Two years ago during Chennai’s famous Margazhi music season in December, as other popular Carnatic musicians were busy making a round of different sabhas for concerts and taking pride in their tight schedules, Anil Srinivasan was busy with something novel. Thanks to his socio-musical initiative, underprivileged children from a city-corporation-run school were able to go up on stage and perform as a choir. “They were the first generation music learners and they performed so confidently,” he says, with a glint in his eye and adds with a wide smile, “These things satisfy me a lot.”
For the star performer, it has to be about doing things which no one else dared to. One would think that bringing a pure western classical instrument like the piano into the conservative world of Carnatic music, and doing so with immense success, is no mean achievement. But perhaps a bigger achievement is in bringing music to the lives of thousands of children, some of who would otherwise have got no such opportunity.
The 38-year-old musician, who has just launched his latest album TOUCH, started playing piano at the age of three. “I cannot recollect who or what led me to start playing the instrument first, but I have been playing it ever since,” he says.
In 2013, he founded Rhapsody Music Education initiative. The aim of the initiative is “education through music”, which was also the central tenet of the programme, visible in its functioning. In around 75 schools in Tamil Nadu, Srinivasan had begun a programme in which students can learn different subjects through the language of music.
Srinivasan started this programme because he believes music is an integral component of a child’s intelligence, “It is a language used to interpret the world of knowledge to a child.”
This programme includes 15 Chennai Corporation schools and 20 schools for the underprivileged in Tamil Nadu. Most of the students learn this programme either free or at a very nominal rate.
Anil Srinivasan with students of Rhapsody. Image: Facebook
The teachers who teach in the programme are music graduates. Srinivasan says, “It is my secondary objective to develop employment to music graduates with incentives so that more people can stick to this profession.”
“Two days ago, students from one of the schools took part in an inter-school competition and were short-listed with other top schools in the city. The children told us,’ we can take on anybody, it is our problem not yours’, these are the moments where one starts weeping.”
About 75,000 children in Tamil Nadu are touched by music through this initiative. But there is something else that delights Srinivasan more. He said, “In these 75,000 children, not even 500 students know who I am and that is success for me. For me, a successful mission is one where the founder is irrelevant but the mission has to go on.”
Srinivasan’s ascent in his career as a musician is as inspiring as his achievement in educating children through music.
Rhapsody and SS International Live celebrating music for children this Deepavali. Image: Facebook
Anil Srinivasan learnt piano from Meena Radhakrishnan, daughter-in-law of Semmangudi and his main teacher was Anna Abraham. Anil’s parents were trained in classical music and organized kutcheris. His parents wanted him also to follow their path and become more involved in traditional Carnatic music. But he was always more into the piano.
“Piano is a very unusual instrument for India. We have seen piano from Shammi Kapoor to now classical and jazz music. But when we ask people about it they say it is a western instrument,” he says.
“We have so many musical ideas and inspirations, why not take them and show how piano can be used to play and how the versatility can be presented?” he asks. “It took me more than a decade to stand up and say that I can do this. We need to have a piano tradition. We need to adopt this instrument as one of our own.” And this has been the inspiration for his latest album.
On November 1, 2015, Anil Srinivasan launched his album TOUCH. Anil describes TOUCH as a celebration of piano in India, and the first project of its kind to capture its applicability across classical, film, contemporary and Indian jazz contexts. It uses themes that are purely Indian in character – classical raga motifs, works of Indian composers, Indian poetry-inspired renditions and even imbibes elements from the film industry apart from paying rich tribute to the Western classical genre as well. The album consists of seven tracks and guest artistes include Randy Bernsen, Rakesh Chaurasia, U Rajesh, Naveen Napier, Allwyn Jeyapaul, Vedanth Bharadwaj and Krishna Kishor.
Launching a piano-based album in India today is no easy task. “This generation is only listening to Bollywood music. And the independent artists that the younger generation listens to are mostly western and not Indian artists. For an Indian independent instrumentalist to perform and get the younger generation to listen to it, is a tremendous challenge.”
Critics would agree that given the challenging circumstances, he has been highly successful. “Trained in Carnatic music, Anil managed to bring in the massive grand piano into the Carnatic music fold successfully. His collaborations have been with the most diverse of musicians, from traditional Sarangi players to world famous jazz pianists. For his contribution to music he was awarded the Ustad Bismillah Khan Yuva Puraskar from the Central Sangeet Natak Akademi for creative and experimental music,” wrote music critic and columnist Veejay Sai recently.
Srinivasan has had several collaborations with other artists, but he is still best known for his works with Sikkil Gurucharan, with whom he has produced ten highly popular albums. And his biggest achievement in music according to him? “It is quite remarkable that I put piano on the classical main stage. It may matter to only a few hundred or thousand people but it matters to me. My life is all about making a difference. It could either be small or large; one has to start from somewhere. And I’ll die happily thinking I did something to bring a difference,” he says.
TOUCH is now available on iTunes and Amazon -