Adieu to the Mandolin Man

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Photo: KPN
Photo: KPN

Picture a sultry Saturday afternoon, typical to Chennai summers. Everything is slow in a coffee shop overlooking Elliot’s beach in Besant Nagar. Weekenders trudge along the beach, hawkers confine themselves to the shade, everyone searching for a hint of coolness in the breeze. The horizon swims into a visionless blur for a while till the caffeine kicks in but the pace of life subsides.

Notes from a mandolin being tuned suddenly pierce this blur, and, for a moment, the rest of the world becomes distant and every other sound is rendered inaudible and unimportant. People first freeze and then rush over to the makeshift stage where ‘Mandolin’ U Shrinivas, along with Selvaganesh, is running through his “sound-check” prior to a performance in the evening on the beach. People smile, some looking awestruck, fold their hands with palms touching, in salutation, and bow at the young virtuoso.

Shrinivas, with the charming smile in place, takes time off from his soundcheck and returns each gesture in exactly the same fashion. He looks back at the sea and starts off on a phrase from a piece called ‘Samudra’ (sea).

After the sound-check, both Selvaganesh and he take some time to chat with the mini-audience and even sit down on the sand to discuss application of Carnatic vocabulary in jazz and vice versa.

This is the simplicity of Uppalapu Shrinivas – a former child prodigy-turned-maestro who was awarded the National Citizen’s Award at 22 and a Padma Shri at 29. The mandolin virtuoso has left a rich legacy comprising around 62 albums, new tunes, interpretations of classic melodies and above all – the five-stringed mandolin. (In Tamil Nadu, the name of the instrument he plays is often prefixed to that of the individual.)

Shrinivas’ father, Satyanarayan, moved the family from their native Andhra Pradesh to Chennai when he was young. When he was six, Shrinivas liked the sound of the mandolin that father Satyanarayan had bought and picked it up. After some lessons from his father, Shrinivas went on to learn from Rudraju Subbaraju.

He debuted with a solo concert at the age of nine while the earliest most others do it is well into their teens.

The debut concert was at an open-air venue. It began with an audience of 15 people looking on disinterestedly at a small boy sitting on the stage with a western instrument. The concert ended with over 5,000 people crowding the audience, who walked in when they heard the music.

In 2011, when I met with Shrinivas, in the confines of his home in Chennai, he had confessed that the first five minutes into a performance was always nerve-wracking for him.

After that first performance, he strived harder to introduce the mandolin into Carnatic Classical music.

“Mandolin U. Srinivas was an unlikely superstar, the first and the best person to play an ancient Indian music on a shy, unobtrusive European folk instrument. He devised his own technique, and later, his own instrument to maintain the integrity of this complex and often puritanical strand of music,” says Nikhil Rao, guitar player with the Indian music outfit, Indian Ocean.

Rao’s reference is to Shrinivas’ contribution of introducing the five-stringed Mandolin adding an extra course to the four-courses of two strings on the mandolin used in western music. Though I had seen Shrinivas perform earlier in classical sets and Shakti, it was Rao who first introduced me to the intricacies of Shrinivas’ way of playing Carnatic on the mandolin and the compositions in particular.

Still in half-pants, Shrinivas went on to perform at venues in Chennai and became a pre-teen sensation with 10 hours of practice a day. Academics, though not a priority, suffered. It took him seven years to complete a three-year bachelor’s degree.

When the mandolin performances for All India Radio began, Carnatic music listeners and practitioners alike were curious about the instrument and Shrinivas converted their collective curiosity into love for his performance.

Musician and composer, Nandini Srikar (popularly associated with playback singing in Bollywood), of the same age as Shrinivas, first heard of him while in school.

“I think it was an AIR morning transmission on the radio that my mother and I first heard him play. Question on our minds was – Mandolin, a small, fretted instrument, how would he play the complex carnatic gamakas? We were surprised and amazed that a kid could do this! Then I watched him on TV for the first time –he was sitting on a boat and miming to a pre-recorded audio – and I watched his fingers move nimbly across the thin, tiny fretboard with a saintly smile across his face. It dawned on me that he had overcome & surpassed the limitations imposed naturally by the instrument and extended the Carnatic grammar onto a fretted instrument where you cannot really bend the strings. He was a prodigy, and clearly, a very focussed, hardworking one at that. Then I heard him play Todi, Bilahari & Shanmukhapriya and I became a big fan,” says Srikar.

However, it was the 30-minute show on the national (and then the sole) television channel, Doordarshan, that gave Shrinivas some prominence at the age of 12. Then Chief Minister, MG Ramachandran, called the channel and asked to speak with the little boy. Ramachandran awarded him with the official title of ‘Asthana Vidwan’, which translates to “court musician of Tamil Nadu” in English. The Kanchi Kamakoti Peetam bestowed the same honour on him in 1990 – an honour that was given, much later, this year to another Carnatic exponent, L Shankar, who was also heralded as a child prodigy, debuting at the age of seven.

Several awards followed, of which the most prestigious was the Padma Shri award, which Shrinivas received at the age of 29 in 1998. This honour is reserved for senior artistes. Seniority is often assumed to be of age and not talent, as Shrinivas found out.

When he went to Delhi to receive the Padma Shri award, the security guard had stopped Shrinivas at the entry to the backstage saying, “Only the awardee can come in,” indicating father Satyanarayan, who was accompanying Shrinivas.

Shrinivas had chuckled after describing this scene and had said, “My heart sank for a minute, thinking that they had sent the letter incorrectly addressed to me. Luckily one of the organisers showed up and recognised me. They had to reassure me that it was I who had won the award and not my father.”

Awards had neither been the goal nor the inspiration to Shrinivas.“My family, my life, people on the streets inspire me while composing. On the stage, it is the vibrancy of my fellow-musicians. One of my albums was inspired purely by action films,” he had said.

In fact, he had said that he was willing to compose for action films but was open to the idea of composing for films only if producers gave him a free hand.

In 1992, he went to watch tabla maestro Ustad Allah Rakha at a concert in London, a day after his own. The maestro recognised Shrinivas and insisted, over the PA system, that Shrinivas join him with his mandolin that very minute. He walked with stony steps up the stairs and sank nervously into the carpet. His hands shook for two minutes till Allah Rakha drifted into a tune that Shrinivas was familiar with. Fear and the surroundings melted into an insignificant background as the two played into the night.

Shrinivas loved western music and its performers as much as Indian classical. His favourite band was The Beatles. In 1999, while performing at a concert in London, George Harrison, of The Beatles, came to watch Shrinivas play and met with him at the interval to talk to him. Harrison never left Shrinivas’ side and sat through the second half on the stage.

“He [George Harrison] started the conversation with ‘wow’. Usually starting the concerts is tough. This time I found starting the second half tougher, with him watching, sitting right next to me,” Shrinivas had said.

The tables were turned when Nandini Srikar was performing at the Queen Elizabeth Hall in London with Ronu Majumdar in 2002.

The curtains opened and revealed a stellar front row audience of Pandits Rajan and Sajan Mishra, U Shrinivas and a few other well known Indian musicians.

“I didn’t expect to see them and for a brief moment I panicked,” says Srikar. “U Shrinivas just smiled and I went ahead with the performance. We were introduced backstage after the concert. He quietly said “You have such a beautiful voice. Where are you from? Who did you learn from?…” After a brief conversation, we all set out for dinner with several other musicians. Each brief backstage encounter at his concerts after that made me realise that his greatness lay not just in his playing but also in his simplicity and humility. Very soft spoken, he extended himself to people warmly with a smile of a man wise beyond his age, a smile that hid the pain within.”

A young Shrinivas grew up under the tutelage of many Carnatic classical maestros. One of them was the Grammy award-winning ghatam (clay pot) player, Vikku Vinayakram. Vinayakram’s son, Selvaganesh and Shrinivas remained friends till Shrinivas’ death and performed together frequently, including in the outfit Remember Shakti.

Remember Shakti was a rekindling of John McLaughlin’s earlier outfit, Shakti, which included violinist L Shankar and Vinayakram.

“How do they play so fast? What diet helps them to do so?” a 10-year-old Shrinivas had asked Vinayakram. The same question to him always induced the characteristic coy smile on his lips.

Twenty years after that question to Vinayakram, 1999, fusion-guitarist John McLaughlin sent Shrinivas an email. McLaughlin was getting together musicians to restart Shakti and he wanted Shrinivas to be a part of it.

Shrinivas dismissed the email as a hoax and also disconnected a call the next day from a man who claimed to be McLaughlin. McLaughlin had to call back and insisted Shrinivas check with Shakti alumnus Vinayakram to verify.

“It was a dream I hadn’t even dreamt,” Shrinivas had said with the look and tonality of a fan-boy. “I was so very nervous on my way to the rehearsals despite preparing hard for it. But, they treated me like an equal and Selva [V Selvaganesh] kept cracking jokes that put me at ease.”

Shrinivas returned the favour. One of McLaughlin’s recruits for Remember Shakti was slide guitar player, Pandit Debashish Bhattacharya. In 2000, Pandit Bhattacharya was asked to play with Remember Shakti. He came unprepared since he didn’t have the music with him and a patient Shrinivas took him through the music a note at a time.

The result of that collaboration is available across the internet in videos and audio. Shrinivas’ version of Giriraja Sudha has a few million hits on Youtube for each of its different versions.

Bhattacharya recalls his favourite as Bel Alla, a track played on Remember Shakti: A Saturday Night in Bombay.

The two went on to make several other collaborations, most of notable of which is the concert at the Theatre de la Ville in Paris. It was part of an album tour for Samjanitha, in which Shrinivas had featured several major artistes.

“We played the concert for two hours I still feel that is just yesterday, only with few masters you can feel the same whole life,” says Bhattacharya.

“He was a fun guy, supportive, very fussy about food and particular about the taste of art and music. We always fought over a cup of tea about who was older – him or me.”

A Remember Shakti concert I went to in 2006 encapsulated some of the spiritual experience that Bhattacharya described. As the musicians took their place, a thunderous applause gave way to a pregnant silence at the Science City Auditorium in Kolkata. Even the aisles had been overflowing with people who could not find a seat.

Shrinivas spoke through his mandolin, truly making it an extension of himself. He used it to tell the other musicians what to do next.

As the mandolin weaves around the other instruments sometimes leading them furiously like a bugle and sometimes fading into coyness like a teenaged-lover, the musicians glanced at each other and pace up beyond the several beats per minute that heavy metal musicians claim to be their own. This was Shakti. It may not be the same ever again.

Shrinivas was guarded about his private life but his music had so many things to offer that fans probably overlooked any hint of personal controversy in the timid man’s life.

The music was so powerful that it transcended conservative boundaries; it won over purists despite the instrument he used and the way he used it. It attracted Indians who had a taste for western music.

Nikhil Rao, who replaced Susmit Sen as the guitarist in Indian Ocean, found his interest in playing Carnatic and applying it on the guitar after listening to U Shrinivas on the radio.

“His music hit me right between the eyes and gave me sleepless nights. Listening to him made me restless and hungry to understand what he was doing and apply it on the guitar. I found a teacher and began Carnatic lessons in earnest. Six years later, I still don’t possess a technique to brag about and keep trying haplessly. But I often go back to his recordings to pay attention to the delightful way in which he connected notes – each note having a subtle shadow of the previous one, and for his edge of microtonal brilliance. He managed to extract the last few drops of unexpected beauty from phrases that had been played for hundreds of years before he existed. I sometimes imagined the smiling, young Shrinivasji walk in and turn on a light switch in a room full of fumbling scholars. That was the light his playing shone on the music,”said Rao.

Rao had been thrilled when he met U Shrinivas at a private concert where Indian Ocean was performing and the mandolin virtuoso played a few tunes too. Shrinivas had agreed to record with Indian Ocean for their latest album which features many artistes including Indian classical artistes. Alas, Shrinivas’ busy schedule did not allow it.

“This teetotaler, non smoking, vegetarian was probably the sweetest man anyone would ever meet and it just isn’t right he had to leave so young. I am glad I got the chance to meet him and shake his hand and stammer out what an inspiration he was to me. In classic Srinivas style, he grinned and said “thank you, sir” with folded hands. He called me Sir!!” gushes Rao.

The untimely death of this musical legend has caught many of unawares. Much like his prowess and fame, his death came before the expected time.

“Mandolin U Shrinivas did the thing that no one else thought about, his electric mandolin was perfect for the music he played. I think his pioneering work will shine on through his brother U. Rajesh’s playing. Without Shrinivas, the mandolin would not have sounded so spiritual and divine,” said Bhattacharya.

There is enough to celebrate from a 35-year music career but surely there was much more we could have had.

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