Friday Review

Remembrances of things past

Greatness is the embodiment of many things: not necessarily made up of great acts. Each time you encounter it you undergo a revision, and a reinforcement. If multiplicity of expression revises its ambit, the edifice on which it is constructed, works as reinforcement. Umayalpuram K. Sivaraman (UKS), the 81-year-old mridangam maestro, encapsulates many musical values of the past which he emphatically exercises in the present. At 81, he is passionately engaged in his music: a bundle of energy who firmly believes that it is the grace of the pastmasters that has helped him scale heights, and he considers it his bounden duty to return it to the present. UKS who holds the past and the present together, says it is not merely music, but also about values and grace. He tells you stories of people and places -- greatness trickles in in so many different ways, simpleness could be one, perhaps.

“Do a proper, south Indian namaskaram,” the maestro says affectionately, shutting his eyes to bless. The candid, joyful, and warm UKS doesn’t settle for anything less than “proper”. “Whatever we do has to be done right. No reason is a valid reason for not doing it right,” says the maestro, as he slowly unwinds to his home in Umayalpuram. Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer, the Carnatic vocalist called Umayalpuram, the village in Tanjore district, the “capital of Carnatic music”. “My village is renowned for culture and agriculture. It was famous for Samaveda and my father belonged to the direct shishya parampara of Tyagaraja. Both melody and rhythm shone in our village, in equal measures.

The great violinist Panchapakesa Iyer trained several musicians of Mysore such as Bangalore Nagarathnamma, Bidaram Krishnappa, Chowdiah, Narasiah and more. In fact, once Chowdiah sir himself told me: ‘He is my guru. I learnt bowing techniques from him.’ Then there was Umayalpuram Swaminatha Iyer, the guru of Maharajapuram Vishwanath Iyer and Semmangudi. Narayanaswamy Iyer created the ghatam bani making his contribution to the world of percussion. His son, Kodandarama Iyer along with Rajamanickam Pillai were among Semmangudi’s favourite accompanists. Umayalpuram was throbbing with thavil players as well.”

With such a musical environment in this small village, it is little wonder that Umayalpuram Sivaraman’s father was musically enlightened. A medical doctor by profession, he learnt music from Calcutta Raghavacharya, a contemporary of Ariyakudi Ramanuja Iyengar. Also from Namakkal Narasimha Iyengar who was a great expert in laya related matters and who later became the asthana vidwan of the Mysore court. As a young boy, UKS was constantly drumming on whatever he found – on a vessel, on the arm rest of a chair etc. His father’s impeccable sense of music didn’t miss the boy’s instinctive sense of rhythm. UKS recalls how every day, on returning from the hospital, his father would put him on the lap and play the mridangam jatis taka dhimi on his back, which was the only way to put him to sleep. When the boy turned five, as if it were a divine coincidence, the legendary Arupathi Natesa Iyer walked into his clinic to be treated for a minor ailment. “Here comes the man who was in my heart!” his father exclaimed and requested Natesa Iyer to take on the boy as his disciple. For a good number of years, the little UKS learnt under him and when he was 10 years old, he gave his debut concert at the Kalahasti Swamy temple in Kumbhakonam.

UKS’s grandmother was living in Tanjavur, which is where the great Vaidyanath Iyer lived too. UKS was sent there to learn under him. After his demise, he moved to Madras and learnt under Palghat Mani Iyer, later Saakottai Rangu Iyengar. “My gurus were themselves great but they had also heard and met some extraordinary musicians like Thanjavur Narayanaswami Appa, Thukkaram, Das Swamigal, Thanjavur Pakkria Pillai, Azhagar Nambia Pillai, Mamundiya Pillai, Dakshinamurthy Pillai and Nannumya Sahib. Their narration of stories from this period, the influence it had on their art was thrilling. ” UKS adds: “Of all my illustrious gurus, I place my father the first and foremost. He left no unturned to see me excel… without him none of this would have been possible.” He calls Mani Iyer’s blessings “prophetic”. He insisted that I move to Chennai. ‘You will do very well,’ he had said. And it turned out to be true. UKS moved to Chennai in 1955. He did his graduation in law in a morning college and in the evenings attended concerts. He not only listened to a lot of music but also got several opportunities as an accompanist. “I worked very hard in these years that I stayed with my uncle. I did not waste even a minute. I studied and I put in ten hours of practice every day. Today there are seminars on time management. Without attending any such seminar, we respected time very muchOne thing I can tell you for sure, if you do not borrow time from your sleep hours, you will get nowhere.”

When UKS was studying for his Master’s he was even attending IAS coaching classes that his uncle MS Srinivasan was conducting. “I had to quit after a year, since I got too busy with concerts.” Life has its own plans, says UKS. Using the scientific analogy of launching a rocket, he explains how booster rockets take the rocket far enough to escape the gravitational pull, but once it escapes, it takes its own course. “So many people helped me, I did my law, but music was ordained to be my future. Yet, I am of the belief that art and formal education should always go hand in hand.”

The refrain of the conversation is however his gratitude for each of those who helped him nurture his art. “I have learnt a lot by accompanying the great masters. I have gathered a fund of knowledge and humility. Because of Ariyakudi Ramnuja Iyengar, I learnt how to play for madhyamakala kritis, with Semmangudi I learnt how to embellish the sarvalaghu svaras, Alathur Brothers were very sharp in laya, Chembai Vaidyanath Iyer was remarkable in his understanding of laya and kalapramana, GNB for his brighas.... without all of them I would not have shaped into a complete artiste. I was far younger than all of them, but my age and inexperience did not matter to them. They encouraged me immensely. Their humility, love and affection is unparalleled.”

On one occasion, he had the chance of taking blessings from MLV, MS and Pattamal, all together. “That moment is etched in my heart. They were great stars on the musical firmament. But they said, ‘we bless you, but also bow to your art.’ I can never forget that...,” he recalls. UKS, who is still very active on the concert stage, accompanies legends as well as upcoming artistes. “I owe my art to all those musicians who gave me so much scope. They helped me reach the top. As a senior artiste, don’t I owe it to youngsters? Mustn’t I contribute to the making of another Ariyakudi or K.V. Narayana Swamy? I want to give my 200 percent to them,” he observes.

That evening at the concert organised by Bhoomija, UKS played with chande artistes from Kerala and the extremely talented Giridhar Udupa and Guruprasanna. But UKS was unstoppable -- his enthusiasm was inimitable. Undimished passion also marks greatness, doesn’t it?


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Printable version | Oct 23, 2021 10:58:43 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/features/friday-review/Remembrances-of-things-past/article14581957.ece

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