The hands that swung the bat for a cover drive and a square cut are the hands that now keep talas. He's spent several seasons on the ground perfecting strokes and shots before being groomed by renowned gurus in the finer aspects of Carnatic music. From playing for the State senior division league to performing full-fledged kutcheris and crooning chartbusters in Tamil and Malayalam films P. Unnikrishnan has found the perfect pitch.
His tastefully decorated and spacious flat in Royapettah is part of an office-cum-residential building where Kesari Kuteeram once stood. A landmark of Madras, it was his great-grandfather K.N. Kesari's house. An eminent Ayurvedic physician and a patron of music, among the many visitors to the house were well-known musicians of the time.
Unni's work pad, a modest mini-studio on the seventh floor that opens to verdant vistas, is where he is closeted most of the time. Even as the mellow 'Vaarayo Vaarayo' (“Aadhavan”) glides up charts, he's recorded another “beautifully composed” song from “Bale Pandiya” by Devan.
What's more, he is busy putting together a theme-based Carnatic album for a Margazhi release. Then there is also a fusion concert with Western classical musicians coming up early next year.
All in the family
“I grew up listening to Tamil and Malayalam film songs. That was the time when the tape recorder was a rage and my father got a big one from Singapore. He would record and play songs and I would sing along,” says Unni, running his fingers elegantly over the piano keys. His 12-year-old son Krishna plays the piano, daughter Uttara is into Carnatic music, while wife Priya still keeps in touch with her classical dance.
Unni's father, who was passionate about cricket, initiated him into the game. He used to run the well-known Bunts Cricket Club and has been associated with the Tamil Nadu Cricket Association.
“My mother loved to hear me sing and would somehow get me into taking part in music competitions in school. She seemed to have complete trust in my singing abilities,” smiles the fond son, who owes it all to his parents' unstinting support. “Besides, I always think of my teachers who helped me balance studies, sport and art,” he adds.
But it was winning the first prize along with Carnatic vocalist Vijay Siva and violinist R.K. Sriramkumar at Festember at the Regional Engineering College, Tiruchi, that gave Unni the confidence to choose music over cricket. “The three of us were classmates in Vivekananda College, and practised really hard to present a 20-minute concert at the fest, in which Vijay played the mridangam.”
Learning from masters
Unni relentlessly pursued music under several masters such as V.L. Seshadri, S. Ramanathan, Calcutta K.S. Krishnamurthy, T. Brinda and T. Vishwanathan as he was eager to assimilate as much as he could from the veterans. He still prefers to call himself a humble student, and visits P.S. Narayanaswamy and Savithri Sathyamurthy for expert guidance. “I wonder when people say they've have learnt Carnatic music for five years. You can never stop learning this centuries-old art. There is so much to it that you could go on for a lifetime and beyond,” he says.
In 1994, Unni sang his first film song, 'Ennavale Adi Ennavale' (“Kadalan”) composed by A.R. Rahman. His honey-soaked singing got him a National Award, and continues to ring in the ears of listeners. The song's success was followed by his debut classical performance tour of the U.S. “Suddenly things seem to fall in place, and on return from the U.S. I quit my job in Parry's Confectionery and decided to give myself to music totally.”
His foray into films brought in fame as well as criticism. “There was a phase when I was doing quite a lot of songs, and many thought I was not concentrating enough on classical music. I realised it and set things right for myself.”
How easy is to balance playback singing and kutcheris? “It could be stressful as they call for a different approach. Unlike kutcheris, there's not much scope for improvisation in film numbers. You should be able to meet the composer's requirements. I have been lucky to get tuneful numbers with decent lyrics. Some of the film compositions are quite a challenge as they combine several influences and genres.”
Unni is gearing up for the oncoming December Music Festival. He feels it's an experience that a classical artiste cannot do without, for it is both elevating and enriching.
Like the multiplicity in his musical pursuits, life for Unnikrishnan is about diverse interests - he's a tennis lover, showers equal care on his toy cars and BMW, and is a gadget freak! But, music takes precedence over everything else.