Much like Sivamani, the knee-high protagonist of Shiv Hare’s film Atkan Chatkan can drum music out of any object. Naturally, Sivamani agreed to compose the soundtrack as “the script really touched me, it took me back to my childhood, and how I struggled as a musician”, he told Scroll.in.
Atkan Chatkan, which is being streamed on Zee5, follows a group of musically gifted slum kids who form a rag-tag band. Unlike the protagonist Guddu (Lydian Nadhaswaram), Sivamani, born as Anandan Sivamani, had a supportive father in SM Anandan, a percussionist in the southern film industries.
Sivamani was introduced to music at the age of seven. A few years later, singer SP Balasubrahmanyam spotted him at a live concert and took him under his wing. “In every live show, he gave me a 15-minute drum solo,” Sivamani said about the legendary singer whom he calls his godfather. “He showed me to the world and the world showed itself to me.”
Since then, Sivamani has been a part of several fusion groups performing at the intersection of classical, folk, and pop. Among his regular collaborators on the stage are Shankar Mahadevan, Niladri Kumar and Louiz Banks. Sivamani has also been a session musician for leading film composers for almost four decades, including AR Rahman. Excerpts from an interview.
You have composed for three films. On what basis do you choose a film?
My dream is to be the world’s best drummer, internationally. But in this life, I only know music. So whenever anyone asks me to play something, even in a restaurant, or if kids approach me in the airport, I play.
From the age of 12, I have played for T Rajendran, Ilaiyaraaja, MS Vishwanathan, Pyare bhai [Pyarelal Sharma], Anu Malik, Bappi Lahiri, Vishal-Shekhar, Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy, AR Rahman, I can’t remember all of them.
In your solo album ‘Mahaleela: My Journey Through Life’ (2008), you combine many different styles of music. The album features regular collaborators such as Mahadevan, Kumar, Banks, Zakir Hussain, Liaqat Ali Khan and Mandolin Srinivas.
Actually, my first solo album was named Amma. But it’s my bad luck that the hard disk which had all the songs was in a suitcase, and someone stole it during a live performance.
I started again and made an album called Siva’s Vision. I was on a flight from London to Mumbai, during which I met a holy man called Dr Vasant Maharaj. I played the album to him and he suggested the name Mahaleela.
Mahaleela was launched by Rahman and SP Balasubrahmanyam on my birthday, December 1. But another person, who had been a huge part of my life, and was supposed to be there was [sound engineer] H Sridhar.
Before the day of the launch, while he was mastering my album, he gave me his blessings, and I reminded him to come to the launch with his family. The next day, I went to the temple for puja, and my student called me and informed that he was no more. That was a big shock, and I am really lucky that he did his last mastering for me. Sridhar sir lives with us, lives with Mahaleela.
Will you make another solo album again?
Soon my collection of so many years’ work, Mahaleela 2, is coming on December 1. But I am also coming with another album of sufi and ghazal songs, with my wife Runa Sivamani [Runa Rizvi] singing. I haven’t done anything in this area since my album with Hariharan, Kaash.
In the 1987 Telugu movie ‘Padamati Sandhya Ragam’, you play an African American. Along with Hollywood actor Thomas Jane, you are trying to woo the heroine played by Vijayashanti. Your song sequence ‘Life is Shabby’ is a most-loved meme today. How did that happen?
We were touring with SP Balasubrahmanyam in the United States. The director Jandhyala was travelling with us. And during a meeting between all the Indians there and SP Balasubrahmanyam’s friends decided that an Indo-American production should be made.
We immediately went to the studio in Washington and recorded three songs. I was doing a little solo, and they said, let’s have a drummer character in the movie, we’ll put Sivamani in it. This was 1986. I was there for four months for the shoot. SP Balasubrahmanyam sang for me, I played in all the places I wanted to play, an airport, a truck. It was a dream come true, and I knew it would always be popular. Gold is always gold.
You have played with a bunch of stellar percussionists. What did you learn from each?
In the beginning, I knew nothing. I learned what’s paradiddle from Lewis Pragasam. Then when I saw Trilok [Gurtu]bhai playing with a family of percussion in India, I followed in his footsteps. I apply his style of setting up. Then I learned single stroke and double stroke drumming from Billy Cobham.
It’s difficult these days to differentiate between sampled and programmed beats and live percussion in so much of Indian film and pop music.
In 1984, when I was struggling to make ends meet, electronic drums came. And I got worried, thinking, I have a family to take care of, and there’s no job, and everyone is using the drum machine and rhythm box.
But I never gave up. I did not buy any electronic gadgets, nothing. I kept practising. Ilaiyaraaja said don’t play here, go to Mumbai, and I joined Louiz Banks. I again started playing live.
And then time turned in the 1990s. The demand for live instruments returned with Rahman and others. Today you hear it in Atkan Chatkan again. It has real earthy live instruments.
Which Rahman album would you say has your best work?
All of them are the best, but particularly, Jodhaa Akbar and Taal.
How have you spent time during the pandemic, given that there has been no live music?
I have been teaching drums to my two-and-a-half-year-old daughter, Milana. Rahman sent me some songs to record, like the new one, Hum Haar Nahi Manenge. I had to learn how to record professionally from home.