Friday, 4 November 2016

R.K. Shriramkumar—blessed by many

In conversation with S. Janaki

R.K. Shriramkumar has a phenomenal memory. You get a taste of it as he reels off the dates he first accompanied the stalwarts of Carnatic music on the violin in concerts—D.K. Jayaraman on 13 November 1986,  D.K. Pattammal on 5 July 1988, T. Brinda and T. Mukta on 19 October 1988, K.V. Narayanaswamy on 13 February 1989, M.S. Subbulakshmi on 15 April 1989, and  Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer on 25 April 1995. About his violin debut on the concert stage, he remembers he accompanied his good friend Vijay Siva on Sankara Jayanti day on 19 April 1980. "Every kutcheri was a learning experience," says Shriramkumar.

Inspired by stalwarts

My grandfather R.K. Venkatarama Sastry groomed me to listen to great music. He imparted to me the greatness of the values of the music of the maestros—his guru T. Chowdiah and Papa Venkataramiah (who was his inspiration),  Maharajapuram Viswanatha Iyer, Ariyakudi Ramanuja Iyengar, Chembai Vaidyanatha Bhagavatar, Musiri Subramania Iyer, Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer, the Alathur brothers, T. Brinda, M.S. Subbulakshmi, Ramnad Krishnan and many others. 

Accompanying my grandfather to many concerts and lecdems, especially at the Music Academy, provided me the ambience of the music of the doyens.

Our home was a hub of musical activity during the month of December. My granduncles and uncles would come to Chennai and I have greatly benefitted from the musical interactions that would take place at home. I have learnt many compositions from my granduncles R.K. Narayanaswamy and R.K. Srikantan and my uncles the Rudrapatnam Brothers R.N. Tyagarajan and R.N. Taranathan. 

Savitri Satyamurthy initiated me into violin playing and taught me the early lessons. From my grandfather,  I learnt to sing and play on the violin many varnams and kritis. He also taught me the need to know the deeper import of  the compositions. Subsequently I came under the care of D.K.  Jayaraman and V.V. Subrahmanyam for advanced lessons in vocal music and violin playing respectively.

Learning from DKJ sir was a holistic experience. Along with his family and  other students, it was happiness and joy at all times, the happiness that has given me the precious gift of love and passion for this great art form. His contribution in presenting me to the concert arena is immeasurable. It was such a delight to be around him, learn from him, perform with him, listen to him render compositions with such classical and emotional fervour,  observe him shape new songs, and enjoy the lighter moments laced with unbelievable humour. He instilled in me not just the art of  music but the art of life.

Coming under the care of  VVS sir has opened my vision to the realm of nada, the bliss that pervades when he draws a long shadja on his violin. He made me understand the nuances of  keeping the violin in good shape, the importance of presenting the raga and the kriti in a pristine manner, adopting the perfect violin technique of which he is a master unparalleled. Learning from him has bestowed the knowledge of what the real import of music ought to be. His intense engagement with the esoteric world of nada is awe inspiring. His playing and musical vision are the forces that guide and protect me. 

A great source of inspiration, even from my childhood, has been the music of       vidwan T.N. Krishnan. Being a great fan of his, I have drawn, in great measure, from his bani, music and persona. The musical insights that he has shared with me, with great affection, have enriched my musical vision to a great extent. Vidushi N. Rajam is yet another musician whose violin playing has been a great source of inspiration for me. I have drawn in great measure, the spirit of her blissful music. 

I have been extremely fortunate to learn, interact and absorb from doyens such as Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer, M.S. Subbulakshmi, D.K. Pattammal and K.V. Narayanaswamy. The time I got to spend with all of them was really special and I cherish every moment of it. 

Interacting with Semmangudi mama was a sheer delight and my good fortune. To hear his life experience, to learn beautiful compositions, to accompany him in concerts, to enjoy his instant humour—every moment with him was memorable. 

Pattamma, as I fondly addressed her, took me into her care after my guru DKJ passed away. Learning from her, accompanying her in concerts, spending hours listening to vintage anecdotes, music and experiences—was one of its kind. She showered such unconditional love and was greatly concerned about my well being. It was such a great blessing in my life. 
KVN mama, a stickler for perfection, imparted several values, mainly the sense of sruti consciousness. I owe a great deal to him for his rigorous training in  making me play niraval, of which he was a great master, and for instilling in me the importance of sruti sensitivity and bhava laden sangeeta. Accompanying him on his US tour in 1997 with Manoj Siva (mridangam) was a memorable experience. The concert  at the Cleveland Tyagaraja Utsavam that year was inspiring and soulful. 

MS Amma has been the soul of my musical existence. I grew up with her blissful music since the time I was born.  Her music and her personality have always guided me. It is one of the greatest fortunes in my life, that I was blessed to be associated with her. Every single moment—be it learning from her, accompanying her in concerts, travelling with her, listening to her experiences in life and music—were all so precious, inspiring and memorable. I feel really blessed that my book of life has her affectionate autograph. 

Yet another great blessing in my life was the opportunity to accompany greats like T. Brinda, T. Mukta and T. Viswanathan. Having been a great admirer of the Dhanammal bani, it was a huge learning experience and a great blessing to be part of their concerts. 

I have been fortunate to share the stage with great percussionists like T.K. Murthy, Palghat Raghu, Umayalpuram Sivaraman, Trichy Sankaran, Karaikudi Mani, Vellore Ramabhadran, Guruvayur Dorai, V. Nagarajan, G. Harishankar, T.H. Vinayakaram, Palghat Sundaram and others. I have received great encouragement from vidwans Umayalpuram Sivaraman, Trichy Sankaran and Guruvayur Dorai who have given me opportunities to participate in their mridanga solo presentations. The loving care and wisdom of my gurus keeps me moving forward in my musical journey.

Senior musicians such as R. Vedavalli, N. Ramani, Suguna Varadachari, Rama Ravi, V. Subrahmanyam, Alepey Venkatesan, Sugandha Kalamegham and others have been pillars of support to my musical career. Vedavalli mami, in her concert at Raga Sudha, composed impromptu and rendered a pallavi in Keeravani raga—Arunprakasa Sreerama...Jaya guru Priya incorporating the names of her accompanists Arunprakash, Guruprasad and myself for that concert. All of us felt so touched and honoured by her warm gesture of affection. 

Interaction with peers

My peers have been my great friends. All of us have grown up together with music. The phenomenal movement, YACM (Youth Association for Classical Music) that stormed the music world in the 1980s and 1990s brought us all together. It was this wonderful movement that bonded us with music and the interactions that I had with my friends has left a lasting impression. 

The interaction with my friends and peers has been intense—we have exchanged views, discussed, learnt, fought, argued, and enjoyed doing things together. The Music Academy was the hub of all activity during the December season and we had the good fortune of interacting with great musicians who also had a very soft corner for all of us. Discussions galore with well informed musicians and rasikas such as Rukmini Rajagopalan, T.T. Narendran, K.S.S.  Rajan, Spencer Venugopal, Neelakantan (Tiruvalangadu Sundaresa Iyer’s son), Tyagarajan (Sanjay Subrahmanyan’s grandfather), Matscience Seshadri, S.V.  Krishnan, and the like have been good sources of musical knowledge. 

Vijay Siva, Sanjay Subrahmanyan, P. Unnikrishnan, T.M. Krishna, Bombay Jayashri, S. Sowmya, K. Arunprakash, Manoj Siva, Sangeetha Sivakumar, J. Vaidhyanathan, Nithyashree and her sister Gayatri have all been close friends and great pillars of support for me both musically and emotionally. I have drawn a lot of inspiration, learnt many aspects musically and otherwise, and enjoyed their love and affection in abundance. The intense interactions that I have enjoyed with these wonderful musician friends has greatly strengthened and enriched my insight into this beautiful art form. Their varied interests, performing capabilities and organisational acumen have greatly inspired me to think, perform, impart and enjoy. 

I have also benefitted by the interactions with my musician friends K.K. Ravi, Vittal Ramamurthy, Mullaivasal Chandramouli, S. Varadarajan, K.R. Subrahmanyam, V. Lakshminarayanan, Umayalpuram Mali, Neyveli Narayanan, Mannarkoil J. Balaji, Melakaveri Balaji, S. Karthick and B.S. Purushotham amongst many others. It is wonderful to have such musicians as my inspiring peers and friends.

On matters musical

Vocal and instrumental:  I have been groomed to play the violin only to reflect vocal music. Though you cannot actually hear the words, playing the fiddle  should be like singing. It is my personal choice, although many may argue that the violinist does not necessarily have to reproduce vocal music. When my guru V.V. Subrahmanyam  plays the violin, I can literally hear the words. You have to learn the compositions. The words, their import, along with the music and its emotional content, have always been of great importance to me. 

Lyrics and music:  The lyrics and  music go hand in hand for me, I cannot separate one from the other. I am extremely passionate about learning many compositions. They range from kritis to varnams to padams and javalis to devarnamas, bhajans, abhangas and viruttams. To me, the compositions of the Trinity are of paramount importance and are very dear to my heart. I am equally passionate about learning languages, in particular to get to know a working knowledge of the language and the meaning when I learn or render a composition. This, I have greatly imbibed from MS Amma that whatever the song, in whatever language, it must be rendered with the same gauravam or dignity and commitment. 

I am not drawn too much to musicology. However history of ragas do interest me. But my preference is more towards the presentation of ragas and compositions in a traditional manner, with the stamp of authenticity. 

On teaching 

Teaching is a learning experience. I became a teacher because of my own vadyar  DKJ sir.  In the late 1980s, he asked me to teach Prasad, a child from the U.S.A.  I told him I did not know how to teach music but he  would not take a no for an answer. He encouraged me saying "It will all come by itself". KVN mama  also insisted that I teach his niece Bhavya.  I love teaching children. But I must add that I have a jataka visesham (chuckles)—anyone who learns from me soon gets his/ her US immigrant visa confirmed! On a serious note, I am happy that all my disciples are doing well and happy with their music. Established young musicians like Amritha Murali, Bharathi Ramasubban, and Ramakrishnan Murthy have also been learning from me and have participated in my thematic presentations and lecdems. My students are my good friends. I too get to learn in the process.

When I teach my violin students, I sing and teach; and every student of mine has to learn to sing. I think it is meaningless to play an instrument without learning to sing.

I don't write the notations, in fact I can't; I need student scribes (laughs). I do not approve of referring to notes in front of you as it hampers internalisation.

Tuning and composing

I have tried my hand at composing when asked to do so. I have set several pallavis weaving in the raga names (greatly inspired by Muthuswami Dikshitar) to make them more interesting. My attempts at composing is, of course, inspired by the Trinity. 

Some of my compositions are: Arunachalapatey in Todi, on Ramana Maharishi, for Vijay Siva;  Kathamaham varnayami in Bhairavi, on nature, and  Paramapavana sudharmam in Sahana, with a message for mankind, for T.M. Krishna; and Durgam vande in Durga,  for Bombay Jayashri.

I have enjoyed tuning several stotras and geetas composed by the Jagadgurus of the Sringeri Sarada Peetham. I have also set to tune a few devarnamas, tarangams, abhangs, Tiruppugazh, verses from the Divya Prabandham and Tirupalliyezhuchi, songs of Sadasiva Brahmendra, Tayumanavar and Annamacharya.

On request from a few dancers I have composed pieces for specific themes. A piece comprising five ragas, five talas, tanam, jati, swara and sahitya were  featured in the production Saayujya presented by Priyadarsini Govind and T.M. Krishna. I composed the sahitya part of it and with Krishna I composed the music also. 

Also the sahitya for five verses on Lord Tyagesa and other deities of Tiruvarur as part of  a mallari for Priyadarsini Govind.  Srimathy Mohan, a disciple of Sudharani Raghupathy in Phoenix, Arizona, has presented a few compositions of mine as part of her productions.

I was greatly honoured to compose the music for the verses from the Ramayana for Seeta Vislesha Trayam presented by veteran dancer Vyjayantimala Bali. For the Cleveland Tyagaraja Aradhana, I set to tune some lyrics for the Yuddha Parvam of the Mahabharata. I was asked to be a resource person by Natyarangam for Dasa Parampara presented in Krishna Bharatham in August 2016.

Guiding force

We, in our family, are ardent sishyas of the Sringeri Sarada Peetham. Sri Abhinava Vidyatirtha Mahaswamigal of Sringeri advised my grandfather to perform the Purusha Sukta homam, and by that grace I was born. Mahaswamigal’s grace has forever been my guiding force. Presently  the blessings of  Sri Bharati Tirtha Mahaswamigal and Sri Vidhusekhara Bharati Mahaswamigal continue to guide me. In the year 2012, during a  4-1/2 month Chaturmasya and Navaratri camp at Sudharma in Chennai, I was privileged to organise the music concerts during the daily pooja. 

I felt greatly blessed and honoured when Sri Bharati Tirtha Mahaswamigal released, during Navaratri at Sringeri, Sri Sarada Stuti Manjari, an album comprising a few compositions on Goddess Sharadamba composed by the Jagadgurus of the Sringeri parampara that I had set to tune. These compositions have been beautifully rendered by Bombay Jayashri. 

Another such blessed influence in my life has been Sri Vimarshanandanatha Saraswati—who in his poorvasrama —was a close associate of my grandfather. He belongs to the direct sishya parampara of the great Shakta luminary Bhaskararaya.  He taught me along with his grandchildren the Lalita Sahasranama and Lalita Trisati, in a musical way, to the accompaniment of the sruti box. But for him, I would probably not have learnt the Kamalamba Navavarana kritis. He gave me the impetus to learn every one of them. He made me realise their esoteric significance as well. 

I am indeed fortunate to receive the blessings of such great saints, as well as that of the  Kanchi Paramacharya  and Sri Sai Baba of Puttaparthi. I have played in their presence when I accompanied DKP and MS respectively. 

My family and friends

Music has been an integral part of our family. The whole extended family has musicians of great repute. Growing up in such an ambience has been a blessing. My father, an engineer by profession, is a good vocalist, though he did not take to concert singing. My mother was also an amateur veena player and had great interest in the art. All my sisters sing well. 

The family bears with me. I have always been pampered since my childhood. My Thatha pampered me, so did my mother and sisters. The tradition continues and now my wife Akhila also pampers me. After marriage I don't play tisra gati, misra gati, khanda gati—saranagati is my only gati …the only way to sadgati (Chuckles) Otherwise it would become adhogati! (Has a good laugh).

I am blessed with great friends from all over the world. They have showered on me so much love and affection. Also, I have been highly pampered, supported, scolded, corrected and guided by them for which I am thankful to them. 


The best thing that happened to me in academics was that I studied in  Padma Seshadri Bala Bhavan school and Vivekananda College. Under the care of the dynamic and art loving Mrs. YGP and other teachers at PSBB, I was encouraged to pursue my music and even to this day Mrs. YGP fondly remembers and takes great pride in her students being in the limelight. Similarly, the professors of Vivekananda College, the Maths department in particular, were diehard fans of Carnatic music. It is my good fortune that I studied in these two institutions which allowed my music to blossom. 

This episode from my school days is interesting. MS Amma sang a fundraiser concert at the Music Academy in aid of the Meenakshi temple in Houston, TX, U.S.A. I attended the concert in spite of having my biology board exam the next day. I had a friend, philosopher and guide in my neighbour Vrinda Raman. She has always been a mentor and  an elder sister to me since my school days and I have always looked up to her. I heard a good loud mouthful from her when she got to know that instead of studying I had been to the concert the evening before  my board exam. Years later, when she saw me accompanying MS Amma, she was moved to tears. She has been one of my great inspirations as I was growing up. 

Trauma of fiddles lost

There is nothing as traumatic as losing the instrument you love. It is so much a part of you, and an extension of your personality. I lost my violins on two occasions. However, soon after both occasions I got to play for great musicians. The first one I lost on 27 January 1989. I was travelling from Tiruvaiyaru to Coimbatore to accompany my guru D.K. Jayaraman in a concert. I dozed off in the bus, and when I woke up, my violin box was missing. I reached Coimbatore and broke down before Vadyar. To console me DKJ called me to sing along with him. A complaint was lodged with the police, but I never got my violin back.  Soon after losing this violin I played for MS Amma. In fact MS Amma even consulted an astrologer about the chances of me getting back the violin. When the astrologer pronounced that the loss was all good for me, she was relieved! 

The second time I lost my violin was on the Bangalore Mail on my way to Chennai. I dread that train. It was again a traumatic experience, because you have lost something for which you have developed so much sneham. After this  time I played for Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer.

A close friend of mine K.R. Subrahmanyam (professor of Economics in Los Angeles and also a flautist) quipped, "Don't worry da, you will never ever lose your violin again as there are no more bigwigs left for you to play!" 

Apart from my violins that I presently use, I also inherited my wife Akhila’s lovely French violin. Thanks to Sankara Nethralaya where she works as the Director of Administration, she does not play the violin regularly. 

Unforgettable moments 

Such moments are many. The occasions when I got to perform with the doyens are all very special. Nevertheless I will list a few. 

  • The day my guru D.K. Jayaraman called, asking me to play for him at the Chandramouliswara pooja performed by Sri Abhinava Vidyatirtha Mahaswamigal at Meenakshi College, Chennai.
  • When my guru DKJ mentioned in his Sangita Kalanidhi acceptance speech that I was to him like how Vivekananda was to Ramakrishna Paramahamsa.
  • The day I received a call from MS asking me to play for her. And how Vijay Siva made it happen.
  • When MS received the prasadam from Sri Bharati Tirtha Mahaswamigal after rendering her concert at his pooja, and she specifically requested him to bless me specially with his grace.
  • The last time I met Pattammal and she saved her last smile for me.
  • My last concert with KVN mama at Narada Gana sabha on 17th Dec 2001, when I uncontrollably broke down after hearing him sing Tiruvadi saranam followed by a Tayumanavar viruttam.
  • When Semmangudi mama blessed me with a gift that was his life and the substratum of all of his exquisite music. 
  • When Vijay, Sanjay, Arun, Vaidy, Manoj and Krishna gave me solace and support when my mother passed away.
  • When my Math professor P.V. Ranganathan held my hand in pride with tears of happiness in his eyes to see me his student (a dropout in M.Sc.) accompany M.S. Subbulakshmi at Puttaparthi.
  • When T.M. Krishna became emotional after my raga alapana of Yamunakalyani at Sri Krishna Gana Sabha and had the large heart to make me play Krishna nee begane baro, all by myself.

1 comment:

  1. Such a blessed life, may we be granted many hours of his music and guidance.