Song of Surrender

Tuesday, 28 February 2012

Mandolin Shrinivas is 43 today

Mandolin Shrinivas, who is 43 years old today, has been giving Carnatic music recitals for over 30 years.

A Retrospective
(Sruti 195, December 2000.)

In this article, N.R. RANGANATHAN, who has closely followed the mandolin maestro’s career and musical growth, offers an assessment of the young man’s achievements and also records his future plans.
I begin this exercise with a simple statement concerning the appeal of any music: It is the quality of sound that determines the appeal of music. However, this statement needs to be supplemented by the observation that a listener’s cultural background is decisive when he estimates the quality and appeal of music. Even among listeners within the same culture, depending on the exposure, diverse tastes prevail among them, as was stated by Kalidasa centuries ago.

Each great musician projects a unique sound quality of his own which envelopes his musical excellence. True, classical music is governed by a grammar and tethered to a tradition, but prominent classical musicians are able to please all types of rasika-s, from novice to pundit, by the sheer mesmerising quality of the sound they produce. They also make a tremendous impression on their fellow musicians. Illustrative examples are: M.S. Subbulakshmi, Lata Mangeshkar, Bismillah Khan, Bade Ghulam Ali Khan, Bhimsen Joshi, Ravi Shankar, Ali Akbar Khan, Zakir Hussain, M.D. Ramanathan, T.N. Rajarathnam Pillai, Flute Mali, Dwaram Venkataswamy Naidu, Palakkad Mani Iyer, and Veena S. Balachander. It can be asserted on this count that Shrinivas belongs to this club.

I offer my assessment of Shrinivas in three parts: as an instrumentalist; as a musician, and as a music teacher.

Instrumentalist

It was a bolt from the blue when Shrinivas started playing Carnatic music using an electronic mandolin (a flat board instrument, different from the acoustical mandolin which has a resonating chamber like the veena). His music, projecting the best traditions of Carnatic music, was of top quality. Many attributed its appeal— and his success— to the novelty of the instrument, while some made dire predictions that the nature of the instrument would eventually stunt his music. The latter observation was repeated more than a decade ago in Kalakshetra journal. But Shrinivas has proved them all wrong; interestingly, his continued and continuing success has prompted quite a few other musicians to use the mandolin as the vehicle of their expression.

In the beginning, Shrinivas used a plectrum, as a consequence of which the notes from the mandolin lacked the rich gamaka-s found in vocal music. But, as a pioneer, he constantly experimented with and developed the techniques necessary to produce notes which simulate top class vocal music until the point we now feel we are listening to the sahitya being sung when he plays kriti-s. (He creates this effect by using the plectrum only at appropriate places and moving his fingers to convey continuity). In other words, he ‘sings’ even though his vehicle for musical expression is an instrument. A discerning rasika will readily concede that the amazingly rich and proper gamaka-laden sounds which Shrinivas coaxes from the mandolin are equal to those produced by the great vainika-s, if not a shade better.

The appeal of Carnatic music is at its attractive best when the artist dwells in mandra sthayi. Realising this, Shrinivas has adapted the Western mandolin to suit his purpose. He uses a mandolin which has five strings, with the fifth string tuned to the shadja of the lower octave. The other four strings are tuned to mandra panchama (G); adhara shadja (C); madhya panchama (G); and tara shadja (C). Contrastingly, in the Western mandolin, the set of four double strings is usually tuned to E, A, D and G, respectively.

For quite sometime during his early years as a concert artist, Shrinivas used to be worried by the weaker level of the sound from the mandolin as compared to that of the accompanists. However, with improvement in the amplification of the mandolin’s sound and using speakers of superior quality, he now concentrates more on music and less on its amplification, much to the delight of his rasika-s.

Musician

Since his concert on 28 December at the Indian Fine Arts Society in Madras in 1982 which brought him to the attention of rasika-s, music critics and fellow musicians, Shrinivas has made great strides as a musician. He has also become a complete concert artist.
  • His raga alapana-s, as often as not fired by a vivid musical imagination, have always a fresh look. His mastery of even the vivadi raga-s is near perfect.
  • He has acquired a large repertoire of compositions and he is thoroughly at ease playing even the most difficult piece.
  • His kalpana swara matrices are frequently based on interesting and attractive musical phrases occurring in the composition and are noteworthy for innovative melodic as well as rhythmic ideas and phrasing.
  • He has shown a capacity to present ragam-tanam-pallavi even in raga-s generally believed to offer restricted scope, like Bindumalini and Chitrambari. His alapana essays are spacious and yet focussed.
  • He manages to put his own stamp on the music even when playing songs made popular by other great musicians; believe me, this is a notable feat.
  • In sum, he has shown himself to be a great exponent of raga music, a creative artist who understands the purpose of Carnatic music as art music is to image the raga-s taken up for performance, using the various components of Carnatic music imaginatively and skillfully.
It is no wonder, then, that the music of Shrinivas, which is available aplenty in recorded form as well, gives delight to all types of listeners— from the innocent pleasure-seeker to senior citizens given to wallowing in nostalgia about ‘great musicians of bygone days’.

Interestingly, for a practitioner of Indian music which emphasises melody, Shrinivas has shown he can offer harmony as well as melody. This he has been able to do by exploiting the technical features of the mandolin to produce ‘chords’. Srijana in Sindhubhairavi and Sangamam in Keeravani are good examples.

Teacher

Despite being an artist with a hectic concert schedule, Shrinivas is very keen to impart his knowledge of music and the musical insights he has gained over the years, as well as his skills in playing the mandolin, to young aspirants. He has been guiding and teaching his younger brother Rajesh, but he has found time to teach a fairly large number of other disciples as well. A novel feature of his teaching is his insistence that the student should learn to play the initial learning exercises, like sarali varisai and geetam, in several raga-s before he starts teaching them compositions as vehicles of raga music. He feels that his teaching will enable the disciples to render with ease the musical ideas in the mind. He believes further that an aspirant should learn with dedication and practise constantly for five years before venturing to present recitals on stage.

Future Plans

Shrinivas has already shown he is adept in playing jugalbandi with master musicians like Flute N. Ramani, as well as in fashioning fusion music. He is particularly keen to interact with classical musicians of other systems and come out with novel compositions. But more than anything else, he is keen to make Carnatic music attractive to the youth in India and to listeners of various nations—to do both without compromising the traditions of Carnatic music—just as the great Ravi Shankar has succeeded with Hindustani classical music.

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