CHAT For Umayalpuram K. Sivaraman, who has just been made Fellow of the Sangeet Natak Akademi, the mridangam is an extension of him. V. BALASUBRAMANIAN
It is a chilly Sunday evening when I meet him at his newly built house on Dr. Ranga Road, Alwarpet, Chennai. Even as he welcomes me warmly, he is along side instructing his disciples about fixing his mridangams, what with another gruelling December music season ahead. With his baritone voice, he could give any voice-over artist a run for his money. For Kasi Viswanatha Sivaraman, better known as Umayalpuram K. Sivaraman, laya is life.
As we settle down for a chat, piping hot filter coffee is served by his wife, typical of any household with Thanjavur roots. Umayalpuram is, till date, the only mridangam vidwan to have been conferred all the three Padma Awards — Padma Sri, Padma Bhushan and Padma Vibhushan. As we keep glancing at the Birudhu Patras, he enthusiastically begins, “I deem it a privilege to have received these awards from three Presidents of India — R. Venkatraman, APJ Abdul Kalam and Pratibha Patil.”
Recently, the Sangeet Natak Akademi chose him as its Fellow (Academy Ratna), which he received from President Pranab Mukherjee. “So, now I have received awards from all the four Presidents of our times.” He remembers to add that Ustad Amjad Ali Khan, Pt. Hariprasad Chaurasia, Pt. Shiv Kumar Sharma, vidwan M. Chandrasekaran and dancer Padma Subrahmanyam were made Fellows of the Akademi along with him.
He suddenly switches to a philosophical mode and says, “ Vedho Dharma Moolam — Vedas are the very foundation of Dharma. Dharmo Rakshathi Rakshitaha — Dharma protects those who foster it. Likewise, I have coined the phrase Kala Rakshathi Rakishitaha — If you protect the arts, it will take care of you.” He continues, “To me, the mridangam is not just an instrument, it is my child. Placing a leg over the instrument to keep it close to your body while playing is akin to a mother holding her child close. As in Advaitha, you merge with the mridangam to bring out the best. Please don’t treat it merely as a percussion instrument.”
While it is well known about the legends with whom Umayalpuram has collaborated over the years, an interesting point that came out of this research is the fact that he has accompanied three generation of musicians from three different schools of music such as Ariyakkudi-KVN-Pattabhiram Pandit and Semmangudi-PSN- R.Thyagarajan. How did he adapt himself to the various artists and their banis? He replies, “I have played for Ariyakkudi, Maharajapuram, Chembai, Semmangudi, GNB, Alathur Brothers, Mudicondan, Musiri, Tiruvalangadu Sunderasa Iyer, Papa Venkatramiah and Chowdiah. Each of them had a unique style which captured audience hearts and is alive even today.” Citing examples, the mridangam maestro mentions about the madhyama kala kritis sung by Ariyakkudi that seasoned him in approaching a kriti and Alathur’s intricate laya patterns that helped broaden his ideas on rhythmic calculations.
Umayalpuram’s zeal to play for fourth generation artists only goes to prove his passion for the art. Records apart, Sivaraman wants to encourage as many youngsters as possible by accompanying them.
He has now embarked on some research work, whose results, he feels, will encompass the entire laya fraternity. The work is going on at a reasonably good pace at CLRI with Dr. T. Ramaswami and Dr M.D. Ramesh spearheading the process along with a host of skilled men.
“My life’s mission is the inculcation, propagation, promotion and acceleration of this rich heritage. Mridangam is the be all and end all of my existence. And God willing, I want a similar life in my next birth as well.” No wonder, awards and medals still keep finding their way to his drawing room shelves, including the Doctorate he was awarded by Kerala University, the first ever for a mridangam artiste.
Intensity and tonal clarity are the hallmarks of Umayalpuram’s playing, which belie his age. What is the secret behind this? “I owe it all to my illustrious father, Dr. Kasi Viswanathan. His rhythmic ‘Thaka dhimi thaka dhimi’ patting on my back as he tried to put a three-year-old to sleep, was perhaps my first lesson. He was an accomplished musician both in vocal and violin. Our house in Kumbakonam always had a stream of visiting musicians. His long search for an appropriate guru for me ended with Arupathy Natesa Iyer with whom I trained for seven years. Later, it was a year each with Thanjavur Vaidyanatha Iyer and Palghat Mani Iyer.”
The delivery of strokes, the loosening of the body, the upright stance and the acuity of perception to remain a rasika of the main artiste are due to the influence of his gurus, feels Umayalpuram. “I always pour in my full energy for a concert’s success; I never compromise on maintaining my fitness. Showing respect to the giants of yore and encouraging new talent are my other dictums.” Perhaps all these traits provide the answer to the question about his consistency as an artist for more than six decades.
“As in Advaitha, you merge with the mridangam to bring out the best.”