CHENNAI: He plays a giant music instrument with the ease of a kid fi ddling with a toy. “I was given one, when I was three — a toy piano. I was told I outgrew it in less than a month”, chuckles Anil Srinivasan, who has revamped, refused (“fusion is a bad word ok!”) and reset western notes to play Carnatic and fi lm songs as well. “Music is music, how does it matter which genre it is?” muses Anil, who says he is in a ‘liberated space’ in his life and there are no limits to where his music and his piano can take him. A heartening chat with the musician, who creates magic with those black and white keys... What is your fi rst memory of playing the piano? Well, it has to be in nursery class, where I used to go and just stand near the piano, play some keys or sometimes even fall asleep next to it (laughs).
My fi rst teacher was Meena Radhakrishnan. She was also Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer’s daughter-in-law. I am possibly the only student who went to his house to learn something other than Carnatic music. Thereafter, until I was 19, I trained with Anna Abraham. But a large part of the credit goes to my mother, who realised my affi nity towards the piano and along with my family, encouraged me to play a western musical instrument, though my parents were both trained Carnatic musicians. I had the best exposure to both worlds. My love for carnatic music is purely personal. Dinnertable conversations in our family would be my dad singing the fi rst line of a Navaraagamaalika and I would be asked to sing the second line or guess the raagam of another song and so on.
Also, my extended family which had cousin T M Krishna, meant that our childhood was fi lled with a variety of music. My earliest ‘jugalbandhi’ memory is of a seven-year old TMK singing Ilayaraja’s Vaanmegam with a seven-year-old me playing the chords. As kids, we used to get goosebumps when TMK would sing the line ‘mazhai thulli theriththathu...’ (sings) When did you realise your ‘calling’ in music? For about a decade I was pursuing a business PhD in America but I always wondered ‘what am I doing here?’ The feeling grew more when I used to watch our carnatic musicians perform in the US. I desperately wanted to break away and make music my life; in fact, my professor at Columbia University gifted me a piano when he saw me play some notes on the one they kept at the college lounge! Can I let you in on a secret? I’ve never owned a piano all my life! (Laughs) All the pianos I’ve ever played on or I have at home are gifts from friends or relatives.
When I came to India for a break, I had the opportunity to jam with Sikkil Gurucharan for our school’s golden jubilee function. Gurucharan was my junior and we just met casually but that meeting changed my life. Our performing at the Vidya Mandir hall was the turning point of my life. Together, we created a classical genre which is inspired from carnatic music but the technique is western. How is the response from the audience when you play a varnam on those western keys? You see even the violin is a western instrument! If we can listen to the most complex of swaras on that, we can listen to it on the piano as well. I’ve taken the piano to places no one can even imagine! Most noteworthy of them all would be this college which was in the outskirts of the Sathyamangalam forests.
It was a concert to raise funds for the Aadivaasi tribes there. Before the concert began, I spent 30 minutes introducing the piano to the audience and letting the tribal kids experience the joy of playing it! Yes, from city malls to the best of sabhas, my piano has taken me everywhere. I’m in Carnatic music circles today because my piano can safely play a raagam to its precision (laughs). I want to be known as a pan-genre artiste. Be it a varnam, movie song or a Beethoven piece, my piano aligns my heart, mind and body when I play. How do you manage to play even ‘kuthu’ songs on the piano? (Laughs) My album ‘Touch’ has a dappaankuthu called Streets of Madras composed by me. For fi lm concerts, I play a whole range beginning from Annaathey Aaduraar to the latest foot-tapping club number. It all works as long as I get the notes right (smiles).
Can you defi ne your relationship with the piano? Frankly, the piano is the Hobbes to my Calvin! It constantly challenges me, questions me and helps me understand myself. The piano is my greatest teacher. And the piano can be both male and female depending on the song I play! For instance, Kanney Kalaimaaney is female while the theme song from Punnagai Mannan is male. So the piano in that sense encompasses both energies and resonates in me and through me, an aura which has helped me explore life to the fullest. With time one masters the skill, technique, speed and ability to play any tune. But a sense of peace comes in almost instantly, whenever I play a note.