half months later, I returned home and decided to join Ueda's band as a part-time tabla player.

Chennai Bound

'I had carried a few of Zakir Hussain concert DVDs to watch once back home. In one of the DVDs, I saw V Selvaganesh playing the kanjira. It was so mesmerising to watch him! I wanted to return to India and learn to play the instrument. So, I started saving money for my next trip. At that time, my parents had no complaints about me travelling to India.

'By 2007, I had saved enough to visit Chennai. Unfortunately, in January, when I landed, Selvaganesh's school was closed for Pongal. Thankfully, one day I visited a kacheri and saw Madipakkam Gopal Krishna playing the kanjira there. It was the first time that I heard the kanjira live. At that time, I didn't know it was a rare instrument and not many people played it.

'Drawn to the kanjira, I got Madipakkam Gopal Krishna to train me. For the next six months, until my visa expired, I stayed in a lodge and went to his house every day to learn the kanjira.

'Later, when I returned with a fresh visa, I made Selvaganesh my guru,and I studied under his guidance till April 2008. I used to practise for five-six hours daily. Selvaganesh gave me plenty of opportunities to play the kanjira at kacheris in temples, which boosted my confidence. By the time I left his place, I was quite articulate in Tamil! Through Selvaganesh, I got introduced to Triplicane K Sekar, and I started learning the thavil from him. Now, I play more thavil than kanjira.

Studying at a College for the First Time

'As the money I had saved was almost exhausted, I decided to return home. Before heading back, I made a trip to the green city of Thanjavur and Chidambaram to visit the temples there. There I met Thanjavur T R Govindarajan, who was a professor at the Thiruvaiyaru Music College. Hearing about my interest in music, he asked me to enrol for a three-year course to play thavil.

'That was the first time I attended a college as I had begun working soon after my schooling.

In India Again!

'After getting my diploma in May 2011 I returned home. However, my heart belonged to India. I had not learnt how to play the keertana on thavil, and I yearned to play more. However, this time, my father wasn't happy with me returning to India. However, I had made up my mind.

'Back in India, I went to Chidambaram. I joined the Annamalai University to learn under the guidance of Thirukadaiyur G Babu.

'In 2014, I got a degree, and by then I had learnt to play the keertana quite well.

Living It up the Local Way

'Now, I have a 9-5 job in Chennai. Early mornings and weekends are dedicated to playing the thavil at temples and at weddings. I like talking in Tamil, and I enjoy eating thayir sadam (curd rice), dosa and idli. My dream is to play at the Margazhi Dance and Music Festival in Chennai, which is held in December. If I make enough money from sangeetham, I will stop working in companies. After all sangeetham is my life.

'I'm not sure how long I'll stay in Chennai, nor do I know what the future holds for me. However, one thing is certain, thavil will always be a part of my life!'

Photographs: Ramesh Damodaran

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Shobha Warrier / in Chennai