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The wizard of rhythm


"There has always been magic in my life, " says Anandan Sivamani, one of India's most famous, and certainly most inventive, percussionists. And it's magic that the wizard of rhythm hopes to create as music director of a new feature film. "Films aren't new to me. I've played for a number of films, but this is the first time that I'll be the music director for a film, " he says. "It's a Tamil film, Boologa Ratchagan, which will be dubbed in 35 languages. "

Sporting his signature bandana, matching kurta-shirt and a prominent red tilak, Sivamani said he was looking forward to meeting fellow composer Stephen Devassy to discuss the score. "What we're planning is a mix of old ragas, Western classical and contemporary music to create some unusual lilting music that people are going to love. "

The 51-year-old musician is in Delhi for the opening of Vaango!, a south-Indian eatery in Noida. It's not easy to distract hungry tables from piping hot dosas and bisi bele bath, but Sivamani had them riveted with his short but high-voltage performance - a medley of jazz and pop beats as he sang Vaango (welcome), to the tune of the song Humma humma from the film Bombay and a bit of Jai ho. In addition, he sprinted across to the kitchen to play on the plastic dispenser bottles and tavas, delighting the cooks who clapped along.

"Pots and pans make great music, as do pillows - if you have the ear for them, " he smiles. Pillows? "Yes, that's where I often practise on because pillows don't bounce and thus help a drummer get the correct rhythm. And yes, they don't disturb anyone. " This takes him back to his childhood. "But strangely, as a child when my neighbours didn't hear me on the drums for sometime, they'd come home to ask why I wasn't practising. That's the kind of encouragement I got. "

But it was a "bit of a battle initially" for nine-year-old Sivamani who had his heart set on becoming a drummer. "Despite being a drummer himself, my father wanted me to concentrate on my studies first, " he says. "But the moment my father left for work, I started playing his drums because I otherwise wasn't allowed to. But one day it so happened that my father had to come back home for something, and that's when he first heard me on the drums. " Impressed by his son's talent, SM Anandan took Sivamani to a naval jazz drummer, Noel Grant. "Till then I'd considered my father to be my inspiration, but after I heard Grant Sir, who is my first guru, I was mesmerised. "

The young Sivamani was often spotted at the Tamil film industry's recording studios in Madras. "Once, when I was in class VII, I remember getting a call for a recording and leaving right away. My mother was upset, but by then I had my father's unstinted support, " he smiles. But his mother had her way and Sivamani completed school. "I didn't study after that. But that's something I wouldn't advise children today because these times are different and studies are very important. "

It was around this time that he made a friend for life - AR Rahman. "Our fathers worked together and I remember visiting his house when he was very small. He used to play the organ then and I remember even shouting at him to practise. But he was always a shy, quiet person, " remembers Sivamani. And pointing to his bandana, he adds, "I wear this because of him, because once when we had to play in a dargah, he gifted me with a prayer cap which I kept because I thought it looked nice on me. " And since then, he's built up a collection of caps and bandanas.

Sivamani has played at some of the most celebrated venues but the most memorable one was atop Mount Kailash near Lake Mansarovar. "It was magical - I felt I was performing for the gods. This happened over 10 years ago, and I am still moved when I think about that experience. " After the performance, Sivamani offered his drumsticks to the lake. "You wouldn't believe this, but just a couple of months after that, a US company launched special drumsticks with my signature on them. That's why I say that magic always happens in my life. "

Musical concerts apart, Sivamani is researching the "huge mine of percussion instruments that our country has. There are many that we still might not know of. I want to highlight these and am also determined to soon start a Gurukulam in Mumbai". This school, he adds, is "not for everyone but only for very talented children. Only those with a keen sense of rhythm will be allowed to join".

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