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Magical fingers

Print edition : December 11, 2015

Umayalpuram K. Sivaraman.

Umayalpuram K. Sivaraman at a concert in ChennaI. Photo: K.V. Srinivasan

Receiving the Padma Vibhushan from President Pratibha Patil in New Delhi on April 7, 2010. Photo: Rajeev Bhatt

At four, playing the khanjira. Photo: By Special Arrangement

By the time he was 16, he had accompanied many great musicians. Photo: By Special Arrangement

In a concert with Madurai Mani Iyer. Photo: By Special Arrangement

With G.N. Balasubramaniam. Photo: BY SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

Accompanying Dwaram Venkataswamy Naidu. Photo: BY SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

Magical moments, with N. Ramani (flute) and Lalgudi Jayaraman (violin).

On the stage, with M. Balamuralikrishna. Photo: BY SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

Playing it for Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer. Photo: By Special Arrangement

With R.K. Srikantan. Photo: BY SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

Along with Chembai Vaidyanatha Bhagavathar. Photo: BY SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

With Ravi Shankar and Allah Rakha. Photo: By Special Arrangement

With Martin Luther King Jr and CPI(M) leader M.A. Baby (centre). Photo: BY SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

Flanked by Zakir Hussain and Sivamani. Photo: BY SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

Jugalbandi with the Manganiar folk singers from Rajasthan. Photo: N. Sridharan

With composer Ilaiyaraja. Photo: BY SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

At 80, mridangam vidwan Umayalpuram K. Sivaraman is as committed to his art as ever. The veteran of more than six decades on the concert stage has rewritten the standards of the art he practises.

ON the concert stage, his is an elegant presence, seated with his back ramrod straight, legs folded at the knees, the mridangam in front of them a virtual extension of his anatomy, and his forehead generously streaked with vibhuti ash centred by a kungkumam dot. Dressed immaculately in a spotless veshti and short-sleeved shirt or kurta, often of a bright shade, he presents an arresting profile, a picture of concentration, yet with the suggestion of a twinkle, a seemingly avuncular warmth in his eye, as he silently communicates with the main performer of the evening, usually a vocalist.

When he announces his presence with his first resonant thump—after what seems like an interminable wait while he absorbs the song with total focus—the concert really comes to life. After that, every stroke of his nimble fingers is a delight unto itself, ever embellishing the music on offer, never drowning it in its amplitude. An object lesson in how to mimic the gait of sung music by coaxing his mridangam to transcend metronomic precision to virtually sing along, this veteran of more than six decades on the concert stage has rewritten the standards of the art he practises.

For decades now, devotees of the mridangam artistry of Umayalpuram K. Sivaraman have been thronging concert halls to listen to this so-called accompanist, regardless of the lead musician he is accompanying. It would be more accurate to describe his performances as concerts by mridangam vidwan Umayalpuram Sivaraman accompanied by the vocalist or instrumentalist.

Carnatic music has always had mridangam vidwans and other percussion artists of high calibre. If a 50-year period in the last century was dominated by the genius of Palghat T.S. Mani Iyer and other greats like Palani Subramania Pillai, the recent decades straddling two centuries have produced a few giants too, with Umayalpuram K. Sivaraman in the top rung. He is among the most decorated practitioners of his art, with the Sangita Kalanidhi and the Padma Vibhushan being the most prestigious honours of his career.

His wizardry on the south Indian drum has enhanced the quality of Carnatic music cutcheris of successive generations of artists, including the latest crop of young musicians. One of them, Sikkil Gurucharan, who is among the brightest vocal talents in the field, marvels at how Sivaraman “has experienced different phases in the evolution of Carnatic music through four generations, still raring to go and enthusiastically adapting to the changing times, without altering the core brilliance of the art form but showing us how tradition can be made interestingly creative and enjoyable to both the commoner and the connoisseur”.

His airy, brightly lit house on Rangachari Road, Mylapore, gives the impression of being a welcoming haven for music lovers and musicians, especially those fascinated by the sound of rhythm. He is a painstaking, articulate teacher, a researcher and innovator in the art and science of mridangam-making—with his fibreglass mridangam an original contribution—and a tireless explorer of the mystic elements of sound. His students include women (khanjira artist Lata Ramachar, and versatile young mridangist Rajna Swaminathan, for example) and at least one Dalit Christian in Arun Kumaresh (whose father, Thanjai Johnson, has made mridangams for Sivaraman for decades), over and above the many other boys and men he has trained in his rigorous school.

According to one disciple, R. Ram Kumar, Sivaraman constantly stresses the importance of the aesthetics of sound production, the resonance of nada, sharing with his disciples the secrets of his technique which minimises physical strain. “The patterns he composes and plays, however complex, are aurally so pleasing that they appeal to the entire spectrum of rasikas—from novices to connoisseurs,” he says. United States-based Rajna Swaminathan, whom Sivaraman taught for six years when she was a schoolgirl, lauds her guru’s magnanimity that allowed her to make her own decisions as a performing mridangist in the U.S. once he felt he had taught her all he could. He set her free to pursue her options, which included collaborative work with musicians from outside the Carnatic tradition. For someone steeped in tradition, Sivaraman has a playful side, according to her. “For him, music is, at its core, spiritual practice, and spirituality is a source of endless joy. This joy manifests itself in the nada that he holds so sacred, in the emotional expressivity that makes his playing so introspective and dynamic.”

Turning 80 this December, and still an energetic practitioner of his art, Sivaraman enjoys accompanying young musicians. He prepares meticulously for every concert, interacting in advance with the main performer, even recommending his choice of songs or ragas to be performed. His periodic quality checks of his many mridangams ensure that they are always in top shape. He arrives at the concert hall sufficiently early to acclimatise himself to the facilities, even checking the distance between the green room and the washroom so that he can reach the stage in perfect time before the concert. He is in a relaxed frame of mind, chatting with the volunteers, cracking a joke or two with them. At the concert, he closely observes every nuance of the main performer of the day. He encourages young upa pakka vadya artistes (accompanists) like Shreesundar Kumar (khanjira) and Giridhar Udupa (ghatam), who for all their reverence for him, can challenge his competitive instincts in concerts. He continues to be the complete professional.

Formative years

Sivaraman was born to Dr P. Kasi Viswanatha Iyer and Kamalambal on December 17, 1935, at Kumbakonam, where the family had moved from Umayalpuram, a village in the Cauvery delta and home to several musicians during the 19th and 20th centuries.

A medical doctor, Kasi Viswanatha Iyer counted a number of musicians among his patients and was a vocalist and violinist himself—a disciple of a disciple of the legendary violinist Tirukodikaval Krishna Iyer, who was a guru to many greats.

The doctor’s residence constantly reverberated with the sound of music, provided by Viswanatha Iyer’s musician friends. The soirees on the balcony of the house had one regular listener in little Sivaraman, whose constant drumming led his grandmother to buying him a khanjira. With his father actively encouraging Sivaraman’s interest in percussion, the boy soon graduated to a bigger instrument in the mridangam.

Sivaraman was unusually fortunate in the way his musical career was shaped by his parents and by family circumstances. In time he had four great and illustrious teachers in Arupathi Natesa Iyer, Thanjavur Vaidyanatha Iyer, Kumbakonam Rangu Iyengar, and his gurubhai—as they say in Hindustani music—Palghat T.S. Mani Iyer, who was himself a disciple of Vaidyanatha Iyer.

The Thanjavur school of mridangam playing that follows the principles that Vaidyanatha Iyer (1897-1947) established has been one of two streams dominant in south Indian percussion, while the other equally famous branch has been the Pudukottai school, pioneered by the much-revered khanjira maestro Dakshinamurti Pillai (1875-1936). Palghat Mani Iyer has been the most celebrated inheritor of the Thanjavur percussion tradition, while the left-handed mridangam artist Palani Subramania Pillai has been the undoubted leader of those owing allegiance to the Pudukottai bani of percussion.

Arupathi Natesa Iyer taught little Sivaraman for the first seven years. At age 10, the boy had his arangetram at the Kalahastiswara Swami temple at Kumbakonam, accompanying Srinivasa (or Sona) Iyengar (vocal) and Vedaranyam Krishnamurthy Iyer (violin). His next guru, Thanjavur Vaidyanatha Iyer, approved the early training Sivaraman had received from Natesa Iyer.

“This boy’s fingering is great. Arupathi Natesa Iyer has indeed done a tremendous job of teaching this young lad,” Vaidyanatha Iyer said while accepting the boy as his disciple. He “opened the floodgates of knowledge”, in Sivaraman’s own words.

When Vaidyanatha Iyer died in April 1947, leaving Sivaraman feeling orphaned, the boy had a lucky break while being a student at the Ramakrishna Mission School in Madras (now Chennai) in getting accepted by Palghat Mani Iyer as his disciple. Sivaraman never forgot his father’s advice that he must be an intelligent listener of music, at once asking questions and introspecting deep within.

He observed Mani Iyer’s mridangam playing carefully and internalised his unique strokes and fingering technique. This quality in the young student greatly impressed the teacher who let him return to Kumbakonam with his blessings. Dr Viswanatha Iyer once again made a wise intervention by deputing Sivaraman to Rangu Iyengar of nearby village Saakottai for advanced training in accompaniment for pallavi rendering.

Sivaraman made rapid progress as a concert mridangam vidwan, accompanying many great artists even before he turned 15. The impressive list included the names of Embar Vijayaraghavachari, Sathur Subramaniam, Maharajapuram Viswanatha Iyer, Musiri Subramania Iyer and Madurai Mani Iyer.

Recovering from the big blow of his mother’s death when he was barely 16, Sivaraman resumed training with Palghat Mani Iyer, then living at Thanjavur, but soon moved to Madras following his guru’s advice, to launch his concert career properly.

The shift to Madras in 1951 brought not only concert opportunities but also vocal lessons from Kallidaikurichi Mahadeva Bhagavatar and the generosity of several young musicians who sang for him at home to enable him to practise accompaniment. These included the likes of P.S. Narayanaswami, V.R. Krishnan, Chingleput Ranganathan, AIR Kannan and Palghat Subramania Iyer. Each of them influenced Sivaraman’s aesthetics and good taste, making him an ideal accompanist who knew when to decorate and when to desist.

All along, Sivaraman was gaining a formal education as well, completing his B.A. and B.L. degrees while expanding his knowledge of music theory under the guidance of another generous soul—Sivasubramaniya Ayya, a violinist.

Armed with a postgraduate education, Sivaraman now decided to focus entirely on his mridangam career. Developing an original new technique that enabled him to produce the most musical sounds with his instrument, he became one of the most sought-after accompanists of all time, arguably the greatest exponent of his art after the Mani Iyer-Palani era.

In his long and distinguished career, he has accompanied almost every artist of note—Ariyakudi, Musiri, Palladam Sanjeeva Rao, Chowdiah, Rajamanickam Pillai, Papa Venkataramiah, Dwaram Venkataswami Naidu, Mudicondan Venkatarama Iyer, GNB, Madurai Mani Iyer, Maharajapuram Viswanatha Iyer and Santhanam, Alathur Brothers, Chembai, Semmangudi, Balamuralikrishna, Nedunuri, Voleti, Balachander, Mali, and almost every young vidwan of today—not to mention some of tomorrow, if we include the number of child prodigies he encourages on stage. He has also been an enthusiastic participant in jugalbandi and fusion efforts with percussionists south Indian, north Indian and Western, jazz and classical. He even played an outstanding mridangam track in a Tamil film.

Hallmarks of artistry

The stalwart veena player Mysore V. Doreswamy Iyengar once attributed to Sivaraman’s knowledge of vocal music his capacity to stimulate the main musician to come out with his best. “Clarity of ideas, form and the ease with which he puts across the most complicated teermanam-s, are the hallmarks of his mridanga artistry,” he said.

The late veteran vocalist R.K. Srikantan praised Sivaraman’s unique style based on a “combination of theka-s, gumki-s, and solkattu-s played with absolute perfection, felicity and abandon which suits any vocalist, tala or kriti add an entirely new dimension and lustre to the concert as a whole and make it a fresh experience.”

“His soft and deft strokes intelligently mixed with sudden loud bursts and meaningful intermittent pauses which remind one of the great Mani Iyer’s playing is another example of his dazzling technique which is as thought-provoking as it is fascinating.” Sivaraman is well known for his research in the art of mridangam and for his lecture demonstrations. He has collaborated with scientists and innovators to make better mridangams. He has written extensively on his art.

As he approaches the age of 80, Sivaraman is as active, and as committed to his art, as ever. Sikkil Gurucharan hails “his steadfast focus, unblemished devotion to music, unfaltering stance on stage and a large-hearted nature to accompany youngsters”. He quotes him as saying, “Believe in your music and music will never let you down.” Umayalpuram K. Sivaraman is living proof of the bounty music can bestow on such a true believer.

V. Ramnarayan is editor-in-chief, Sruti , a leading monthly from Chennai on the performing arts.

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