Rohan Krishnamurthy’s future called at the age of eight.
Like most kids that age, Rohan (who would go on to graduate from K (2008) with majors in chemistry and music) spent time on the telephone. But he wasn’t chatting with friends about homework, school or sports. He was on speaker with a music professor 1,000 miles away, learning how to play the mridangam, a classical 2,000-year-old South Indian drum.
The eventual pay-off? Today Rohan is one of the most prominent musicians in Indian and world music, and a leading composer, entrepreneur and educator.
Growing up in a musical family, Krishnamurthy became intrigued with his father’s mridangam at a young age. His father had purchased the drum in India with hopes of learning to play the complex instrument.
The mridangam, Rohan explains, is typically made from a hollowed piece of jackwood whose two ends are covered with three different leathers and a special rock paste. Its rhythm system is thought to be one of the most complex of any form of classical music. To create the unique layers of pitched and unpitched sounds, percussionists tap both ends of the conga-like instrument with specific fingers.
“It’s an incredibly versatile instrument where you get an entire drum set’s worth of sounds from one drum,” Rohan says.
His parents appreciated and supported his interest in the ancient instrument but weren’t sure how far he’d end up pursuing it.
“Nobody thought I would take up the mridangam seriously,” he says. “I sometimes wonder why I took it so seriously at such a young age. It honestly was something beyond words that attracted me to it.”
His early lessons intensified his interest. After a few months, however, his teacher, Damodaran Srinivasan, was transferred and moved nearly 1,000 miles away. With no other mridangam professors within 300 miles, Srinivasan, who saw something special in his young student, suggested they learn over the telephone. The unconventional speaker phone lessons proved to be successful and continued for more than a year.
“There were lots of days when I practiced five to six hours,” Rohan says. “My first teacher really had a vision for me and I credit him for putting me on this path.”
Rohan’s unorthodox journey to mastering the mridangam continued with lessons from one of India’s most esteemed mridangam professors and performers— Guruvayur Dorai. Rohan met the mridangam maestro when he was performing in the United States. Impressed by Rohan’s talent and commitment, he offered to teach him when he and his family visited India. In the summer of 1997, Rohan traveled to Chennai to begin lessons. The relationship continues two decades later—with meetings occurring whenever Rohan travels to India and when Dorai performs in the United States.
The lessons and dedication to his craft paid off. Before beginning his studies at Kalamazoo College as a Heyl Scholar, Krishnamurthy had performed hundreds of concerts internationally, sharing the stage with Grammy Award-winning artists of Indian classical and world music, symphony orchestras and jazz bands, and racking up numerous international awards and accolades along the way.
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At K, the chem-and-music double major was able to continue his cross-continental musical endeavors while taking classes because of “the supportive mentors and faculty,” he says. “They were so accommodating. I could not have done everything that I did during those four years at almost any other school.”
For example, his academic schedule needed to be flexible enough to give a concert for the leader of the second most populous nation on the planet. Between his junior and senior years, when most of his peers were focused on Senior Individualized Projects, Rohan was preparing to play for Dr. Abdul Kalam, president of India. He traveled with his dad to New Delhi to the presidential office and estate where he gave a private performance and had a one-on-one meeting with the Indian leader.
At K, Rohan was named to USA Today’s All College Academic Second Team, a national award that profiles exceptional undergraduates from the across the United States. He was the only student selected from Michigan, the only student to be recognized for musical accomplishments and the first student ever selected from Kalamazoo College.
After graduating magna cum laude, he continued his education at the University of Rochester’s famed Eastman School of Music where he earned two master’s degrees (musicology and ethnomusicology) and his Ph.D (musicology). During his graduate school days, he founded and directed a popular percussion ensemble and continued to perform around the globe.
Rohan’s enthusiasm for the mridangam has extended beyond performing. In 2010 he designed and patented a new drumhead tuning system that won him first place in Eastman’s New Venture Challenge entrepreneurship competition. He now manufactures and distributes the RohanRhythm deluxe drums all over the world.
Since 2014 he has been sharing his passion for Indian music with others—teaching music theory and ethnomusicology as well as directing the Ohlone Hand Drumming and Indian Rhythm Ensemble at Ohlone College in the San Francisco Bay Area. His recent projects include a summer performance and lecture tour of Germany and recording a new soundtrack for Disney’s The Jungle Book live show.
Yet, just like his original teacher, Rohan also makes time to educate students outside the college classroom, with the help of modern technology.
The now antiquated speaker phone has been replaced by the award-winning RohanRhythm Percussion Studio, an online musical studio that uses state-of-the-art digital technology to teach students of all ages and skill levels around the world the art of South Indian drumming and cross-genre musicianship.
“I’ve had the opportunity to work with dozens of students from four different continents, everyone from children to professional musicians and music professors ranging in age from two to 70,” Rohan says. “It’s quite remarkable to consider how far music education has come.”
He hopes that he and his students, together, can help preserve, promote, and advance the traditions of the 2,000-year-old instrument for generations to come.