Interview with R.K. Srikantan

Interview with R.K. Srikantan

in Interview
Published on: 07 June 2016
The acclaimed Carnatic vocalist, R.K. Srikantan (1920-2014) speaks about the early influences in his music and how Carnatic music has evolved over the years.

Interview with R.K. Srikantan

Sahapedia: We are extremely thankful to you for giving us this opportunity to talk to you about your music and your life. With a life spanning more than nine decades, that too with an active musical career of 80 years, you enriched the Carnatic music scene as a great vocalist, renowned musicologist and matchless teacher. Could you please elaborate on your early years with music?

R.K. Srikantan:  As you have rightly said, for more than eight decades, I am in the field of Carnatic music as a performer and of course as a teacher. At the outset, let me make clear that music is my family heritage. My father, R. Krishnashastri was a great musician, a harikatha exponent, a Kannada poet, dramatist, a Sanskrit and Vedic scholar, all rolled into one. When it comes to my grandfather Venkataramana Shastri, he too was a known Vedic scholar. We hail from Calicut (Kozhikode) in Kerala and at the time of my great-grandfather, the family shifted to Rudrapatnam in Hassan district of Karnataka.  Because of our roots in Calicut, my ancestors were to be called as Kallikotte Krishna Shastri and Kallikotte Rudrapattanam Venkataramana Shastri.


My maternal grandfather, Bettadapura Narayanaswamy was a renowned veena player. He was also an accomplished vocalist of that time. His music was hailed as ‘celestial’ and he was closely associated with maestros such as Veena Seshanna, Veena Padmanabhaiah and Veena Subbanna of Mysore. He had great friendship with Mysore Vasudevachar, renowned composer.


All of them were court musicians for the Mysore royal family. It was because of this background I say music was my family heritage. All four of us brothers were also into music from the beginning. My eldest brother Venkatarama Shastri was a disciple of the violin maestro T. Chowdiah. Before reaching Chowdiah, he was under the tutelage of Veena Subbanna. Subbanna was the main disciple of ‘Asthana Vidwan’ Mysore Sadasiva Rao, who was the disciple of Venkatakrishna Bhagawatar who was one of the direct disciples of Tyagaraja. This is one of the ways the Tyagaraja lineage prevailed in my home.  My other brother, R.K. Narayanaswamy was the disciple of Musiri Subramanya Iyer, who was the disciple of T.S.  Sabesa Iyer. Sabesa Iyer was the disciple of Mahavaidyanatha Iyer of Tanjavur. Mahavaidyanatha Iyer was the disciple of Manambuchavadi Venkatasubba Iyer, one of Tyagaraja’s direct disciples. This is another way that the Tyagaraja lineage runs in my family.


Music has always been a passion for me. Though I had a college education, did my graduation from Maharaja College, Mysore, I continued with my music. As you know, I began my public performances from the 13th year of my life. All stalwarts, all well-known accompanying artistes of yesteryear performed with me, all living masters are still performing with me, and I hope it will continue for some time in the future also. I fondly remember my concerts where tall figures like Palakkad Mani Iyer, Palani Subramanya Pillai and C.S. Murugabhoopathi accompanied me.


I had my basic lessons in music from my father Rudrapatnam Krishnashastri, and then from my elder brother R.K. Venkataramashastri.  In 1935 he was working for the Corporation Radio station in Madras.  Because of his stay in Madras, I got opportunity to meet great musicians in Tamil Nadu and Madras (Chennai) in particular. I would say that my Madras experience enriched my repertoire and style of singing.  I used to spend time regularly with great maestros like the Karaikkudi Brothers (veena), Dakshinamurthy Pillai (mridangam), Chembai Vaidyanatha Bhagawathar (vocal), Palakkad Rama Bhagawathar (vocal), Palladam Sanjeeva Rao (flute), Ariyakudi Ramanuja Iyengar (vocal) and Musiri Subramania Iyer (vocal). I should not forget my initial training in Mysore, which formed the base of my musical sensibility. From the age of five I was attending great Ramanavami concerts in Mysore and my brother used to take me to all those amazing listening experiences.  Those were live performances of masters in their heyday. Constant listening to good music always helped me in developing my music. 


S: Could you elaborate a bit more on listening to masters of yesteryear?

R.K.S.: Palladam Sanjeeva Rao’s rendering of Ksheera Sagara Shayana in Devagandhari still echoes in my ears. How can one forget Ariyakudi’s Akshayalingavibho in Sankarabharanam, Musiri’s O Rangashayi in Kamboji  and Nagumomu Ganaleni in Abheri, Semmangudi Mama’s Kharaharapriya, that too when Chowdaiah and Palakkad Mani Iyer were accompanying. Those days concerts were for longer duration, for four to five hours, that too without microphones. Therefore we could hear their natural voices without artificial amplification. Their sruti was 2 ½, 3 ½ katta and even went up to 4 katta in the case of Maharajapuram Viswanatha Iyer. However, during those days, the audience strength was not as large as it is nowadays. We used to sit in small auditoriums and listen to music carefully. Those glorious days are gone. As I already mentioned, listening to good music only formulated my style and repertoire. Sure, my brother was giving me daily tuition, but whenever I had doubts, I had the liberty to go to Ariyakudi, Musiri or Semmangudi and they sang for me and I could write down right notations. I have studied many padaantharams (interpretations) through constant listening to many masters, though I don’t share padaantharams that I learnt from many Gurus with my students. I am a strict teacher and I pass on only what I perform and want to share with the new generation. Now the situations have changed. Now the students can note down notations, they can record teachings. We used to remember what we heard…nothing more. In that way, the present-day practice is better. As the students are writing down all possible variations, they won’t forget them.


S: How do you relate your own music to the Mysore bani and Tanjavur bani?

R.K.S.: Now there are no different schools such as the Tanjavur and Mysore banis. In earlier days of course there were. But due to constant interactions between stalwarts of both regions, the differences are disappeared with the passage of time. To say it more precisely, the Mysore bani disappeared and Tanjavur bani prevailed everywhere. There is a reason for it. Tanjavur bani is gamaka shuddham, Tanjavur bani is full of sangatis, embellishing each sahityam by introducing so many sangatis. And in the Tanjavur school, they improvise ragaswaroopa in a big way. It also developed a very sound kaalapramanam, different tempos, for compositions.


S: How do you see the cross influences between Hindustani and Carnatic traditions in Mysore?

R.K.S.: I don’t see any resemblance…Carnatic music is structurally different from the Hindustani style of music. Carnatic music is sahitya, tala and bhakti-oriented. Rakti, bhakti and bhava are the most important ingredients of Carnatic music. In my personal view, Hindustani traditions evolved through darbari music. Therefore musicians had to please Nawabs and Rajas whereas Carnatic music has always been a prayer to the creator of the universe. It is a prayer to the Lord of the Universe. When I express this view of Hindustani music, I exclude its bhajans. Moreover our treatment of a raga is quite different from that in the Hindustani style. There is a world of difference. Carnatic music is based on 108 talas out of which 35 are very important to the system. You won’t find these intricate differences of the tala sampradaya in the Hindustani style of music.


S: You have been in the music scene for more than eight decades and you started your public performances in your early teens. Carnatic music has undergone a sea change in this long period. You had been an active bridge between many generations. How do you see the contemporary scene?

R.K.S.: I am a traditionalist and I am happy about that stature. The changes that some of the new generation musicians bring into the concert styles are not desirable, at least to me. Even if we are eager to make changes it should be complementary with the tradition. I am told that some musicians now render two or three raga alapanas at a stretch without any composition and then lead to a thaniyavartana on the mridangam. I can’t appreciate such innovations.


S: Your place in Carnatic music is among the 'thinking musicians'. I feel that the meditative posturing of your body even while performing is complementary to your music. How do you react to this observation?

R.K.S.: I should say it is a good observation about my music. We should give importance to the bhava of the raga and composition. While I sing, I get into the meaning of the composition and that makes me a contemplative self on stage. Then bhava comes to the music naturally. If it does not happen, it would be a mere mechanical reproduction of a song. I always try to walk with the mind of the vaggeyakaras (the poets).


S: Can I ask a question with a sociological perspective? Maestros like C.S. Murugabhoopathi and Palani Subramanya Pillai had performed with you. You had close interactions with musicians like Madurai Somasundaram. If I say that there have been histories of humiliation in the lives of the non-brahmin vocalists and instrumentalists in Carnatic music, how would you respond?

R.K.S.: I won’t agree with you. Let me take one example. Palakkad Mani Iyer and Dakshinamurti Pillai had very cordial relations. Dakshinamurti Pillai was older than Palakkad Mani Iyer. Dakshinamurti Pillai used to sit always at the front of the stage and Palakkad Mani Iyer a little behind, even though Mani Iyer was on the mridangam and Dakshinamurti Pillai was sometimes on the ganjira. Mani Iyer used to adore Dakshinamurti Pillai as his guru.  Such cordial relations existed between Palani Subramanya Pillai and Mani Iyer as well.


S: What was the influence of nagaswaram traditions on you?

R.K.S.: The nagaswaram has always influenced Carnatic vocal music. The nagaswaram only paved the way for elaborate raga alapanas in vocal music. The sky is the limit when the raga alapana comes into nagaswaram traditions. Nagaswaram artistes of that period had wonderful creativity. Theirs was limitless alapanam. In Mysore, after the Ramanavami festival every year there used to be Hanumantolsavam celebrations. For these festivals nagaswaram stalwarts used to come to Mysore to perform. The artistes had to walk along with the procession of Anjaneya (Hanuman). Once, Rajarathinam Pillai, Nagaswara Chakravarti, was invited to the festival. All of us in Mysore were very curious to hear his famous music.


The procession started at ten o’clock in the night. After one or two songs, he took up Todi raga. The procession came to Ramamandiram at 4.30 am. Rajarathinam Pillai was performing Todi even then. Todi was not exhausted even then for him. What a marvelous elaboration! This is the clue for any Carnatic vocal musician for elaborate raga alapana. There were frequent visits of nagaswaram artists to Mysore. I remember Veeruswami Pillai, Thiruvangad Subramania Pillai, Angappa Pillai, Rajarathinam Pillai, Meenakshi Sundaram Pillai on the thavil, Nachiarkovil Raghava Pillai on the thavil. Once in the Madras Music Academy, Ustad Bade Ghulam Ali Khan appreciated Nachiarkovil Raghava Pillai’s performance. Meenakshi Sundaram Piilai was one of the great musicians of all time. Those were glorious days, I should say.


At the same time, the veena influenced vocal music in its gamaka aspects. When it comes to gamakas, the veena is the ultimate authority. All 15 types of gamaka can be produced on the veena, but not in vocal music. In thanam music also, the veena plays a major role. In my view, the veena is wonderful for rendering in Madhyamakala.


S: In the beginning you mentioned your family exposure to Harikatha performances. Would you be able to recollect some?

R.K.S.: Of course. I do remember the performances of Mangudi Chidambara Bhagawatar, Annaswamy Bhagawatar, Saraswati Bai, Kanakambujam, Venugopaldas, Krishna Bhagawatar, Kodunur Sitarama Shastri. Harikatha artistes of Madha school presented only the stories of Vishnu and his avatars, no other Eswaras.


S: Do you recall listening to any Hindustani maestros?

R.K.S.: I fondly remember listening to live concerts of Ustad Faiyaz Khan, Bade Ghulam Ali Khan, Roshanara Begum, D.V. Paluskar, Krishnarao Shankar Pandit, Rahmatulla Khan (sitar), Pandit Omkarnath Thakur, Kesarbai Kerkar, Gauhar Jan and Gangubai Hangal when they came to Mysore royal family concerts. See, the royal family promoted music, dance and drama and even western music in a very rich way. I do also remember Balasarawati enacting Krishna Nee Begana Baro when Jayammal was singing in the background. Jayammal’s music was bhava-laden music. Brinda, Mukta and Jayammal were the best singers of padams and javalis in the strictest traditional style. Their music was perfectly gamakashuddham.


S: What is the secret of your longevity and the strength of your voice?

R.K.S.: My way of life, food habits, maintenance of my voice all played a role. Believe me, I never tasted ice creams, tobacco, alcohol and even popular soft drinks. Satvika aharam has been my strength. I talk less. Though I practice every day, I don’t perform publicly every day. There should be at least three days break between two concerts. Otherwise, you will lose the sweetness, the madhuryam of your voice. Over and above all these, mental health is paramount for an artist. You must be a person of positive thinking always. Don’t allow negativity to come in your way.


S: Could you tell us about the methods of your teaching?

R.K.S.: I always taught my students the importance of sruti shuddhi, uccharana shuddhi (good pronunciation), laya shuddhi and bhava shuddhi in music. If you take care of these four aspects, then you are safe. I am very particular about punctuality in my classes. If you are punctual in your classes, your music too will show that; after all music is an art of time management.