It was in 1959-60 that I have seen Umayalpuram K Sivaraman learning from my father. He used to come for very few classes for formal learning. My father used to sit on a bench and teach. At one time, he used to come regularly to Tanjavur in the mornings from Kumbakonam. More than my father, he was attached to my mother. The reason was, my mother was compassionate towards students who did not have a mother. All such students, including KVN, Tanjavur Ramdas, Umayalpuram K Sivaraman and couple of others were given special treatment. Whenever my father was strict with students, my mother used to talk to the students and give them something to eat and console them. Sivaraman used to speak very little to my father and interestingly, go via the side lane in our house and sit with my mother and chat with her.
Sivaraman learnt more by listening and practising on his own. Being a person who went after perfection, he worked hard, would absorb the nuances by listening and reflect the same in his playing. My father never insisted in copying a particular style. His belief was that, the student should think of his guru for his benign blessings and those divine thoughts would result in the playing, where it would seem, as if the guru was sitting in the student’s hands and playing the concert. In one of my conversations with Sivaraman, he mentioned an interesting incident. My father, Palghat Sri Mani Iyer, once when he was teaching Sivaraman, played a ‘sollu’ and asked Sivaraman to play the same, which Sivaraman hesitated for some reason. Then, he commanded him to play it and finding Sivaraman silent, he repeated the same. Then Sivaraman obeyed the command only to find that he had executed the same to the satisfaction of his guru! Such could be the power of guru’s words.
Accompaniment in concerts
There was an incident where in Tiruvaiyaru Thyagaraja aradhana, it was prestigious for anyone to perform. In one year, Sattur Subramaniam was singing and Sivaraman was accompanying. Palghat Sri Mani Iyer, who was listening to the concert, asked Sivaraman to play a tani. It was a much talked about concert later as to why Sri Mani Iyer asked Sivaraman to play the tani.
Sivaraman follows Palghat Sri Mani Iyer’s style to a large extent. I have personally not heard Arupathi Sri Natesa Iyer or Kumbakonam Sri Rengu Iyengar. But, Sivaraman so closely follows Palghat Sri Mani Iyer that musicians opine that the styles were very similar. Mr G B Doraisamy, son of the legendary Sri G N Balasubramaniam, on many occasions, would come to me with recordings and ask me to identify the mridangamvidwan – was it Palghat Sri Mani Iyer or was it Umayalpuram Sivaraman?
In fact, in certain keethanas – like Amba Kamakshi, Amba nanu brova, Hecharikarara, etc., for a rasika who doesn’t go into the technicalities of mridangam playing, one would wonder if it is Sivaraman or is it a Palghat Sri Mani Iyer accompanying on the mridangam. Sivaraman would be exactly following the song like how Sri Mani Iyer does. Especially playing for the Misra Chapu tala, you could see the heavy influence of Sri Mani Iyer in Sivaraman’s playing.
Sri D K Jayaraman himself would say that his son Sri J Vaidyanathan could not listen to Sri Mani Iyer as he was very young and hence he should listen to Umayalpuram Sivaraman. In fact, there is an interesting video (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dgyxYHPt2Jk) where Sri D K Jayaraman says that it reminds him of Sri Mani Iyer when Sivaraman plays a particular sollu to embellish the krithi that Sri D K Jayaraman sings.
All these point to an important aspect of Sivaraman’s learning – he learnt how to reach the audience. He was very keen on this. Instead of projecting himself, he focused in lifting the concert to great heights. This is the ideology of Palghat Sri Mani Iyer, which Sivaraman faithfully follows. He would win the confidence of both the musicians and rasikas through this route.
Sivaraman’s involvement in cutcheris has astonished me. At a time when Palghat Sri Mani Iyer trust was begun, a demo was given for simhanandanam pallavi. Sri Vancheeyam Ramachandra Iyer was singing accompanied by Sivaraman on the mridangam and V Nagarajan on the kanjira. After the concert, V Nagarajan was saying “I am relieved the concert is over. Sivaraman really grilled me during this concert!“. To me, this really conveyed the level of perfection that Sivaraman strives for, including extracting the best from his fellow artistes. This is a critical aspect that any professional should learn – whether he is a lawyer, an engineer, etc., on the level of hard work, dedication and perfection that is required.
There was a youngster for whom Sivaraman had agreed to accompany. Well before the concert, Sivaraman asked him the entire list of songs that he was planning to sing. The youngster was reserved, because he was speaking to such a renowned vidwan. Respectfully, he answered with only the few pieces that were highlights. But, Sivaraman insisted in going through the entire list of songs that was planned for the concert. The intention of asking this was not because Sivaraman cannot play for a particular song. He has played for mahavidwans who had sung a wide repertoire of krithis. It was only with the objective of ensuring that the youngster was completely prepared for the concert. After all this, just before the concert began, he told the youngster to sing freely, whatever comes to his mind, not necessarily what he had told Sivaraman! His ultimate intention was that the concert should be successful. This approach, I have seen it with my father, who used to say, “playing extempore is one thing. However, if possible, if there is an opportunity, I will ask them to sing, as a rehearsal. I might have played this any number of times before, but, at that instance, I want to listen as to how that artiste is executing. It would be certainly different, since the version of the song after so much of practise, would have grown!” So, the same approach is what Sivaraman has taken. I can say therefore he follows Palghat Sri Mani Iyer 100%.
When it comes to Sruthi, he will ask singers for their scale. Again, on the day of the concert, he will call them again to check. They might have potential issues with their throat or it may be better that particular day. So, over the phone, he would ask for the sruthi and tune the vadyam. Thus, this occupies a very important part of the preparation for a concert.
I would say, that there is nothing more to cover. If any artiste has all these, it is more than enough to be fully qualified as a mridangavidwan.
I distinctly remember a concert in 1975, at the Gayana Samaj series in Bangalore. It was Sri Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer, Sri T N Krishnan and Sri Sivaraman. Semmangudi sang ‘Amba Kamakshi’. I could not sleep the whole night after the concert because the way Sivaraman played was thrilling. I have heard my father Sri Mani Iyer play for this any number of times. But this was a very good concert that left an indelible impression.
Likewise, there was another concert of Sri D K Jayaraman. At the end of the concert, I met him and what he said, in typical Madras slang, “Sivaraman lifted the concert today… much like what Palghat Sri Mani Iyer would do… he motivated me to sing even more intensely… it was wonderful”
LP record was introduced in 1958. Sri Mani Iyer was requested to play a tala vadya kutcheri with Viswa flute. He did that with 2 thanis. It was such a successful recording but Sri Mani Iyer never listened to it even once. Sri Mani Iyer always spoke about the singer, violin vidwan and the entire structure of the concert. But never ever has he spoken about his own playing. During those days radio concerts were popular. Sri Mani Iyer never listened to radio or recordings of his concerts. But when Sivaraman was playing, he used to say, please let me know when Thani is coming an used to listen to this alone in a separate place with rapt attention, with the radio tuned to minimal volume and would walk away once the tani was over.
On the Style of playing
Sri Mani Iyer believed that one should seek the blessings of his / her guru. What will be displayed in the concert would be an output where the guru would provide the impetus in the hands of the performer. This was his staunch belief on guru bhakthi though he never believed in playing exactly like a guru. A GNB, Ariyakudi or Musiri did not copy their Gurus. They had immense bakthi. GNB had so much bakthi on Ariyakudi Ramunuja Iyengar for instance (as told by Sri Mani Iyer), that as a young lad, GNB would sit in the front row and keep the tala for Ariyakudi’s concert. GNB could be identified in every single concert of Ariyakudi during those days. With this inspiration, GNB developed his own style. This was the evolution that Sri Mani Iyer approved of.
Electronic metronome is an instrument that keeps the talam and playing to the beat of this machine is very difficult and is like walking on razor’s edge. Such an instrument was completely designed and fabricated by my brother Palghat Sri T R Rajamani. There were many mrudanga vidwans who came home and played with it. The instrument being unforgiving, everyone took a few minutes to settle down before playing for its beat. But, Sivaraman who came, hit the road right from the word ‘go’ and played with it instantaneously, thus demonstrating the dexterity and the control over laya that he has. It is a hallmark of excellence for any mridanga vidwan.
This was shared as an interview and article on the occasion of the 80th birthday of the Dr. Umayalpuram K Sivaraman.