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Mandolin, Me and Malavi

Last year, when Mandolin Srinivas passed away, I tried attempting a piece on what he meant to me, but couldn’t because in that doleful moment of his untimely death (not that there is anything called timely death), I couldn’t string the words together into meaningful sentences and the ideas that needed to drive the language remained inchoate, unable to transmogrify themselves into any sort of agreeable form. Looking back, just as well that piece didn’t happen, because it would have been a travesty with more of me in it than him.

It still is that. But in the interregnum of one year, the mind seems to have come to terms with his passing away in the sense it has, like it always does, moved on to other things. Now his death is just a dull ache in the recess of our memory not a damning blow on the solar plexus that it was a year ago. And I can indulge myself a bit in the afterglow of his glory.

To me, Srinivas’ music means more than it possibly does to anybody else. And with a reason.

Mandolin Srinivas and I are of the same age. That is where our similarity ends. He was a shining star on the musical horizon long before guys of our age had even moved to pants from shorts. He was declared a ‘prodigy’ when we did not even know the meaning of it. Carnatic music, in those times, was deemed boring and staid. It was music that parents listened to. It did not enjoy any street cred. But the arrival of Srinivas (and to a certain extent Ganesh-Kumaresh duo, who, however, never have managed to become the musical force they looked to) changed that. Largely because of him Carnatic music became cool, not in the sense it became mainstream, but it became more acceptable and agreeable. You could listen to it without being mocked at by your friends.

By the time, I ended up as a journalist in the mid-90s, Srinivas was already a legend of the times, spectacularly fulfilling the huge promise he held out in his young days. By then, I had also begun to appreciate the riches of Carnatic music. So like everyone else, I too was fan of his. As a journalist, when I began writing a once-a-week series of profile-interviews of young musicians, Srinivas was one of the obvious choices. One day, I called his house, his dad picked up the call, and I told him the reason, he readily obliged. He gave me the directions to the house and asked me to come the next day itself.

On that day, it was raining intermittently. And I was late for the interview by half-an-hour, but Srinivas was waiting patiently without any hang-ups. Before the interview, he went through the motions of posing for the news pics and then took up questions from me. Few minutes into the session, I kind of got the feeling that as an interview this was not going to produce any great ‘copy’. Srinivas was fun, knowledgeable, cooperative, but he lacked that spark that cub reporters like me looked for to spice up our reports. I did not have the intellectual heft or imagination to delve into or appreciate the workings of a true master.

I had also over-prepared for the interview, thinking up questions that were pretentious, which, I quickly realised, to the man in front of me would be monumentally pointless. For, Srinivas was all art and no artifice. But articulation was not his strong suite. He was gawky and fidgety when trying to answer the queries. A bit unsure, he used words with the careful hesitancy of a kid singing Dharbar and trying to avoid Nayaki showing up in the process. You could also almost hear Telugu descant over whatever language (Tamil/English) he was speaking in. But with mandolin in his hand, he became the exact opposite. There was not even a second of indecision or uncertainty. It was as if he was born for the instrument. On second thoughts, make it: it was as if the instrument was born for him. It was a faithful lover in his hands, responding passionately and pristinely to his every press and pause. It was a worshipful and reverential orgy out there. When you saw him play mandolin, it also looked to be just an organic extension of his body. The art and its vehicle and the artist and his muse all seemed to become one and the same in a holy communion.

With the interview unable to move beyond the banal niceties (more due to the fact I had no way of figuring out the inner workings of a genius), I closed my notepad, stopped the dictaphone and bade goodbye to the reporter in me and out emerged the fan boy in me. ‘Can you play some music for me?’ I asked weakly, wary that I might be transgressing the lines of professionalism. But Srinivas was now in a territory that was all his. ‘Adhukku enna, besha vasichitta pochu (Why not? Sure I will play something good),’ he cheerfully responded with an infectious child-like enthusiasm, spontaneously reaching for the mandolin lying in the wait for him.

Enna ragam vaasikanum (which ragam to play), he asked. Kambhoji, I replied tersely, still unsure whether it was all real as one of the finest exponents of Carnatic music of all time was going to perform for me solo in all its meanings.

After an effortless alapanai, he uncorked a few lines of Evari Maata. Then I requested for Karaharapriya, he offered on a platter Pakkala Nilabadi. Charukesi and Bhimplas followed in a torrent of delight. And I began to feel queasy at the undeserving riches coming my way. Thank you, sir, I said and was about to get up and bid goodbye when he looked at me and said, ‘idhaiyum kelungo’ and without waiting for my response he, unsolicited, started playing Malavi. Looking back, it seemed like an ordained moment.

Now, Malavi is a self-contained ragam. It can be a microcosm of a concert, in that in the hands of a true virtuoso it can throw up everything that a full-fledged 2-hour concert usually does. I had heard him play Malavi before. It was there in my audio cassette collection of his performances. It had the ruggedly majestic thavil (Haridwaramangalam AK Palanivel), among others, as an accompaniment and that added to its special allure. But here Srinivas had no backup. But it was no less attractive. If anything, like a girl shorn of her artificial makeup, this was even more evocative. A primordial freshness was attendant on it.

I thought he was going to strum out a stray line or two. He took up Nenarunchinanu, a Thyagaraja krithi, and proceeded to perform it in its full glory, including its famed and rare chittaswara. The song’s special charm lies in the fact it lends itself to speed. It is not a krithi for those looking for safety. One wrong turn or imprecise acceleration, you are out there on the rubble. But Srinivas was quite the Senna of music and he negotiated chicanes of chittaswara with typical genius. For those 4 or 5 minutes, it was the Monaco of music circuit, and I sat transfixed, quite oblivious to everything around me, except the music, and he too sat there, exactly oblivious to everything around him, except performing that music. It was a strange travel into a universe emptied of everything other than two people linked by the continuum of unsullied music. It was epiphany in octaves and notations.

Poruma (enough)?’ he asked disarmingly as he ended the song in a flourish of one impossible sangathi after another. Clearly, I was not worthy of it. But with the large-heartedness of an emperor, he kept giving. I eventually staggered up, mumbled words of goodbye, and drove back home in a haze of incredulity. All through that night that one song kept playing in my mind non-stop. It, like a benevolent bacteria, had entered my system. There was no way I could shrug it off. In the days that followed, it further seeped into me and it quite possibly has written itself into the double-helix of my DNA. Now I can loop the song at any time in the auditorium of my mind.

I managed to write the interview, and upon it being published in the paper, he called me and thanked, which was very gracious of him. And before he kept the phone down, he said, ‘you can come to my house any time and I will play Nenarunchinanu for you again’. ‘You need not, sir. Its best version is always playing inside me,’ I should have said. But I merely replied thanks.

Later that week, again it was a mildly rainy evening. I was at the hospital where my wife had been admitted to for delivery. As the labour pain had not kicked in adequately, the doctor called me and, adjusting her spectacles probably for effect, said that she would have to go in for a c-section birth. And as they prepared to stretcher my wife to the operation theatre, I held her hand and said, ‘don’t worry, you and the daughter will be alright’. Even through her medley of pain, exhaustion and exhilaration, she asked me, ‘how are you sure that it’s going to be a girl?’

I paused for a second and, as the hospital attendant impatiently gestured to me to step aside, I bent down and whispered to my wife ‘I am not only certain that we will have a daughter,’ and pressing her palm warmly, I continued: ‘I am even more sure that we will name her Malavi(ka)’.

Why Malavi(ka)? she asked.

‘Because it represents a special gift to me,’ I said as they wheeled her into the theatre and I stood there awaiting an inevitability.


  • What a man!
    But for me he was always The Boy. He never outgrew his childish enthu even when playing a most austere Todi.

  • S Ganesh

    You are lucky, and we are lucky, that you have the vocabulary and skill to describe the encounter the way you did. But, I can quite imagine your memories of the encounter. I had a similar evening with Semmangudi mama and he sang for me- yes, I said just me – spicing it up with a commentary going down his memory lane. If any one asks me what is the most memorable event in my life, they get the full serving.

    Will read your piece again and again. No greater tribute from a fan.

  • Vinay

    This article is quite beautiful. It starts slowly like any music performance and picks up the charge and ends in a bang! Wonderful.

    I wished that you had recorded ‘solo’ performance and you could share it to us!

  • K Balakumar

    Wish I had. I had a dictatphone for the interview. But it just didn’t occur to me to record this. Perhaps, it adds to its mystique now 🙂

  • K Balakumar

    Thank you 🙂

  • K Balakumar

    Indeed.

  • Incredibly moving and amazing writing sir … One of your best pieces ever

  • A truly goosebumps inducing rendezvous that is enough to make one walk around in a trance for an entire lifetime. Bala – you’re indeed blessed to have the maestro play for you. Also, it makes me realize that when meeting a maestro, we need to put the in-built hack in us to sleep.

  • Very beautifully written. Thanks for sharing your experience. You may like reading this as well if you can read Kannada.
    http://wp.me/p6kOvE-1f

  • Radhika

    I just got transported to your magical moment by reading it. Very soulfully written.

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