Kavalam Srikumar is a busy man this month as travels across Kerala rendering the Ramayana. The singer-composer talks about his lyrical journey

The Malayalam month of Karkitakam, also known as the month of the Ramayana in Hindu households in Kerala, which begins on July 16 this year, is the time when Malayalis sit back and read and ponder over Thunchath Ezhuthachan’s Adhyatma Ramayanam Kilippattu and rejuvenate themselves with nourishing Karkitaka kanji (gruel), even as the rains nourish the land. For singer-composer Kavalam Srikumar, though, Karkitakam is one of the busiest months of the year. Srikumar, who is adept at rendering the Ramayana, will be much in demand all throughout the month for special appearances on television, where he’ll read excerpts from the epic in the traditional sing-song style. Music outlets in several places in Kerala already sport images of him smiling against a background of posters of images of the Ramayana. He’s also a favourite at many classical music fetes across the State.

When we drop by his Baker-model home in a suburb in Thiruvananthapuram, where he lives with his wife, Lekshmi, and kids, Krishnanarayanan and Gouri, Srikumar is just back from an early morning recording for a television channel. We’re surprised to find him dressed for the interview and accompanying photo shoot in a jeans and starched shirt, instead of his signature dhoti and silk shirt. “Let’s throw away the clichés,” says Srikumar, the recipient of this year’s Kerala Sangeeta Nataka Akademi award (vocals), as he strikes a pose for the camera strumming his antique Kolkata-made tanpura.

“You know, I never trained in the art of reading the Ramayana,” he says, again catching us by surprise. Instead, Srikumar attributes his skill to “years and years” of practice - 27 to be exact. “Like all good things in life, I never went in search of the Ramayana. It came to me. In 1985, I’d just been three months into my new job as a programme executive with AIR, Kozhikode, when the then station director K.P.K Nambiar asked me to read the Ramayana on air. I had heard it read but I’d never actually read it before. At the time, I didn’t know much about stringing Malayalam words together or really understand how to read the epic, after comprehending the meaning of the words. I just told myself it was part of the job, picked up the book and started reading. I must have read it with the required emphasis on emotion and without compromising on its lyrical quality, and perhaps that’s why Nambiar sir let me go on air with it again and again, till the end of the Ramayana masam,” recalls Srikumar, with a slight smile. “I don’t read the epic on a daily basis at home. But whenever I do, though, it’s an eye-opener, its meanings become clearer. I never know which part of the epic will unwittingly strike a chord. This year, for example, for some reason, it’s the misunderstandings between brothers Bali and Sugriva that’s been intriguing me,” adds the singer.

Srikumar is equally well-versed in reading other Hindu scriptures such as the Bhagavatham, Lalitha Sahasra Namam, Vishnu Sahasra Namam, and Soundarya Lahari, to name a few, besides being a expert in Kerala’s folk music, and of course, Sopana Sangeetham – something that his father, theatre doyen Kavalam Narayana Panicker, popularised.

“I fear I’m being a bit typecast,” says Srikumar, with a mild frown. “It’s not something that I’m too enthusiastic about to be honest. Like the Ramayana, these are things that have come into my life. I welcome anything to do with music with open arms. However, the challenge is to change the audiences’ perception of me and my music. It’s not easy but it’s not impossible, either,” he adds.

The singer believes that classical music is the key to breaking the mould. “After all, classical music is the base of every form of music. It’s my passion, something that I’ve been fascinated with since my childhood days when I got to interact with musicians like Dakshinamoorthy used to visit our house in the 60s and 70s. It is because I learnt classical music that I am able to read the Ramayana and other scriptures or sing folk music with all manodharma (improvisation) in the raga that suits the mood. AIR was the perfect kalari to foster this interest,” explains Srikumar, who started learning Carnatic vocals at the age of six. His family used to live in Alappuzha at the time and he got to train under maestros such as Ambalappuzha Sivasankara Panickar (a disciple of the Ambalappuzha brothers), Trichur R. Vaidyanathan Bhagavatar, Mavelikkara Prabhakara Varma and Ambalappuzha Thulasi. Later, after the family moved to Thiruvananthapuram (in 1975), and when he was 25 or so, he came under the tutelage of violinst B. Sasikumar – someone whom Srikumar talks about with near reverence. “It’s under him that I learnt the inherent marmam (chi) of music. He honed in me the need to give due importance to sahitya to make a composition enjoyable to the laity and the discerning alike...,” says Srikumar, a post-graduate in commerce from M.G. College in the city. Commerce and singing? “Well, I had to study something... (laughs). It did get me through the UPSC interview. I worked at AIR for 22 years until I took voluntary retirement from service. And I did that because, though it was the best possible stage for a musician like me, I felt that there was not much opportunity for the artiste in me to grow.”

Clichés, though, are never too far away. It’s not too long before we cajole him into changing into his signature dhoti and silk shirt for a few shots, which he seems quite enthusiastic about. And, with a sigh, he also bows to our cliché of all clichés and talks - albeit reluctantly - about stepping out of his father’s shadow. “It’s frustratingly challenging,” he agrees. “Then again, theatre has never held that much of a charm for me despite my father being who he is and growing up surrounded by it as I did. Don’t get me wrong, I love theatre. It’s just that I’ve never thought of it as a profession that I would necessarily want to take up,” says Srikumar, who has also sung a few playback numbers and composed two devotional albums.

He is currently working on his third album.

Turning points

There have been quite a few turning points in Srikumar’s life in the past decade, which have, he says, “gone a long way” in popularising him as a musician. One is the trendsetting ‘Ragolsavam’ on Kairali TV, in which he, along with composer M. Jayachandran, would take up a raga and demonstrate its usage in Carnatic and light music and also film music.

Another turning point was a concert tour across Europe and the Middle East, organised in 2004, under the aegis of Soorya fete.

The most recent of the turning points was Srikumar’s stint on ‘Sangeeta Maha Yudham’, a reality show on Surya TV, where he led a team of singers to the finals in a singing contest between six teams from across Kerala.

“Imagine me, at my age, a reality star! I used the opportunity to get the word out there about folk music and classical music,” says Srikumar.