Umayalpuram K. Sivaraman
Among the world's great instrumentalists, there is a special rank for those who take it upon themselves to introduce technical innovations into the design and construction of an instrument itself, and no one could have called India's Umayalpuram K. Sivaraman an underachiever prior to undertaking this type of research, either. Perhaps it was in his genes, as his father Dr. P. Kasiviswanatha was a doctor of medicine as well as a musician of great accomplishment. The son was perhaps trying to outdo his father when he became not only one of the top accompanying drummers in India, but a lawyer as well.
Sivaraman has dual degrees from the University of Madras. He performed his first concert at the age of ten in a temple and would still be drumming half a century later. He is most often found accompanying this or that superstar maestro of Indian classical music, working with vocalists as well as instrumentalists of all stripes. The list of artists he has backed up and recorded with includes Ariyakudi Ramanuja Iyengar, Musiri Subramania Iyer, Palladam Sanjeeva Rao, Mysore Chowdiah, Rajamanickam Pillai, Papa Venkataramiah, Dwaram Venkataswami Naidu, Mudikondan Venkatarama Iyer, G. N. Balasubramaniam, Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer, Dr. M. Balamuralikrishna, Hariprasad Chaurasia, Ustad Allah Rakha, and Zakhir Hussain. Stepping outside the world of Indian classical music, he has recorded for ECM with violinist L. Shankar in a contemporary new age jazz direction with heavy Indian overtones, of course.
Throughout his in-demand career, he somehow found time to conduct intense research into every aspect of his drums and became an innovator in the concept of conducting workshops and other sorts of educational presentations about the art of mridangam drumming. In addition, he developed actual prototypes for a fibre glass mridangam, no doubt something of a comfort for any player who has had his set of delicate clay drums transformed into pottery shards by a hyper luggage tosser. He did a long series of studies on the skins used on clay drums, both of the tanned and untanned variety, and invented a mechanical jig for moulding the skin that is placed on the side of the instruments. Previously this work was always done by hand, sometimes resulting in foul-ups. Like the other well-known Indian drum, the tabla, the mridangam has a circular black section in the center of the head known as the "black patch", and Sivaraman experimented with the actual contents of this patch, resulting in increased understanding and control of the overtones produced by the drums.
Through his involvement with many broadcasts, he has become a top-notch artist for All India Radio and Doordarshan Television, the network which presents regular programming of Indian classical music. In the early '90s, he took over as director for the Tanjore Vaidyanatha Iyer School for Percussion at the Madras Music Academy, founded in honor of a mridangam family dynasty, several members of which had been teachers of Sivaraman. He received a series of honorary titles and other awards through the '80s and '90s, including the Padmashri from the Government of India in 1988 and the Sangeet Natak Akademi award in the field of mridangam drumming in 1992. He continues to make instruction, increasingly of foreign students, one of his central activities. In 1996, he released the album Garland of Rhythm on the Magnasound label. His work was also twice snatched up for inclusion on compilations organized by Grateful Dead drummer Mickey Hart and released on Ellipsis Arts. On these collections, he certainly holds his own as part of an all-star cast of percussion greats from around the world. He is sometimes credited as U.K. Sivaraman. ~ Eugene Chadbourne