Rama Sreerama

U. Srinivas

Released 27 June 1994

  1. Gajavadhana
  2. Maryaadakadaya
  3. Saranambhava Karuna
  4. Rama Sreerama (Ragam, Thanam, Pallavi) & Ragamalika
  5. Ganamurthy
  6. Kaliyugavaradana

Liner notes

Simplicity and a childish innoncence are qualities that endear Srinivas to everyone. You almost feel as kindly disposed towards him as your favourite kid-brother. While many popular artists of his age would have bought themselves leather trousers and gold earrings, Srinivas still dresses in the traditonal South Indian fashion. For a concert, he usually wears an off-white or white shirt kurta on a white veshti, smears sacred ash (vibuthi) on his forehead, and combs his hair neatly. He’s then all set to regale the audience with the rendering of another Thyagaraja keertana.

Srinivas was born in Palakol in West Godavari district in Andhra Pradesh on February 28 1969. As a very young boy Srinivas was a normal child in school except that he seemed to have an ear for music. Then one day, when he was only six years old, his parents came home to find him playing on his father’s electric mandolin. Inspired by the boy’s interest in music, Satayanarayana Raju, who played the clarinet in his own orchestra, taught his son what little music he knew and Srinivas began playing light music on the mandolin.

“I thought that it’s common to hear people playing classical music on the violin or veena, why don’t I try something new? Of course I never dreamt I would become so well known or that the mandolin would become so popular,” confides Srinivas.

Subbaraju, a classically trained musician and a disciple of the famous musical stalwart Chembai Vaidyanata Bhagavatar, who had taught music to Srinivos’s father, sensed the young boy’s musical aptitude and decided to teach him classical music. He had no experience of the mandolin so he would sing Carnatic music, which Srinivas would then play on the mandolin. In this way, so the young musician developed his own style.

Srinivas’s first public performance on the mandolin was in his hometown of Andhra Pradesha at the age of nine years. While the concert did not go unnoticed, it was his performance at the Indian Fine Arts Society in Madras in December 1982 that made critics sit up and take notice and hail him as a musical genius. After this concert he was pretty much on the road to fame and success, and in fact he is now so much in demand that he zig-zags across the length of India, and beyond, giving between fifteen and twenty performances in a month. When he is not travelling. Srinvas is in Madras where he now lives. Even here the pace can be hectic. He spends at most five to six hours working on his music, sometimes by himself, sometimes with his teacher. Srinivas, in fact, has been a teacher himself for a long time now with at least 30 disciples including his younger brother, U. Rajesh.

U. Srinivas recording the first track from the album, 'Gajavadhana'

When the orthodox and conventional musical coterie of South India heard of a boy playing Carnatic ragas on the mandolin, they not only frowned in disapproval of the sacrilege but said it was an impossible feat. But at U. Srinivas’s very first concert in Madras at the age of 9 years, critics who came to scoff were so enchanted by the magical notes emanating from the mandolin that they stood in ovation and hailed the boy a genius.

If the musical die-hards in South India find no fault in Srinvas’s rendering of a difficult Camatic raga (and they can be a pretty forbidding lot), the general public hove been so carried away by the gossamer web of music that Srinvas weaves with his mandolin that they have listened to him enraptured.

Twenty five year-old Srinivas is one of the most popular music performers in India today, drawing larger audiences than many more seasoned musicians. Among crowds, varying from 500 to 10,000 people, it common to find a 16-year ­old college student, who would only listen to the MTV top 20, tapping his foot in rhythm the Srinivas, alongside a regular concert-attender (rasika) who can detect the slightest mistake but shakes his head in appreciation at Srinivas’s handling of a particularly difficult Thyagaraja keertana. Even the Madras mami for whom husband and sons come before all needs, has been known to abandon her husband’s 7 o’clock dinner time needs to wear her silk sari and attend a Mandolin Srinivas concert. She not only adores his music, but takes some sort of maternal interest in his well-being so that at the end of his concert she will knuckle her fingers to ward off the evil eye.

If in his own country Srinivas has captivated audiences with his boyish charm and divine music, wherever he has travelled outside India, from Mexico to Muscat, he similarly has won over audiences irrespective of vast cultural differences. In 1983, at the jazz Festival in West Berlin he was obliged by the audience to extend a 45 minute set by an hour-long encore and then the concert was broadcast unprogrammed and in its entirety on television and radio the next day.

At his performance for the Ceryatino Festival, in Mexico 1987, Paloma, the wife of the Mexican president, who had Intended to satisfy formality with a 10 minute appearance, was so captivated by Srinivas’s music that she stayed back for a whole hour. He also received widespread acclaim from the French public in 1985, when he played at the Festival of India in Paris; he toured London In 1990 at the invitation of the Asian Music Circuit and the British Arts Council; and in 1992 he was the only Indian classical musician to have played at the Olympic Music Festival in Barcelona, Spain.

It was in August 1992, while on tour with WOMAD, that Srinivas recorded this album of traditional music during the second Real World Recording Week in a candlelit studio.

Even Europeans are surprised that such magical music can originate from an instrument which is normally a rather inconspicuous member of a Western orchestra. Like fellow Indian musician Shiv Kumar with the santoor, Srinivas has revived and raised an unknown instrument and given it a respectable status in classical music. The mandolin, a 14th century instrument of Italian origin, is especially popular in Naples where it was used to play love and folk songs. It belongs to the lute family and looks like a cross between the violin and the guitar, though smaller than both. Four sets of double wire strings are tuned like a violin while frets guide the fingers of the left hand and a tortoise shell plectrum held in the right hand is used to play the instument.

Srinivas has four specially-made mandolins at his home in Madras, and these have only five strings as opposed to the usual eight strings. “With eight strings you can’t produce gamakas (the lengthy intonations of Carnatic music), so I started playing with four strings. Then my father suggested that I try out a fifth string for bass which is important in Carnatic music. The scale on the mandolin I use is the same as on an ordinary mandolin. Only there are five strings instead of eight strings,” explains Srinivas. Otherwise, his mandolin is similar to the Western instrument with the addition of a contact microphone to avoid the hollow rat-a-tat of a guitar-like instrument.

On concert tours (and there are many) Srinivas goes accompanied by his father, two mandolins and a suitcase full of gods. In the case where he keeps his mandolin, are photographs of Hindu deities, Hanuman, the monkey-god taking precedence over all others. At the beginning of every concert Srinivas chants a long benedictory prayer to Hanuman, and whether at home or on a tour, he will spend at least an hour in mediation and prayer. He is extremely religious and reverential.

“I have done well in life, only because of God’s grace and guru’s blessings,” he says with a smile.

The usually stern music critic Subbudu, who is known more often to pan than praise an artist, remarked recently that in the field of instrumental Carnatic music there is no one quite like Srinivas. “There is no other instrumentalist who has reached such dizzy heights in instrumental improvisation. He has got a computer-mind and can evoke and execute the most fraction-ridden swaro combination.”

Despite the critical acclaim Srinivas has won over the world, he says modestly that he still has a long way to go. “Where is the end to music? The more you learn, the more you want to know,” he says.

Listen

Reviews

  • Popularly known in India as Mandolin Srinivas...this devout young Hindu has become a master not only of an instrument that usually only stands out in bluegrass but also of the highly complex, extended improvisations that are at the heart of the Southern Indian classical tradition. Q Magazine (UK)
  • Classical but alive, breathing, ancient and still evolving The Guardian
  • The centrepiece is a 29 minute, multi-movement epic, topped off with a stunning percussion duel, clay pot clacking and slapping, mridangam booming and buzzing towards open-heart ecstasy. Brilliant! MOJO (UK)
  • Sweeter than a banjo, more energetic than a slide guitar, Srinivas's playing has a bright electric tone, nicely set against a husky-throated violin. Together with a mridangam drummer the group scamper cheerfully through their melodies, working tightly as a rhythmic unit. The Wire (UK)
  • This is a level of artistry you don't see too much of these days Time Out (UK)

Credits

All tracks traditional, arranged by U. Srinivas. Musicians: Sikkil R. Bhasakaran violin; Thiruvarur Bhakthavathsalam mridangam; E.M. Subramaniam ghatam (clay pot).

Recorded at Real World Studios, England, August 1992. Produced by Michael Brook. Mixed by Michael Brook and Richard Evans. Engineer Richard Evans. Assistant engineer Russell Kearney.

Art direction Michael Coulson. Real World Design Tony Stiles. Design consultants Assorted Images. Series identity Garry Mouat. Photography front cover Peter Anderson portrait by Stephen Lovell-Davis. Back cover Peter Anderson. Booklet photography Stephen Lovell-Davis. Sleeve notes Ratna Rao Shekar.

Thanks to Mr. Ramana, Nanda Kumar, Dr. Vasanatsree.

Further Listening

  • Dream

    U. Srinivas

    Released 22 May 1995

    A journey through the darker meditations of Eastern and Western ambient music. Virtuoso mandolin player U Srinivas is found in musical conversation with Michael Brook, Nigel Kennedy, Caroline Lavelle, Jane Siberry, Sikkil R Bhaskarnan and Nana Vasconcelos.
  • Moksha

    Amjad Ali Khan

    Released 25 April 2005

    There are no musicians in India with a lineage as long and illustrious as Amjad Ali Khan's. It stretches back in an unbroken link over 200 years. On this Indian classical album, he offers the listener a variety of ragas, including folk music from two beautiful states of India - West Bengal and Himachal Pradesh.

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