When I was young, I had the great good fortune of growing up in a large complex of three bungalows that straddled two major streets in the Alwarpet-Teynampet area, Murrays Gate Road, and Eldams Road. There were no compound walls separating the three houses, and the result was a vast, tree-shaded play area for all of us kids, a dozen or so cousins occupying those houses. Two granduncles, both sportsmen in their youth, were our match referees and adjudicators. The older of them, Venkata Mama, was by then semi-retired, and a sage presence in the midst of some of our frenetic games ranging from cricket and I Spy to carrom and Monopoly. We took all our disputes to him, all our interpretations of the laws governing our games. His word was always final, delivered firmly but with affection and kindness.
Vidwan RK Srikantan always reminded me of Venkata Mama, not in his physical appearance, but in his largely involuntary role of elder statesman among Carnatic musicians. If he had been a Chennaivasi, we would have heard his voice—not his singing voice but his views and perspectives on the great art he represents--more often than we actually did.
We all know he held strong views on tradition in Carnatic music—on voice training and sruti and laya suddham; we know his repect for the great vaggeyakaras and vidwans of the past. Sruti magazine, and I as a rasika, have been great fans of his music for the grandeur he brought to it—for his vast repertoire, his sense of balance in manodharma and most of all for his wonderful voice, his fidelity to sruti.
The many stalwarts present here today have a much better understanding of Carnatic music, far greater exposure to it, but I’ll rush in where angels fear to tread, and state that there has rarely been a greater male voice in Carnatic music than Sangita Kalanidhi RK Srikantan’s.
But Srikantan, like MS Subbulakshmi, was more than a great voice.
Someone- his son Ramakanth I think—once said Srikantan was a late bloomer. That one attribute of his straightaway endeared him to me, because I too belong to such a tribe, though my friends believe that I am a never-bloomer. BVK Sastry writing in Sruti November 1995, actually described his early singing as robust and impulsive. “Virtuosity seemed to overshadow artistic sensibility in expression.” He pointed out this and other shortcomings which he said were “counterbalanced by his resonant, ringing voice, which invested his singing with a dynamic quality and which seemed to overwhelm the audience.”
Those of us who never heard the young Srikantan will find it hard to believe that his music did go through such a phase. In the same article, however, Sastry acknowledged the transformation in Srikantan’s music, beginning with the first noticeable changes in his mid-thirties, after he had internalized the music of great masters like Maharajapuram, Musiri, Semmangudi and GNB.
Sastry claims that Srikantan imitated GNB’s brigas for a while, adding his own touches, and gradually evolved his own style. He noticed deep introspection, greater control and thoughtful planning in his concerts. He marvelled at Srikantan’s infinite capacity to surprise and delight audiences by singing different compositions in the same raga by different composers, in different concerts, even as the listeners expected the repeat of some song he had dealt with expansively in an earlier concert. This became a striking aspect of Srikantan’s music through the decades thanks to his enormous repertoire across genres and vaggeyakaras. Yet keen listeners could often guess the kriti correctly during his alapana because of his uncanny anchoring of it in the kriti without ever singing identical phrases.
The Sruti article came in 1995 to commemorate Srikantan’s 75th birthday, and Sastry concluded by saying, “his voice has not lost either its resonance or its ring. Thus the ragas sound full-blooded. They are handled now with greater involvement and feeling. The swaraprastara too has undergone a change. There is more spontaneity than deliberate designing, though he occasionally yields to the temptation of mathematical permutations.”
Srikantan only got better and better in all these respects, so that in his nineties, he was in full possession of his faculties physical, intellectual and musical. About the mathematical permutations, there was never any need to complain, as his arithmetic had its own beauty; never lost its umbilical connection to the ragas he was painting.
Returning to the theme of Srikantan as the archetypal guru and de facto oracle, Sruti was fortunate to hear some of his views and thoughts on matters relating to the teaching of music. I ‘ll try to list some of these here.
An aspiring vocalist must sing naturally and without effort in a rich and flexible voice. He must be bold and creative as a performer. He must be free from bad habits. He should not be hasty and overenthusiastic to appear on the cutcheri platform.
The teacher should ask the student to listen to the sruti or the key note for a while and then sing sa-pa-sa.
The guru may hum two different notes and ask the student to identify the note that is higher in pitch.
He may sing some notes in one sruti and ask the pupil to repeat the same notes in a different sruti.
He may test the student similarly with a tambura not quite in tune, asking him which of the two strings is higher in pitch. He must train the better students to tune the tambura and other string instruments.
Similarly, he gives several examples of training in laya, stressing the value of the age-old practice of singing at least three speeds as a learner. He cites varnam singing in three speeds as good training. One of the exercises he conducted with students included the guru singing simple melodies and asking the student to guess the talas.
I found Srikantan’s methods of voice training most attractive. In an interview to Sruti, he said a mellifluous, clear and pleasant voice was a gift of God. It is a delicate organ, easily injured by wrong use.
He gives hope to those not blessed with melodious voices, by assuring them that they can train theirs into musical voices. Here he highlights the benefits of yoga and pranayama, as well as higher and lower octave swara exercises.
Resonant humming is another method of training he recommends. Most important, all the voice training exercises should be practised in four tempos.
An important disclaimer Srikantan puts forth is the distinction he makes between loud singing by forcing the voice and a clear, ringing voice that is the product of good training.
Here, I will quote him verbatim: “A rich, full tone is to be aimed at rather than mere loud singing. Proper management of the voice is the very soul of good singing, or for that matter speaking, also.
Last but not least, he says, “The possession of a good ear is an essential requisite.”
Happily for a listener like me, Srikantan emphasizes lakshya gnana, even more than lakshana gnana, as well as good taste and aptitude for music. “Too much of theory orientation destroys the aesthetic side of the performer, he says.”
Srikantan was an opponent of distance learning. He was against crash courses. According to him, an enduring student-teacher relationship is the key to true learning.
In his speeches and lec-dems, Srikantan expressed his views fearlessly, but with a gentle touch, despite his stentorian speaking voice. At an interaction organized by Sampradaya, he criticized TM Krishna for singing a varnam as the main piece of a concert. Krishna who was the organizer of the event smilingly quipped, “Let’s discuss this in private later?” I would have been delighted to be a fly on the wall when that discussion took place. Just like my own Venkata Mama, I’m sure Srikantan would have been gentle and affectionate but firm in his pronouncement in the matter.
The most fitting tribute to this extraordinary musician would be for musicians to follow his sterling guidelines and emulate his values, without of course, sacrificing originality. Let’s not forget that he was a self-made musician away from Carnatic music’s headquarters, and he was an innovator as well, for all his respect for tradition.