Purity of the highest order
He is not only a musician's musician. R. K. Srikantan's lively approach to ragas appeals to the lay listener too.
"What can one say about his music? It's grand, touches your heart," remarked a young frontline Carnatic musician, with a when-will-I-get-there sigh. Another simply exclaimed, "He sings like a maharaja!"
At age 86, R. K. Srikantan's voice remains powerful, mellifluous and aligned to sruti. His Harikhambodi never strays into neighbouring ragas, his Hindolam does not flirt with Hindustani Malkauns. He is not only a musician's musician. His lively approach to ragas appeals to any lay listener. His lakshana precision is not at the cost of rasa.
Born in 1920 in Hassan district on the banks of the Cauvery, into a family of musicians in Rudrapatna, Srikantan chose not to settle in Madras as many Carnatic musicians, including his brother R.K.Venkatrama Sastri did.
"Manasaagale, didn't want to leave Mysore." Did he not lose getting better known? The answer is a smile. But ask him about Mysore and he becomes animated. "Father crafted and painted a gorgeous mandapam for every Ganesha Chaturthi and held elaborate puja," he begins and describes the grandeur of its festivals with concerts, dances and harikatha. Mysore Vasudevachar was an awesome presence along with Veena Subbanna.
"I've heard Faiyyaz Khan, Krishnarao Pandit, Kesarbai Keskar and Goharjan." All the Carnatic stars performed at the palace from Madurai Ponnuswami Pillai to T.N.Rajaratnam Pillai.
Also from Tamil Nadu came Maharajapuram Viswanatha Iyer, Ariyakkudi Ramanuja Iyengar, Madurai Mani Iyer, G.N.Balasubramanian, Alathur Brothers et al, many of them house guests of father R.Krishna Sastri, a Sanskrit/Kannada scholar and harikatha exponent.
"If I said, Anna, teach me something, those vidwans obliged happily. They moulded my thinking, my whole approach." How is his own music cast in the Thanjavur bani? "Because it has more gamakas. I was influenced by the Thanjavur stalwarts."
"The things Viswanatha Iyer could do with his voice! He could make Abhogi or Shanmukhapriya impact like a rakti raga!" The master's prime disciple? "Accompanied by Chowdiah and Kothandarama Iyer (mridangam), Semmangudi once began with `Sarasiruhasana' and rained swaras for 25 minutes. Where can I find an adjective to describe it?"
The first lessons
With first lessons from his father, Srikantan was further trained by brother Venkatrama Sastri. Veena Subbanna and Chowdiah too were his gurus. But Srikantan's adulation is reserved for Musiri Subramania Iyer. Why? "His auchityam. Musiri's gamakas astonished, but he never used them for effect. His niraval was a marvel. His diction so pure. Why, his `Entavedu,' `Evarani' and `Ragasudharasa' still refuse to leave my mind!" Srikantan proudly discloses that he learnt 10 kritis from Musiri.
With so many influences, how did Srikantan develop a style of his own? There are stories of hellish practice in a closed room. When finally Srikantan emerged, his neat tuft would have turned into an eerie halo round his head. He banked on akara sadhakam in three speeds with the usual and specially devised exercises for voice culture. "Sruti suddham, laya suddham, vak suddham" became his daily mantra. "I saw how Hindustani musicians put in herculean practice and was inspired to do the same. I didn't want to sing their genre, but wanted sruti suddham in the highest speed for the Carnatic gamakams. I slogged. Sang a single ragam for a whole month until I got every gamakam sruti right. No end to abhyasam, no substitute for it either."
Ask him to share his experience on the stage and he begins with his auditioning while still in high school for a palace performance. Asthana vidwan Muthiah Bhagavatar said, "You sing well, but come back after a few years."
In his debut at the Music Academy, Srikantan impressed with his Darbar. Role model Musiri joked the next day, "I hear you held a big darbar yesterday!" An unforgettable experience was accompanist Palghat Mani Iyer telling the young man after his Navaratri Mandapam recital in Trivandrum, "Your music will last."
He is convinced that musicians must pay attention to the structure and texture of every kriti, "know the text, its special meanings, the way words and music are related, know which swaras to dwell on in each raga, and bring out the arthabhava. Ragabhava alone is not enough, nor giving a thrill to the audience in high speeds."
Most singers coast around the madhya sthayi, those with good voices touch tara sthayi, but few if any, handle the mandara sthayi with sruti fidelity.
Joining the Corporation Radio of samasthanam times, Srikantan retired as Producer of Music in Bangalore. Those 32 years were a boon. He interacted with stalwarts, devised special features, and composed much music. "My work enriched my music. I was also lucky in my guru parampara which goes back to Tyagaraja through Venkatrama Sastri, Veena Subbanna, Mysore Sadasiva Rao and Walajapet Venkatramana Bhagavatar."
Ramakanth, Srikantan's son, is an A Grade AIR artiste, daughter Ratnamala a leading sugam sangeet performer and grandson Achintya shows signs of keeping the torch alive.
Srikantan has trained many students and published lakshana texts by musicologists. His own works include two volumes of Haridasa Kirthana Rathnamala with the text and notation of devaranamas in Kannada, Tamil and English. "Yes, you can give an entire concert with those songs as I have done, many times."
Any unfulfilled desires? He answers with a childlike smile, "I long to sing better, and with more bhavyam (reverent humility). Can I ever mesmerise listeners like the great artistes I've heard in my life?"
(A fortnightly spotlight on music gurus, musicologists and representatives of different schools, who have enriched Carnatic music.)
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