Classical one, this bow tie

A chat with the vocal violinist R K Shriramkumar

When he was described as the epitome of an ‘argumentative Indian’, I did not believe it, until I met him recently.

For all his deference, you can see a rebel who has strong views on everything — including music. Someone who can win every argument as skillfully as he wields his bow on the violin.

Meet R K Shriramkumar, inheritor of an impressive legacy of music. An artiste whose modesty conceals supreme confidence of his own strengths as a composer, singer and, of course, a violinist of a rare order. A whiz kid who was trained by the giants of Carnatic music.

He proudly says, “I heard MS amma even before I was born, in my mother’s womb!” And adds: “She has been the soul of my musical experience.”

Shriram had the good fortune to accompany “all the greats of Carnatic music.” He reels off names like D K Pattammal, Semmangudi, K V Narayanaswamy, Brindamma, or his present stage companions like Sanjay, Vijay Siva, Unnikrishnan, “who belong to my generation — we have grown up together in concerts.”

Get that straight

When I ask this one-of-a-kind violinist whether he is denied the recognition he deserves by just being an accompanist, he flares up: “This is trivial vocabulary — we are all one on the stage. Everyone has a role to play and words like ‘main’ and ‘accompanying’ do not mean anything.” 

“But they are used all the same,” I persist.

“Yes,” he says heatedly, “and that is sending a signal to the audience that some of us are lesser artistes.”

Then, more serenely: “I have had the best of experiences. T M Krishna once told the audience, ‘he is playing so well, let him play the rest by himself,’ and I played the whole raga. His large-heartedness was touching.” 

When I ask Shriram which musician inspired him the most, he feels that is an unfair question. Nevertheless, his answer was there when he spoke of M S Subbulakshmi.

“She was a stickler for perfection who made me play a Surdas bhajan over and over because I had made a small deviation, which even the audience had not noticed.” He also had to make sure that the violin could not be distinguished from her voice.

When I ask this one-of-a-kind violinist whether he is denied the recognition he deserves by just being an accompanist, he flares up: “This is trivial vocabulary — we are all one on the stage. Everyone has a role to play and words like ‘main’ and ‘accompanying’ do not mean anything.” 

Shriram learned one important lesson from the wonderful musicians he accompanied. They preserved the sanctity of music and would advise: “You cannot mess up the great composers!” 

His first guru was his grandfather, R K Venkatarama Sastry, who was a disciple of the violin maestro T Chowdiah. He taught him to appreciate the music of extraordinary maestros like Maharajapuram, Ariakudi, the Alathur brothers et al.

He was surrounded by music at home, with uncles and great uncles steeped in the rich musical tradition of Rudrapatnam. That, added to great teachers like D K Jayaraman, set the stage for an artistic career. They taught him “not just the art of music but the art of life itself.”

By the time Shriram was ready to climb the podium of sabhas, he had not only learned how to handle the violin with dexterity but also to respect the music he played.

Even today, when Carnatic music is at the crossroads between the conventional and the popular, added to rampant commercialisation, he feels that it is the responsibility of every musician to preserve the integrity of an art that has been handed over to us by inspired composers.  

“When an artiste performs, it should end as an experience, not as a performance,” is his message to all musicians.

His adherence to the purity of music embodies his philosophy of what Carnatic music is about. His intense engagement with an art form that enthralls, elevates and cleanses the very soul of the artiste makes his own music mesmerising.

If he can draw one long shadja on his violin to make your heart stand still, that tells you everything.

Bhakti, a boon

He is passionate when it comes to its spirituality. Bhakti is an integral, inseparable part of music, according to him. It is the moving force that propels music to go beyond technicalities and produce a state of aananda.

“Did not Tyagaraja himself sing ‘Sangeetha gnanamu bhakti vina…?’ he asks. And adds, “How can you separate bhakti from music, that is essentially a prayer? Even a non-believer or a musician who does not belong to this tradition can internalise the music of Tyagaraja or Purandara Dasa to create bhakti in his listeners when he sings!”

He ends our conversation by singing Chandrashekara Bharathi’s ‘Sharadhe Karunanidhe...’ with unconcealed devotion. It speaks eloquently of a musical tradition that embraces spirituality with no reserve. Shriram may be a college drop-out. But what was a loss to academics has been a gain for the world of music. 

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Classical one, this bow tie

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