Song of Surrender

Monday, 12 December 2011

Shaken and stirred

By Ganesh V

Flashback: circa 1984

I am at the annual Carnatic music festival held by Binny Subba Rao (Binny to people who know him). Binny was to Coimbatore, what Nalli Kuppuswami Chetty is to Madras today – a patron of arts and an impresario. On stage, I see a slip of a boy flanked by veterans (I can’t recall who they were) on the violin and mridangam. Since I am half a slip of a boy myself, I don’t have a clue about Carnatic music. I just go along with the lilt and cadence in the music. The concert hall is bursting at its seams. It is long before the age of CC TV, but there are many people standing at the fringe of the hall, mindless of their discomfiture, content to let the music wash over them. After every kriti, there is deafening applause.

What impresses me most about the boy is the way he carries himself. For starters, he is not tentative in the least. The moment he begins playing, he seems to be immersed in his instrument and its music. His control over his instrument seems complete, even at that young age (I came to know later that he was about 16 years old then). Every now and then, he turns this way and that, looks at his accompanists and smiles even as he is playing. After every composition, he folds his palms and bows his head to the audience. He seems very cheerful. Concert over, the audience gives him a standing ovation that seems to last forever.
This was my introduction to the music of U Shrinivas, who plays the mandolin. Essentially a western instrument, Shrinivas has adapted it to the needs of Carnatic music.

Circa 2010

It is the music season in Madras. The concert has just begun, as we present our tickets at the door and are shown to our seats at Vani Mahal. The first kriti is almost over. On stage, we see a robust young man in his late thirties, flanked by his accompanists, sitting with his head bowed over his instrument. His fingers fly over the strings as he deftly draws out the juice from his yielding instrument. The smile and the open face are still the same. And even as he plays, he turns every now and then to look his accompanists in the eye and smile. There is thunderous applause as he finishes playing the composition. My mind flashes back to that scene 26 years ago…and not knowing why, I sigh!

What a concert it turns out to be! To say it was mind-blowing would be an understatement. It rooted us to our seats and blew us off our feet. Shrinivas was in his elements that evening. And so were his accompanists. Tanjavur Murugabhoopathy on the mridangam and Subhash Chandran on the ghatam matched Shrinivas note for note, flourish for flourish. The entire concert was a lyrical conversation with God. Raghu and I could only look at each other and smile. Words seemed out of place.

I have never seen anyone (even Shrinivas himself for that matter) handle an instrument the way he handled the mandolin that evening. You got the feeling he was toying with it. For nearly three hours, he stroked, caressed, bent and whipped the mandolin to produce utterly divine music. I sat in a state of stupor, every fibre of my body tingling (a peculiar state that can’t be explained, but can only be experienced). And while the audience erupted in applause after every composition, to me, applause seemed superfluous. I mean, applause is meant to convey appreciation. But what do you do when you encounter something that is beyond any overt appreciation?

Not having learnt music, I have what you might call “untrained ears”. I therefore, react to music from the heart. Especially when Shrinivas picks up his mandolin. I suppose there is no other way to react to his music!

The most astonishing thing about Shrinivas is the way he improvises while remaining within the framework of classical Carnatic music. The detours he takes off the main path are much like those a wandering hermit would, in search of Truth and God. One moment he would be meandering on an introspective journey and in a flash, build up the tempo to a speed that is beyond belief. For the accompanists, keeping pace with Shrinivas in these moments of inspiration is like keeping pace with greased lightning. For the audience, it is aural epiphany.

His music is so intense, deep and spontaneous that it carries the whole audience with it all the time. When he goes into one of his introspective moods bent over the mandolin, you feel he is pondering the deepest mysteries of life. And when he executes his lightning-fast flourishes and moves towards a thundering climax, your heart takes leaps of faith. Although your body remains rooted to your seat, you can feel your heart jumping for joy and your chest swelling. 
All musicians have their off day. That’s reasonable, considering that they too are prone to the frailties of other mortals. But somehow, I just can’t entertain the notion that Shrinivas can ever have an off day.

A Shrinivas concert is the shortest and surest way to heaven. And even the most cynical & grumpy critic will emerge from the concert hall, shaken and stirred.

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