Monday, September 22, 2014

U. Shrinivas In Memoriam

U.Shrinivas has proved that he fulfils this to the hilt. A rather inconspicuous member of the western orchestra, Shrinivas has revived and raised the mandolin, an unknown instrument and given it a respectable status in classical music. His music acumen has assumed many dimensions. He glides over the gamut with ease traversing 4 octaves with subtle deflections and suave certainty. Every phrase, every design falls into place in the octaval build up of the raga. He can evolve and execute the most intricate fraction-ridden swara combinations that would keep any accompanist on edge.

Shrinivas has grown into a colossus with only sky as the limit. " The magnificent music that emanates from the mandolin of young Shrinivas has the freshness and spontaneity of a mountain brook. The kalpanaswaras are like cascading waterfalls and the alaps a serene, majestic river flowing through the plains. His fingers caress and cajole original and remarkable proyogas of Carnatic music from this western instrument"

Uppalapu Srinivas (28 February 1969 – 19 September 2014) was an Indian mandolin player and composer of the Carnatic musical tradition of Southern India. A child prodigy, he made his debut in 1978, and came to be popularly known as Mandolin Srinivas. Over the next four decades, he toured across the world, and had the privilege of playing with great artists like, Ustad Zakir Hussain, John McLaughlin, Michael Brook, Nigel Kennedy, Michael Nyman, Pandit Jasraj, Pandit Shiv Kumar Sharma, Trey Gunn, Nana Vasconcelos, Hariprasad Chaurasia, besides Carnatic artists like Vikku Vinayakram and V. Selvaganesh.

He was awarded the Padma Shri in 1998 by Government of India, and the Sangeet Natak Akademi Award in 2009. He was a follower and devotee of Sri Sathya Sai Baba and he had performed before him on several occasions.

His younger brother U. Rajesh is also an accomplished mandolin player, and often accompanied him at concerts. He also plays jazz and western music, and played the mandolin in the John Mclaughlin album 'Floating Point' which received a Grammy nomination in Best Contemporary Jazz Album Category in 2008. Srinivas and Rajesh together composed music as well, and besides Carnatic music, extensively worked on fusion of Carnatic with western music. They also played with the Johannesburg Philharmonic Orchestra, with French electric bass player Dominique Di Piazza and Stephen Devassy, pianist from Kerala. In 2008, they again collaborated with John Mclaughlin for the album, "Samjanitha", which also featured Zakir Hussain, Sivamani, and George Brook. Yet, he called Carnatic music like Sanskrit language, "It's the basis, from which springs so many other languages. Carnatic music is here to stay with us and all other music that we play is based on that."
Over the years, Srinivas recorded over 40 albums, in diverse genre from Carnatic music solos to jugalbandis with Hindustani musicians, to world music. U. Srinivas started a music school called the Srinivas Institute of World Music (SIOWM) in Chennai, where he taught a number of students.

Normally one finds two variations in the original form of the mandolin - the acoustic and the electric (solid block). The mandolin in its original form is typically an acoustic stringed instrument about 60cm (2 ft) long with deeply vaulted ribs and a table slanted downward at the lower end. It has a neck-cum-peghead attached to a hollow oval shaped sound box. It has four pairs of loop-ended double rib fastened metal strings secured to hooks on the body on one end, and passed across a low bridge (on the sound box) and a nut (on the finger board) to the pegs inserted into a rectangular peg-box. A small flexible plectrum is used to vibrate the strings. A feature of mandolin playing is the constant reiteration of all long pitches, which counteracts its weak sustaining power.

The thinnest string is called 1st string, the next string is the 2nd string which is slightly thicker, and so on until the fourth string. The acoustic Mandolins are unsuitable for carnatic music. The electrically modified Mandolin is the one used by U. Shrinivas which is suitable for "gamakas" (sustained notes).

"A power house of talent has descended on the orchard of Carnatic Music to make it resplendent in all its varied hues and nuances, weaving around it a magnetic field that not only sustains the audience interest but makes them crave for a little more of it. This sudden and brilliant outburst of musical wizardry is from the tender hands of Master Shrinivas who with a caress of the strings of the tiny instrument Mandolin sets the pace for a thoroughly enjoyable fare of Carnatic music that normally has come to be regarded as the preserve of a few savant grade senior musicians".

Shrinivas was born in Palakol in West Godavari district in Andhra Pradesh on February 28, 1969. As a very young boy Shrinivas was a normal child in school except that he seemed to have an ear for music. Then one day, when he was only six years old, his parents came home to find him playing on his father's mandolin. Inspired by the boy's interest in music, Satyanarayana taught his son what little music he knew, and Shrinivas began playing Carnatic music on the mandolin.

Subbaraju, a classically trained musician and a disciple of the famous musical stalwart Chembai Vaidyanatha Bhagavathar, who had taught music to Shrinivas' father sensed the young boy's musical aptitude and decided to teach him classical music. He had no experience on the mandolin, so he would sing Carnatic music which Shrinivas would then play on the mandolin. He also learned Carnatic music from Shri Vasu Rao. In this way the young musician developed his own style.
Yes, indeed a star was born....

Mandolin Shrinivas has often been compared to some of the world greatest prodigies.

"Some of you have heard or read about exceptionally gifted children, our own Mandolin Shrinivas, Sir Yehudi Menuhin, Beethoven, Sir Isaac Newton, Picasso, Madam Curie, the list is endless" (courtesy THE HINDU, Sunday, May 3, 1992)

To Shrinivas the mandolin was his first love. He expended all his latent talent to conquer this little known alien instrument. Such was the proficiency he attained that his father soon realized that what he had on his hands was a "child prodigy" and no less ! Sparing no effort and time, he swept his son on his sail to recognition. The creative energy in Shrinivas swirled like a tidal wave around the Carnatic music world. The way critics gushed, it was hard to tell if they were talking about a child or a god! "He was hardly nine. Innocence was writ large on his face.

But the music that he produced on the little brittle mandolin was unbelievably Carnatic and classical to the core, throwing into the shade even the top instrumentalists. One had to rub one's eyes and pinch oneself to make sure that a nine-year-old lad was performing musical miracles on the dais. He even operated on offbeat summations revealing virtuosity of a high order. That he could conceive in his mind the raga in all its grandeur and inherent niceties and transform them into musical extravaganzas had to be seen and heard to be believed ! It was clear that there was a divine force expressing itself through him in his tiny instrument".

Following public recognition and acceptance in 1983, the next years of this wonder boy were spent in touring the world extensively, enchanting his audience with the youthful vigour and expertise that are his hallmarks. His concerts were highly acclaimed and he was showered with many prestigious awards.

Over the years his performing perambulations and resulting public adulation afforded him no time for formal schooling. Shrinivas has been principally educated through private coaching. He remains essentially the shy small-town boy with an urbane smile and a magnificent obsession - his mandolin. In every concert Shrinivas earned applauses minute after minute with his brilliant flashes. There was depth and weight in the boy's delineation of 'ragaas', with the Carnatic traditional flavour all the way in every note and phrase.

So much so that it was popularly felt... "If music is God's gift to man, U.Shrinivas is God's gift to music"

 Shrinivas got his first big break in Gudivada in the Krishna district of Andhra Pradesh, at the age of nine during the Sri Thyagaraja Aradhana festival. Thereafter his career surged ahead. The Indian Fine Arts Society in Madras afforded him the first major metropolitan concert during the musical festival in Dec 1981. Shrinivas soon felled all before him like a hurricane, as sabha after sabha vied with each other to present this prodigy with the mandolin - an unheard of phenomenon in the halls of Carnatic music. A worldwide concert tour followed.

At the West Berlin Jazz Festival in 1983, he was privileged to give a repeat performance of his mandolin, which was telecast live by German TV. At the invitation of the Sydney Tamil Sangham, he went to Australia in 1984, and then to South East and South West Asia, the USA and Canada. At the Festival of India in Paris, he was allotted one hour to play on the instrument. But when the hour ended, the audience forced the organizers to extend his recital by another hour. Such is the irresistible pull of Shrinivas' art. Leading organizations vied with each other to shower him with honors and titles. In 1983, the Music Academy, Madras, honored him with the "Special TTK Award"

The boy exhibited dizzy heights in his standard of play, which far surpasses what he must have learnt from his guru. Listeners were swept away in the flood of neatly executed touches and rhythmic patterns coming from the young prodigy's hand. Everyone forgot what instrument it was and gave themselves up for listening to the mellifluous melody that flowed out of the little stick of a musical instrument!

The Mandolin is essentially a staccato instrument, totally devoid of gamakka. That makes it almost alien to Carnatic needs. But that is all forgotten once you listen to Mandolin U. Shrinivas. What remains in the mind is music of the finest vintage.

The list of awards conferred on him is endless. And he is easily the most sought after artist. Between inhaling and exhaling, he gives a performance. It is also striking to note that he has none of the trappings of a star about him. Shy, silent, and reticent, he is rarely in the public eye, except on the podium.

Asked about his genius, he attributes it to God's grace. Behind this unassuming, humble boy lies the artist that comes once in an era. You may not be fond of Carnatic Music, but you can still not ignore Mandolin U. Shrinivas. You may look on him as a kind of Haley's Comet; a phenomenon if not an artist. Such is the spell he has cast on audiences, that there is invariably the residual close-circuit audience outside each hall. And he has travelled abroad innumerable times.

He is already one of the all-time greats. And he attributes it all to fate. It just cannot be. Fate did not make a U. Shrinivas - fate just laid a child's hand accidentally on a discarded Mandolin.

1. Why did you take up the mandolin?

My father is a musician and in my early childhood, when we had music sabhas in our house, it was the sound of the mandolin that impressed me the most. Besides, I always wanted to try something new.

2. How did the orthodox school of carnatic music react to your initiative?

When I started playing the instrument everyone discouraged me saying that I had made a wrong choice, and that this instrument had no scope and so I should have opted for something else like the veena. Subsequent to my first public concert at the age of 9, when I received such harsh criticism, I was naturally demoralised. But then I had faith in God and I went on practicing without paying heed to what the critics said. And today everyone asks me How do you manage to play the instrument so well ?

3. Where is the fountain of your inspiration?

The implicit faith in God and the blessings of the Paramacharya of Kanchi and Bhagawan Sri Sathya Sai Baba have, he feels contributed to his success.

"I owe it all to Kanchi "Periyava" (Paramacharya). Right from my childhood I have had great reverence for "Periyava". Sri Sathya Sai Baba is like Lord Shiva incarnate. Bhagwan Baba and Periyava are forever guiding and guarding me. And of course, Pillayar, Hanuman, Venkatachalapathi and Thyagabrahmam are my favourite gods and idols. Whatever I have accomplished is due to their grace, blessings of guru and the encouragement given by my parents".

Jazz buffs talk about intermingling of classical Indian music with modern Western jazz sounds. Never was this "fusion" more apparent than in the Jazzfest held in West Berlin in 1983. But the show was really stolen by thirteen-year old boy's wonder, U.Shrinivas, whose performance on the penultimate day earned thunderous applause and perhaps more notice backstage than any other act.

"He's got it in him. He's fantastic" raved Don Cherry, a great jazz trumpeter, who has studied Indian music under the Dagar Brothers in Bombay. Shrinivas' virtuoso handling of the mandolin was even more remarkable considering his placement in the festival; pitted against Miles Davis and his All-Star band, the young prodigy was billed to perform under high pressure conditions on his first exposure to foreign audiences. He was obliged by the audience to extend the 45 minute set by an hour long encore, and then the concert was broadcast unprogrammed and in its entirety on television and radio the next day.