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Tuesday, March 9, 2021

Each man’s death diminishes me

Reading Time: 5 minutesThe literature and classical scenes in India have recently lost two greats

U Srinivas (1969-2014)

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When a friend called on 19 September to say that Mandolin Srinivas was no more, I was left speechless.

The internet confirmed the news: the music scene in India was shattered. Srinivas, the wonderboy of the classical scene who was so closely associated with his instrument of choice that it became part of his name, was only 45 years old.

Incident after incident flashed in my mind.

It was 1984. Srinivas was in Sydney, all of 14 years old, but already a prodigy. His first international tour, he performed at two concerts. You could not take your eyes off him on stage. He would play a movement and look towards his Guru (who was also seated on the dais) for approval. The Guru would return a smile.

He had been invited by Dr Perumal Janardhanan of Sydney Tamil Mandram. My son Gautham, who was five years old then, won Srinivas’s admiration for his attentive listening seated in the front row and identifying Kalyani raga as he played.

About 15 years ago, the Sydney-based classical music organisation Rasikapriya organised a concert by him. As the concert was in progress, the organiser, the late Dr Govindan, came to me and said, “The editor of the Indian Link wants to say hello to you”. Thrilled by this, I came out. There waited Pawan Luthra, who looked at me and said, “You look young. I expected you to be a much older man!” Thus started my relationship with Indian Link which has endured to this day.

Srinivas was in his element at that event. I wrote a superlative review for this newspaper, stating that Srinivas was definitely one of the five who had created original music in the Carnatik style. Someone criticised me for being extravagant in my praise. But when I read the tribute that maestro Ravikiran recently paid to this genius, I feel I was not wrong at all. I was completely justified.

I maintain that Uppalapu Srinivas has been one of the most creative artists of our time. His music is so very romantic. Forget the mandolin; look at the quality of music he has produced. It is sublime. Take the hour long Sharavana Bhava Guhane in Madhyamavathi raga or the three-minute long  Chandrasekhara in Sindhu Bhairavi raga. What a rendition! It transports you to another realm altogether.

I met the young maestro in person at a reception organised by Dr Govindan at his Sydney home. I was amazed at the utter humility he exhibited, answering all my questions by addressing me as “Sir”.

Srinivas came to Sydney on many occasions for many performances, including a hugely memorable one at the Opera House. The legendary tabla player Zakir Hussain was his accompanist a few times. Once I found the rendering to be very noisy and put it down in my review. That is beside the point.

We say that an artist suffers, but in a different way. I am told that far from the glory and the glitter, Srinivas had a personal life which was devastating. Yet he never exhibited his distress, he exhibited only his music. He was indeed a true artist.

***

U R Anantha Murthy (1932-2014)

Another Indian great, U R Anantha Murthy, the Kannada writer and scholar, passed away on 22 August this year. He was 82, and led a complete life in any sense of the term.

His novel Samskara (1965) is considered to be one of the contemporary greats in any Indian language. Set in rural Karnataka, it captures the collapse of personality of a character, PraneshaAcharya, in the wake of the death of another, Naranappa. It brought to Kannada literature the essence of Sartre, Camus and existentialism, and took the reader by storm. The film based on it became an all-time hit and a Cannes Festival award winner.

In the fifties, Kannada literature entered the modern era. Anantha Murthy, known as URA, belonged to the new school of modernists. Along with Yeats and Eliot came in the French, Freud, Marx and Mao. He was able to pack within 150 pages what took others five times as many. His Bharathipura, a picture of contemporary India, and Avasthe, based on the life of a socialist politician, are among some of his more critically acclaimed works. He has also written numerous short stories, poems and critical essays. His works have been translated into various Indian and international languages.

URA was awarded the coveted Jnanapeetha, India’s top literary honour, in 1994 and the Padma Bhushan, India’s third highest civilian honour, in 1998. He was one of the finalists for the Man Booker prize in 2013.

URA was a professor of English at the University of Mysore, visiting professor at many universities within India and overseas, the Vice Chancellor of Mahatma Gandhi University in Kerala, and held many important positions in literary circles.

As an author, URA did not lock himself in a lofty ivory tower. Instead he came out and participated in the life outside. For him politics was an essential part of life. He even contested and lost in the 2004 elections for a seat in the Lok Sabha.

Of course, for such a passionate man, controversy was never far behind. One such incident was when he said recently, “I will not live in India if Modi becomes the PM”. Never at rest, he seemed to move from one controversy to another.

I had occasion to meet him in person a few times and found him to be extremely intelligent and very friendly. Our first meeting was at my friend and scholar Kiram Nagaraj’s home in Bangalore. Both were engrossed in a deep discussion with Charminars cigarettes dangling from their lips! URA welcomed me warmly and we spoke at length. I was then writing science articles in Kannada and often doubted whether anybody was reading them at all. He opened my eyes and told me, “People in rural places read Kannada writings (in science as well) with interest. You should continue to write”.

Next I met him at the wedding of the famous story writer Diwakar’s daughter (who married my nephew). What warmth he showed when I introduced myself again. It was as if he knew me very well.  Mind you, he was already at his peak by then.

Heavy in heart at the loss of these two greats, I can but rephrase John Donne:

Each man’s death diminishes me,
For I am involved in mankind.
Therefore, send not to know
For whom the bell tolls,
It tolls for thee.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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