musings on music and life

January 26, 2016


Filed under: Carnatic Music — Tags: , — sankirnam @ 10:45 am

U     K     S.

Umayalpuram K. Sivaraman.

U     K     S.


The three initials that denote excellence not just in mrudangam, or Carnatic music, or percussion, or music in general, but excellence in life.

It’s exceedingly rare that you actually feel grateful to be alive at the same time as another person; I can count on my fingers the individuals who evoke that kind of deep respect from me. Umayalpuram Sivaraman sir is one such person.

The 80th birthday of this extraordinary vidwan was celebrated today at the Madras Music Academy – details can be found here. These celebrations were originally going to be held on the 5th of December last year, but were postponed to today due to the crazy flooding in Chennai at that time. I was initially going to title this post “Happy Birthday UKS Sir!”, but since his birthday is actually on December 17, I changed it lest people accuse me of spreading misinformation on the internet *rollseyes*.

I’ve been meaning to write on UKS sir for a while now, since I have written about Palghat Mani Iyer and Palani Subramania Pillai previously, and the apropos time has come!

I feel extremely privileged to be a part of Sivaraman sir’s bani; my guru Neyveli Narayanan sir is one of his senior students, making UKS sir my grand-guru. I remember at my arangetram many years ago, he mentioned he was very glad to see his pera-sishya (grand-student) keeping up his traditions.

There is nothing I can say about Umayalpuram Sivaraman sir here that isn’t already inscribed in the annals of Carnatic Music history; nonetheless, I can give a personal perspective on his music. I have listened to countless recordings of his concerts, and have had the good fortune of being able to attend his live concerts over the past several years. Each is a gem, and Sivaraman sir brings 100% to every concert, regardless of whether he is performing with senior or junior vidwans. When I was younger, I would be giddy with excitement from the anticipation of actually getting to hear this legendary musician live. I particularly remember actually shaking with excitement during his concert, and actually getting goosebumps (usually that is used as an expression, but it actually happened to me)! I also vividly recall sleepless nights after his concerts going over how he played for every song, sangathi, kalpana phrase, and the sequences in his thani.

As with anything in music, you can write volumes and volumes about an artist or a piece of music, but nothing compares to actually listening to it. It’s like the saying, “a picture is worth a thousand words”. Let’s go!

This is a particularly famous piece of music among Carnatic music collectors. The thani UKS sir plays after the krithi Shri Valli Devasenapathe is noteworthy mainly for the incredibly fast kalapramanam (tempo)! Sivaraman sir makes it look so easy, and even with the thalam going at this incredibly fast speed, he still manages to pull off some super-fast farens phrases. The approach he uses in the thani is also unique, as he brings in a sort of tabla flavor with some of his teka phrases.

It might seem unusual to put a clip from a Tamil movie here, but this is very germane to the topic of this post. Umayalpuram Sivaraman was a “mrudangam consultant” for the Tamil movie Mridanga Chakravarthy (Emperor of Mrudangam), in which Sivaji Ganesan acted as the main character.

UKS-Sivaji Ganesan

Sivaji Ganesan and Umayalpuram K. Sivaraman.

In any case, Sivaji Ganesan’s overacting aside, the clip features a high-voltage mrudangam performance by Umayalpuram Sivaraman sir and the late Madurai T. Srinivasan. UKS sir does the mrudangam for Sivaji in the movie, and the final climax is something I’ve listened to over and over. I am still at a loss for how someone can possibly have such amazing skill, stamina, power, speed, and ultimately, precision in his or her playing! This amazing performance may not have been recorded on the fancy equipment we have today, but nonetheless, Sivaraman sir’s artistry shines through.

I mentioned the word precision in the previous paragraph. This particular clip demonstrates that in spades. Umayalpuram Sivaraman is playing a thani in Adi thalam 2 kalai (16 beat cycle) to the thalam provided by an electronic rhythm box. Thus, there is no room for error! Human thalam will subconsciously adjust since our hearing process is dynamic; playing for the static beat of a machine is a huge challenge. Again, UKS sir makes this look so easy, playing some relatively complex korvais absolutely accurately to this thalam!

I’ve used the word “play” quite a bit here, as in the sentence “Umayalpuram Sivaraman plays the mrudangam”. But in the case of Sivaraman sir, it is literally playing! The mrudangam literally becomes a plaything in his hands, and the thalam is like a toy. This is the result of discipline and hours upon hours of dedicated, consistent practice over the years.

This clip was actually played earlier today at the Music Academy as part of UKS sir’s 80th birthday celebrations. They mentioned that UKS sir had accompanied the doyen Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer for thousands of concerts over a 40+ year span. As a result, UKS sir and Semmangudi developed such chemistry that some of their concert recordings are still sought after by collectors and students. This is a clip of Thyagaraja’s Maarubalka, a krithi that Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer popularized and took to great heights. The climactic buildup in the anupallavi by Sivaraman sir and the crescendo of farens phrases in the pallavi after the anupallavi is marvelous, as demonstrated by the thunderous applause that follows. This is taken from a concert at the Madras Music Academy in 1968, with Lalgudi Jayaraman on violin.

Umayalpuram Sivaraman sir’s solo albums also deserve mentioning. Garland of RhythmDrums of India, and Laya-Dhara are all spectacular demonstrations of the infinite potential of the mrudangam in Sivaraman sir’s hands. In fact, Drums of India was recorded in just one take with the thalam provided by an electronic rhythm box! Any serious student of mrudangam or even percussion in general should buy these; these albums are worth listening to over and over.

Umayalpuram Sivaraman sir was also one of the pioneers in digitizing all the lessons in his bani, releasing a set of DVDs covering everything from the basics of mrudangam to advanced lessons. Mridanga Chintamanih  and Mridangam Moras & Korvais are aimed at students of mrudangam or anyone with an interest to learn. Of course, these do not substitute for actual instruction from a dedicated, involved guru.

There are many, many krithis where Umayalpuram Sivaraman sir has put his authoritative stamp on how the composition should be accompanied. Krithis like Maarubalka, Thaye Yashodha, and Bhogeendrashayeenam, among others, are all accompanied now following Sivaraman sir’s style.

This thani is taken from a concert with Dr. M. Balamuralikrishna in 1962, which would make Umayalpuram Sivaraman sir 27 years old at the time of this concert. Already one can see the establishment of the “UKS stamp”, with the use of araichapu phrases and the mel kalam tisram farens phrases. This thani also concludes with a mohara and korvai in tisram, which became a trademark of UKS sir, and one of the surefire ways to identify him in a recording.

Kanjira vidwan K. V. Gopalakrishnan uploaded this last piece, and I think his words suffice:

Speed, Clarity and Perfection personified. This is Instrument Handling at THE highest level. Pranaams & Salutes.

To finish, Many Many (belated) Happy Returns of the day to Umayalpuram Sivaraman sir! The celebration today at the Music Academy was simply unforgettable, and done in a grand style befitting a vidwan who has elevated mrudangam artistry to the world stage.

P. S. This is the first post I’ve written about a a vidwan so far that isn’t an obituary! I am glad that this belongs to Sivaraman sir, who I hope will be able to serve as a beacon to the music community for several more decades.



  1. What an informative post. I really enjoyed this

    Comment by anotherclosethippie — February 5, 2016 @ 7:14 am

  2. […] several times! I mentioned this particular thani by Umayalpuram Sivaraman sir in a previous post, and it is worth rementioning; the UKS stamp is clearly present from the araichapu phrases to the […]

    Pingback by Dr. M. Balamuralikrishna | musings on music and life — November 23, 2016 @ 12:54 am

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