Year – circa 1982 or 1983
Place – New Delhi
Venue – Samaj Sadan Hall, Andrews Ganj, New Delhi
The festival in progress was under the aegis of the South Delhi Music Circle. The main item of that day’s concert, Tyagaraja’s Emijesite (Todi, Misra Chapu), had just concluded. As was the routine, the chief organizer of the festival, my guru Shri TRS known for his lively and incisive observation laced with his inimitable humour, was at the mike to speak about the concert.
“The thing I would like to say first about this concert,” He began, “is ‘Garva Bhanga’!”
The vast audience gazed at him quizzically. What did he mean?
TRS continued, “All the pride I had in my own abilities as a musician was completely smashed when this boy played the very first phrase of Todi as he began his alapana from the mandhara shadjam, the phrase – ‘S R G,,’!”
The auditorium broke into thunderous applause. For us at least in Delhi, there was absolutely no doubt that here was U.Srinivas, who had unerringly captured the rasikas’ hearts and was meteorically in the process of making city after city come under the spell of his music. There wouldn’t have been a single member of the audience who would not have been moved by his performance. His precociousness notwithstanding, it was his innocuous demeanour and childlike innocence combined with an innate humility that made his charm irresistible.
I can never forget that first concert I heard of his. I was myself a mere stripling of 12 or 13 and here was someone barely my age producing such superlatively mature, mellifluous and supremely enchanting music.
The mandolin was being explored to the fullest extent and the captivatingly different sound it produced (or let me put it this way – the captivatingly different sound *Srinivas* produced!), sound so refreshing to say the least.
As with all virtuosos of Art in the most elevated sense, Srinivas did not stop with just perfecting and playing “popular numbers”. True, the way he exploited the potential of the mandolin was displayed in full glory when he played the ultra-popular Raghuvamshasudha, so much so that this Katanakutuhalam kriti of Patnam Subramanya Iyer practically became one of the staples in his concerts. Leaving the iconic chittaswaram aside which instrumentalists of yore, particularly the likes of Dwaram Venkataswamy Naidu and others had reveled playing, which was subsequently embellished further by maestros like M.S.Gopalakrishnan, it was the second line of the anupallavi, ‘asurEsamrugEndradharA…’ and the way Srinivas would play the chords for that particular line blending harmony in a beautiful way, that would amaze, delight and enrapture the audiences.
Speaking of compositions in this genre, Srinivas extended it by exploring Muthiah Bhagavathar’s Giripriyam Gangadharam (again in Katanakutuhalam, adi talam) and also Poochi Srinivasa Iyengar’s Raghunaatha Nannu in raga Swararanjani – just to name two of them. Both these have alluring chittaswarams which Srinivas played with great care and dexterity that he perfected and polished, true to his wont. Popular filler items in this genre like Koniyaade (Kokiladhwani – Adi – Tyagaraja), Krupajoochutaku (Chayatarangini – Adi – Tyagaraja) also acquired a different sheen.
Srinivas stormed into the Carnatic music world in the early 1980s. And this decade must have been a period of single-minded and focused gargantuan saadhakam, hours and hours and hours of painstaking and meticulous learning, applying, practicing, executing and practicing all over again. Every concert seemed different – every concert without exception sounded fresh. Whether it was exploring the oceans of Todi and Kambhoji or the classicism of Begada and Sahana; it was also discovering the depths of janya ragas like Kalyanavasantam, Manirangu, Janaranjani, Bindumalini and several others. Each raga played by him shone brilliantly and seemed to have an ‘extra something’. His music was not just a conglomeration or a juxtaposition of notes or swaras – it was a glorious achievement of making the mandolin emanate and radiate the gayaki style. I recall a Mohanam alapana that was broadcast over the radio during the Chennai December season circa 1987. I went about my duties in the morning knowing that Srinivas was on air – I think I was preparing to leave for an appointment I had. However the Mohanam he played was so compelling and fascinating that I really had no choice at all but to simply put aside what I was doing, sit down next to the radio and listen. Needless to say, the appointment was forgotten of course!
At the peak of his fame with the exquisite musical meals Srinivas provided by way of all the popular ragas, whether they were the heavy-weight Ghana ragas, or the popular Desya ragas, the mandolin maestro decided to push his talent further in his quest for exploring further the immeasurable and utmost profound world of Carnatic music. We must remember that his position now was rock-solid and his stardom unquestionable. I have witnessed furious verbal fights and fierce arguments ensuing between audiences and organizers at the former being denied entry into the auditorium simply because the harried organizers helplessly declared that there was no place available!
In the 1980s, vivadi ragas were practically unknown barring a few exceptions every now and then. I am conjecturing that the musician in Srinivas yearned to tread hitherto untraveled territory and he thus started his forays into vivadi ragas. One of Srinivas’ biggest services to the cause of Carnatic music was the way he utilized his stardom to put forth his expression of what the vivadi raga was all about. His music emphatically and unequivocally declared that the vivadi raga was definitely not something to be ignored or to be shoved aside. He categorically put paid to any prevalent notion that vivadi ragas shouldn’t be handled or that they have intrinsic difficulties in their structure or that they are inauspicious.
And what a glorious chapter it was! Remarkably, his expression of this genre of ragas was never just a mish-mash of scale-based swaras. Every alapana, every phrase and every nuance was carefully thought out, explored, delicately polished and given aesthetic expression. The result was truly a celebration of the limitlessly beautiful possibilities of several vivadi ragas that the public was exposed to, thanks to this truly committed quest of the mandolin wizard.
In New Delhi, when my guru Shri TRS inaugurated his brainchild, the Music Education Trust in 1989, Srinivas performed on the second day. His elaboration of raga Nasikabhushani was nothing short of astounding and remains firmly etched in the heart and mind to this day. Small wonder that he received a total of four rounds of thunderous applause during the course of his alapana alone. This was one concert that truly enthralled me and it remains as fresh in the mind as if it happened just yesterday.
Srinivas’ concerts thus became events that would keep the audience in joyful anticipation. The main raga Begada would be preceded by an elaboration of Sucharitra as the submain; a Radio Sangeet Sammelan concert would have the raga Dundubhi (Leelagaanu – Adi – Tyagaraja with rapid fire swaras to boot!) sandwiched between a Hamsadhvani and a Kannada; a concert would feature a Ragam, Tanam and Pallavi in the extremely rarest of the rare vivadi raga Syamalangi; one can go on and on.
Personally, it’s a matter of great regret that I never knew him well. Supremely inspired by his Nasikabhushani alapana which I heard when I was a teenager, I wrote to him at that time as an adoring fan, completely star-struck with him and his music. To my utmost delight and thrill, he actually replied to me – he graciously thanked me for my letter, asked after my guru Shri TRS and in the process casually mentioned a just-completed fulfilling US concert tour with the doyen Shri Palakkad Raghu. Needless to say, I have treasured this wonderful epistle.
While we all as a part of the Carnatic music fraternity deeply grieve and mourn the sudden and untimely departure of Srinivas, somewhere one cannot help feeling that he appeared in this world for a Cause. And in the likes of Adi Sankara and Swami Vivekananda, perhaps God felt that Srinivas had done whatever he needed to do and hence need not remain anymore. This is how we all can perhaps console ourselves – if we are able to. My good friend and colleague mridanga vidwan Erode Nagaraj, in my opinion perhaps expressed it best:
Sometimes, Time leaves the answers secret to many whys that remain forever unanswered. Mandolin Srinivas…