K. Siva Prasad traces his journey from being a whistling enthusiast from Bapatla to having given 10,000 whistling concerts. Vishnupriya Bhandaram listens in
K. Siva Prasad remembers humming classical music all day as a boy in Bapatla. “I don't recall a single minute during the day when the LP record player was not on. To think of it, music has been the only constant thing in my life,” he muses. Siva Prasad had a natural talent and fascination for whistling but he never thought he would make a career out of it. “As a child I just used to reproduce whatever tunes I heard. When I turned 11, I started practising small-sized but full songs by M.S. Subbulakshmi and Balamuralikrishna.” His ability remained known only to his family and friends, but they were encouraging. “They used to call me a flute,” he smiles.
Siva Prasad recalls his first public performance. “It was Hanuman Jayanti and Mulukutla Sadasiva Sastry was supposed to render a Harikatha, but he was late and a family friend of ours suggested that I should entertain the audience till he got there. I whistled Pibare Ramarasam in Ahir Bhairavi ragam in front of more than a thousand people.” Here he whistles a sample for us. “There was a huge applause. All I remember from that day is that I was shivering and yet I was so thrilled. It was my first public performance and I decided then that perhaps whistling was my calling.”
Kona Prabhakar Rao, former Governor of Maharashtra, took special interest in Siva Prasad's talent and took him to the top musicians in Hyderabad. The musical experts, as he recalls, suggested that he play the flute instead, but were not keen that he continue whistling. “They felt that it was unorthodox, unusual and against tradition.”
When Siva Prasad performed in front of Balamuralikrishna, the Carnatic music legend stood up and declared that he would tutor him. Within a week, Balamuralikrishna had him brought to Chennai and began lessons.
Siva Prasad practises for long hours during the day and even when he is driving. Despite his childhood asthma, he developed the ability to whistle long stretches. “It's simple, I practised how to inhale and exhale while whistling. In fact, the doctor who was treating me then, told me that whistling is good for health. So I guess my talent has cured me of a disease…. Sadhana is very important,” he laughs and breaks into Raag Durga — a long melodious whistle without a single break.
“There is a lot of stigma attached to whistling,” says Siva Prasad. “People think it's a bad thing and something done only by rowdies and roadside Romeos to get a girl's attention. But I have always been sure of the fact that it is a talent and it is music.” His performances fit the bill of any Carnatic musical rendition. The bhavam and tatvam are intact. “Shruti and Laya are God's gift to me. I never had to worry about the basics. I take immense pride in rendering a song through whistling. I render the Gamakam very well,” he says.
How does he plan to keep this musical tree growing? Siva Prasad teaches students at his house for free. “It's mostly engineering college students who come. But of late, a lot of girls are joining as well,” he says. He laments, however, that the younger generation shows interest in learning only film music. What's wrong with that, we ask? Whistling a lovely rendition of Why this Kolaveri, Siva Prasad smiles, “I have nothing against film songs, in fact I have made recordings of those as well, but I strongly believe that classical music provides a steady foundation. If your basics are right, you can even render a Michael Jackson song with confidence.” Beginners, he feels, should listen to great music by the greats of music. “Learn Carnatic music, sync the whistling to it and you are good to go. Foundation matters,” he says and follows this with a rendition of Alaipayuthe Kanna. This, he says, is in preparation for a concert to be hosted by the Singapore India Fine Arts Society later this month.
Art, he feels, requires time to be understood by others. What is not art today will be recognised in the future. “Mandolin and the saxophone are accepted instruments now, Srinivas and Kadri Gopal have made sure. Encouragement is the only necessary support required for an art form to flourish…. I might not be invited to the Chennai Sabhas but that does not mean that my music has no meaning.”
Going back in time
When K. Siva Prasad once met Ustad Bismillah Khan, the elder musician asked him, “Kya baja rahe ho? Siti?” Siva Prasad answered with a rendition of Raag Malkauns, and Bismillah Khan said, “Aao, baitho mere saath.” Bismillah Khan told Siva Prasad not to let go of this talent and told him how people ridiculed him for playing the shehnai, calling it an instrument to be played during a death procession. Siva Prasad says those words made an impact in his life. Siva Prasad's meeting with Indira Gandhi was quite eventful as well. She gave him ten minutes to whistle, but she kept extending the time, saying, “Please continue…” One magazine, Siva Prasad remembers with a smile, carried the headline, “A man whistles at a lady Prime Minister.”