For kutcheri regulars it must have constituted a record of sorts to witness a sizeable section of the audience remaining seated, awaiting the start (yes, the start) of the main program at well past 9 p.m. Although the speeches and reminiscences at the centenary celebrations of mridangam vidwan Palghat T.S. Mani Iyer that evening drew to a close later than expected, the usual 8.30 pm exodus did not happen. Instead, the air at the Music Academy was abuzz with anticipation as music enthusiasts settled in for a short wait during the brief interval needed to set the stage for the evening’s highlight – a unique mridangam solo in Thayambaka style by vidwan Umayalpuram K. Sivaraman.

As the curtain rose, the spotlights illuminated Umayalpuram Sivaraman seated in the centre, flanked by three chenda players, two ilatalam players and a disciple of Sivaraman who kept the tala. The artists were from the top notch ensemble of chenda doyen Mattannur Sankarankutty Marar (recipient of Padma Sri, 2009) and their expertise was a given.

The maestro began with a ringing ‘thom’ that announced the commencement of the 4-kalai chowkam Adi tala known as ‘Chempata’ tala in chenda melam. Once he had defined the base and the slow kalapramana in two tala cyles (avartanams), the chenda joined in, marking the start of each of the eight beats, while the ilatalam was sounded at the beat of the laghu, and the two dritams i.e., the first, fifth and seventh beats. Trapped and released between the metal plates of the outsized cymbals, the air shivered, sending a frisson down the spine of the tala as the resounding clang of ilathalam marched in step with the muted whirr of chenda sticks to reverence rhythm. The tableau on stage recreated the charged atmosphere and pulsing energy of Kerala’s temple festivals even as the powerful earthy rhythms transported you to the very portals of these temples. What more could you ask for?

The 4-kalai segment was played in two speeds. The kizh kalam ended with a korvai that progressed from first to third speed while the mel kalam culminated in a novel korvai in which each round combined three speeds. Now the tala went to 2-kalai, with permutations quickening in arithmetic progression interspersed with gumki, arai chapu and gati bheda elements, all stamped with the vidwan’s trademark elegance and rounded off with a korvai that served as a cue for the gait to segue into misra gati (chatusra laghu with misra gati). Here, the speed gradually increased from vilamba to durita ---, each speed capped by a korvai and the topmost speed culminating in an arudi that was a cue for the tala to return to 2-kalai.

The speed was stepped up in degrees, ending in a korvai that signalled the switchover to 1-kalai. From here, the tempo raced and leapt to the stunning finale, a crescendo spiked with cross rhythms and aligned with contrast patterns in which chenda artists used two sticks to drum up a storm and individual mridangam sollus stood out with amazing clarity. This ended in an arudi followed by a telling pause. Then, it was back to the 4-kalai chowkam base highlighted by sollus. All drumming ceased. Sivaraman resumed playing, ending with a flourish, with mohra and korvai x 3.

The rapt silence was broken by wave upon wave of thunderous applause in a standing ovation that paid tribute to both guru Palghat Mani Iyer and the unique artistic vision of his illustrious disciple Umayalpuram Sivaraman. Mattannur Sankarankutty Marar, seated in the audience, was invited on stage by Sivaraman to share the honours.

Integrated vocabulary

“When the organisers requested me to present a mridangam solo performance on the occasion of my guru's centenary celebrations, I pondered upon the manner in which I could best pay my tribute to this luminary. Hailing from Kerala, Palghat Mani Iyer had a deep, abiding interest in the drumming traditions of his native land, particularly chenda. So, the idea came to me, of integrating the rhythmic vocabulary of both mridangam and chenda in a unique, trailblazing presentation,” says vidwan Umayalpuram Sivaraman.

He explains further: “Thayambaka is the solo played by the main chenda artist. The chenda ensemble usually consists of the main artist who details the rhythm with improvised permutations and accompanying players who define the rhythm. The drum head is struck with a stick and the hand or with two sticks. Keeping pace are the ilatalam players who mark the tala. Ilatalam consists of a pair of large cymbals that produce a lingering resonance when clanged. In thayambaka, the tempo of the stick and palm rolls gradually increases in arithmetic progression, moves to medium pace and builds to a rousing crescendo (in the Carnatic system geometric progression predominates). Various types of sollus and gati bhedam are used, but not many korvais. However, I resolved to employ sollu, gati bhedam and korvai in all the tempos. Also, to use both mridangam and chenda sollus. These would be highlighted by nada, gumki varieties, tonal light and shade, lightning fast phrases, power play, pause and silence.

“Earlier, I had toured abroad performing in collaboration with Thayambaka artists. I wanted to take this collaboration to the next level, bringing to the table my vision and perceptions. To my knowledge, this is this the first time that such a presentation has been staged. I have always been drawn to concepts that reflect innovation within the framework of tradition. I believe that all art springs from a divine spark. I am but an instrument that carries out the Divine will. All that I have achieved thus far, I attribute to God's grace and the blessings of my gurus and elders.”