R.K. Srikantan’s passion for music was innate. It was not linked to any material aspirations. The legend who passed away recently battled all odds through hard work and determination
My grandfather Rudrapatnam Krishna Shastri and his brother Rudrapatnam Shama Shastri were famous musicians in their times, known as Kallikotte Brothers. They perhaps got that name because they came to Karnataka via Calicut. To this day, old timers call us the Kallikotte family. My grandfather worked as a school teacher in the Rudrapatnam village before he moved to Mysore in the later years along with his five children, four sons and a daughter Ammayyamma. He worked in the Marimallappa School and later in Lakshmipuram school as Kannada and Sanskrit teacher. He was also a composer who wrote many kritis.
What to me is very fascinating is how all my grandfather’s children were musicians, but each of them shaped their own style of music, completely independent of each other. The eldest, R.K. Venkatarama Shastry was a student of Mysore Vasudevacharya and Veene Subbanna. When he developed a voice problem, he switched over to the violin and started learning from T. Chowdiah. Chowdiah got my uncle a job in AIR, Madras, and this opened up many opportunities for his brothers. For nearly 35 years my uncle was M.S. Subbulakshmi’s violinist, and became a very close friend of Musiri Subramanya Iyer, Maharajapuram Vishwanatha Aiyyar and Semmanagudi Srinivasa Iyer. My uncle took my father R.K. Narayana Swamy to Madras and put him under the tutelage of Musiri Subramanya Iyer for six years. R.K. Ramanathan was also a competent musician but became an English professor. My youngest uncle R.K. Srikantan learnt from his older brother and by listening to the legends of that time.
My grandfather’s house in Mysore, where we all lived, was a huge courtyard house. The rooms on the left were occupied by our family, and the rooms on the right were occupied by my uncle Srikantan and his family and the rest of them stayed in other parts of the house. Srikantan practised for long hours and no sooner did we hear the drone of his tanpura, my brother Taranathan and I crossed over to the right side of the house to listen to him. Every single day, he would skin four almonds, roast them and have it with a glass of milk. If we were lucky, we too got one each. What everyone in the family looked forward to was Venkatarama Shastry’s visits from Madras. Both my uncles, Venkatarama Shastry and Srikantan, used to have endless discussions on music and musicians, and how we enjoyed listening to those conversations! Knowing his younger brother’s interest, Venkatarama Shastry collected scripts of various kritis sung by the veteran musicians and without fail, brought it during each visit. He even helped Srikantan practise them. For Srikantan, G.N. Balasubramaniam and Semmangudi were like gods. He listened to them with great attention and shaped his music based on their style. In those days, during Mysore All India Radio auditions, Musiri and Semmangudi used to come and stay in our house. Srikantan would wait for their free time, and request them to teach him a few kritis. Gradually, with persistence and practise, he increased his repertoire. One can say that Srikantan, to a large extent, was a self-taught musician. By listening, practising and perfecting his art, he built his own bani. He worked obsessively and with great determination. I remember how he, along with his friends C. Krishnaswamy Rao and Chennakeshavaiah in Mysore, practised together for several hours everyday in a small room.
I shared a very warm relationship with Srikantan till his end. When we met at family gatherings, I would always bring copies of krithis that I heard over radio for him, particularly GNB’s. I would write the notation, make a copy for myself and one for him. He would discuss it with such enthusiasm. Around 5-6 years ago, the entire Rudrapatnam family, that is Srikantan, Ramakanth, my brother Taranathan, R.K. Shriram Kumar and I performed at the Svanubhava programme in Chennai. I had taken a GNB kriti in Todi, “Ninne Nammiti”, my grandfather’s kriti in Saranga raga “Shree Sharade” and a Kedaragoula varna. He was so happy during the rehearsals and welcomed every suggestion like a true student of music.
Personally, for me, he was a big influence. His full-throated singing, his adherence to shruti, his impeccable diction, his commitment… has always moved me. He never believed in unnecessary flourishes and ornamentation. He was a firm believer of tradition and through his nuanced understanding of the compositions, he enhanced their inner beauty. Srikantan loved to sing and he would go wherever people invited him. Money was the last thing on his mind. He popularised devaranamas, but believed that they had to be sung in the traditional, old ragas. Not Semmangudi, not Musiri. None of the musicians my uncle idolised could sing in their old age. But he sang till his last days.
Only last month, during his 94th birthday celebrations, everyone wished that he would live to be a 100. Considering his health and will power, it was not hard to imagine that he would actually make it. He too felt that he would stay on to be a centenarian. His death has come as a shock to all of us. He is no more, but for someone like me who has seen him since my childhood, his passion and devotion to music will never fade away from my mind.
(The author is a renowned musician)