BANGALORE: No concert-goer had heard Karnatak music on the mandolin before U Srinivas stormed into the world of classical music in the early 1980s.
Mandolin and South Indian classical music had nothing in common, or at least, that was the perception. The instrument had done better in Hindustani music, where masters like Sajjad Hussain, an acid-tongued but scintillating player, and Nasar Sajjad had used it for raga music. (Check them out on YouTube.)
In popular imagination, the mandolin was that almond-shaped instrument in the hands of movie heroes — the iconic poster of Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge features Shah Rukh Khan holding it and romancing Kajol. It was also the sound you heard in movie songs like Parbat Ke is Paar and Do Lafzon Ki Hain, and in vintage Kannada numbers. Composer Laxmikanth, who worked with Pyarelal, was a mandolin player. Film music and genres like sugama sangeeta were fond of the mandolin, which had its origins in Italy. Not so Karnatak music.
Southern classical music was to be played by the veena or the violin, the latter Indianised by the efforts of generations of musicians of high calibre. In Srinivas’ hands, the mandolin came to occupy the same space as those time-honoured instruments. His brother U Rajesh plays the mandolin, too, but you don’t find too many mandolin players on the classical stage even three decades after Srinivas became a sensation.
Gone too soon
‘Mandolin Srinivas’ breathed his last at a hospital in Chennai on Friday.
He was 45
He was being treated for a liver-related illness
Srinivas had collaborated with global artistes like John McLaughlin and Michael Nyman
He was awarded the Padma Shri in 1998, at the age of 29. He also received the Sangeet Natak Akademi Award in 2010
The mandolin is a happy instrument, and trills in the higher frequencies. It has none of the classical gravitas of the sarod or the veena. At best, you might compare it to the thin pencil flute that produces cheerful upper octave ditties. The difficulty for Srinivas must have been to adapt it to the formal sobriety of Karnatak music, to play ragas and compositions more suited to the deep-toned veena.
Srinivas used an electric version of the mandolin, adding an extra lower string, to play music that thrives on micro-tonal oscillations, calibrating its every grace (gamaka) with precision. More: p6, 9, edit
His control over his medium was magnificent. Not only was he able to produce difficult gamakas that imitated the vocal style, but he could also race into long staccato passages that called for virtuoso-level technique. This was no small achievement.
Without doubt, Srinivas was a star attraction at the music festivals. He played the concert standards - essentially the compositions of the Trinity of Karnatak music, with Thyagaraja occupying pride of place. Later in his career, he began playing with musicians taking a less grammar-bound route. He played with the acoustic fusion band Shakti across the world. That took him to another audience even within India, an audience more familiar with the music of the West than with Karnatak ragas. In a John McLaughlin composition called Caruna, you Srinivas exploring energetic, abstract jazz, a style contrasting with grammatically exact Indian raga music.
Srinivas’ music will have critics, not because he was lacking, but because they believe his instrument was meant for another, fast-paced musical language. He will find a pride of place in the genius league, even if he doesn’t make it to the league of the greats. And this is not is first time Indian classicism has embraced an instrument and widened its horizons. Srinivas brilliantly guided the mandolin on a new path, changing its destiny to play the world’s most complexly beautiful music.