Mandolin artiste U. Rajesh talks to Chitra Swaminathan about having a prodigious musician for a brother and finding his own musical space

“Believe me life is not easy being mandolin wizard U. Shrinivas’s brother,” laughs U. Rajesh.

“You are never your own — rising up to expectations, living up to the lofty standards set by him and making yourself worthy of comparisons,” he says, his expressions as lucid as the strokes on his mandolin strings.

Looking suave in a white shirt, a pair of jeans and well-styled hair, Rajesh says, even performing concerts with Shrinivas is a tough task. “Since he plays with a natural flourish, you have to be in a meditative mode to understand and anticipate how the music will unfold.”

So is there no scope for sibling revelry! Or is it rivalry?

“Call it sibling responsibility,” he laughs again. “When you are surrounded by music day and night, in thought and action, there has to be revelry. In fact, there is no scope for rivalry. More than being a big brother (Shrinivas is nine years older to him), he is the one who has hand-held and led me into the world of music. My guru and advisor, he is the seed of my musical imagination.”

Apart from sharing stage — mostly for cutcheris, the brothers have been charting their own course and indulging in collaborative works across the globe. Rajesh’s recently released album Following My Heart is one such initiative of showcasing his creative individuality.

Rajesh learnt to play the mandolin from his father and brother. “I took to playing the instrument in my early teens with the blessings of the Paramacharya of Kanchi, who had asked me to pursue it. It was a divine calling.”

When he entered college, Rajesh decided that music would take precedence over other things in his life. “My brother, who was already among the top-rung musicians concurred with my choice but also warned me not to expect any recommendations. He wanted me to understand that music was not a way out of academics. And over the years, I have realised to be heard and appreciated in this ever-expanding world of music I need to channelise my energy.”

As if to prove his point he explains that the mandolin fret board is like a dense jungle, one needs to explore and find his way. Besides creating different textures, harmonies and dynamics on the strings, he started teaming up with musicians who were thrilled about new sounds aesthetics and synthesis. He is part of quite a few bands — one with Ranjit Barot and Louis Banks, Sivamani and Stephen Devassy and then there is Karmalians with Bickram Ghosh, and a DJ and a drummer (the group will soon release an album). He also performs with Pete Lockett, drummer Jon Theodore and rock musicians.

“These exchanges are incredible. They result in futuristic creations that are born out of different artistic sensibilities and cultural influences. Personally, they have widened my perception and deepened my understanding of music. But nothing can match the excitement of being praised by jazz ace and my idol John McLaughlin who made me part of his Grammy-nominated album Floating Point. I am now waiting for the day when I will get an opportunity to play with L. Shankar. These are dreams I set out with and when they come true one after another, I feel I am closer to musical nirvana.”

But he insists these endeavours have not veered him away from his classical roots. “However much I may travel performing with the best of international artistes, cutcheris during the December Season in the city is a must. It is like reaching out to your soul.”

And what about listening to his heart, when it comes to actor Meera Jasmine, with whom he has had a long-standing relationship and is rumoured to be married to. “Too much has been spoken about it. But I won’t deny that we have been in a relationship and continue to do so. Our work commitments do not allow us the luxury being together much. Art has been the binding factor. I believe in being in harmony with the rhythm of time and allow things to happen the way they have to,” smiles Rajesh.

Heart-talk

When I was working on the compositions of my latest album Following My Heart my brother advised ‘just follow your heart’ and I thought it was a perfect title. The album is an amalgam of eastern culture and western influences, particularly jazz. The highlight is the second piece and one of my favourites — ‘The Flight of the Bumblebee’. Not attempted by an Indian classical musician before, it was composed in 1899-1900 for the opera The Tale of Tsar Saltan. I cherish the piece now even more because a music producer offered to shoot a video for it and that too on a helicopter. I love flying and wanted to be a pilot as a child. Another dream-come-true moment was when the album was released by Kamal Haasan, my celluloid idol.

Schooled in values

We impart free training in music to interested youngsters at the Shrinivas Institute of World Music. My brother and I believe teaching should be driven by passion and not monetary gain.