U. Srinivas, who made the mandolin his own, and many others’, dies
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Careers in the classical arts are not often remembered for courage. Too many other elements tend to intrude into the discussion, and to be prized heavily by purists: a strict fealty to tradition, for example, or the flourishes of genius, or capacious knowledge. But it is courage that most plainly marks out the career Uppalapu Srinivas, the swift-fingered mandolin artist who passed away in Chennai on Friday, after a bout of illness, at the age of 45.
Srinivas possessed those other attributes as well, to be sure, and genius foremost among them. He took to his father’s mandolin with precocious ease when he was only six years old, growing up in a small town in Andhra Pradesh. Since no serious mandolin teachers were available to train him, Srinivas learned by ear, listening to Carnatic singers and picking out krithis and ragams on his frets. He performed his first full Carnatic concert at the age of nine; two years later, he arrived in Chennai—then Madras—to play in the December music season. It was the equivalent of a teenaged banjo player being given the stage at Carnegie Hall.
At the time, Srinivas was a novelty, because of his age but also because of his instrument. Nobody had ever embarked upon a Carnatic career with a mandolin in hand before. Among the several conservative rigidities built into Carnatic music is a reluctance to admit unfamiliar instruments—instruments that, the patriarchs worry, may not replicate the art’s gamakas, the delicate oscillations between notes that flavour a ragam just so. A mandolin can perform gamakas perfectly, just as a veena has done for centuries. Yet Srinivas’s instrument was essentially an alien one, and it would have been simple for the novelty to have worn off, and for Carnatic music to turn its face away once again from the mandolin. Remarkably, though, Srinivas persevered, convinced that he could carve his own furrow in the field, and that the mandolin could be true to, and even exemplify, the lovely complications of Carnatic music.
In the 1980s, he was hot, exciting property; the Carnatic singer T. M. Krishna recalled once that his father gatecrashed a wedding reception just so that he could hear Srinivas play. But through the 1990s and then into the 2000s, as Srinivas matured, so did his music, and he came to be a fixture in the prestigious evening slot of the Madras Music Academy during the December season. This is where I’ve seen him most often, usually from the balcony, so that all I could see was his head, with its shaggy mane of hair, bent over his mandolin. From that height, the instrument was so small that it almost disappeared, and then it seemed as if Srinivas was strumming nothing at all, conjuring music out of thin air.
Everything about his technique was gentle and seductive, and so to the inattentive ear, his investigations of Kiravani or Sankarabharanam could fade into the background; an alert listener, though, could detect high classicism, an elaborate creativity in his improvisations, and even flashes of humour in the deft concluding twists to some of his phrases. His fingering was immaculate. “Eddie van Halen, eat your heart out,” George Harrison reportedly said in 2001, having stumbled upon one of Srinivas’s albums.
Srinivas managed the rare feat of constructing, on a rail parallel to his Carnatic career, formidable renown in a genre that is unfortunately best described by that weak word—fusion. He played at the West Berlin Jazz Festival in 1983 and at the Olympic Arts Festival in Barcelona in 1992. When the guitarist John McLaughlin revived his old ensemble Shakti under the name Remember Shakti, in 1997, Srinivas joined him, along with Zakir Hussain, the singer Shankar Mahadevan, and the percussionist V. Selvaganesh, all artists raring to push beyond the boundaries of their immediate sphere of music.
In a live performance, Remember Shakti could often be a whirl of energy tending towards the frenetic, but at some point during the concert, Srinivas would become the fulcrum of the ensemble, and the tempest would subside. The brightest patch of any Remember Shakti concert would come when Srinivas and McLaughlin riffed off each other, Srinivas sticking all the time to the tenets of his form but bending them this way and that to marvellous effect. There is, McLaughlin told the author Peter Lavezzoli in an interview for his book Bhairavi, “a kind of younger brother-elder brother relationship between the electric mandolin and the electric guitar that is a real delight.”
Courage can be loud and confrontational, but it can also be quiet and firm. On the cover of its inaugural issue in October 1983, the music magazine Sruti featured the vocalist D.K. Pattammal and the 14-year-old Srinivas. Pattammal by then was one of the pillars of the art, but in her youth, she had battled barriers of her own in becoming the first Brahmin woman to perform full-fledged concerts, and in including in her repertoire improvisatory exercises then considered too complex for women. Pattammal took her stance without undue fuss, by just singing with honest beauty.
In a similar way, Srinivas ignored those who cavilled, put his head down, and created his own kind of honest, beautiful music. He was a brilliant musician, but he was a brave one as well.
An earlier version of this story carried a wrong picture because of an error by the photo agency.