The South Indian percussion instrument Mridanga had many great exponents who brought the best out of its tonal and rhythmic qualities. Many in my generation could not listen to the live concerts of Palghat Mani Iyer and his ilk. The generation that came after the golden trio (PMI, PSP and CSM) really did live up to (sometimes exceeded) the standards set by their teachers. One of them was Palghat Raghu and I think of him at least once whenever I think of the Mridanga. A contemporary of Raghu is touching 80 now and he is still going as strong as ever. Umayalapuram Sivaraman invokes a sense of awe in every fan of Carnatic music, particularly those who love percussion.
It was a rare treat on Wednesday (Jan 7, 2015, Vasantha Pura, Bangalore) that we had an opportunity to listen live to Sivaraman playing the Mridanga in accompaniment to the Violin duo of Mysore Nagaraj and Mysore Manjunath. It was deeply moving to see so many people surrounding the artistes and not leaving a single empty spot anywhere near the stage, not even on the stairs next to the shaamiyaana (see photo). Musicians and general connoisseurs alike, all were in awe of Sivaraman, the 80 year old teenager, who was in complete control of the situation.
One of the hallmarks of Sivaraman is his sense of kaala pramaaNa (tempo of a taaLa). The clarity in his furn play is almost unmatched by any other living artiste. I guess I could go on. But, I think the occasion that day was more to do with feeling lucky that we witnessed an artiste of outstanding merit. After the concert Sivaraman spoke for a few minutes and attributed his success as a Mridanga artiste to five elements (pancha bhoota). He said and I quote “I bow to the five elements, to the almighty, to my parents, to my illustrious teachers, to sringeri sankaraachaarya, and the great musicians of the 20th century who gave me opportunities to come up the ladder of name and fame in this field”.
Sivaraman was studious during the concert and naughty afterwards. During the valedictory address Anoor Ananthakrishna Sharma (Shivu) remarked that Sivaraman was 19 years old and would play the instrument for a 5 hour concert next year. Sivaraman laughed and quipped “ask my wife!” He looked free. He was playful.
Most musicians follow a bell shaped curve in their career. They get better during the early part of their career and then decline after a certain age. Some rare artistes blossom very late in their lives while some unfortunate artistes start on a high note but never scale those heights again. Only a few we know follow the path of a musical instrument and get better and better as they get older and they stay…