He has travelled across the world but his heart belongs to namma Chennai, Sivamani tells CHITRA SWAMINATHAN
Sivamani’s heart beats for nalla Madras. As he steps onto the sands of the Marina for a photo shoot, a bunch of fishermen come running to him. “Eppadi pa irrukeenga? (how are you people doing?) he asks, and they chorus, “Nalla erakon saami, unga daivala (well, sir, with your blessings).” He tells his assistant to pull out the handycam and climbs into a boat with the fisher folk and their children. While I try to clamp a kerchief over my nose and jump over the rotting fish and crabs, he walks around nonchalantly.
“I could have settled in New York and done more work globally. But I can’t be away from all this,” he says, looking wistful. “Can we move?,” I ask helplessly, unable to take the stink any more. He obliges, only to plonk himself on a ravaged catamaran.
“Mumbai was the next best alternative,” he continues, “work-wise, and it is closer home too. To be seen and heard, you need to network with artistes of national and international repute. It’s easier done in Mumbai. Still, I keep finding excuses to come to Chennai. Professional reasons apart, I visit my family and friends (he reels off names of school and childhood buddies) often.”
He was here last to take part in the anniversary celebrations of his protégé Murali Krishnan’s drums school and seemed to enjoy keeping rhythm with youngsters. “I want to tell passionate young artistes, I am there for you. I got it all the difficult way. As a young boy, I loved it when someone offered to guide and help me. I want to make it as easy as I can for talented youngsters. Let children experience the joy of music. There’s so much you can do today if you have the will and the skill,” says the self-taught percussionist, whose dynamic drumming reverberates across the globe. “I missed out on classical training. But I want my son Kumaran, who plays the drums well, to learn under acclaimed mridangist Guru Kaaraikudi Mani. My daughter Vashika too loves to play the drums.”
It’s his long-cherished dream to open a school for percussion and instrumental music in Chennai. “I am looking for a suitable plot of land and government support. The school will be like the gurukuls of yore…thatched roof, surrounded by greenery, classes under trees, accessible masters. That’s the ideal learning atmosphere. You can hardly feel the music in an air-conditioned room,” he says.
The drums wizard is excited about his next album Mahaleela. “It tracks my journey from childhood till date. I have composed pieces on the important incidents in my life.”
Sivamani is a sight to behold at shows — surrounded by real and made-up instruments, from drum kits and urulis to tumbler-turned-tablas. “I enter the stage with a free mind. I just go by the pulse of the audience and my intuition.” Sometimes he plays classical, sometimes folk, sometimes western… may be that’s the advantage of being self-taught! You are not controlled by style and tradition. “A composition for me is what comes to my mind at that point of time,” he puts simply.
A part of many Indian bands and fusion groups, Sivamani, Louis Banks and U. Srinivas recently formed a trio ‘Soul Shakti’ “We are indebted to Zakir Hussain and John Mclaughlin for putting together the Indo-Western musical bridge. It’s made the exchange of notes easy and exciting. I have also been fortunate to have met raring-to-innovate musicians such as Niladri Bose, Rakesh Chaurasia, Navin, U. Srinivas and Rajesh, Louis Banks and Shankar Mahadevan. The Shiva up there is making it happen for the Siva down here,” he smiles, pointing towards the sky. From living in a modest house on Basin Bridge to becoming a big-time percussionist, Sivamani’s is a story of struggles.
His next project, an ambitious one, is to bring together and train 10,000 drummers from all over the State for a record-breaking show. “I plan to enter the Guinness Book of Records.” He is also working on a unique album of meditative rhythms. “I want to stun people with subtle sounds on the drums. It’s as versatile as any other instrument,” he says. The showman that he is, Sivamani is known as much for his boisterous beats as for those big funky beads around his neck. “Drums or dresses, fusion fascinates me. As for sporting beads, it’s for my name-sake — Siva-mani (mani in Tamil means beads),” he says with a laugh.
His idols: M.S. Viswanathan
and A. R. Rehman
His godfather S.P. Balasubramaniam
His love: Good food
Favourite haunts: Sangeetha and Saravana Bhavan
Best leisure activities: Travelling and listening to music
Memorable moments Playing at IPL matches