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U Srinivas: an artiste who put Carnatic on the world map

ARUNA SAIRAM | Updated on September 19, 2014

A file photo of Mandolin U Srinivas. S THANTHONI

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His greatness was in transforming the Mandolin into a darling of the genre

On this day of great sadness, I reminisce on my association with U Srinivas. It was proposed that we do a jugalbandi in 2010. I was acutely aware of the fact that I am a musician who grew step by step over a number of years. He, on the other hand, had a meteoric rise that made him an overnight star. But I need not have worried at all.

During the concert he let me sing to my heart’s content and never overplayed. We didn’t have a violinist with us. I am so used to having a stringed instrument tailing behind me when I sing because that was how I was trained. But he followed my rendition on his mandolin, just like a violinist would. And then, after backing me, he would digress into his solo. Giving space to others and stepping back is a humane quality. It calls for a lot of guts. Not everyone can do it and that was the greatest trait I admired in him.

Tales to tell

SV Ramani, the ghatam exponent who often plays with Srinivas told me this story. During his childhood, Srinivas’ father took him to Ilaiyaraaja sir and had him perform before the maestro, seeking an opportunity to play for films. Ilaiyaraaja sir heard him and said, “He is not a talent that should be limited to cinema. His material should go down in history. You have to help him hit the classical music scene as a soloist. That is where he should be.”

If I remember correctly, his most famous concert was at the Indian Fine Arts Society, 1981. It was a historic moment when noted Carnatic singer TN Seshagopalan gifted Srinivas his bejewelled ring. That news spread like wildfire in the music circuit. Srinivas was always eager to perform at concerts in temples. Once at the Sai Baba Temple in Mylapore, where Srinivas was performing a concert, a rasika approached him during the interval, and asked him to perform a piece in a particular raga. Srinivas said he didn’t know the raga. But he asked the rasika if she could hum the raga or rather its aarohana and avarohanam, and he could try performing the piece. So the rasika hummed the scales for him. And that’s all Srinivas needed. He went on to perform in that raga for about 45 minutes at that concert. He had instantly converted that scale into a full blown picture of the raga.

Another story involves Guruvayur Dorai, the legendary mridangam vidwan who accompanied Srinivas on several concerts. He told me, “When I first heard of Srinivas, I was unsure of him. I didn’t think he had anything to do with classical music. And I was unwilling to play for any young upstart. An organisation called Ayodhya Mandapam convinced me to play alongside him and I agreed half heartedly. But before that I attended one of his concerts at RR Sabha. I went incognito and sat in the last row to be able to judge his prowess. I had to hear him only for a few minutes to realise that I was moved and overcome with guilt. I had grossly underestimated Srinivas before I heard him play. His was music that poured from somewhere divine. After the kutcheri, I walked up to Srinivas’ father and apologised to him. But I promised him whenever his son performs and needs me, I will come and play for him.”

His greatest achievement could be in picking a non Carnatic instrument and making a Carnatic star out of it. He proved that music is beyond the boundaries of an instrument. A new experiment doesn’t mean you are discarding the old. The old continues to exist, but there is a space for the new as well. With his international collaborations, he immensely helped in putting Carnatic music on the world map. Today, very few foreigners would be unaware of a genre of music called Carnatic.

I had always been enchanted by the childlike simplicity that comes across in his renditions. For him, it was literally like a play (sic). It was not like he had to make an effort to create melodies. When he sat to play, he didn’t want to prove a point to anybody. His agenda was to enjoy his music.

Published on September 19, 2014

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