SUNAAD RAGHURAM writes: North-west of Mathrumandali Circle in Mysore, perhaps at a distance of less than three fourths-of a kilometre—beyond the hordes of bleating sheep and a bovine assortment of cows and buffaloes that lounge around along the Paduvarahalli main road in carefree abandon, past the ever anchored ‘Shah Pasand’ horse carriage with its black horse tied to a tree, munching a bale of hay—is 8th Cross, Vontikoppal, the headquarters of the Sri Prasanna Vidya Ganapathi Mahotsava Charitable Trust (SPVGMC).
And it is on this road that an annual ritual takes place. A ritual as much devoted to the veneration of the legendary elephant headed Lord Ganesha, he of the voluminous middle with a snake for a belt, the remover of obstacles and the giver of good fortune, as for the sheer joy and exhilaration of Carnatic music lovers.
For it is on this small stretch of dusty road that once every year, during the month of September, a lot many of India’s finest vocalists and instrumentalists perform on a makeshift stage under a large awning set up with serial bulbs and hired red plastic chairs, for rasikas to drink the nectar of a kind of music that is steeped in a tradition of great ancientness.
And it was on this very road that my own ignorance born of a certain prejudice and a lack of exposure to the larger nuances of Carnatic music was consigned, mercifully, to the dark alleys of no return, on a gently cool evening in the company of a few friends last night.
For it was an evening during which the ‘Padma Vibhushan’, the sangeetha kalanidhi Umayalpuram K. Sivaraman, a man endowed with the arcane gift of making a drum encased in strips of wood and closed at the ends with a round casing of tanned leather with a black bull’s-eye mark to it—the mridanga—behave like a beautifully choreographed danseuse in the throes of passionate, obsessive, cataclysmic upheaval at times; a gentle, tender and delicate rosy cheeked baby suckling her loving mother in a state of inclusive calmness at other times; and a cooing damsel ensconced with the fresh whiff of romance at a few other times!
Accompanying the young and exciting Saket Raman, a Carnatic singer who has been blossoming under the tutelage of the legendary Lalgudi Jayaraman and who is surely but unobtrusively pressing the gas pedal on the highway to greatness, the 76-year-old Shivaraman was a virtual study in well rounded extraordinariness when it came to handling the mridanga.
Or was he toying with it?!
And to think that I for one, had for some reason concluded in my mind that the tabla with its almost smooth, honeyed throb and the cascade of a certain well proportioned dulcetness to it which went around in a rhythm of exquisite, well preserved depth as the singer sang his aalaps invariably in the grand Hindustani style with its endless possibilities of improvisation, was the percussion instrument to fall in love with.
The mridanga in comparison, I felt, was a little harsh and crude, not given to the possibility of acoustic refinement. Something that was put to better use during temple rituals amidst the throng of hundreds and thousands of fervent devotees as priests went about chanting mantras in praise of the deity.
But then, I hadn’t heard Umayalpuram Sivaraman, had I?
Seated in concert along with the singer Saket Raman and Sivaraman was Mysore M. Nagaraj, a violinist whose class can elevate you and deposit you on the clouds of intense musical enjoyment; in a state of meditative bliss; a child prodigy who was gifted by god, the fingers to plait a special magic out of the strings that constitute the instrument of his stupendous craft.
Even as Saket Raman began to journey through the various depths and troughs, the channels of his musical expressions, eyes closed and face contorted in a mood of intense expressiveness, it was Umayalpuram Sivaraman who, with his energy and high spiritedness, began to match the ensemble.
The music that he made from his mridanga was one that came forth with an amazing repertoire of a multitude of sounds ranging from the crisp, clear notes of methodical rhythmic repetitiveness to the deep, almost guttural, denseness of a certain set of beats to a virtual coaxing, cajoling, enticing and charming delicateness. Nagaraj on the other hand, with his curly-haired handsomeness and a stage presence that not many can come close to, created his own brand of never failing melody to match with his violin.
Shivaraman’s smile every now and then in the midst of it all; his delicate glances at his accompanying disciple, Krishna Prasad, urging him to play with confidence; the sheer speed of his wizened fingers as they went about in a frenzy of unfailing beats always perfectly in tune with the musical situation; the flourish with which he would close his rendition for either the violinist or the singer himself to take over; the infectiousness of his demeanour on stage at an age when most other regular men would prefer the comfort of their drawing room, a newspaper in hand and a cup of hot coffee by the side and the noise of the grand children’s playfulness around them!
Umayalpuram Sivaraman made my evening memorable. An evening that made me realise that in the phenomenally intricate and complex world of music, the great purveyor’s of which live in the rarefied realms of eternal bliss, I got to taste a tiny morsel.
I’m eternally grateful!
YouTube video: courtesy Nagarathna Sitaram
Photographs: Umayalpuram K. Sivaraman in concert with Saket Raman (vocal) and Mysore Nagaraj (violin) at 8th Cross, Vontikoppal in Mysore on Saturday, 24 September 2011 (top); after the concert, Sivaraman poses for pictures with rasikas and their grandchildren (below)