Umayalpuram Sivaraman: ‘I have not even touched the tip of the iceberg’

With 75 years of performance behind him, mridangam maestro Umayalpuram Sivaraman’s zest is still as high as it was when he started playing at the age of five

Updated - May 07, 2021 03:26 pm IST

Published - May 06, 2021 08:04 pm IST

Mridangam vidwan Umayalpuram K. Sivaraman

Mridangam vidwan Umayalpuram K. Sivaraman

We’ve been talking on the phone for a few weeks before we schedule the interview. From the way he picks up the threads of earlier conversations to the precision with which he gives me directions, it is clear that Vidwan Umayalpuram K. Sivaraman has never missed a beat in his life. The evening I land up, he is waiting at the door. I am glad I am not late. At 86, he is sharp as a tack, tracking a dozen things — the recorder, my coffee, our masks, the clock, and more.

The enormously gifted UKS has completed 75 years of performance, a career marked by a bravura progression from milestone to milestone, sweeping up all available awards in its wake. And I am here to play chronicler, to document some of those magical moments and memories. Through the three hours we speak, not once does he lean back in the chair nor take a sip of water. A tiny smile plays on his lips and his eyes gleam, and you see up close the charisma he emanates from the stage.

UKS loves wordplay and each time he comes up with a pithy maxim, he breaks into a delighted grin and checks to see if I have caught on. He quotes Tennyson and Browning and Sanskrit shlokas and moves easily from scriptures to physics to piston rods to explain a point.

From his deep love for the mridangam to his larger vision of music and performance to his grounded approach to life, conversing with the legend has been almost as satisfying as a kutcheri. When we finish, I am tired, but UKS seems even more energised and insists on seeing me out.

Edited excerpts from the interview:

Looking back after 75 years, what do you see as your most formative influences?

I was born in 1935 and had the unique opportunity to accompany the greatest stalwarts —Palladam Sanjiva Rao, [Maharajapuram] Viswanatha Iyer, Chembai Vaidyanatha Bhagavathar, Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer, GNB, the Alathur Brothers... a galaxy of the greatest names in Carnatic music. I consider that a golden era. I have been very fortunate. Had I been born later, I would not have had this opportunity. They encouraged me, irrespective of my age, testing only my skills.

Umayalpuram Sivaraman accompanying GNB

Umayalpuram Sivaraman accompanying GNB

When Chembai said I could accompany him, he also said, “Don't expect any fees. I will only give you vandi cooli (bus fare).” I agreed; and played many times with him. In one concert, he gave me five tani avartanams . Some years later, the same Chembai called me for a programme and asked what fee I would charge.

Umayalpuram Sivaraman accompanying Chembai Vaidyanatha Bhagavathar

Umayalpuram Sivaraman accompanying Chembai Vaidyanatha Bhagavathar

I was very keen to play for Ariyakudi when he sang ‘Amba nannu brovave,’ in Deshadi taalam, but he did not sing it for a long time. Finally, one day, he did. I later told him how long I had waited for this. He replied, ‘Today, I had the confidence that you would play well for this song, that's why I sang it.’

I accompanied Semmangudi for 48 years. One day, I saw him shedding tears, as he sat at home, surrounded by photographs of the greats. I asked what had made him so emotional. ‘If I have a next life, I should be able to sing like Ariyakudi,’ he said. Such was his humility.

These were some beautiful experiences I had. They were not only motivational but great learning moments. In these 75 years, what I am doing is passing on whatever I learnt to my disciples.

Can you tell us a few special facets of your bani?

Sampradaya is like civilisation. There are changes with each generation, but the core remains. Sampradaya is like a broad river and the bani is a tributary. It is born out of creativity and sustained when creativity combines with novelty, while based on the core principles. It should be aesthetically beautiful and serve as something new for present and future generations to work upon.

I learnt from four great masters: Arupathi Natesa Iyer, Thanjavur Vaidyanatha Iyer, Palghat Mani Iyer, and Kumbakonam Sakottai Rangu Iyengar. On that base I formed my own distinctive style, something novel, attractive and worthy of emulation.

Bani is about everything — accompaniment, mridangam solo, giving pauses, creating a lot of nada, and new moras and korvais , complex mathematical creations. It is like Ariyakudi’s music; it may seem simple, but when you attempt it, it’s impossible until you work at it. That is what I have created. It has complete clarity, with or without mic. As my father taught me, I coax the mridangam, I don’t beat it.

Another principle of my bani: First, you become a rasika of the main artiste, whether vocal or instrumental. You must become the first rasika. And you must go into the music, so that it affects your psyche, your playing. The tempo, the voice, the volume, the mellifluousness, everything enters your body, and it reacts in the mridangam. Then, your reactions and movements will be in advaita bhava with the main artiste.

You made some important technological innovations, notably the fibreglass and glass mridangams. What prompted you? And how was it greeted by the establishment?

Earlier, wood used to be shaped into a mridangam, with a hollow, and left in a shady spot for three-four months till it became seasoned wood. With commercialisation, this was lost. Warping and other defects set in. I thought, earth gives a lot of material, why not use it. Besides, we don't have standardisation in our instrument-making. So why not try alternative resonators. I approached Fibreglass Pilkington and made a resonator with fibreglass. I also made a fibreglass veena.

Umayalpuram K. Sivaraman with Pt. Ravi Shankar and Ustad Alla Rakha on the tabla

Umayalpuram K. Sivaraman with Pt. Ravi Shankar and Ustad Alla Rakha on the tabla

I put them on show in Srinivasa Sastri Hall, presided over by Veena Balachander and Balamuralikrishna. I requested Pichumani Iyer to play the veena, and I played the mridangam. I proved to the world that it is almost equal to the wooden one. But the mentality of our people is such that they don’t welcome all this. But that does not matter. I wanted to prove that here is an opportunity. Whether you use it or not is up to you.

I next thought, why not make a glass body? I collaborated with Mr. Santhanam [B. Santhanam of St. Gobain] and my disciple Unnikrishnan [also with St. Gobain] for one year. We made a D/ D-sharp mridangam and a G/ G-sharp mridangam. I played it at Parthasarathy Swamy Sabha, and invited others to play it to see if the nada is good. Nobody could explain how the mridangam had no echo!

You have also worked on the mridangam’s tonal qualities with teams in IIT and CLRI. Tell us a bit about the research and what it achieved.

In my early years, my father did not let me tune the mridangam; he told me to tune the tampura, to hear it. He told me the acuity of perception of nada will help you. So, I delved deep into nada. Then I began to realise that sound is not nada. That is why we say nadayogam. The whole cosmos is nada. I wanted to observe it. There are two types of nada — ahatha and anahatha . Ahatha is inside, anahatha is outside.

Umayalpuram when he was 17 years old.

Umayalpuram when he was 17 years old.


I told my friend, the scientist Dr. T. Ramasami, let us explore nada; there is no such word in science. Science understands sound, but nada is not sound. Now, we are finding what nada is. It is the perfect unison of all harmonics, all overtones. It is said that 14 harmonics can be heard in my mridangam.

We observed that the tonic note, Dheem, is in the region of the Rishabham, the fundamental of an odd harmonic series. For me, this indicates the presence of Nandikeswara. When there is juxtaposition of odd and even frequencies, there is continuous resonance. That is nada. We are now trying to see how to produce the purest nada. How to use the best wood, the best leather, perfect tension to create a model nada mridangam. It will be like a Stradivarius violin. I think we will succeed.

We are also looking for alternatives for raw hide and cooked rice, which some airports fumigate, spoiling the mridangam. We want to make travel-friendly mridangams with replaceable heads. We want to make more durable black patches. We are also experimenting with cow or goat skin for the ganjira, since the monitor lizard is endangered.

In IIT, the project is stroke transcription and software codes to convert my playing into digital lessons. It will be useful for students. The idea is to disseminate knowledge. That is my mission.

You co-authored the book, The Musical Excellence of the Mridangam , based on C.V. Raman’s research. I believe you want to disseminate it further?

Dr. Ramasami, Dr. M.D. Naresh and I produced this book — it marries science and art. It looks at tonal characteristics of the mridangam and design innovations. But we thought it might not be accessible to mridangam makers and repairers, who work by intuition and with family secrets transmitted from father to son. These are the people who give nada to mridangam.

We wanted to show them — these are the nuances and harmonics and overtones coming out of the mridangam. We want to standardise everything. Why don’t you use this particular leather, this strap, so that all your mridangams have equal tension, equal nada. We wanted to explain the scientific values. So, we have made a handbook based on the book, and we are looking for a publisher. We want to give the handbook free to mridangam makers.

You have spoken of being “an intelligent listener of music”, but intelligent listening inevitably leads to intelligent questioning. How do you assess the traditional guru-shishya relationship in today’s context?

A student must be fortunate to get a guru and a guru fortunate to get a good student. My policy is, admit everybody, teach them everything, create a strong base. Like a temple gopuram, which has only 5, 7, 9 kalashas at the top, from a broad base of 100 students, 50 will be very good, 25 will be brilliant, 10 will be geniuses, and 1 or 2 will be at the peak. I believe in vidya daanam. Share your knowledge, that is your legacy.

In the olden days, it was very difficult for disciples to learn from the guru, who would not teach someone he thought was not worthy. That was befitting for those times but won’t fit the present day. Today, there are some brilliant students who come with brilliant ideas and ask you questions. They give you food for thought, you think about it all night, then give a convincing answer. Such disciples motivate the guru as well.

You often stress the value of silence, of knowing when not to play. Can you tell us a bit about how a mridangam artiste deals with personal ego in the context of the kutcheri structure?

There is a razor’s edge between music and noise. Mridangam has some great and unique qualities, but it also has certain limitations. If you know its magnificence and its limitations, you will have optimum judgement and exhibit your skill at its best.

What is the pause? It is silence. Give some time, listen to the music, then play. When you are really enjoying the lyrics, stop, listen, let the lyrics be heard. Pausing is learnt from shravanam , from hearing.

You should think of teamwork rather than yourself in a concert. I once accompanied K.V. Narayanaswamy for ‘Krishna nee begane’. I have played it many times, but at that concert in Mysore, a thought came to me — when Narayaswamy is going to describe the pranks of Krishna, where is the need for complex rhythm? Why not keep it to basic strokes and release KVN from the clutches of tala? So that day, as he sang, I only played din, tha tha din, tha ... for the whole song. At the end of it, people applauded. KVN turned to me and said, ‘I don't know what you did but it was a great experience’.

You have lived through some extraordinary times — pre-independent India to the tumult of a new nation to modern times. Do you see yourself as an ambassador of tradition or the precursor to a new era?

n I am a core traditionalist, and I am also ultra-modern. I have composed music for a Satya Paul fashion show. You must adjust with the times. Your attitude should be flexible, like a bamboo. Modern gadgets are there, why not use them? When you can travel by a 747 aircraft to New York, why should you take a bullock cart? My philosophy is, why go deeper into the past? When you are going to Mars, why go back to Mohenjo-daro?

If I am invited to the moon for a concert, I will go! You should not be stagnant. Habits and civilisations change, core principles don't. We must change accordingly, or we will be thrown by the wayside. Earlier, there were no mics, now we have them. Make the best of it. If you say, ‘I will only sing without a mic,’ who will hear you? There is too much ambient noise. What if a disciple comes in trousers? Or doesn’t know how to do namaskaram correctly? If in his heart he respects you, that is enough.

Caste has always been the rather unsavoury side of Carnatic music. How can a more equitable space be created?

n I teach whoever comes to me, irrespective of caste, creed, religion. I belong to only one jati —the jati of intelligent people. I teach my mridangam repairer's son. We worship Nandanar, but Nandanar was a Dalit. Each one of us is a spark of the divine.

With the most significant milestones now behind you, what peaks are left to conquer?

n My father once told me, “There are hundreds of subjects in the world, mridangam is only a tiny part of it.” As I play the mridangam more and enjoy it more and delve deeper into it, I realise how small I am before the ocean of mridangam. I have not even touched the tip of the iceberg.

During this pandemic, I have not been able to do many concerts. But I am still recording and teaching. I practise daily. I create. I discuss with my disciples. The deeper you go into the ksheera sagar of music, you find hidden springs, jewels, shipwrecks. You find ananda . You find pleasure and treasure. That is how I feel. That god should grant me another life to fulfil even more in the field of music.

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