Carnatic doyen R.K. Srikantan lived and breathed music till the end, writes his biographer Ranjani Govind
Taking on the task, in 2010, of writing the biography of a music doyen, who was already 90, was an edgy endeavour. In my passionate quest to comprehend the towering yet un-assuming personality of Carnatic music, I had accepted the offer in all excitement.
Even so, the modest and pragmatic R.K. Srikantan (RKS) hardly ever pushed me into “finishing up” the enormous work “in a hurry.” Every time his eldest son, vocalist Ramakanth, and I expressed our desire to release the book on RKS’s 2013 birthday, he would repeatedly tell us, “Don’t rush things. Do it at a reasonable pace. Only God decides what will go into the book. Perhaps the biography was destined to include my Padma Bhushan award; that’s why it is being written after I have completed 90!” was his quip. He had received the national honour in 2011.
Finally, I did complete the biography by the third quarter of 2013 and had the maestro read the same, which he did meticulously and expressed his pleasure before it went into print. And during his 94th birthday celebrations on January 14, 2014, in Bangalore, ‘Voice of a Generation – R.K. Srikantan’ was released by N. Murali, president of The Music Academy, Madras, in the presence of RKS and his entire family. For me, it was gratifying moment! “He was actually 97 this January, though his official records put his age at 94,” his family members revealed just recently.
Nothing mattered more for the maestro than being around music lovers and with music… conducting classes, performing at concerts, lec-dems, CD recordings or programmes for AIR or television! This continued for nine decades after his father, Vedic scholar Krishna Sastry, initiated him into melody as a toddler in Rudrapatna. “The day I don’t sing to my satisfaction, I never relish the food I eat,” he had said during one of the interviews. “Looking for avenues to learn and paving one’s path for realising one’s dream is what one has to meticulously do,” RKS believed. This unwavering determination of young Srikantan comes through in one of the chapters.
Here are some excerpts from the chapter ‘Making of a Musician’:
“RKS’ eldest brother Venkatrama Sastry was anyway in touch with most high-ranking musicians as he accompanied them on the violin, but wanting to expand his career, the offer from the Radio Corporation in Madras was an intriguing timely one, both for himself and his younger brothers, all musicians, forever pining for something more.
Srikantan made use of the opportunities that lay before him. Along with his brother, he visited well known musicians such as Ariyakudi Ramanuja Iyengar, Maharajapuram Viswanatha Iyer, Musiri Subramania Iyer and Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer.
My brother provided for the initial learning ways, but after a point, music education became an indirect exercise. I started getting progressively curious, I used to habitually study the styles offered by a cross-section of vidwans then. My craving to ‘listen and learn’ became a way of life… be it the raga, kriti, swara embellishing, niraval or the heavy weight pallavi presentations, nuances involved in each style or the way each vidwan formatted them were all facets that I absorbed… Soaked and drenched in an avalanche of styles, I involuntarily picked up components from each one of the performers to bring some diversity to my styling and make it sound richer. My utmost desire was to expand my musical horizon. I was on this ‘nirantara saadhana rasthe’ (unending ways to practise and learn more) and went on a journey to make myself a sincere nadopasaka. I meditated on music and that was all that mattered to me then. I can’t forget the madness of learning that was driving me. It was an energetic and natural wave of progression that I had decided to see for myself… milk, curds, butter and then the ultimate ghee. The evolution has to be an innate, sequential one, isn’t it?” he says.
Srikantan used opportunities to collect as many kritis as possible, and would request stalwarts to sing, and as they sang, Srikantan feverishly took down notations. After several rounds of practice back home, Srikantan would make it a point to sing them again to get their approval.
“Expanding my repertoire was not primary, but listening to these vidwans, each of them who had their own inimitable styles, lent an extended musical perception to the understanding of the raga contours and kriti presentations. From this angle, I found that the recitals of front-rankers of the period which included those of G.N. Balasubramaniam, Madurai Mani Iyer and T.N. Rajarathnam that I heard at Madras, Bangalore and Mysore more and more instructive,” he says.
That Srikantan joined the State Radio at Mysore in the late 1940s and later moved to Akashavani Bangalore helped him expand his musical perspective and was proof of his ‘inner force’ to stay in his own State. In the evening of his life, when I asked him if he looked for one more janma (birth) to further realise the enlightenment that music provided him all along, the maestro looked up with folded hands, “No, I do not want another birth, I am satisfied. If God does wish to give me another, may I pray that I am born in Rudrapatna once again!” he said.
Another day, when RKS’s son-in-law called to congratulate him on receiving Padma Bhushan, he had said, “Prakash, if I consider this a blessing of the Nada Devathe for my efforts, pray that I continue to sing until my last breath!” That he did, for, a day before he breathed his last in a hospital, Srikantan sang Begada for his grandson Achintya to prove that his voice was indeed intact and still remained the ‘Voice of a Generation.’
(The writer is at the Editorial desk of The Hindu, Bengaluru. Her biography of R.K. Srikantan ‘Voice Of A Generation’ has been published by Vidwan R.K. Srikantan Trust, Bangalore, and is priced at Rs. 800. For details, contact 94484 68192 or 080-23368190)