Last month, Kalaignar TV broadcast an interview with renowned mrudangam maestro and one of the all time greats in the field, Umayalpuram Sri K. Sivaraman (UKS). Here are some excerpts from the interview. The interview was in Tamil. Any errors that might have happened during the translation are entirely mine.
Sri UKS on whether he was the first musician in his family or he was born into a musical family …
I was born into a family associated with music. Umayalpuram in my name represents a place that has contributed a lot to Carnatic music. A lot of famous musicians hail from this place. Our ancestors, Umayalpuram Krishna Bhagavathar and Sundara Bhagavathar were disciples of Saint Thyagaraja. Since there was so much music in Umayalpuram, I can say that music ran in my blood.
… on the atmosphere in Umayalpuram during the time he was brought up there ….
Umayalpuram is a village given in gift by Sarfoji Maharaja. It is on the bank of the river Kaveri in Tanjavur district. Tanjavur district itself was very famous for arts. The atmosphere in Umayalpuram was always very peaceful. Music always used to be in the air. One could play whenever he wanted. There was greenery all around and good breeze used to blow most of the times. So there was music in the air. There were a lot of great musicians and great rasikas. One would always be motivated to keep improving.
People say that Umayalpuram has brought fame to me and that I have brought fame to Umayalpuram. They also say that I have brought fame to mrudangam and vice versa. But what I say is that I have achieved fame only because I was born in Umayalpuram and took up mrudangam and not the other way round.
… on when and how he started learning mrudangam and music …
What I am telling you now is what my father, Dr. Kasiviswanatha Iyer told me. He was a famous doctor and a very knowledgeable musician. When I was one, he used to tap “thakadhimi thakajonu” on my back to put me to sleep. He observed me tapping small utensils when I was very young and came to know that I have a great interest in percussion. He decided to enroll me under a very good guru.
My grandmother got me a khanjira from the Kumbheswara Swamy Temple in Kumbakonam when I was three. I started playing khanjira then and continued till the age of five. My father used to practice medicine in Kumbakonam, where there was music all around. I used to keep playing khanjira for musicians who used to come to our house and sing.
When my father was searching intensely for a guru for me, Sri Arupathi Natesa Iyer came to my father for treatment. When he got cured, my father enquired with him and came to know that he was a mrudanga vidwan and related to Umayalpuram Kodandarama Iyer. I started learning from him at the age of 5 and was also enrolled into school at the same age. I learnt from him for 7 years. At the age of 10, my arangetram was held in Kalahastishwara Swami Koil in Kumbakonam.
I then learnt under the great Tanjavur Sri Vaidyanatha Iyer, who is considered the pitamaha of mrudangam. Then I learnt under his student Palghat Sri Mani Iyer. My fourth guru was the renowned Kumbakonam Sri Rangu Iyengar
… on the extensive training he received spanning so many years and what is exactly there in the art to learn for so many years …
What we have learnt is just a handful, what we are yet to learn is so huge. I learnt a lot about the subject from my gurus. One guru would happily send me to the other advising me to learn as much as possible. The more we learn, the more we know and the more interest we develop.
It took me about 15 years to learn the art and reach a good level of performance. In general, it is said that for our arts, at least 12 years of learning is required to reach a good level. Contextualizing to modern days, even if it is not possible to learn for 12 years, at least a period of 6 years is required to achieve proficiency.
My feeling is that art is ageless. A student of mine called Narayana Iyer approached me to learn mrudangam at the age of 66. His arangetram happened at the age of 72. Another person called Sri Shankar is learning from me now. He is 70 years old and is playing quite well. We can learn this art and come up very well at any age.
… on the difference he saw between each of his gurus …
In the North, we have the system of gharanas. Each gharana has considerable differences from the other. We do not have such a system in Carnatic music. It is just the approach and thinking of artists that differs. I didn’t see a lot of difference between my gurus. I only saw differences when it came to manodharmam (improvisation). They were a mine of information and hence I got a lot of information from them. They were “kalai kalanjiyam”.
… an example of why he calls his gurus “kalai kalanjiyam” …
Lobbying in tennis and late cut in cricket are some techniques that are documented. In the same way, fingering technique is very important for playing the mrudangam. Only with a proper fingering technique can you get a good nAdam. In English, people call it sound. Sound is the opposite of noise. But nAdam is much more than just sound. This is similar to the difference between knowledge and gnanam. Mrudangam is a “nAda vAdyam” . Both sides of the mrudangam have nAdam and a proper fingering is required to produce it. I learnt these proper fingering techniques from my gurus. Ex: The placement of fingers for an aRai chApu or chApu
Apart from this, my father taught me that one should not beat the mrudangam but play it.
… on the difference between beating and playing the mrudangam …
Mrudangam must not be beaten. Beating will only produce noise and not sunAdam. To produce sunAdam, it is necessary to know what shabdam should come and what overtones should be produced. When we concentrate on our playing and enjoy it, we come to know what shabdam to produce and what not to. When we play chApu, we shouldn’t beat it hard. It should be played soft. I will demonstrate this. I learnt all this fingering technique from my gurus.
A lot of experience is required to know which techniques must be used while playing for songs, what should be played for which songs, what should not be played, how to play along with ghatam, khanjira, morsing etc on stage, how to make artists on these instruments shine and also play well ourselves. This experience is gathered by listening to a lot of senior vidwans. I have completed 62 years of service to music and have heard a lot of mrudangam, violin, nadaswaram, tavil artists etc during my life.
… on the relationship between science and mrudangam and in response to a request for demonstrating the same …
One of the main reasons mrudangam is a famed instrument is because even though it is a tALa vAdya instrument, it is a nAda vAdyam. The reason why this is a nAda vAdyam is because firstly, we set the mrudangam to the frequency of the tonic/base note of the artist with whom we perform. The right hand side of the mrudangam (valandalai) is set to AdhAra shaDjam (sa) while the left side (thoppi) is set to mandara sthAyi (bass note). The black patch on the right hand side of the mrudangam gives rise to a lot of overtones. The gamakAs in music can be played using the left hand side. All the notes in the octave can be played on the octave.
(Sri UKS then demonstrated the different sollus on both sides of the mrudangam, which notes are closed and open, how much stress should be applied to the different sollus, the way gamakAs can be produced and the way different notes of the octave can be played on the mrudangam.
Personally I feel this is what makes him an all time great mrudangam vidwan because he is one of the few artists across the ages who truly know how to play the mrudangam like a nAda vAdyam)
We must not beat the mrudangam. Beats are meant for tALam. We must play the mrudangam. When we say violin has to be played, veena has to be played etc, then why must we beat the mrudangam? When we beat the instrument, it leads to noise
(He then demonstrated the difference between playing properly and beating the instrument)
Similarly while playing along with a song, we must be sensitive to the song. We must play vallinam-mellinam (light and shade, high and low volume). Gaps are also important while playing and we must know where to give gaps. We must play in such a way that people must say the mrudangam is actually singing.
… on the period he started playing for concerts after completing his training …
The specialty of gurus of those times was that they used to impart all the knowledge they gathered to their students and would feel very happy when the student absorbed all of that and started playing in his own way. I learnt a lot of things from my gurus and from other senior vidwans and then formulated my own way of playing for songs. This way of playing is traditional, yet modern. When we add new things and be creative, we act as a bridge between ages. At the same time we preserve tradition. For example, instead of eating leaves of medicinal plants, we might make tablets from them these days and consume. We are doing something creative and new but still preserving tradition. There are many youngsters who are following the way I play and this enables them to showcase their own creativity while playing. That is why people have written about me that there is a Raman Effect but when it comes to mrudangam the effect is Sivaraman effect.
… on the instruments a mrudangam can be played along with …
The evolution of instruments or styles of playing occurs in tandem with the evolution of mankind and the world in general.
In the beginning, I used to play only for Carnatic music. Then I started playing jugalbandis with great artists from other systems of music. I got opportunities to play for jazz programs. I have been performing with the famous Belgian troupe Aka Moon for the past 15 years. I also played in fusion programs and for rap music. I have played in taniavartanam programs with different kinds of instruments. I have also set music for a fashion show and played mrudangam for it.
The basic fact underlying all this is that the nAdam present in mrudangam and the knowledge we gain in the field makes the mrudangam suitable for playing with different styles of music and makes people appreciate the instrument and the way it is played.
… on the exchange of ideas and experiences with musicians outside India…
A lot of exchange of ideas has happened and is happening. Initially there was a lot of interest in Hindustani music and people from abroad used to come to North India to learn it. They also got attracted to Carnatic music and the richness in it. The main thing in fusion and jazz is manodharmam (improvisation) and there is a lot of opportunity for it in Carnatic music. For example, Fabrizio Cassol, who is a member of the Aka Moon troupe and an internationally renowned Saxaphone artist has been visiting Chennai during music season for the past 25 years. There are many more people who are coming and hearing/learning Carnatic music. There are many artists who are taking things from our music and our music and instruments are becoming increasingly famous at the global level.
… on the use of mrudangam in Tamil film industry …
In olden days, when people like G. Ramanathan, K.V. Mahadevan etc where there, mrudangam was to be played live. Carnatic music was heard on stage even in dramas. M.K. Thiagaraja Bhagavathar, T.R. Mahalingam etc used to sing directly in movies and mrudangam would be played along with them. A lot of other instruments have also been included in orchestra since then, which is good because creativity is there even though the tradition has been preserved.
There was a movie called Mrudanga Chakravarthi which focused on giving a separate high status to mrudangam. Sivaji Ganesan starred in this movie as a mrudanga vidwan. I played for him. People still call me up remembering the way I played mrudangam for the climax scene. The good part of all this was that mrudangam became famous among the masses. Even a porter in the railway station who used to say ‘tabla’ on seeing a mrudangam earlier now said “Mrudangam is there. Handle it carefully”.
I have also played mrudangam in the movie “Anniyan”.
Mrudangam is used a lot these days in Tamil movies
… on the use of mrudangam in background scores and what situations can be depicted using mrudangam …
A variety of emotions and situations can be portrayed. We can play mElkAlam suiting the way a person is running fast. In the movie Mrudanga Chakravarthy, there was a scene where Prabhu is supposed to be playing the mrudangam. The heroine is walking up the stairs. MSV wanted me to play mrudangam so that their feelings can be portrayed. I played and MSV enjoyed it a lot.
We can play for situations where say lightning and thunder occur, or say a person is running, or a person is thinking etc. We can use editing options to get very good effects
… on his contribution to propagating the art and its knowledge among the next generation and the way he teaches …
There are 3-4 ways in which I am doing this. Carnatic music is sung using a language as a medium. People understand the songs if they know the language. In general, people can recognize tunes and appreciate songs well. To make people appreciate mrudangam in a similar way, I have been conducting lecture demonstrations for the past 40 years in different places. There are exercises in mrudangam, the way there are exercises in vocal music.
What to play and when to play is important. There are places where silence is important. Silence can help attract audiences. They should eagerly wait for you to start playing. They shouldn’t start praying for you to stop playing. We must be the first rasika of the artist for whom we play the mrudangam. Then only we can play very well.
I have covered a lot of topics in my lecture demonstrations like what to play when we are playing alone, what to play when we are playing with other instruments, what is the physics and chemistry behind mrudangam, what kinds of skins are used in the mrudangam, what is the reason why mrudangam is so famous, how can we approximate music using mrudangam etc.
I have tried to impart all this knowledge to a lot of my students, both from India and from abroad. There is no gender or other kind of barrier while accepting students. I am the director of the Tanjavur Vaidyanatha Iyer School of percussion in The Music Academy, Chennai and there are a lot of students who learn all these things there. The more we teach, the more we ourselves gain and improve.
… the correct age to start learning the mrudangam and advice to students …
I started learning when I was five. 7 or 8 might be the right minimum age. But parents must give the child time to learn. They should be willing to spare at least 5-6 years and must not hurry. Parents wait for 12 years for their children to complete school. Why should they then hurry when it comes to performing arts?
There should be lots of interest among the students. They should take it up as an education and not as a hobby. Lot of practice is required. I used to practice for 8-10 hours daily along with studies. If you want to reach your goal, you should borrow your sleeping hours and work for it.
… on his experience of bringing the mrudangam from AC halls and auditoriums to local parks through the Chennai Sangamam initiative …
It was a great experience. People generally go to sabhas and halls to listen to artists. In Chennai Sangamam, the artists come to the people. I played in Natesan park and there was a huge crowd there. After the program ended, a child of about 2-3 came, said the program was fantastic and did namaskaram on Venkatanarayana road. Lot of people came and congratulated me.
Our culture grows and reaches the masses through initiatives like this. Our arts shouldn’t just remain on an ivory tower. When arts grow, artists prosper and the country prospers.