A news flash on my mobile phone informed me that U Srinivas was no more. I wasn’t aware of his illness and it took me a while to absorb the update. He was 45, but I imagined him to be somewhere in his 30s. That could be because music lovers keep talking about the nine-year-old Srinivas who had stunned Madras with his debut recital in the late ’70s. His narrative was always that of a ‘prodigy’, the young boy who had conquered the mandolin.
My thoughts about musicians dying young led me to another instrumentalist, the flute legend Pandit Pannalal Ghosh. He had died at 48. Later that day, I played my favourite Pannalal piece — the Darbari that begins with the most hair-raising komal dhaivat I have heard in any Darbari. After a while, I wasn’t as depressed about Srinivas’ death as I was on receiving the news. We don’t remember Ghosh as a young musician. His music is so complete that his age is an arbitrary marker; he left no room to wonder what his music could have been had he lived longer. Srinivas’ music is of similar richness; it transcends any appraisal in terms of lost years.
The media carried several tributes to Srinivas. While reading Samanth Subramanian’s excellent piece in Mint , I was once again reminded of Ghosh. Subramanian emphasised Srinivas’ courage as a musician. He chose the mandolin — an instrument without a history in the Carnatic tradition. Ghosh had displayed similar courage in taking up the bansuri (bamboo flute) — an instrument that had no place in Hindustani music.
Before Ghosh, the bansuri was a folk instrument: it was unthinkable to play full-fledged renditions of ragas on it. Ghosh trained on the sitar under his father, Akshay Kumar Ghosh, but he was drawn to tunes played by the cowherds of Barisal (now in Bangladesh) on their small flutes. He picked up a flute and started transposing his sitar lessons on it. Eventually, he developed a larger flute that could express Hindustani phrases to his satisfaction. He conjured the courage of pursuing an instrument that had never been played before on a Hindustani concert stage. He learned from several masters — including Ustad Allauddin Khan but none of them a flautist. He fused his varied talim — to create what is now the ‘flute idiom’ in Hindustani music.
Srinivas never learnt from a Carnatic mandolin master — there wasn’t one before him. He had heard the mandolin being played in recording studios (his father was a clarinet player) and was attracted to its sound. He learnt from vocalist Rudraraju Subbaraju, transposing elements of vocal music on to his instrument; he also drew from playing styles of other instruments — like the veena — in the Carnatic tradition. He made changes to the traditional mandolin to better express the nuances of Carnatic music. His story is uncannily similar to that of Ghosh — his choice of a new instrument; his method of assimilative learning; his confidence to tread an unknown path.
Since Ghosh — and aided by the phenomenal success of Pandit Hariprasad Chaurasia — the bansuri has become well-entrenched in the Hindustani framework: almost every major Hindustani music festival has at least one flautist in its line-up. The mandolin too is no longer unfamiliar in Carnatic music, as it was in the hands of the nine-year-old Srinivas. The possibilities he explored — and perfected — in his 35-year playing career have inspired many to take up the instrument.
In their short lives, as musicians simplicter, Ghosh and Srinivas ensured immortality. Their command over their instruments was absolute, their precision unwavering. But when one views their contribution to Indian music as pioneers, it is tempting to put them on a pedestal on which few others can claim space. Their gift of two new instruments — and, more importantly, two new idioms — to an ancient musical tradition is a rare achievement. That they did so before they reached 50 is staggering.
It is true that when Indian classical maestros approach 50, listeners look for cosy chairs to await the best of their music. That is the age about when (supposedly) a maestro starts finding the much-pursued element of thehraav or equanimity in his music. Listening to Ghosh and Srinivas though, 50 is rendered just a number.
( Arunabha Deb is a Kolkata-based music writer and lawyer)
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