TODAY, September 19, has to be one of the saddest days not only for Indian music, but for world music as well. At the untimely age of 45, phenomenal mandolin exponent U Shrinivas has passed away, leaving behind a treasure trove of melodies that only he could present. He had such a mastery over his instrument that every time one saw him on stage, one was stunned by the sheer beauty and perfection he displayed in playing those notes.
A week ago, one had heard he had been hospitalised because of a serious liver condition, and that a transplant was required. The news made the rounds in a limited way in the social media, and those who read it prayed for his speedy recovery. Alas, God has his own mysterious ways, and just when one heard he was getting better, he collapsed. An era was over.
Only a few musicians deserve to be called a legend in the world of music, and Shrinivas is one of them. He was one of those who impressed both the serious listeners of south Indian Carnatic music, with his nuanced exploration of the ragas, and yet had a huge following among admirers of experimental crossover music and fusion. In either genre, he played magically and majestically. And yet, for an artiste of his stature, he had no airs, no star attitude, no ego.
Shrinivas’ work with fusion group Remember Shakti, along with guitarist John McLaughlin, tabla maestro Zakir Hussain, vocalist Shankar Mahadevan and kanjira player V Selvaganesh, had a dazzle of its own, whether it was his solo in ‘Maya’, his subtlety on ‘Lotus Feet’ or his accompaniment in the vocal piece ‘Giriraj Sudha’. And while he played with them from the age of 31, he had earlier attracted celebrity followers when he had entered his teens, impressing even jazz guru Miles Davis, who saw him at the Berlin Jazz Festival in 1983. George Harrison raved about his playing too, and in an interview given to this blogger for ‘Rolling Stone India’ earlier this year, McLaughlin had said: “I saw Shrinivas for the first time when he was 14 years old, and he blew my mind then.”
Shrinivas was literally born to play the mandolin. A child prodigy, he was first trained by his father Satyanarayana from the age of six, after he saw the instrument in the home studio and became fascinated with it. Later, his father’s guru Rudraraju Subbaraju guided him. He was concert-ready by the time he was nine, and from then on, there was no looking back. His brother U Rajesh is a talented mandolin player too, and the two have often performed together.
The fact that Shrinivas successfully adapted the western mandolin to Carnatic technique and later worked wonders with the electric mandolin speaks volumes for his genius. Yes, many south Indian musicians had played the violin brilliantly over the years, and Kadri Gopalnath had mastered the saxophone. But for the connoisseurs in Tamil Nadu, the mandolin remains Shrinivas’s baby.
Having had his first concert appearance as a nine-year-old at the Thyagaraja Aradhana festival in Gudivada, Andhra Pradesh, Shrinivas went on to do a string of outstanding concerts and release landmark albums. Among his Carnatic recordings, the albums ‘Rama Sreerama’ and ‘Magic Mandolin’ were career highlights. While the former had a 29-minute ragam-taanam-pallavi and ragamalika, the latter featured violinist A Kanyakumari and tabla maestro Zakir Hussain. His rendition of Thyagaraja’s pancharatna kritis in the album ‘Trio Mandolin’ wowed the purists.
On the fusion front, his most memorable work was arguably the 1995 venture ‘Dream’ with Canadian producer Michael Brook. Containing the tracks ‘Dance’, ‘Think’, ‘Run’ and ‘Dream’, it also featured famed violinist Nigel Kennedy and percussionist Nana Vasconcelos. His 2008 album ‘Samjhanitha’ had McLaughlin, banjo master Bela Fleck, Mohan veena player Debashish Bhattacharjee and saxophonist George Brooks, besides an army of top-grade Indian percussionists.
Shrinivas’ album ‘Ilaayaraja’s Classics in Mandolin’ featured the works of the great composer. More recently, his mandolin was heard in the original soundtrack for the film ‘Eat Pray Love’, on the tune ‘Kaliyugavaradana’.
Despite his glory in the field of music, Shrinivas had a sad personal life. Much has been written about his bad marriage and subsequent divorce. But for those who knew him personally, he was the epitome of humility.
He spoke only as much as required and was shy on most occasions. A decade ago, this blogger had approached him for an interview which he politely agreed to. But he spoke very less, and one had to really prod him to say something more elaborate. But then, he never believed in media exposure or public relations. He let his music do all the talking, and that was what mattered.
The world will miss your presence, Shrinivas, but your genius will stay on. The news of your death is something one won’t get over so easily.