U. Shrinivas

Silence of the strings

Print edition : October 17, 2014

U. Shrinivas performing at Shryaahva 2014, the Shakti Foundation's annual fundraising concert in Chennai on February 17. Photo: K.V. Srinivasan

Master U. Srinivas, 1982. Photo: THE HINDU ARCHIVES

Carnatic maestro U. Shrinivas (1969-2014) was the master of the mandolin from the day he emerged as a child prodigy.

THE shocking news of mandolin genius U. Shrinivas’ death at the age of 45 has been received with great sorrow all around. It is the worst tragedy to have befallen the world of Carnatic music in a long while. That the maestro was one of the most liked human beings adds to the poignancy of the enormous loss music has suffered.

Fortunately, the mandolin has not been silenced as some deeply moved mourners suggested, as Shrinivas has left behind a number of worthy successors, including his disciples and his younger brother Rajesh.

The instrument that Shrinivas adapted from the folk music of Europe and Indian “light” music ensembles for classical music is a tiny lute akin to the bulbul tarang favoured by wandering minstrels and orchestras. The sound it produces is so feeble that it makes the use of a contact microphone unavoidable. Shrinivas added strings and modified the instrument to make it more suited to Carnatic music, which demands the continuous oscillations we call gamaka as opposed to the discrete sounds of many Western instruments. His effort to always play his instrument in a gayaki, or vocal style, presented tremendous challenges, which he surmounted to delightful effect.

Like T.R. Mahalingam (flute), S. Balachander (veena) and M. Balamuralikrishna (vocal) decades before him, and E. Gayathri (veena) and N. Ravikiran (gottuvadyam) of his era, Shrinivas was a child prodigy, barely 10 when he ascended the concert stage. Precocious children have appeared on the Carnatic music scene before and after these exceptional musicians, but many of them have faded out, their early spark extinguished instead of growing into a glorious blaze.

A prodigy emerges

There was not much of a musical background in the Shrinivas family, though his grandfather was known to play the nagaswaram and his father ran a light music troupe. Yet, by December 1982, he had arrived in Chennai as a sensation in Carnatic music, mesmerising audiences with the speed and brilliance of the swara combinations bursting forth from his tiny instrument. This was after his guru, Rudraraju Subbaraju, had moved there from Palakol, a village in Narsapur taluk in West Godavari district in Andhra Pradesh, where Shrinivas lived with his parents.

Subbaraju had begun to teach the boy classical music after his father, Uppalapu Satyanarayana, struck by the child’s natural ability to play the mandolin that belonged to his light music orchestra, entrusted him with the task. Subbaraju brought the Satyanarayana family to Chennai, inviting them to live in his house and explore opportunities in films with music directors like Rajeswar Rao. Subbaraju, a disciple of Carnatic vocalist Chembai Vaidyanatha Bhagavathar, and a performing classical musician, discovered that he only had to introduce raga music to the boy, and he would grasp it instantly. The instrument itself was already doing his bidding.

Even during his earliest concerts, critics observed that Shrinivas’ music was rooted in the fundamentals of classicism though his interpretations were often original and unexpected. He was an instinctive master of rhythm who only kept improving his command of this aspect of music in the years that followed. A critique of his music in Sruti magazine in October 1983—Shrinivas was barely 14 then—said: “He manipulates the mandolin so skilfully that he produces a music quite alien to its originally intended purpose but almost totally true to the Carnatic mode. He produces strident sounds as well as soft tones; slow, vibrant oscillations or gamakas, as well as pulsating, bell-toned syllables of sound in the upper register; long slowly drawn out notes as well as incredibly fast passages, all fully aligned with pitch; and curves and slides and reposeful pauses which would do Rajarathnam and Mali proud.”

Fireworks and tenderness

Incredibly, this description of Shrinivas’s music does not need much modification even 30 years later. A typical concert of his in 2014 contained pretty much these very ingredients he so brilliantly produced before the world as a teenager. His repertoire of ragas and compositions was vastly enhanced, his interpretations of ragas constantly gained in sophistication as he understood them in greater depth, but the juxtaposition of fireworks and tenderness was an unchanging feature of his music. Stagnation might have resulted in a lesser musician, but in Shrinivas the completeness of his musicality saw to it that it was never merely more of the same. Instead, he continued to prevent the monotony of the familiar with the freshness of the surprises he could conjure up at will.

The Nagaswaram maestro Rajarathnam and Flute Mali, along with violin vidwan M.S. Gopalakrishnan, were among Shrinivas’ favourite musicians; he went back to their music time and again for inspiration. Though critics have bemoaned the lack of an orthodox pathantara in his musical education, they cannot quarrel with the authenticity of the sources of his inspiration, for each of these giants was a master of his medium. Their influence could be particularly recognised in his raga alapana essays.

Though he liked to delight listeners looking for novelty with his exciting renderings of ragas like Navarasakannada, Bindumalini and Katanakutoohalam, in which he tended to show off his rhythmic virtuosity, he was equally capable of depicting to perfection the grandeur of Bhairavi, Sankarabharanam, Kambhoji, Kharaharapriya or Todi or the enchantment of Mohanam, Bahudari, Hindolam or Shanmukhapriya. His Khamas, Suddha Saveri, Sindhubhairavi, and Sunadavinodini were ragas his fans were ready to die for. And this list of ragas is only a part of what constituted his oeuvre as early as the year 1983. It grew steadily with the years so that he was as complete as the old masters in his offerings.

When Shrinivas debuted in the concert circuit, he was tiny, knew very little Tamil and less English. He was shy, respectful, and ever smiling, but even as a boy musician, he seemed free from doubt or pre-concert nerves, always ready to appreciate his accompanists with a smile and a nod, even a sabash or two. At no time did he however show any signs of pride or arrogance. An early story about him has it that he repeatedly touched the violinist’s feet through a concert after the announcer had unintentionally offended the senior artist by failing to introduce him with due respect. Miraculously, Shrinivas remained just as confident, modest and shy all his life.

The first decade of Shrinivas’ career was a sensational whirl of concerts in Chennai and all over India. He was Carnatic music’s greatest crowd-puller during that period. (The crowds have since declined as part of a general trend of audience indifference to instrumental music since the beginning of the 2000s.) Soon, he was travelling abroad with his music, first to play before non-resident Indian audiences, but later to take part in fusion concerts with some of the big names of world music. In the last two decades, he was an integral part of the fusion band Shakti, which starred John McLaughlin, Zakir Hussain, Shankar Mahadevan and V. Selvaganesh. He also took part in collaborative concerts with Indian musicians as diverse as Ravikiran, Hariharan, Anil Srinivasan and Sivamani, the iconic drummer who paid Shrinivas an extraordinary tribute by playing his drums along the route of his funeral procession.

At 45, Shrinivas was perhaps on the verge of transiting into an altogether weightier, deeper phase of his musicality. Though he always enjoyed playing for large crowds and plunging into the pulsating soundscapes that involved, he did give hints every now and then that his music was poised for a more mellow transformation, into something truly profound. In his musical equipment, he owned every asset that such a complete music demands. He was touched by the gods.

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