Musician’s musician2 min read . Updated: 30 Jul 2010, 09:22 PM IST
It is uncommon, although not unheard of, to seek out Carnatic concerts solely for an accompanist rather than for the main performer. But it happens regularly with the violinist R.K. Sriram Kumar. Friends in Chennai, relaying to me news of performances they attend, specify that they went for Sriram anna.
Last December, I shadowed him as faithfully through the music season as he shadows his vocalists in concert. Partly, this is because Sriram Kumar also happens to accompany the best singers; but substantially, it is because he can, on his own, elevate every concert, turning passable into good and good into spectacular. As he begins increasingly to perform solo, and to create erudite compositions, he is moving from being the most skilled violinist of his generation to being one of the most skilled musicians of any era.
More than with most instruments, the malleability of the violin’s sound allows it to reflect the personality, drawing the bow across its strings.
T.N. Krishnan’s violin, I’ve found, is pristine and intelligent, and especially in recent years, as the maestro entered his 80s, the puckish drama of his play has been mirrored by his alert, joyous eyes. In comparison, Sriram Kumar’s has fewer dramatic crests and troughs. Like Sriram Kumar himself, his music seems preternaturally calm, even genial, but that belies the reservoirs of learning below the surface—learning that is only dimly within the grasp of many of us listening avidly.
His scholarship is testament to his lineage: Sriram Kumar is a product of the illustrious Rudrapatnam family, which has included among other notables the singer R.K. Srikantan and the violin wizard R.K. Venkatarama Shastry.
Perhaps for this reason, Sriram Kumar is frequently called a musician’s musician. “You never have to worry about whether he will or won’t know a particular song. He knows every song there is to know," my aunt, the singer Sugandha Kalamegham, whom Sriram Kumar often accompanies, told me on one occasion.
On another, she explained how he shapes, subtly but firmly, a vocalist’s improvisatory singing of a raga. “I’ll sing a phrase," she said, “and when he responds, he’ll end by indicating where the raga might naturally go next."
These nuances will gratify only trained musicians, so it is proof of how well Sriram Kumar straddles the gap between academic expertise and popularity that many of his ardent devotees are amateurs like myself. In concert, he is the perfect foil to many singers—to the pyrotechnics of T.M. Krishna, to the quiet elegance of Bombay Jayashri, or to the intellect of R. Vedavalli. He rarely thrusts his music into prominence ahead of the vocalist; entire songs go by without him even looking up from his studious posture, bent over his violin.
But reliably, there will be many Sriram Kumar moments that whisk your breath away. I recall one such, in a concert accompanying Sangeetha Sivakumar, when he played a snatch of Kapi, a raga upon which he confers heartrending beauty. I don’t remember now the precise notes he played, but I vividly remember the effect they had, as if a window had suddenly opened on to all sorts of new vistas of a hitherto familiar raga. Then the window snapped shut, and Sriram Kumar played on as if nothing had happened.
Write to Samanth Subramanian at firstname.lastname@example.org