Last September, the world of Carnatic music plunged into grief with the sudden unexpected demise of forty-five year young Srinivas. The man who successfully gave an alien western instrument like the Mandolin a permanent place of reverence within the conservative corridors of Carnatic music was its first and last genius ever. Tracking the life and musical journey of Srinivas is significant to the study of Carnatic music in the 21th century.
At a time when Carnatic classical music was transitioning from its deeply embedded conservative roots to audiences who came with an eclectic sense of musical taste, Mandolin U Srinivas arrived on the landscape and took everyone by storm. Check one of his earliest concerts when he was barely into his teens.
He was hailed as a child prodigy, so much so the first issue of the ambitious Sruti journal of performing arts started by N Pattabhi Raman in the October of 1983 had him on their first cover. An excerpt from a profile on him reads:
‘As a musical prodigy, Mandolin U Srinivas belongs to the elite group of individuals with extraordinary musical ability who began to give public performances or compose before the age of twelve. They have appeared throughout history, in India as well as elsewhere in the world. In the west the group includes such famous names as Mozart, Schubert, Chopin and Menuhin’.
Born in Palakollu in West Godavari district of undivided Andhra Pradesh on 28th February 1970, Srinivas dropped out of school after fourth grade to pursue his passion for music. His paternal grandfather Simhachalam was a small-time Nagaswaram Vidwan. His father Uppalappu Satyanarayana owned a light music ‘orchestra’ called Saraswati Music Party that performed in Nellore and Vijayawada. His mother Kantamma was a housewife. As a kid Srinivas showed no interest in music whatsoever except for a chance discovery of his father who caught him meddling around with the Mandolin at home.
Satyanarayana was asked to move to Madras by his friend and musical guru of sorts Subbaraju, in search of greener pastures in the film industry. In 1978 Satyanarayana wound up his fifteen-year old successfully working orchestra and moved lock, stock and barrel to Madras. Subbaraju was kind enough to provide a shelter. By then Srinivas could barely manage to play the mandolin and that too some odd light music tunes from his father’s orchestra. In Madras the father and son duo sought out to several film music directors like S Rajeshwar Rao who was a student of Chembai Vaidyanatha Bhagawatar. Listening to young Srinivas’s keen interest in music, Subbaraju decided to train him further in mastering the mandolin. Living in the same house might have added to the needful ‘Gurukulavaasam’ that Srinivas required. The rest, as it is said, was history. A child prodigy was born!
After the Violin, it was Srinivas who broke new ground in bringing in a western instrument like mandolin into the tight-lipped and highbrow corridors of Carnatic classical music. In the caste-ridden world of Carnatic music, being a non-Brahmin added insult to injury. In spite of odds, he rose like a phoenix. All he had to back on was his musical intellect. His name became synonymous with the mandolin and he made sure it gained a permanent place in Indian classical music. In that sense Srinivas was a perfect misfit! A non-Brahmin male instrumentalist from outside of Tamil Nadu was the last thing that Carnatic music had expected. Before the age of twenty, Srinivas had already made national news and his musical instrument was now accepted unanimously as Carnatic music’s new pet. Check this private concert from when he was just seventeen:
From small Sabhas, village temples and marriage concerts along with his brother U Rajesh to the most prestigious of global venues, Srinivas was that spark of hope that the Carnatic fraternity could proudly rest its legacy on. After the generation of the famous violinists L Shankar, L. Subramaniam and Ghatam virtuoso Vikku Vinayakaram, it was Srinivas who could easily build bridges between the two worlds of Hindustani and Carnatic music. Even within Carnatic music, he experimented successfully in his concerts. For example, no string instrumentalist ever thought of including the loud ear-shattering percussion of the Thavil. Srinivas managed to mellow it down to his scale and produce some extraordinary music.
Making a strong comeback in ‘Remember Shakti’ along with John McLaughlin , Shankar Mahadevan and Ustad Zakir Hussain, to Jugalbandis with pure classicists like Sitar maestro Ustad Shahid Parvez or Carnatic vocalist Aruna Sairam, Srinivas was a genius to reckon with. His collaboration with ‘Shakthi’ broke all box office records:
Be it in a nondescript temple in a remote village or some of the most prestigious concert venues worldwide, he never compromised on the quality of music he made. There wasn’t a single person who met him and wasn’t touched by his immense humility, simplicity, selflessness and musical virtuosity. Scores of awards came his way in his short but bright and significant career. Most prominent were the Padma Shri award in 1998 and the Central Sangeet Natak Akademi award in 2010.
He was a gentle genius who survived successfully in a cutthroat world with his own charm and ever-smiling demeanor. In a successful musical career, he established himself as an undeniable colossus with no equals, in a very short span of time. His sudden demise last September at the age of forty-five, is a tragedy the world of Indian classical music hasn’t yet come to terms with. He continues to be deeply missed by his friends, fans collaborators and music lovers’ worldwide. For ages to come the world will never see another musician extraordinaire like Mandolin Srinivas.
(Veejay Sai is an award-winning writer, editor and a culture critic. He writes extensively on Indian performing arts, cultural history, food and philosophy. He lives in New Delhi and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)