Interview With Sangitha Kalanidhi, Sri T. N. Seshagopalan

Among the various facets of Indian classical music, the colossal role played by mrudangam in embellishing Carnatic music is well known. The characteristic feature of this great art expresses itself through the sruthi aligned ‘sollus’ and does not have swaram per se.

There have been many prodigious artistes who fervently embraced this divine art which was propagated by none other than Shri Nandikeswara himself and with their sense of deep commitment and thorough involvement, raised this art form to the highest level and in the process reigned as undisputable monarchs in the field of Carnatic music. Among many such illustrious artistes, Palghat Sri T S Mani Iyer, Pazhani Sri Subramania Pillai, Ramanathapuram Sri C S Murugaboopathy were stalwarts who enriched the Carnatic percussion world with their seminal contributions. As a torchbearer for the subsequent generation, we all can acclaim, without an iota of doubt, Umayalpuram Sri K Sivaraman as a Chakravarthy who continues to enthrall us.

During my younger days…
I have been listening to Sivaraman Anna as a rasika ever since I was 10 years old. In that young age, the lasting impression that his art left behind in my mind was in the arena of being both cognitive and incognitive.  Once I was able to decipher these at a later stage, when I learnt to analyse the same and give shape to the expressions of the various aspects of ‘naada’, I was pleasantly surprised and applauded myself for interpreting these to get to the inner truth behind the patterns. That was the impact of Sivaraman Anna’s mrudanga naadam on me. I grew up listening to the display of such great proponents.

As a youngster, when you attend concerts, you are more attracted by many events that take place around the concert. During such occasions in Madurai when I used to listen to concerts, I was captivated by the stunning presence with which Sivaraman Anna sat on stage, his demeanor, charisma, dress sense, and the style with which he played with minimalistic movements of his body, was enthralling and to describe this in today’s language – it was “smart and super”!

In radio concerts, whenever Sivaraman Anna plays, his vadyam would sound distinct and would be clearly picked up by the ‘Shure’ mikes of the recording studios. The vadyam would come to life and manifest itself in the beautiful way the syllables speak for themselves from the right side of the mrudangam. The quality and clarity of the syllables is akin to topping the sprinkling of flowers from a fragrant bouquet with a prevailing perfume and there are not many who disagree that they are astounded by his artistry in the music world. I have enjoyed listening to this in my younger days and later on when he accompanied me, I have experienced this personally.

Mrudangam vadyam being what it is, the way one can typically accompany would be to play particular syllables that matches the volume, at which the main artiste performs. But for Sivaraman Anna, it’s different.  He could play at any kaala pramaana, any volume and while doing so, the output would be consistent with high quality and clarity that is characterized by the texture and azhutham of the syllables that are being deployed.

Should we call this a gift, blessings, good deeds that his ancestors performed, resultant of a boon that he acquired? Above all, it is the hard work and determination that takes to practise this art. We have a role model and living example in Umayalpuram Sri Sivaraman who has translated this with the type of practice that can be described as “tapas” with the dedicated focus or “eka aagraha chintai” or “Tat eva smaranam”, single-minded devotion to achieve the perfection that is reflected in his artistry that we see, when he performs. Further, I would say that the fingers that play on the mrudangam should have brains, meaning, there should not be any time delay between thought and action. In order to achieve this, everything that happens around you, including the daily routines should revolve around this single-minded focus and be one with you in flesh and blood. Only then will this talent flourish and that is the hallmark of a great artiste. If this is the mandate to become an artiste, then the person who is proving the same is Umayalpuram Sri Sivaraman.

Approach to concerts
Sivaraman Anna always approaches concerts whole-heartedly. The accompanists typically follow the main artiste and can only reciprocate what the main artiste produce. However, in circumstances where the main artiste hesitates for whatever reason, Sivaraman Anna would diplomatically handle it and bring out the nuances without hurting the main artiste. In fact, the style of playing itself would bring out the best in the main artiste. Sivaraman Anna is a great influence on many mrudangam artistes of today, to the extent that many of them follow his bani and if we analyse from where this has come, it would clear that Sivaraman Anna’s bani has been followed. This is a great contribution to the mrudangam fraternity. The hallmark of a genius is to understand one’s capability and ensure that the person builds on the strengths by weeding out the unnecessary parts that obstruct the progress, build the model through a process, with the guidance of a guru. A shining example of this is Sivaraman Anna.

Ingredients of an artiste
The way he qualified himself academically, learnt from the legends and ensured that the academics did not conflict with his art is a balance that he has achieved.  If he had chosen the path where law was his profession, he would have been very successful and comfortably settled down. He would earned very well but would not have achieved the kind of mental poise that music can give.   But, as they say, only one in many millions will be an artiste and having chosen this path, he has captivated many hearts with his music. We are thankful to Goddess Saraswathi for having influenced him and given him to the music world for rendering the service that stands testimony. His artistry was backed by very strong musical background having been brought up in the golden age of Carnatic music. He was brought up by his father, himself a great musician, in the environment of music legends. He also learnt vocal music as part of his learning.

My guru’s comments on Umayalpuram Sivaraman
My revered guru, Mahavidwan Ramanathapuram Sri C S Sankara Sivam, was a genius and a musician’s musician who was humility personified and was so respected in the musical circles that all performing vidwans used to seek him out to confer his bountiful blessings. This included popular vidwans including Madurai Mani Iyer and Palani Subramania Pillai. He did not reveal his musical abilities and remained humble. Even a genius would never exhibit his skills in my guru’s presence. He had the capability and skill to transform even a child to an outstanding performing artiste within a certain period of time. His musical prowess included the ability to recapitulate and articulate many kirtanas and related aspects, with photographic memory. It was rare to find a person who had the calibre of a musicologist, a maha vidwan, a glorious teacher and a mobile university in classical music, well respected in the music circles.

Being the foremost disciple of Harikesanallur Dr Muthiah Baghavathar, my guru, Ramanathapuram Sri C S Sankara Sivam had his guru kula vasam for not less than 16 years, before he was honoured as the Asthana Vidwan of Ramanathapuram Samasthanam succeeding the great Ramanathapuram Sri Poochi Iyengar.

With such an eminent and knowledgeable person, there was a very interesting incident. There used to be discussions that were a review of concerts by my guru’s colleagues who were octogenarians. One such review was a concert that Sivaraman Anna performed and Dr Seetharama Iyer, one of his close friends, insisted that my guru comment on this concert, as my guru had the competence and came from a laya parampara that had the legendary Laya architect Sri Mamoodiya Pillai of the Pudukottai school who brought the Kanjira vadyam to the Carnatic music world.

On Dr Seetharama Iyer’s insistence, my guru commented thus
‘Thambi’ is educated and has studied law. When an educated person takes to music, you could see the reflection of that culture with the grace and elegance in the style of his performance. I can see the very hard work that has gone behind this display of art. The Tanjavur school’s signature is evident, because of the accomplished great gurus who have taught him. The “meetu and chappu” seemed to be inherited from the likes of maha vidwan, legendary Kumbakonam Sri Azhaga Nambiah Pillai. This was the credential given to Sivaraman Anna for his fingering technique and the natural way of the finger formation. Azhaga Nambiah Pillai’s mrudangam in those days was of a distinct variety. This unique attractive style of playing was well respected by all his contemporaries. The naada that emanated from it, could not be assessed. It was accurate & precise and one that was one with the songs and matched them completely and embellished it while sounding like a ‘honey soaked’ panchamrutham!  ‘Vadya snehitham’ was the hallmark of Azhaga Nambiah Pillai’s art and the presentation was like milk and honey. Some of these cannot be taught and has to be imbibed.

For acquisition of knowledge, one has to be Intelligent, learned and hardworking. If its Umayalpuram Sri Sivaraman, this has to happen. That is not a surprise at all. But, what construes to be a rare gift in this world, which not many possess, is Sivaraman Anna had the fingering technique of Azhaga Nambiah Pillai because of the lessons from illustrious gurus of yester years, who shaped him during his early years of study.

Maturity of playing
Age is normally linked to passage of time and wisdom is supposed to be gained along with it. But in Sivaraman Anna’s case, the wisdom and maturity dawned upon him at an early age thus challenging the traditional process of positive co relation between the two.  In our culture therefore, ‘Gnanam’ is bestowed by the Almighty and we can never say to whom this will occur and when. Its God’s gift and some benefit from His grace. When this happens, we can see the reflection of ‘Aathma balam’, the force and power through which the divinity expresses itself, emanating from the fountainhead of the centricity of a powerful mind.  As an example, I have had the good fortune of learning from the illustrious veteran Kalidakurichi Sri Ramalinga Bhagavathar, with whom I was associated until the last few months of his life. He sang after tuning the tambura to 4 ½ kattai Sruthi and when he sustained on tara sthayi gandharam or madhyamam, for 1 ½ to 2 minutes, the very diety, Ambal  gave the darshan in the form of “raga swaroopa”. One would wonder, where this energy is coming from a 4 feet tall, very weak body that has only bone and skin and required help to stand up! This life in the sareeram, naadam, reengaaram is ‘Aathma balam’ and is resultant of years of tapas. I have been astonished at this experience.

Age therefore is a combination of experience, wisdom and aathma balam that prevails over the physical body and this distinguishes a person from others and shows to the world the presence of a genius. Such a person, Sivaraman Anna, is living amongst us and is a great privilege for all.

Sivaraman Anna’s genius was evident for me, ever since I have known him and I have been listening to his performances from 1957 – 58 onwards and I have had the good fortune of him playing for me right from 1969. A very smiling face, a joyful person, enthusiastic in playing for any concert, signifies his presence. While performing in a concert, he embellishes the song and also raises himself to higher levels of performance. The natural enthusiasm with which he performs is akin to water gushing out of a dam and irrigating the fertile land. His music has done the equivalent of this, irrigating fertile minds of many an audience for engrossing listening.

During the period from 1965 onwards, I have felt a wave of sorts – Umayalpuram Sri K Sivaraman wave. To create this kind of an impact when we had the trinity of mrudangam doyens, Palghat Sri Mani Iyer, Palani Sri Subramania Pillai, Ramanathapuram Sri C S Murugaboopathy, was a substantial achievement. To affix one’s signature as an accompanying artiste, when there were stalwarts of phenomenal stature as main artistes, is a hallmark of a Super Star, in today’s language. This is an unique position established in the minds of rasikas not because of charisma that I spoke of earlier but because of his wonderful art.

Unforgettable concerts
Every concert that Sri Sivaraman Anna has played is unforgettable.  The first concert that he accompanied me was in Sri Krishna Gana Sabha in 1969 with the violin legend Lalgudi Sri Jayaraman and Sri T H Vinayakaram on the ghatam.

Another memorable concert was the one in Karnataka Sangeetha sabha Delhi, during 1970/71, in which Sivaraman Anna and Sri T N Krishnan accompanied me. The successful concert was reviewed by the Illustrated weekly and earned me the title of “Melody Monarch”.

Sivaraman Anna had another great attitude of supporting the main artiste with due respect. He takes enormous interest in ensuring the vadyam to its exact sruthi of the main artiste and the tonal quality of that particular sruthi even today, with the help of the mrudangam repairer for every concert. But in case for whatever reason, the artiste alters the sruthi, he always obliges understandingly and efficiently. This is a great help for the main artiste who has to manage many variables when delivering a concert performance.

Method of playing
Sivaraman Anna’s playing is research oriented. Even though he has all the talent to play, he had an over arching discipline. His diction of playing was to fit the syllables perfectly to the song, to the extent that it would make one feel that there cannot be any other syllable that would suit the song better. ‘Sampradaya’ is a powerful resultant product that has culminated from re search done over generations. This is why it has stayed for long and will continue to stay. In Carnatic music, this role is significant especially since there is adequate scope of creativity. Our elders have given a grammar to this creativity, which has certain definitions that need to be adhered to while executing this structure.

In this art, a genius is characterized by a certain elements of technical superiority that lends differentiation to the style of music presented. Primarily this is related to the content that is displayed by the artiste. This content is typically codified and has strict adherence to fundamental principles. Only then, this would be accepted and would stand the test of time. Else this will only suit that particular individual who is either singing or playing and it would not tantamount to be the de facto standard in the field of music.

Sivaraman Anna’s style of playing adheres completely to these principles and is built on the strong foundation of this well re searched methodology.  Even today, if one were to do a research on Dr Umayalpuram K Sivaraman’s mrudangam art, the person can easily compile a synopsis that defines the research problem along the following dimensions on how he plays for

          Different types of songs (varnam, keerthanas, padams, Javali, Tillanas and Bhajans too, etc)

          Deployment of sarva laghu, melkalam in swaram singing that is both raga bhava oriented and laya pradanam

          Accompaniment to different types of singers (with chinna sareeram, gathra sareeram, brothers), types of instruments (wind, stringed), solos

          Accompaniment to nereval singing

          When and where to play or not to play in the composition

          Evolution of style to interpret the bhaava of the main artiste in rhythmic syllables through the language of mrudangam

          Innovation based on the foundation laid by yester year greats to evolve his own distinct style of playing

          How he is an university by himself for having built a scientific methodology

I take great pleasure in participating in his 80th birthday felicitation and I am thankful for the opportunity that has been given to me to share my experiences. I pray Goddess Meenakshi, the presiding deity of Madurai to bestow Sivaraman Anna a long healthy life like Trikovilur Tapovanam Gnanandagiri Swamigal who is believed to have lived for at least 150 years, in continuing the service to the cause of music and educating many disciples. Thanks again. Namaskaram

This was shared as an interview and article on the occasion of the 80th birthday of the Dr. Umayalpuram K Sivaraman.