Tuesday, March 1, 2011

U. Srinivas: Mandolin Mastery, Mystery, and Magic

Earlier tonight the eminent Indian musician U. Srinivas opened the current celebrations of Indian culture, "maximum INDIA" at the Kennedy Center here in Washington, with a brief one-hour concert on the Millennium Stage.

U. Srinivas is a unique figure in Indian classical music, both as a prodigy (his first public performance was at age nine), and as an innovator--having brought onto the concert stage an instrument most unlikely for the expression of the gliding ornaments and subtle microtones characteristic of Indian music: the mandolin. Before commenting on his performance, a bit of background may be helpful.

The mainstream traditional plucked chordophones (stringed instruments in the lute family) in India have a fretboard that allows easy production of extended ornamental glides between notes; both the sitar and the surbahar have curved frets, with the main playing string positioned midway over the frets, so that it can be pulled to the side, thereby raising the pitch up to five tones on the sitar, and seven tones on the surbahar; in similar fashion, the lower playing strings can also be pulled to the side; the North Indian rudra vina, and the South Indian veena (also called the Saraswati vina) have flat frets, with a similar string configuration allowing for extensive pulling. The sarod, on the other hand, has a fretless neck of shiny nickle-plated steel (or stainless steel), so that glides can be achieved by moving the finger (or fingernail) up or down the neck for as much as two octaves.

The traditional mandolin, on the other hand, has four identically tuned pairs of strings strung along the full width of the fretboard, so that any pair of strings (like the single string of the guitar) can together be pulled slightly to the side to produce a glide of two, or at most three semitones. (This technique is known in guitar parlance as a "blue note".)

It was therefore remarkable last night to see Srinivas (and his brother, U. Rajesh) creating the same sort of liquid gliding effects on the tiny mandolin. According to various biographies, Srinivas picked up his father's mandolin--an instrument not commonly found in India, and before this time never used in the classical repertoire--and immediately demonstrated an aptitude that led the father to begin teaching him in the classical Carnatic style prevalent in South India (as opposed to the Hindustani tradition in the North), and subsequently sent him to another teacher for more advanced training.

Srinivas' ensemble on the Millennium Stage included, in addition to his brother, percussion accompaniment on the mrdangam (South Indian barrel drum, roughly equivalent to the pakhawaj of the North), and the kanjira (a form of the generic frame drum found widely throughout the world.) The printed program identified two "Accompanists": B. Subramanian and S. Swaminathan, without identifying their instruments--while the live introduction welcomed S. Swaminathan and "B. Sunder Kumar" (as far as I could make out), without specifying who played what.

The north lobby of the Kennedy Center, where the performance occurred, was packed well before the concert began, with all chairs filled, more people than seemed possible sitting on the steps on the side, and a thicket of even more people standing rows-deep in the back. I'll describe the music itself in more detail in a subsequent posting, when the streaming video of the concert will be up. But for now, a few comments:

The performance was a tour de force in virtuosity and astonishing technique, both melodic and rhythmic, with the collective and irrepressible energy among the musicians flowing out into the listeners and igniting their enthusiastic response. Those who knew the tradition savored the performer's embellishments of what might be called some of the "standards" of South Indian classical music--two songs by the well-known Muthuswami Dikshitar and Tyagaraja (of which more to come), and a concluding presentation of Mahatma Gandhi's favorite song, Raghupati Raghava Raja Ram, the song itself perhaps familiar to some of the older members of the audience as one of the most memorable songs by The Weavers, the seminal folk quartet led in the mid-twentieth century by the protean Pete Seeger, America's greatest folksinger.

But even to those for whom this music was new, the collaboration--and sometimes friendly competition--between the brothers themselves ("duelling mandolins"?), between the brothers and the percussionists, and between the two percussionists on the thundering mrdangam and diminutive but still mighty kanjira, provided an irresistably exciting introduction to the bewilderingly complex--but also viscerally seductive--dimensions of this music, which is but one of India's myriad cultural expressions.

As I struggle to explain the effect of hearing this music, I search for adequate words, for similes that might capture the energy of those moments: melodies sliding, gliding, swooping, soaring, stinging, shimmering, glimmering, flashing, slashing, oscillating, surging. . . notes bubbling and bobbing in silver-stringed flights of an oriental bumblebee. Drums thundering and hammering and clapping and slapping and tapping: beats colliding, then holding back; the disorienting offbeat currents of syncopation rendering doubtful for a moment the solidity of the rhythmic bedrock on which we think we're standing. And the excitement of the dialogues between the instruments in the exchanges, the challenges, the questions and answers, and the tension of eyes riveted on each other as one musician tries to anticipate the mischievous brilliance of another's improvisation.

And what in a conventional concert milieu might have compromised the crystalline integrity and delicate timbres of the music--the very high amplification of such subtle instruments--served only to fill the glittering, high-ceilinged space in which we sat with a pure sonic energy that must have been palpable even in the southernmost regions of the Kennedy Center's central corridor.

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