Udupi S. Sreedhar was trained to be a mridangam artiste. But he was destined to learn the ghatam and today he is an All India Radio’s A Top graded artiste of All India Radio (AIR) in ghatam, besides being a B-High graded artiste in mridangam. He has accompanied almost all leading Carnatic musicians and has played the mridangam in many Malayalam movies and music albums. Kerala Sangeetha Nataka Akademi honoured him with the Gurupooja Puraskaram in 2006. A native of Udupi, 55-year-old Sreedhar is settled in Thiruvananthapuram, where he is an employee of the Union Bank of India. Excerpts from an interview with the accomplished musician...
Tryst with music
I learnt music because of my father, K.V. Subrayan Potty. He migrated from Udupi to the capital city many decades ago for better living conditions. Music is everything for him. So, even though he was living in penury, with a big family to support, he went around searching for a guru for me. In fact, he learnt for a while from the late Venkitachalam Potty, who was V. Dakshinamoorthy’s guru. But since he couldn’t continue, he ensured that all his six children learned music. Girija, my elder sister, a first rank holder in M.A. Music, has given concerts with my younger sister, Jayalakshmy, under the name Kumari-Girija sisters. I used to accompany them on the mridangam. I’ve two younger brothers, Udupi Balakrishnan, a mridangam and ghatam artiste, and Udupi Balasubramaniam, who plays the violin.
I started learning the mridangam from the age of eight from the late Karamana Krishnankutty Nair. My debut was at Pazhavangadi Ganapathy Temple in the capital city at the age of nine. My artistry was appreciated a lot and I got a gift of Rs.51 from a rasika. That was a big amount then!
Mavelikara Krishnankutty Nair
It was under him that I had my advanced training on the mridangam. Actually, he offered to teach me. He used to come to the hotel that my father used to run near the AIR office. It was there that Krishnankutty sir evinced interest in teaching me since he had heard about me from someone. He took me into his fold and even changed my original name, Sreedharan Potty, to Udupi S. Sreedhar. I came to know of the change only after he published it in a programme notice. Also, he was the one who suggested that I should learn the ghatam as well.
Journey with the ghatam
A major reason why my guru asked me to learn the ghatam was that there weren’t many ghatam artistes at that time. That was also a period when upapakkam (instruments such as the ghatam, morsing and ganjira) was not given much importance. I’ve been playing the instrument for three decades now and things have changed a lot, with upapakkam also getting its due. I had training from ghatam exponent K.M.Vaidyanathan as well. The ghatam, as an instrument, has a lot of limitations. It has a constant pitch and you can’t go for much variations as in the case of the mridangam. Therefore, before a concert I have a word with the vocalist about the pitch in which he/she would be singing, so that I can carry the ghatam of that particular pitch. That is the reason why I have a huge collection of ghatams at home, most of which I have bought from Maanamadurai and Chennai in Tamil Nadu.
Accompanying Neyyattinkara Vasudevan sir was always exciting. My first foreign trip was with flute maestro K.S.Gopalakrishnan in 1992, covering Germany, Netherlands and Austria. I’ve also performed in Paris, Kuwait, the United States, Canada, Dubai and Abu Dhabi. Foreign audiences are always in awe of the ghatam. I regret that I couldn’t accompany M.S.Subbulakshmi, M.L.Vasantha Kumari and Chembai.
Experimenting with music
I’ve played the mridangam in almost all albums produced by Tharangini Cassettes. Also, I could work in films/albums of composers such as G. Devarajan, Dakshinamoorthy, K. Raghavan, M.S. Viswanathan, M.B. Sreenivasan, Johnson, Raveendran, Alleppey Ranganath, T.S. Radhakrishnan, Mohan Sithara, M. Jayachandran, M.G. Sreekumar… I’d like to mention songs of movies such as Raakuyilin Ragasadassil, Devasuram (‘Sooryakireedam…’), Padamudra (‘Ambalamillathe…’) and Sukhamo Devi (‘Sreelathikakal…’). It isn’t easy to play at a recording because you have to play within a particular framework, whereas you can improvise in live concerts. It was much tougher earlier when there was no track singing. I have also done fusion concerts, which, I believe, offers new challenges to a musician. I don’t deplore any kind of music. But experiments in fusion should be done with care. Although I’m not doing much of light music these days, I regularly record for classical audio CDs in Chennai for the likes of T.M. Krishna, Sanjay Subramanian, Bombay Jayasree, Renjini-Gayathri and Aruna Sairam.
All in the family
I am lucky that music binds my family. While my eldest son Udupi S. Srikanth plays the ganjira, the second one, Srinath, is a vocalist, and my third son, Srijith, plays the violin. We’ve performed together. What I find exciting part is that my siblings’ children too are learning music.
Balancing work and music
A post-graduate in Commerce, I got my job in 1978. I’m looking forward to more performances once I retire and, perhaps, come up with a percussion ensemble concert.