He calls himself an “Ultramodern Core Traditionalist” and is knowledgeable about everything from the philosophy of music to the science, mathematics, engineering, and metaphysics of the mridangam. He is, the legendary mridangist, Umayalpuram K. Sivaraman and he was in conversation with Anil Srinivasan last Friday in the last of the open-to-public series of Keys and Conversations events in Chennai. Ahead of commencing the conversation, Anil said something to the effect “Mr. Sivaraman does not need to be questioned. He is a fount of knowledge and all that needs to be done is to get him onto the stage.” That definitely proved to be true.
Not surprisingly, the conversation started off with a discussion of what proved to be a central motif, a metaphysical concept known as Nadha. According to Mr. Sivaraman, Nadha isn’t just sound, it’s the ideal towards which every percussionist tends. I’m pretty sure he would have preferred his favourite metaphor, “Voyage”, in this context to the very mathematical sounding “Tending towards a limit” metaphor that I’ve used. Mr. Sivaraman’s elaboration of Nadha brought to mind Albert Einstein’s metaphysical definition of God as the ultimate set of scientific truths at the edge of what can be physically measured and understood.
Talking of physical science, that is exactly what the conversation veered to next: the science behind the materials used in the making of the mridangam. At a very high level of abstraction, a mridangam is a broad, hollow, tube-like structure (traditionally made of wood) covered on both sides with vibrating membranes made of (again, traditionally) a combination of cow-hide and goat-hide. In this section of the conversation, Mr. Sivaraman came across as a pragmatist who worries about the travails of world-trotting classical percussionists subject to international customs checks because of the leather used in the making of their instruments. He talked about experimenting, in collaboration with a scientist from the CLRI, with different types of materials, both natural and synthetic. It was surprising to know that they’ve tried everything from chrome plating the vibrating membranes to replacing them with tanned goat-hide and synthetic materials like zirconium oxide. And it doesn’t stop there. Amazingly, Dr. Sivaraman has even designed a mridangam made of fibre-glass and a travel-friendly mridangam! On a lighter vein, this reminded me of an episode from one of the Asterix books in which a druid talks about designing powdered cauldrons (!) and ingredients.
The last third of the conversation was eclectic with the discussion touching upon Sir C. V. Raman’s study of the mridangam, a mathematical discussion of cross-rhythms, the role of prime numbers in Carnatic music, and cross-cultural collaborations. Some of the technical aspects (even the mathematical ones), though, went right over my head because of lack of familiarity with the terminology of Carnatic music. Nevertheless, it was amazing to know that Dr. Sivaraman has worked out a mathematical formula to mix and match talas*. A true believer in the universality of music across cultures, he has collaborated with Hindustani, Jazz, Arabian, and African musicians. He spoke about how a classical percussionist must be knowledgeable about all forms of music and dance, in a broad summary of his philosophy of music. I feel Dr. Sivaraman’s answer to one of the questions (How is a tabla different from a mridangam?) from the audience, was both amusing and profound enough to be recorded here. “A tabla,” he said, “is a mridangam cut in half”(!), but on a more serious note added that the cross-coupling (terminology mine) of vibrations in the parallel membranes that occurs in a mridangam is unique to its nadha and that this is simply absent in the tabla. This appealed to me in a very mathematical aesthetic sense. Cross-Coupled oscillators are not only practically useful, but also lead to elegant mathematical formulations.
Overall, this was an event that proved to be very informative and enlightening and, if I may exaggerate a bit, was akin to reading one of those playfully information packed postmodernist novels!