Face to face with Umayalpuram K. Sivaraman

This was the name given to the close to one-and-a-half hour session with mridangam maestro Sri Umayalpuram K. Sivaraman organized for rasikas by the Bangalore Gayana Samaja on 15th Aug 2006. Rasikas had an opportunity to interact with the maestro and ask him questions about carnatic music in general and mridangam in particular. I had been wanting to write about the session for quite some time now but had not been able to gather together my notes from the session due to a really hectic period at office for the past few weeks.

Here are some excerpts:

Q) What qualities should an accompanying artiste have (violinist, mridangist etc) ?
A) So many people use the word mridangist. I have been telling for the past so many years that there is no such word as mridangist. We have dentist, cardiologist …. πŸ™‚ Please try and call as mrudanga vidwan, it is a more honorary term.

The main duty or quality of an accompanist is that he should be the first rasika of the main artist whom he is accompanying ….. you involve yourself in his/her music and then you can translate whatever he/she is singing/playing into your instrument as well. The first quality is thus going to be the advaita bhava where you have to be one with the main artist .. what in modern terms is called as fusion.

Q) How do you attain “nadai shudham”?

A) If you want to attain perfection …. not only in nadai but the shudham should be in tuning the mridangam too, it should be in accompaniment, it should be in fusion of the minds with the main artist. If you are going to be one with the main artist, the proper nadai or accompaniment will come on its own. Yad bhavam, thad bhavati. If you want to clearly outpitch the main artist, you will become a very bad accompanist.

The great Rajamanickam Pillai, who was one of the wizards of violin, described accompanist as a dharmapatni ….. the duty is that you lift the main musician and by lifting the main musician, you get lifted to unbound heights.

Q) Everyone is talking about what a main artist should expect from an accompanist. But what should an accompanist expect from a main artist?

A) These are all very very pertinent questions. What is called as camaraderie … there should be a sahodara bhava … no acrimony among the artists on stage.

Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer used to say till his death … I have to tell this in tamil to have the effect … else it will be like singing Thyagaraja swami kritis in English πŸ™‚ Someone translated the kriti Chakkani Raja into “When there is a royal road, where is the need for a way” πŸ™‚ So the late great Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer summoned me to his house one day and when I went, I saw him searching for something in some books . I asked what he was looking for to which he replied “In another two days you will be accompanying me in an All India Radio recording. I am just searching for kritis that I haven’t sung before so that I can sing new kriti(s)”. The great man was doing all these things when he was 90 or 91 !!!! To learn the art there is no age. I had the unique opportunity of accompanying him in the concert which I think was one of his finest. After the concert, when we were in the portico, I went to him swelled up with emotions and said “It is divine music” and I was almost in tears. He lifted both my hands, put it near his eyes and said what a great mridangam playing you exhibited today. I consider that as one of the greatest compliments I have received it till date. If there is going to be lot of camaraderie/friendship, the concert becomes supreme.

The last occasion was on 11th of this month when I accompanied Seshagopalan at Guruvayoorappan Bhajana Samaja (in Bangalore). The todi (alapana) that he sang for more than half an hour … I was immensely touched by the todi … it was a todi of different colors .. from Ariyakkudi Ramanujam Iyengar to Maharajapuram Viswanatha Iyer to Rajarathinam Pillai to T.R.Mahalingam … it was like a pAlgOva …. at the end of the alapana, I just lifted my mridangam, went near Seshagopalan and patted him and appreciated him on stage ….. I felt so moved by his todi …. it made me full of energy for the rest of the concert ……don’t feel it is a mutual admiration society … it was done on the spot.

Q) Can a mridanga vidwan play different nadais with his two hands on the two different sides of the mridangam?

A) No .. its not possible … the very purpose of the two hands is the synchronization of the sollukattus on both sides … the nada emanating from both sides ….
Q) What is the significance of Chapu tala?

A) According to my gurus who had mastered laya (Thanjavur Vaidyanatha Iyer and Kumbakonam Rangu Iyengar), who were the bridges between medievelism and modernity, we have the different angas for the normal talas (lagu, dhrutam, anudhrutam, guru, plutham, kakapatham) … but for chapu talas, these angas are not there.

Chapu tala is only with beats … we don’t really have the waveable hand etc ….

Q) How does one learn to play for vilamba kala kritis?

A) M.D. Ramanathan used to sing a lot of vilamba kala kritis and he used to give long pauses in between the verses too. The duty of the mridangam artist is not to be silent when the long pauses in a song come ….. for example in the song O ranga sAyi … when the pause comes, the mridangam guy shouldn’t be like “appadiya … aahaa” and remain silent .. for just listening to the singer, the mridangam artist can sit in the audience and listen and not sit on stage to play πŸ™‚

(He then demonstrated how to play for slow kritis by asking Sri T.N.Seshagopalan, who was present among the audience, to sing a few).

You have to observe what the main artist sings for some time and then play accordingly. Do not just rush and start playing as soon as he starts singing. (To this, Sri Seshagopalan jokingly replied by saying “Yes .. yes … you have been fixed as the mridangam artist for the concert …. only you are going to play … no one else will be brought in … then why the hurry πŸ™‚ )

Look at the musician … see what he is singing … (anticipate what he is going to sing next) … don’t just look only at the talam.

(He then also showed how to play some fillers when long pauses are given by the main artist and a few examples of when to play softly and when to play slightly harder)

Q) There are pANIs in vocal music …. there seem to be pANIs in mridangam too ….. can you give a demonstration that shows how an artist of one particular pANI would play a lesson and how would an artist of a different pANI play it?

A) You have to have the stress at appropriate places, bring that out by practice and when you really try to combine all these things, you create your own style. For example, my philosophy is that when thArA sthAyi shadja is there in anupallavi I will end it with a chAppu. (He then went on to demonstrate a few sollus he plays with stress given at different places).

You have to practice a same sollu/sollukattu with the stress given at different places ….. you will attain good control then …. When Azhagianambi Pillai plays tharikitathom, he would cut it with his hand to give a different sound … different people play it in different ways.

A right type of fingering will always give you a lot of quality. (He then demonstrated playing a few sollus with long finger and short finger).


4 thoughts on “Face to face with Umayalpuram K. Sivaraman

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  2. Seshadri.R says:

    I would like to know the mobile / telephone no of Sri.Umayalpuram Sivaraman. I am a native of Kumbakonam and lived in K.J.Street ( near his house) I want to re-establish contact with him.

  3. vaibhav raghavan says:

    I have been his student for the last five years and I too wish to play as he plays the Mridangam. The patience, the pleasure people recieve from his play has really inspired me to play better.I respect him with all my heart and proud to be his student.

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