For any and every artist in the music field the passage of fifty years occurs. How fruitful is the point. The very fact of pursuing the profession for fifty years confers a certain amount of competence. That is the general progress of a musician but in the case of a few the fifty years push them to take a leap from being a shishya to a maestro of a class by themselves. Umayalpuram K. Sivaraman occupies such a prominent place in the galaxy of such greats in percussive field.
Sri Thyagaraja in his Devagandhari song “Sitavara” emphatically says that Sangita Gnana has to be ordained by Brahma. It is often thought of that Sangita Gnana has relevance to a vocalist mainly. But is more appropriate for mridangam players for what is music without perfect Kalapramana. How can one fix the correct Kalapramana on the mridangam when a vocalist sings the first syllable? He has to wait till the vocalist completes an avartanam and the firm up the kalapramana on the mridangam. In this connection I can record an incident that Umayalpuram Sivaraman himself told me when I interviewed him for “The Masters” feature in the “The Hindu”. He was nostalgic when he recalled his memory on several occasions when he accompanied Sri. Ariyakudi Ramanuja Iyengar.
I quote from memory
“I had accompanied Ariyakudi on many occasions. Every time he sang an Alapana I would expect him to sing “Amba Nannu Brovare”. Ariyakudi always disappointed me. After many such experiences, in a cutcheri in Bombay he sang Todi and I had by then given- up hopes of this Todi song from him. But he sprang a surprise and sang in great spirits “Amba Nannu Brovare”. I was thrilled and mustered all my laya resources to get a good chit from Ariyakudi. After performance was over, I spoke to the great Vidwan and frankly told him that I fervently desired on earlier occasions to play for that song during his performances.
Umayalpuram Sivaraman kept silent for a minute to add suspense to his story with a broad smile extending from ear to ear. He said “Do you know what Ariyakudi said? “All these years I was not quite sure that you can fix up Kalapramana for the Kirtana properly. That is why I did not sing this song. Because now I am confident you have that laya gnanam, I sang the Kirtana today.
That was the way mridangists of the caliber of Umayalpuram Sivaraman were put to test by great vocalists and if he stands supreme in the field today, imagine how many such Agnipravesams he has gone through in his formative years.
It is good that great Vidwan put the accompanists to test. But they must have the frame of mind to absorb the subtleties nuances that go to make playing on the mridangam great. That is really Sadhana to keep the mind alert to get a photographic impression of the challenge a vocalist throws and to make the mind revolve round this and practice at home. It is here that Brahma’s benefaction of Sangita Gnana comes into the picture. Umayalpuram Sivaraman in this respect has been very fortunate to have had the blessings of Brahma.
How has this blessing led him in his career – He is from Umayalpuram, the great sanctuary of Thyagaraja tradition from Krishna Bhagavathar and Sundara Bhagavathar to Sivaraman himself. Who were his gurus? Aarupathi Natesa Iyer, Thanjavur Vaidyanatha Iyer, Palghat Mani Iyer and Kumbakonam Rangu Iyengar.
Today, he is integrating in his play the particular excellences of each guru. Towards aesthetic guidance he has the Guru Parampara. The mind may absorb, but the fingers too have to absorb the nuances to reflect the mind’s laya blue prints. The perfect co-ordination between laya imagery and impeccable expression is what makes Umayalpuram Sivaraman stand out as a towering mridangam artiste. The outstanding technique of Umayalpuram Sivaraman is the way he laces his korvais with half chappu, full chappu and gumukies. These are not learnt but have to come intuitively. Brahma has also been very generous in conferring on Sivaraman the gift of Mridanga nada. Erudition without nada is barren. When Sruthi clinging nada tones garnish percussive patterns, the true purpose of mridangam accompaniment ‘Sogasugha Mridanga Taalamu’ as Thyagaraja exclaimed is realized. That is Umayalpuram Sivaraman, the Umayalpuram lineage. The Kataksham of his gurus, his poorva janma punya manifested through Brahma’s blessings and his own indefatigable sadhakam have made what Umayalpuram Sivaraman what he is to-day.
(Article written on Dr. Umayalpuram K Sivaraman’s completion of 50 Years of service to Carnatic Music)