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Margazhi Musings- Octogenarian Umayalpuram Mama a Maverick Mirudangist

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Narasimhan Vijayaraghavan
Narasimhan Vijayaraghavan
The author is practicing advocate in the Madras High Court

Imagine Sir Isaac Vivian Alexander, the West Indian master blaster, all of 82 years at the Lords. Planting his left leg out, at that age, and  arrogantly too, even while chewing gum disdainfully, and picking up a yorker, delivered at his feet, and heave ho over square leg, from where the fielder was just moved. Stunning and stupefying, it sure would be. It is a shot that is not given to any and many.

Only a genius of his calibre, is capable of dismissing the bowlers not the ball, as Cardus eulogised Sir Donald Bradman. He always intended to dominate and shone brighter than all the performers, including his team mates. And on his day, he made the audience/everyone around, dance to  his music, in  joy, as well as made them cry and cry for more. At 82, the man looks good for many more and his fingers played magic on the wood. (He has of course invented a Mirudangam made of glass), It seems the man consciously avoided shaking hands for fear of injuring his fingers which were his ‘life divine’, as he put it. Excuse me, one is talking about Sangita Kalanidhi (Padma Bhushan, Padma Vibhushan, Padma Shri) Umayalpuram Sivaraman, the Mirudangam maestro, at the Music Academy, on 24th Dec, 2019, at 18.45 hrs, accompanying Sikkil Gurucharan. Let us accept and say Sikkil sang  to Sivaraman’s tunes. Not an insult, by any means, considering the class, pedigree and standing of Sivaraman.

Listen to this exchange between two pairs of rasikas, as we were coming out. It captures the quintessence of who Sivaraman is and where he is placed in the pantheon of performers. Rasika 1, “Sir, Was it fair for Umayalpuram to swallow the youngster Sikkil, the way he did it.” Rasika 2, “Sir, it is blasphemous of you to even think so. Sikkil must be revelling in the shadow of Sivaraman. That Umayalpuram accompanied him, is total recognition from the master blaster. Sikkil would feel proud to be on Academy stage with the nonpareil octogenarian”.  Rasika 3, “Adi, Thani Avarthanam time (when the percussionists are given their exclusive space) is always time for the Rasikas to take leave of the concert. But when it is Umayalpuram Mama, the rasikas stay put and rush to the hall from even the canteen. He is mesmerising. Wonder what his fingers are made of. The ease with which he thumps the two sides of the Mirudangam, seems as if he is  gracefully extracting the swarams which are already packed inside.” Rasika 4, “True. Even you were disciplined enough not to leave during Thani Avarthanam, which the artistes and I always found offensive. But could never persuade you otherwise. Umayalpuram is a godsend for the likes of you.” Mami’s repartee to Mama was  a perfect jibe.

Sivaraman was formally trained by more than four Gurus but he was his own Man for he never sacrificed his ‘originality’ to  stamp his class,  the world over. Whenever he performed, he made the ‘others’ dance to his tune  and the audience thronged to see him, in the act. His dexterity and skill set  to be at the forefront and outdo the others, ‘got the goat of his fellow performers, but he cared little’ as master critic Subbudu mused. And Umayalpuram says, at 82, why should he change? Yes, why should he change? We love you, Mama,  the way you are.

Initiated into his discipline, at all of 5 years, and performing on stage for over 75 years now, with a host of performers, his 80th birthday was celebrated, a couple of years ago, with artistes from the world over,  paying their respects/tributes to the one and only Umayalpuram Sivaraman.

It was a Kaleidiscopic day to remember with strobe lights and all, not only for the master but for the huge assembly at the Academy, throughout the day, in highlighting the multifaceted maestro and his brilliant essays on various stages. The anecdotes that each one shared conveyed the virtuoso of the player m, born to dominate and carry the day for the team he performed, even as he excelled himself all the time. The artistes and academicians on stage were singularly poetic about the grammar of his music,   yet the innovations he brought to bear which he only was capable of.

It was a memorable day then, drawn to a close, when the hero of the day gave his moving acceptance speech. To begin with, he opened with a cricketing metaphor and conceded that despite his finesse, skill, training, experience and ability gained over the years, on stage, this one day he was clean bowled first ball just as Sir Don scored a Duck, bowled by Eric Hollies of England, in his final test appearance. Probably misty eyed. He said that it was a humbling experience for someone who merely pursued his passion for 75 years and made a living out of it too and had the opportunity to go places and make friends too, including his companion for over 50 years, his better half.

There is even a documentary Overtone- by Rajiv Menon- the award winning cinematographer- with no Overtones of Eulogy, but a straight  from the heart, frank as it was- capturing the essence of Sivaraman,  not only as a performer par excellence but as a simple human being too.

His mystical, musical journey has included, accompanying almost all the greats of Carnatic Music as Ariyakudi Ramanuja Aiyangar, Alathur Brothers, Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer, the roll call of rock stars, as it were, and now playing with the same felicity, eagerness and enthusiasm, not for, but with the younger lot. He  has always been effusive in praising the cultural connect that his musical journey has been and the breaking of all divisions, across barriers and all across the world.

Yet, Yet, Yet, what is true is that he has never ever performed on stage, as an accompanying mirugandist, to female vocalists or instrumentalists. Not even to M S Subbulakshmi, D K Pattammal, M L Vasanthakumari. While he regards, respects his better half, and never fails to give her the due, it is stupefying as to why he has never performed as accompanist to female performers. Why? Is he a misogynist? Does he think they were ‘lesser’ performers? He has never gone on record and the mystery and speculation continue. So be it, as a fascinating, unexplained, unexplored, unrevealed  facet of this maverick Jambavan of percussion instruments.

Incidentally, Sikkil Gurucharan sang beautifully and as any other vocalist, yielded space to Umayalpuram mama willingly, lest Mama a la King Richards, put his foot out to stamp his class. Sivaraman’s tete e tete with Guruprasad on the Kanjira was no interlude or interference,  but took its place left, right and centre, keeping the throng, including Sikkil and Sanjeev on the violin,  in a trance.

(Author- Narasimhan Vijayaraghavan-  is practising advocate in the Madras High Court)

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Narasimhan Vijayaraghavan
Narasimhan Vijayaraghavan
The author is practicing advocate in the Madras High Court
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