The musician who never spoke but we all listened to

How does one assess the work of an artist? Is it necessary or even possible for us to measure, calculate and translate art in empirical values? These are the thoughts that come to me as I try to come to terms with the death today of Mandolin U Shrinivas and his work as a musician.

Why was Shrinivas so important to the world of the classical arts?
He emerged at a time when there was despondency about the future of Carnatic music. Many of the Carnatic greats had passed on and the then ‘reigning’ generation was considered the last of the classicists. In this rather morose environment, emerged this 12-year-old holding an instrument that looked almost bigger than him — and on the Carnatic planet an extraterrestrial.

He was holding the so-called mandolin, which was nothing other than a mini-electric guitar. He did not come from the kind of Brahmin home that is in the Carnatic world, nor from a position of any affluence. Yet he emerged as an icon, a child icon of the ’80s. A little boy broke down imaginary and real barriers without uttering one word — his discourse was music and remained that right through his life.

More than the wonder boy Shrinivas, it is the seeker of music who emerged that we are indebted to. Seeker, not of the intellectual kind, but one who wanted his instrument to say all that needed to be said. He sought the Carnatic form and sound, all non-literal ideas that can only be sensed.

Imagine the child sitting in a room, looking at the frets, discovering this all by and for himself. His father, Satyanarayana, was a band clarinet player and also part of the film world. Initially, he translated the music of his father into the mandolin and this was how his father knew that here was a gifted child. He soon received tutelage from Subbaraju. But the truth is that Shrinivas had to discover the mechanics of the instrument, its aural shape and place the Carnatic within it. He listened to many great artists rendering ragas and recreated them with spectacular success.

This was only the beginning of his musical search. Soon Shrinivas had gone beyond the instrument, he was creating artistic spaces and moments that were not driven by his skill, ability or instrument. The raga just stood in all its majesty before you.

I remember one such Kalyani he played at the Music Academy in Chennai when Shrinivas disappeared and the Kalyani pervaded the arena, letting all of us just “feel”. This movement of Shrinivas from a raw performer to an artist was something to behold.

One could go on about his mastery of composition, mathematics and his sheer genius, but all these are irrelevant when we experienced those musical moments. Soon he travelled beyond the Carnatic world, jugalbandis followed and then the famed partnership with Zakir Husain and John Mclaughlin as part of the new ‘Shakti.’ This took him to a completely new orbit in a much larger solar system.

Yet he kept true to both spheres. Never did you hear the ‘Shakti’ Shrinivas in the Carnatic concert nor did he impose a Carnatic condition on the ‘Shakti’ floor.

I must also state that usually when musicians become part of these performance spaces, they forget those small temples, street corners and little lanes in some obscure village where they were first heard and acknowledged. Shrinivas was one never to forget. Until the very end he performed at many of those spaces, respecting the simple audiences.

Over the last decade or so the Carnatic world began to have some reservations about his music. His music had become too fast, a lot of dazzle, razzmatazz, with very few of those precious silences that he touched. This change was attributed to his over indulgence in fusion music. There is, I must say, some validity to this criticism but the Carnatic world needs to do some self-questioning.

The Carnatic music world has over the past three decades become primarily a space for vocalists. The idea of an instrumental narrative has been destroyed. Even for a Shrinivas, after a point he could never level up with a leading vocalist, even if the vocalist was of far less artistic ability. They always had greater bandwidth as musicians. The Carnatic community had become so obsessed with lyrics and language that it refused and still refuses to look at instrumental music as being its own abstract discourse. Did this affect Shrinivas and his music? I don’t know and sadly we will never know. But the truth is that he did move to other musical domains and maybe he needed to see himself beyond limitations imposed by the environment.

Shrinivas’s life is a social, cultural, political and aesthetic commentary on an artistic form and beyond. We will treasure him for all that he gave us, learning from his life so tragically short and yet so full. He never spoke but I hope we were listening.

Originally written for The Indian Express

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