January 30, 2014

No slowing down for this prodigy

Twenty five years after we featured him in a cover story titled Arc of Triumph: A Prodigy at Play, in our first issue, Mandolin Shrinivas remains an unrepentant speed merchant, loving the dazzle and spectacle of his fast paced, masterful brand of Carnatic music. Seemingly unaffected by the kind of mellow maturity expected to creep into a musician of his present age and experience—38 years old and a concert musician for more than 25 years—Shrinivas enjoys exploring the farthest contours of both major and rare raga-s, continuing to demonstrate the breathtaking virtuosity that made the world first sit up and take notice of this child prodigy. If anything, his brilliant exploitation of the tiny mandolin—albeit aided by his own modification of it—has only got more and more astounding in its depth and breadth over the years.

Why on earth would he ever want to attempt playing any other instrument, it’s like asking a cricketer to play football, he asks in righteous indignation, when we put it to him that he might have considered taking up a traditional instrument at some point in his career. Pressed further for an entirely hypothetical preference for the one other string instrument he might fancy playing, he settles for the violin, not the veena or gottuvadyam. Lifelong inspiration has however been provided by the magic of Rajaratnam and Mali, both masters of wind instruments. “You play like Rajaratnam Pillai,” was the compliment he most treasures, coming as it did from another child prodigy S. Balachander. Some excerpts from V. RAMNARAYAN’S recent conversation with Shrinivas.

Sruti: It’s great to catch up with you 25 years after we put you on the cover of our inaugural issue. How has the journey been since then?

Shrinivas: It’s been wonderful, thanks to the grace of God, Sankaracharya of Kanchi and Saibaba. Not to mention the blessings of my guru-s—my father, Sri Subba Raju and Sri Vasu Rao.

How would you describe the present state of your music?

I am passionate about music. I want to play all the time. I’ll fall sick if I don’t play the mandolin. I continue to play my kind of music. It’s an ocean and you never stop learning, you are a student all your life.

Are you in a phase when you are seeking greater depth, a more meditative kind of music? Would you be interested in playing to small, knowledgeable audiences, chamber kind of music?

I like large audiences. I want to reach as many people as possible, all kinds of listeners, not just connoisseurs. That is not consistent at all with chamber music. I like speed and virtuosity. Criticism of my speed does not bother me. I must play my kind of music. There are others who are good at other types of music.

Who have been the major influences on your music?

The music of Rajaratnam Pillai and T.R. Mahalingam,which have inspired many musicians before me, mesmerised me. I grew up trying to play like them. Meeting Mali was an unforgettable experience. From the moment my guru informed me that Mali had been admitted to Vijaya Hospital with a fracture, I was desperately keen to meet him. When I did manage to visit him, the great musician was kind enough to speak of my music, the good things he had heard about it and bless me. On another occasion, I begged and pleaded with Sri Yagnaraman to somehow find me a seat at Mali’s last concert at Krishna Gana Sabha, when the hall had been packed to bursting. When I went backstage to pay my respects, Mali said, “What are you doing here? You should be home practising.”

Other memorable encounters with great musicians?

I remember being terrified by the presence in the first row of the Nungambakkam Cultural Academy hall of Veena S. Balachander, T.N. Seshagopalan and Subbudu. The musicians both blessed me and gave me gifts, while Subbudu Sir wrote a glowing review in the Indian Express. Another time, MLV Amma arranged for me to perform at the Rishi Valley School, where she was teaching. When she handed over a gift that had been blessed by Kanchi Periyaval, I was moved to tears. Similarly, it was always a pleasure and an honour to meet MS Amma or play before her and receive her blessings. Ustad Vilayat Khan blessed me with great love after listening to me at Krishna Gana Sabha once. These are memories I shall cherish all my life.

Also unforgettable was Beatle George Harrison’s visit backstage during the intermission at a London concert. He saw my open suitcase with its pictures of Sankaracharya, Saibaba and the gods I worship, and said: “They have obviously touched your mandolin.” He stayed till the end of the concert and came backstage one more time.

You have been involved in fusion and jugalbandi over the years. How do you prepare for these concerts?

The fusion efforts have been great fun. When I collaborate with a Western orchestra, it’s generally based on raga-s. I explain the raga to my collaborators and we take it from there. The enjoyment comes from each trying to understand the other’s music and submerging self in the team effort.

It has been said that you restrain yourself in jugalbandi-s because the other musician is not capable of competing with you.

That isn’t true. There’s no question of competition. In any team effort, the accent is on producing good music together. I focus on playing what is appropriate to the occasion, try to enhance the overall effect. It is not an occasion for either of us to display his whole range.

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