Anandan Sivamani, popularly known as Sivamani, gained recognition in India as A.R. Rahman’s lead percussionist. A maestro of various instruments — from drums to octoban to darbuka to udukai to kanjira — Sivamani has become the country’s most sought-after percussionist, with numerous Bollywood films, as well as over half-a-dozen solo albums to his name. He speaks to Guardian 20 about his lifelong love of music.

Q. When and how did your musical journey begin?

A. My father, S.M. Anandan, was a drummer and I knew I wanted to be a drummer like him. I wanted to become a musician and go abroad and play with foreign musicians. That had always been my dream. Thanks to god, and thanks to Mr S.C. Balasubramaniam,  Zakir Hussain, Louis Bryant, A.R Rahman and Micheal Jackson — these people have really shown the world to me. Now, I want to play till my last breath.

Q. For how long have you been in the industry, as a professional? Could you also talk about your time as a student of music?

A. I have been a part of the industry, I think, for around 55 years now. There’s a place in Chennai, Besant Bridge: that’s the place where I was born and brought up, and then I started going school but I never studied in my life. I wanted to play drums. And as a child, I used to practise 6-7 hours daily.

Q. What is your take on drumming today? Do you think people who are playing now have any talent? Do you see a new Sivamani emerging in a few years?

A. See, every hand has got a great talent. God sends you with talent — it is you who has to cultivate it. That is what I do whenever I’m playing on the stage. I never repeat, there is always something new. It is my gift to my audiences, to all my young fans.

Q. Was it very difficult being a full-time artist?

A. Full-time artist… See, you need luck and god’s blessing, for sure. I wanted to become rich, earn more, so I would keep practicing and just pray to god everything goes well. I have to thank my parents too because they backed me up a lot in this profession.

“My father, S.M. Anandan, was a drummer and I knew I wanted to be a drummer like him. I wanted to become a musician and go abroad and play with foreign musicians. That had always been my dream.”

Q. You’ve worked with A.R. Rahman, Shankar Mahadevan and Hariharan. What was it like associating with  such big names?

A. I’m really blessed to have found the opportunity to work with the likes of A.R. Rahman, S.V. Balasubraniam, Yelaraja sir, Shankar Mahadevan, Hariharan, Ustad Zakir Hussain sir and Karekurimani sir, Vikumiyakarama sir. I have been blessed at every stage  of my life. And honoured.

Q. What are your plans for the future? Do you plan to open a school and teach some young kids also?

A. Yes, I’m planning to do that. I want to teach and share this gift of mine.

Q. Would you like to say anything to budding percussionists — ones who aspire to be as good as you?

A. Someone who wants to be as good as me? I learned from the stalwarts because every hand has got its own touch. I’m still learning. I can’t say I have stopped learning. I’m learning every minute, even now.

Q. You have composed a lot for south Indian films, even for Bollywood. Do you think in order to sustain as a musician in India it is important that you do keep doing different kinds of work?

A. Of course, because when I got the chance to compose music, the first thing I did was use all the live drummers. I am very thankful to my producer Mr Danuk. He was the one who approached me asking whether I would do music for his production, and I did, but I played for so many thousands of movies in different languages. For 35 years, I played so many songs in so many different languages, some 12-13 languages perhaps.

Q. As a music composer, how do you decide the nature of your music — the beats or melody — for particular projects that you take up? Do you get to read the lyrics before?

A. You need to choose what kind of note to touch, what should be the feel of the note. I have grown up watching my gurus working like this.

Q. How different is making music for yourself from making music for somebody else?

A. Yes, completely different. When I’m playing for Rahman, I’ll be flying. When I’m sitting for my own voice, I’ll be very light, I’ll keep it simple.

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