R.K. Srikantan

Inimitable purist

Print edition : April 18, 2014

R.K. Srikantan addressing a seminar on performing arts in Bangalore in August 2011. Photo: V Sreenivasa Murthy

R.K. Srikantan (1920-2014) was a follower of the chaste Carnatic vocal tradition and never hankered after recognitions.

EVEN at 94, the Carnatic vocalist R.K. Srikantan had a packed schedule. He travelled to perform at nearly 70 music events in 2013 and that made him the “only nonagenarian performing musician in the country”. He was a follower of the chaste Carnatic paddhati or tradition, was blessed with a voice with a resonant timbre, and had good control over it until his end came on February 17 in Bangalore.

Thatha, how are you feeling, is your voice okay?” his grandson Achintya had enquired a day before Srikantan’s death in hospital. “I feel physically weak, but my voice has all the strength, shall I sing?” Srikantan replied. The next six minutes was a beautiful build-up of Begada, recollects Achintya about his grandfather’s voice booming from his hospital bed.

Breathing exercises and meditation were part of his voice maintenance routine for several decades. A voracious reader, Srikantan constantly updated his vidwat (knowledge) and used them in every way for his musical interactions, but it was time-honoured music formats that he religiously stuck to.

The conviction with which Srikantan journeyed through his beliefs, the simplicity of life that he vouched for, and the exacting ways in which he taught his 500-odd students for nearly five decades were features that reflected the scrupulously principled man’s towering personality.

No wonder the ace mridangist Umayalapuram Sivaraman often commented, “Srikantan is the Semmangudi Iyer of Karnataka.”

When this writer, who was working on his biography Voice of a Generation, released in January 2014, visited him a few months ago, thousands of books on music, literature and poetry, and a host of notepads with notes, notations and songs sat in all corners of his 10x10 room at his residence. With several award certificates and citations hanging on the wall, his satisfaction seemed immense, his contentment evident in the way he reminisced about his musical life, sitting in his rosewood chair. “This chair is like a throne to me, I feel as if I am in a palace of music, as Naada Soukhya (melodic bliss) is all I yearn for till my end,” he said. “Be it my students or my guests, it is this cosy room that hosted them all along. This modest lifestyle is what I relish. But when it comes to food, I am like a king, hot rasam and badam halwa being my good voice companions!”

His younger son Kumar said his resolve and willpower was iron-like, and that nothing would disturb his focus. Another appreciable quality was his sincerity to his commitments. “My father, who had a hip fracture in 1995 at the age of 75, never even entertained thoughts of cancelling his Ramanavami season concerts that year. He literally hopped onto platforms with support and presented nearly a dozen concerts seated on a chair!” he said.

Ramakanth, his eldest son and a vocalist who accompanied Srikantan for two decades, said, “Even 10 days before his death, when cough and cold were bothering him, we had asked him to cancel a temple concert in the city. But he firmly retorted, ‘In case you don’t want to come, I can go ahead and keep up my word to Lord Anjaneya!’”

“Srikantan hails from a family of refined and cultured Vedic scholars and musicians from Rudrapatna, who savoured the revered Cauvery water and chose to stay away from the comforts of the royal patronage in Mysore,” said Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer when he arrived for Srikantan’s 75th birthday celebration. Hailing the “purity” of the music Srikantan was taking forward, Semmangudi said: “A huge lifetime investment that Srikantan made was in reserving time every day for developing his students’ musical skills. Call it the best and prudent outlay of his musical life.”

Sanketi heritage

Rudrapatnam Krishna Sastry Srikantan was born on January 14, 1920, at Rudrapatna village in Hassan district of Karnataka. He went to Mysore when music and other cultural activities received the patronage of the Wadiyar rulers.

He belonged to the Sanketi community, a small sub-sect of the Siva worshippers in Karnataka who are said to have migrated from Shencottai in southern Tamil Nadu nearly a thousand years ago. They are found mostly in the Old Mysore area of the State (especially in the neighbourhood of the Cauvery and Tunga rivers) which was noted for agriculture, study of the Vedas, and classical music. They speak a dialect that has words and grammatical structures freely borrowed from Kannada, Malayalam and Tulu, besides some original Tamil elements.

Srikantan’s father, Krishna Sastry, was a Sanskrit and Veda scholar, while his three elder brothers—R.K. Venkatrama Sastry, R.K. Narayanaswamy and R.K. Ramanathan—were performers during their times. His father and brother Venkatrama Sastry were Srikantan’s initial tutors. He went on to gather the finer nuances of rendering vocal after imbibing the best from several yesteryear stalwarts of the genre (Ariyakudi Ramanuja Iyengar, Musiri Subramania Iyer and Semmangudi), which gradually evolved into a signature Srikantan baani, acknowledged by the then music stalwarts in All India Radio (AIR) where Srikantan had joined as a staff artist in 1947.

Having gathered the best of the mores from “musical geniuses of the era” and in a climate that got him further acclimatised to the genre by visiting musicians at AIR, Srikantan gave “on air” music classes called “Gaanavihara”, which over the years earned him scores of indirect disciples throughout south India in the 1970s. He even scored melody to hundreds of Dasa Sahitya— kirtanas of the Haridasas of Karnataka—in the authentic “Bathis raga” musical scales which were originally propagated by the 13th century Dasas themselves. He set to tune verses of Karnataka litterateurs and poets; his workshops and lecture demonstrations on the Trinity and other academic aspects were judged veritable textbooks for students and connoisseurs. Said Ramakanth: “In 1949, the renowned Kannada poet Pu.Ti. Narasimhachar agreed to the melodic rendering of his poems on AIR Mysore only because it was to be sung by ‘the inimitable purist’ Srikantan.”

The same conformist could get away from the shackles of orthodoxy and perform at the open-air Orion Mall, declares his student Mahendran Unni. “He practised simplicity, but mediocrity in rendition never appealed to him. Once during my swara rendition he intervened to demonstrate how sarvalaghu patterns were brought about pleasingly than korvais that fastened artists to technical eccentricities.” A surprised Unni had then asked him: “You need no practice, sir?” Srikantan was forthright: “Music requires lifelong practice!”

T.S. Sathyavathi, Sanskrit scholar and a student of Srikantan, said: “My guru’s sangeeta was a mirror of his wholesome personality. His Mysore shastreeyate brought in him an impeccable diction, while his assiduously nurtured manodharma made him conform to a madhya vilamba pace in his rendering, a facet of his refined melodic standing. The umpteen raga deliberations from us will never match a single sangati of our maestro who pithily sketched the absolute essence of the raga bhava. He revelled in succinct phraseology that conveyed the best in the opening expressions itself. His voice had an emotive calling to it, a dard that his dwani conveyed, so intense with bhava rasa. I can trace these features to his saatvika aahaara and his calm mental disposition for ever exploring divinity.”

Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) Chairman K. Radhakrishnan, a student of Srikantan for 35 years, says, “The best way to remember R.K. Srikantan’s teachings would be to have his lessons aired by Akashvani [AIR] as a series on connoisseurs. In this post-Srikantan phase we need to resurrect the treasure trove of the AIR archives where RKS’ Gaanavihara, Geetharadhana or Sangeetha Samrajya will prove to be a fund of knowledge-gathering music sessions. It is essential that his meaningful school of music is carried forward through his large set of students to help future generations be aware of the great master.”

RKS’ performances matched his teaching capabilities, and senior musicians such as Ramakanth, M.S. Sheela and T.S. Sathyavathi, who were his shishyas, stand testimony to this. But was he ever rewarded in his lifetime for all the treasures he created for posterity? Says Chiranjiv Singh, former Additional Chief Secretary to the Karnataka government and an aficionado of the classical genres: “Srikantan was far above all awards, they didn’t mean anything to him. Who remembers all awardees anyway? Did Bade Ghulam Ali Khan or Ustad Amir Khan get Padma awards? Their music is still immortal. I have seen people run after awards, but the modest Srikantan never ever entered the portals of the Vidhana Soudha [State Assembly] soliciting such recognitions. I met him only at music platforms! He belongs to the league of Girija Devi, Mallikarjun Mansur, Kishori Amonkar and Gangubai Hangal, for whom music was a lifelong tapasya.”

Incidentally, it was on Chiranjiv Singh’s official insistence that Srikantan got the Padma Bhushan in 2011. Singh says, “I would have been happier if he had received the Padma Vibhushan.”

RKS was so evolved, says Singh, that “after a point everyone knew he was singing only for the divine”. “Be it the kritis of the Trinity or the Devaranama, he internalised them to convey the inherent bhava. And whenever I heard a Tyagaraja kriti, rendered so poignantly by him, I always thought even Tyagaraja must have sung it that way.”

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