Mandolin master leaves behind huge void

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By G.C. SHEKHAR
  • Published 20.09.14
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Chennai, Sept. 19: Carnatic music genius U. Srinivas, whose name became synonymous with the mandolin, passed away in Chennai this morning. He was 45.

Srinivas was recovering from a liver transplant, which had been recommended after a severe attack of jaundice. His health started deteriorating yesterday.

Srinivas burst upon the Carnatic music stage in 1978 as a nine-year-old who virtually toyed with the mandolin, displaying immense control, artistry and musical knowledge.

Soon, he came to be known as “Mandolin Srinivas” and his concerts became runaway hits. At the Berlin jazz festival in 1983, where he played with Miles Davis, he not only got a standing ovation but was called to do an encore.

Srinivas picked up the rudiments of the mandolin from his father, Satyanarayana, and soon flowered into a genius, establishing not only his own style but also the mandolin as a standalone concert instrument.

“If you considered that it took the violin nearly a century to emerge as a mainstream instrument in Carnatic music, it took only the genius of Srinivas to make the mandolin an instant hit. His affable stage presence and complete command of the instrument made him a star not only in India but all over the world across different genres of music,” pointed out music historian V. Sriram.

Srinivas had also designed his own version of the mandolin to suit Carnatic music’s subtle inflexions called ghamakas, making the instrument bigger than the traditional European one and adding two extra strings to the four normally present.

Senior Carnatic violinists and percussionists enjoyed accompanying Srinivas on the mandolin. The strapping young Srinivas often stole the limelight and threw challenging phrases at them.

“His musical prowess and understanding of the soul of Carnatic music were unparalleled. So it was always enjoyable even if he challenged us to friendly duels on the stage. His smile, humility and the happiness with which he played the mandolin... will be missed by all of us,” said violinist A. Kanyakumari, who has accompanied him in dozens of concerts.

The lilting flow of his mandolin so impressed renowned guitarist John McLaughlin that he drafted Srinivas into his Shakti troupe, and the duo, along with tabla maestro Zakir Husain and ghatam veteran Vikku Vinayakaram, enthralled audiences across Europe and Asia with their blend of fusion music.

“He was difficult to match in speed and effect. The audience always loved him first and only then the rest of us,” quipped McLaughlin had once quipped.

Srinivas’s success with the mandolin attracted a horde of disciples led by his younger brother, U. Rajesh.

“As instrumental music on the Carnatic stage stood relegated behind vocal music, Srinivas led the phalanx of instrumental musicians, assuring us that Carnatic music was not complete without instrumentalists playing solo and that the audience would swing back to our concerts soon.

“And now he leaves behind such a huge void when he still had so much more to offer to Indian classical music,” rued Veena player B. Kannan.

Srinivas’s personal life was marred by an unhappy marriage that ended in a divorce. The Supreme Court confirmed his separation from wife Shree in December 2012 but not before asking him to pay Rs 50 lakh as compensation. Srinivas sent the cheque the very next week after he got the court orders.

Srinivas won the Padma Shri in 1998 and the Sangeet Natak Academy award in 2010.