Unnikrishnan’s love for cars, cricket and Carnatic music

P. Unnikrishnan   | Photo Credit: B_VELANKANNI RAJ

“The test of the machine is the satisfaction it gives you. There isn’t any other test. If the machine produces tranquillity it’s right. If it disturbs you it’s wrong until either the machine or your mind is changed. The test of the machine’s always your own mind.” — (Robert M. Pirsig, Zen and the art of motorcycle maintenance)

Parakkal Unnikrishnan grew up adoring cars and this fascination led to a passion for collecting models. His eyes light up when he talks about his cars. He recalls his family car, a black Ambassador, MSR 6854, the number of rides he had in it and that they had to rebore it twice! The care and attention given to their maintenance left a strong impression on the young boy. Little did he realise then that those influences would have an impact on his musical journey. Vocal chords, like a car, will have to be looked after with the same passion was something he learnt. When you enjoy travel and driving, the journey is the reward, the destination second in importance. So also, in music, Unni enjoyed the voyage not really setting goals for himself.

Unni grew up in a large household, at ‘Kesari Kuteeram’ in Chennai, consisting of grandparents, uncles and aunts, who doted on him. The large ancestral house often doubled up as cricket or football field. He accompanied his father to cricket matches and his love for the game grew as he watched his father play too. He started playing the game with all seriousness during his college days. Cricket and cars were the main attractions and music was hardly on his mind. Destiny, however, had other plans.

Music was not something alien to Unni either. As a child, he had his own nicknames for family members connecting them to certain songs. Aunt Rashmi was ‘Annuninde nuna...,’ aunt Madhavi ‘Kanikaanumneram...’ because they sang those songs to him.

Unni also enjoyed listening to his mother, who was a student of Venkataramana Bhagavathar, sing Abhogi raga. One day hearing Unni hum, the Bhagavathar told him to sing and he rendered snatches of what he had listened to. That was the beginning of a new journey that Unni had not contemplated upon. But the discovery was enough to prompt the mother to nudge her son into serious lessons and participation in school and college music competitions. And most often, he would come back with prizes.

“I was listening only to film songs and Yesudas was my biggest inspiration,” says Unni, who sang Yesudas hits in all the competitions. He recalls the tape-recorder (two-in-one) that his uncle had got for him from Singapore and Unni loved recording songs that were broadcast on the radio. He would play these songs over and over again until he perfected the nuances that his idol had sung. Unni thus had exposure to different types of music — devotional and Carnatic at home and film songs over the radio. He loved listening to Western music as well — belting out ‘Hotel California,’ ‘Gambler’ and so on.

It was at age 11 that his formal Carnatic music training began under V.L. Seshadri. On the advice of some well-wishers, he came under the tutelage of the legendary Dr. S. Ramanathan, who opened his eyes to a new world. “It was truly a temple of music. One could sit there for hours, soaking it up as he taught the students. He would ask the students to sing swaras, where one learnt to improvise based on one’s ability and thought process,” recalls Unni.

A turning point came when he joined Vivekananda College. His music took flight and the wings came in the form of some good friends. The cultural club at the college consisted of some gems, who went on to become star performers. It was during the college event Festember that Vijay Siva insisted that Unni sing classical songs and that he would play the mridangam and Sriram (R.K. Shriramkumar), the violin. It was a first attempt for Unni, but the trio bagged the first prize. “It was Vijay, who set the pitch at 2.5 for me then and it came to stay,” Unni acknowledges. The bond between the friends has continued till today.

“It is important to have the right kind of friends at that age, for it is peer pressure that often propels you to do things. For someone like me, who attended a Carnatic concert only after I began training under Ramanathan sir, I learnt a lot about music from my friends,” says Unni. The friends decided to form an association for youth to promote Carnatic music. Thus was born YACM, which gave young talent opportunities to perform. Many of them rose to eminence, Unni being one of them.

There was a healthy exchange of ideas and knowledge. Unni slowly blossomed and was carefully nurtured by his good set of friends. “We attended each other’s concerts and no matter what anyone else said, the feedback that one got from friends after each concert proved to be very valuable,” says Unni. It calls for humility and courage to accept criticism, especially from colleagues. “You didn’t sing very well today,” would comment Sanjay Subrahmanian, whom Unni admires. And Unni would work on the weak spots. “I was very fond of Kedaragowla raga, but found it difficult to sing bhava ragas which were rather tricky,” confesses Unni. Sanjay was only too willing to share a cassette of his recording with him and when Unni sang Kedaragowla at his next concert, he acknowledged the source of inspiration. It was Sanjay, who introduced him to GNB’s music. Sriram helped him structure a concert and was a ready-reckoner, whenever Unni had doubts about pronunciation.

It is heartening to see a musician heap praise on fellow artistes — Vijay Siva, Sriram, Sanjay Subrahmanian, Arun Prakash and Anand Shiva to name a few. The group would attend kutcheris, which would be followed by heated discussions and debates on style and banis.

Unni’s first concert happened under the banner of Dasanjali. “I was literally thrown into it,” is how he remembers it. The melodious voice was welcomed by rasikas and slowly more concerts happened. He admits that in the initial days, he even prepared the ‘improvisational’ passages for concerts.

After guru Ramanathan’s demise, Unni started training under Savitri Satyamurthy, who proved to be a disciplinarian as well as a tough task master. She, like most teachers of her generation, insisted that he memorised the lyrics and would hand over the notation only after he had done his homework well. Unni is still in possession of volumes of such meticulous notation records, a treasure he cherishes.

It was another turning point when nudged by guru Savitri he applied for a six-month workshop organised by Sampradaya and was selected to be trained under the legends T. Brinda and T. Vishwa. “It was a completely different style and initially, it was difficult to even understand the gamakas but Viswa sir taught us the notation that he had formulated for his students in Western music,” says Unni, whose knowledge deepened with the experience.

Destiny intervened in the form of an offer to sing for A.R. Rahman, thanks to filmmaker Rajiv Menon. The song, ‘Ennavale,’ (1994) not only became a super hit but also got him a National award. The happiness doubled as he found Priya — his life partner — the same year. Film offers came thick and fast and soon he was straddling the twin worlds of Carnatic and film music. In fact, the trio in the ‘Ennavale’ team, including Rahman, married around the same time.

“I was destined to sing Carnatic Music. My mother was the catalyst and I can never forget my gurus and friends, who guided me all along,” says Unni. His parents and friends unfailingly attended every concert of his, he adds. Unni firmly believes that he was blessed to have well-wishers at every point of time in his life. There never was any stress and he continues in that unhurried pace, balancing concerts, recordings, shows, sports and family.

“Contentment is my happiness mantra,” he reveals. His work and philosophy have been rewarded as he gets ready to receive the Sangeetha Choodamani award, to be conferred by Sri Krishna Gana Sabha, this evening. Destiny has filled his home with the sound of music, his children adding to the melody.

The Lighter Side

Unnikrishnan is a familiar face on reality show judge panels on TV. What is his view about these shows?

“They bring to the fore enormous talent. But the flip side is that they also lead to identity crisis. The participants become overnight sensations but find it difficult to sustain that success,” says Unni.

About striking a balance between classical and film singing, he says that it is difficult for a singer to be successful in both fields because the approaches are different. “I was fortunate to be blessed with a voice that worked well in both disciplines.”

He has fond memories of the days when auto-tune did not exist. Mistakes had to be corrected by singing all over again, until perfection was achieved. Having sung more than 2,000 songs in Tamil, Malayalam, Kannada and Telugu, Unni acknowledges in all humility that film offers do not come his way now, with audiences wanting fresh voices. Unni has sung for many music directors but the most challenging was the song that he rendered for the Malayalam film Devadasi. Composed by veteran music director Sharreth, the song ‘Sudhamanthram,’ with changes in its scale, was tough. Though the film was not a hit, the song became popular.

His children have followed his footsteps. Son Krishna plays the piano. “He has a good voice, but didn’t pursue Carnatic music,” says Unni. Daughter Uthara started singing for fun, jamming with her brother, but has been learning Carnatic music from Sudha Raja, besides pursuing a course in pop music at school. Uthara got an offer to sing the popular song ‘Azhage’ from the Tamil film Saivam that fetched her a National award — a rare feat of both father and daughter getting National award for their debut song. Uthara has sung for a few more films, besides devotional albums. In recent times, father and daughter have performed shows in India and abroad.

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Printable version | Aug 1, 2021 7:24:05 PM |

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