How R. K. Shriramkumar excels both as a musician and mentor

Solo and accompanying artiste, composer, musicologist and mentor, R.K. Shriramkumar is all rolled into one

October 06, 2022 06:33 pm | Updated October 07, 2022 06:12 pm IST

R. K. Shriramkumar before a concert at  Kamakshi Amman Temple in Kanchipuram recently. Hindu

R. K. Shriramkumar before a concert at Kamakshi Amman Temple in Kanchipuram recently. Hindu | Photo Credit: B. VELANKANNI RAJ

His calm and composed countenance belies his vidwat. R.K. Shriramkumar wears many hats with aplomb — solo and accompanying violinist, vaggeyekara, vocal and violin guru, musicologist, polyglot, and mentor. He has accompanied many legendary musicians including Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer, M.S. Subbulakshmi, D.K. Pattammal, D.K. Jayaraman, T. Brinda, T. Mukta, K.V. Narayanaswamy, and M. Balamuralikrishna, and his contemporaries, and young artistes. The latest recipient of Kartik Fine Arts’ ‘Tamil Isai Vendar’ title, Shriramkumar is one of the most sought after musicians, who has a hectic schedule through the year.

Shriramkumar grew up spending hours at The Music Academy, tagging along with his grandfather and guru, violinist R.K. Venkatarama Shastry, who was then on the experts committee. Such significant early exposure to revered doyens set his musical bar high. Shriramkumar’s playing faithfully follows the vocal style, a feature uniformly stressed by all his teachers — his grandfather, D.K. Jayaraman, Savitri Satyamurthy and V.V. Subrahmanyam. While VVS shaped the technique, imparting knowledge of deeper realms of music, DKJ, his vocal guru, taught Shriramkumar many kritis, expanded his manodharma, and exposed him to the music of other stalwarts. “He was the first senior musician who I accompanied,” says the violinist.

According to Lalitha Sivakumar (DKP’s daughter-in-law, who lent vocal support to her) Shriramkumar’s expertise in vocal nuances reflects beautifully in his playing, accentuated by his command over Sanskrit and all four southern languages. “Every word of thesangati comes through clearly in his playing,” she says. “Even in the druta kala (fast speed) niraval,” adds vocalist Vijay Siva.

One can experience the essence of multiple patantharams and purity of raga in Shriramkumar’s performances.

Shriramkumar performing at a concert by Vijay Siva in December 2019.

Shriramkumar performing at a concert by Vijay Siva in December 2019. | Photo Credit: PICHUMANI K

Team player

Talking about his accompanying skills, mridangist Manoj Siva says, “He has truly understood the pakkavadya dharma (accompanying etiquette).” He strives to showcase his co-artistes in the best light, even masking any difficulties they might be facing, to enhance the concert appeal. Whether Padi or Kalyani, expected prayogas or sudden googlies, he will respond with unfazed poise. He keeps his solo responses intentionally brief, yet musically wholesome, giving the others more time to perform. Senior vocalist Rama Ravi points out how his accompaniment adds to her performance. Sangita Kalanidhi-designate Tiruvarur Bhaktavatsalam says, “Shriramkumar is known for the way he adapts to each artiste.” Mridangist K. Arunprakash feels one can present an entire lecdem on his accompanying skills. Both Arun and Manoj say how Shriramkumar’s presence provide an instant comfort, both on and off stage.

While some violinists and percussionists will not perform with women, Shriramkumar has played for many of them. “It is sad that people have such views. As a result, many talented women artistes do not get the recognition they deserve. Only quality of music should matter,” he says.

Many well-known young artistes such as Amritha Murali, Ramakrishnan Murthy, Bharathi Ramasubban, Aishwarya Vidhya Raghunath, Madan Mohan, Sandeep Ramachandran and Nanditha Kannan have been groomed by Shriramkumar. This is a testimony to both his pedagogy and charisma.

Says vocalist and author T.M. Krishna, “Shriramkumar’s imbibing of the various ways his many gurus shared knowledge reflects in his teaching method, which is grounded in discipline, rigour, and perfection, and develops the ability to understand exactly what you are doing.” Amritha adds, “He allows his students ample space to explore.”

Notably, unlike many teachers who insist on exclusivity, several of Shriramkumar’s students learn/have learned concurrently from others. He is accepting of all patantarams as long as they are faithful to chaste Carnatic music. He might well be the only teacher to regularly accompany his vocal music students on the violin, and adopts the same non-intrusive approach that he follows for stalwarts.

Composing skills

An astute composer, Shriramkumar’s pieces are performed by his contemporaries, students, and dancers too. Vijay, Arunprakash, Manoj and Krishna refer to the stellar quality of his compositions, which beautifully blends sahityam and raga. He has also set to tune compositions in several languages including ‘Sharada Bhujangam’ in Sanskrit, Thayumanavar’s Tamil hymns and a few in Bengali and Marathi. He has also composed music for television and dance productions.

Shriramkumar’s innate love for languages, in tandem with belief in the scriptures inculcated from childhood, has made him pursue his musical and spiritual enquiry through books and consultations with experts. Shriramkumar has performed the annual Aradhana for Tyagaraja continuously since 1994, continuing from his grandfather, who did so for over 50 years.

Cognisant of current trends, he judiciously chooses what to adopt. For instance, about the social media, he says, “As much as it brings the world together, and can be really worthy when used sensibly and sensitively, it fosters anxiety and one-upmanship through constant comparison.”

The blend of knowledge, creativity, bhavam and sowkhyam comes through in his lecdems and workshops. Krishna says, “Even on topics presented before, he will do further research, showcasing new information each time.” To ensure what he says reaches the audience, Shriramkumar often presents them in concert format with students, illustrating esoteric aspects in an accessible manner.

Though a poster child for tradition, Shriramkumar gives an ear to even completely contrarian viewpoints, considering them with an open mind.

Say Manoj Siva, “As a human being, he is ideal. Musically, he reflects purity to the Carnatic idiom, portraying impeccable taste which comes out in all aspects - kriti, manodharmam, tuning, composing, accompanying. He is the complete musician.”

The writer is a Kalpalata Fellow for classical music writing for 2022.

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