Mighty at eighty: Umayalapuram Sivaraman

UKS in live concert_Vasanthapura_Bangalore_Jan7-2015

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 MaUKSivaramannjunath.  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…


4 thoughts on “Mighty at eighty: Umayalapuram Sivaraman”

  1. This article mentions that the descendants of PMI even “exceeded” the great man. This is utter nonsense. No one can and no one ever will surpass the brilliance of PMI — unless, of course, he is reincarnated in the form of an upcoming artiste. I don’t see that in the immediate circumstances of our Carnatic music scene where all young ones strive for ‘noise’ and ahambhavam more than the aesthetics of pure music. Yes! Sri Sivaraman is an accomplished artiste; he is blessed with a long life; he is continuing to perform. He has won more Padma awards than PMI. But as a senior citizen who has spent countless hours of PMI’s accompanying all sorts of artistes thanks to a generous dose of rare tapes from Sri Palghat T R Rajamani sir I can vouch that the tonal quality and the ‘timing!!!’ by the Abhinavanandi cannot be emulated even by the likes of Sri Sivaraman. Even PMI’s own prime pupil Sri Raghu could not surpass him. I must say that Sri Raghu was indeed superior to Sri Sivaraman. I have tapes to prove it. The other day I was listening to Semmangudi with his nasal twangs singing a boring rendering of Ambujam Krishna Thodi song. Suddenly, Semmangudi picks the tempo up with complicated and fast swarams every one of the phrases repeated with mild tones by the great PMI bringing the rendering to a thunderous conclusion. PMI with his genius gave — time after time — way to Alangudi Ramachandran thus inciting our craving for more PMI. When the singer stops, so does PMI’s fingering. That takes a lifetime of devotion, a complete knowledge of the sahithya and a sincere dedication in the pursuit of surrender to perfection. Yes! PSP and CSM came close to it. But PMI with his instinctive silence yielding precious prime time to upa pakkavaya arttistes can never be matched. With those thayambaka infused beats within mathematically designed beats as Thrithala did on his chenda PMI stood supreme. And he shall reign supreme — for ever. I thank Rajamani Sir for all those precious cassettes for me to hang on to those precious mridangam sounds. No percussion any where in our vast universe can or will match the intricacies of our mridangam.

    1. @ Kanthikumar, dear sir.. I appreciate your high regards for PMI. He was indeed one of the best ever. Some of my most favourite recordings of PMI are his playing with MDR. With my limited capacity, I can only say good things about great artistes. PMI was an ideal artiste and an exemplary human being. In a documentary Palghat Raghu paid a fine tribute to his guru when he said that the best award he ever received was an award from Krisha Gana Sabha, where his Guru PMI presented the award to him.

  2. And he also mentions about his grandmother along with parents. I do not know if he mentioned that day 🙂 But he always fondly recalls her and how she got him his first khanjira(a photo of which is there on the internet)

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