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A lifetime in music

He is a picture of dignity and concentration as he sits on a chair to sing, his frail frame belying a rich and fluid voice, and a towering personality. At 84, he continues to make waves. His consecutive performances at the Cleveland Tyagaraja Aradhana since 2002 have been the toast of the field. Nevertheless, he works on his art with humility. Vidwan R.K. Srikantan was born on January 14, 1920, in a family of well-known musicians and is known for his undiluted classicism. His concerts are as entertaining and inspiring, as they are educative. He has served the All India Radio for several years with distinction. He has been instrumental in popularising hundreds of compositions of the great Dasa-s of the Kannada tradition. KIRANAVALI VIDYASAN


Known for undiluted classicism ... veteran R. K. Srikantan.

You hail from a family that has produced several first-class musicians. Can you tell us about your musical parampara?

For the last four generations, our family has been deeply involved with the study of the Vedas, Sastras, music, and literature. My father, Rudrapatnam Krishna Sastri, and his elder brother, Rudrapatnam Syama Sastri, were great Sanskrit scholars, poets, musicians and Harikatha exponents. I am the youngest of four brothers and a sister. My eldest brother, R.K. Venkatarama Sastri, was a disciple of the famous violinist T. Chowdiah and a highly sought-after violinist himself. My other brothers, R.K. Narayanaswami (disciple of Musiri Subramanya Iyer) and R.K. Ramanathan (an English professor) were also good musicians. My son, Ramakanth, and my brothers' children and grandchildren are continuing the tradition.

Can you tell us about your own learning experiences?

I had my initial training from my father. As a boy of five, I remember my brothers singing at home every Friday/Saturday, accompanied by my eldest brother. I would listen to this with rapt attention and later try to repeat what I had heard. Five or six years later, my eldest brother started training me. In 1936, he was offered a job at the Madras Corporation Radio. This turned out to be a big advantage for me too, as I got the opportunity to listen to the great musicians of those times in their peak. My brother's close association with them also meant that I could learn directly from those stalwarts. Besides, these musicians stayed with my family when they came to Mysore for concerts. All this shaped me as a musician, and enabled me form my own style.

Tell us about your career.

I started performing at 13 or 14. On hindsight, those were just ordinary concerts; I didn't have much knowledge. Over the years, I worked on my shortcomings and still continue to do so. With experience, one understands more. Ironically, in youth, one's understanding is not enough and by the time one gains understanding and experience, one doesn't have the physical strength.

Any major turning point in your career?

My appointment with Akashvani (subsequently All India Radio) in 1949 was the major turning point. I moved to Bangalore with my family, and this increased my opportunities to interact with great musicians like G.N. Balasubramaniam and Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer, who were also employed at the AIR. They often came to Bangalore on inspection or to perform. Thus I constantly kept in touch with great music and improved my knowledge.

Are you satisfied with the way your career has gone?

Absolutely. I have performed wherever Carnatic music exists today. All the top-notch accompanists like Palghat Mani Iyer, Pazhani Subramaniam Pillai, C.S. Murugabhoopati, T.N. Krishnan, Lalgudi Jayaraman and M.S. Gopalakrishnan have been my accompanists. I have been honoured with coveted awards like the Sangita Kalanidhi (Music Academy), Sangeeta Ratnakara (Cleveland, the U.S.), Lifetime Achievement Award (SVN Academy, Bangalore) without seeking them.

Some memorable occasions in your career?

There are quite a few like the Navaratri Mandapam concert at Trivandrum in 1984. My concerts at Haveri and Udipi during the mega-occasion of the 400th anniversary of Sri Kanakadasa and Purandaradasa, arranged by the Government of Karnataka, were memorable ones. I enjoyed presiding over the music conferences of the Gayana Samaja, Bangalore (1981) and The Music Academy (1995-96). I also cherish the moment when I was conferred the Saptagiri Sangeeta Vidwan Mani by the Tyagarajaswami Trust, Tirupati.

What goes on in your mind when you are singing a concert? Do you aim to please the audience or yourself?

Self-satisfaction is my motto. If I am satisfied with my performance, I presume with confidence that the audience is equally satisfied. I always aim to please myself.

Are there times when you are still not satisfied?

An artiste should not feel satisfied about his musical attainments.

Do you still follow a routine?

Yes, my routine is the same wherever I go. I still sing for two hours a day, teach for about four hours.

How can a student improve his/her gnana?

First, a student must be a good rasika to become a good musician. This can happen only by constantly listening to great masters. Learning compositions from a good source is very important. Eventually, a student will acquire the ability to grasp the niceties in other versions and incorporate it into his/her own style seamlessly. Understanding the meaning of the composition and learning to notate them will improve laya and sahitya gnana. When it comes to raga alapana, the best way to improve one's creativity is to listen to Nagaswaram music.

How does one learn to distinguish between good and mediocre music?

In today's world, it is difficult to say. Everybody goes after glamour. To understand and enjoy the depth and beauty of any classical art, good guidance is important.

What according to you is great music?

Music that has brevity and simplicity, but touches you to your depths. It is not easy to achieve this. One's mind always has to be in it. One has to understand and enjoy the beauty of each swara, raga and kriti. When this happens, it will automatically get transmitted to the listeners.

At what stage in one's musical journey does one attain swanubhava or self-enjoyment? Is technical perfection necessary for this?

Technical perfection is the most important factor. Constant practice with dedication and an analytical approach is what ultimately leads to swanubhava.

How many hours did you practice in your learning years?

In the initial years I didn't practise much, but after joining AIR I had to work very hard. The process of teaching and singing along with my disciples itself was good practice.

What do you think is the minimum training required before one can go on stage?

A minimum of 10-12 years of intensive learning from a good guru is necessary.

You have been singing for over 70 years now and your voice is still strong and resonant. How do you think one can maintain one's voice over a long period of time?

One's food habits should be good. Eating out every other day or habits like chewing betel leaves, tobacco, taking snuff, smoking, and drinking take their toll on one's health and voice. Talking too much or too loudly is very harmful. Singing too many concerts, day after day isn't good either. One also has to take care of one's mental health and not lead a stressful life.

What is your approach to teaching?

Teaching gives a better insight into the art and one's own weaknesses and limitations. I try to approach the art of teaching as though I were a student myself.

Your role in propagating the works of Purandaradasa and other Dasa-s is well known. How do you go about this?

It is a painstaking process for which I have toiled for the last 33 years. The first step is to acquire the lyrics from various sources and compare them. I have myself set to tune several of the compositions, polished, and presented them in concerts.

How would you know which tunes are original or which raga to tune it in?

Purandaradasa has mentioned 32 ragas that were in vogue during his time. Besides, there is the oral tradition to go by. Some kritis like "Odibarayya" (Bhairavi), "Kallusakkare" (Kalyani), "Pogadiraloranga" (Sankarabharanam) are still available in their original tunes. However there are only about 200 such songs today. When I have to tune a song, I use the raga and tala indicated in the old books. I also use the kritis with original tunes as my base for the songs that I tune. I don't believe in using modern ragas for these compositions.

What is your message for today's youngsters?

They should think a little more about what, where and how much to sing. Choosing ragas with limited scope like Purnashadjam, Hamirkalyani for Pallavi rendition will only result in repetition. Both theory and aesthetics are important.

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