The quintessential vidwan

In Carnatic music vocabulary, we do not seem to have any one word that describes the deeply engaged musician who is also a performer, thinker, linguist, philosopher, educator, scholar and collaborator. But, maybe there is an expression, the one that imposters like yours truly feel we deserve and at times demand: vidwan . If there is a person who embodies that term, it is the wonderful musician R.K. Shriramkumar.

striking the right chord:Shriramkumar with his guru and grandfather, R.K. Venaktarama Sastri. —Photo:s Special Arrangement

Shriramkumar grew up with the best of musical influences, from T. Brinda to D.K. Jayaraman. At home, Carnatic music was the only known mode of celebrating life. His house was the epicentre that attracted the young crop of musicians from the mid to late ’80s. Inherently, the violinist has the ability to grasp and internalise music with lightning swiftness and to aid this, a photographic memory. This combination has helped him absorb music from many maestros. All that was said, left unsaid, suggested, analysed and deconstructed, has stayed with him. At the same time, this has not been a blind intake of knowledge; he has a most sophisticated sieving system.

When so much is taken in, the mind needs to decide the following: what is needed, what can be discarded, when, where and how much should be released, and most critically, what are the constants. For Shriramkumar, this process of receiving, retaining and relinquishing is just natural and therefore, what you finally hear is the quintessential Carnatic.

Ragas are companions with whom he converses, not opponents that need to be subdued or defeated, allowing them to glide towards us listeners. Every swara and phrase of his offers us a glimpse of music beyond the musical; you are shaken and stirred. He is certainly not the most skilled or technically perfect violinist. But those who are unable to receive him beyond these limited and limiting criteria are the ones losing out on a profound experience.

Unfortunately, the Carnatic music world is so obsessed with ‘main artistes’ that prominent recognition has eluded him. Shriramkumar is known to many as a tunesmith and composer of Pallavi. But he must be celebrated as an outstanding vaggeyakara (poet-composer). He may not have composed hundreds of songs and compositions, but his few outweigh the many that pass off as kirtanas .

As a deep thinker, Shriramkumar does not take anything at face value. He probes, investigates and navigates every thought. He may not immediately accept a contrary view, but with some reflection, will come back and continue the conversation. And at times, he would be honest and courageous enough to tell you that he agrees with your point, yet finds it hard to change the way he is. “I am working on it,” he would say.

From the surface, do not think that he is an easy person to convince, far from it! He can be bull-headed and refuse to budge, but the trickster that he is, you will never realise that he had vetoed your thought or castigated you.

He is a linguist who grasps the nuances of languages with ease. He reads and understands all the south Indian languages, is a master of Sanskrit, and dabbles in Marathi, Gujarati, Hindi and a few others. He is constantly exploring linguistics and semantics, and is in wonderment whenever he sees a new meaning, interpretation, sound and history to a word.

Heart of hearts, he is an advaitin , for whom atma vichara is at the heart of living, while being at the same time deeply ritualistic and Brahminical. But his search for the real does not reject or discard its inherent contradictions. There is also the other side to him, the deeply passionate seeker of beauty, love and romance.

When people see Shriramkumar, there are two opposite imageries that arise in their minds. For some he is the ‘ideal’, the perfect Brahmin man: pious, god-fearing, respectful Carnatic musician. Others see him as conservative, archaic, rigid and un-modern. But what these positions reveal are our own beliefs, judgments and complexities. Shriramkumar is neither ideal, nor is he old. He is complex, difficult, challenging, open and flexible, yet rigid and tied down, like anyone of us. It is just that in his case, his overt classicism is a shield that makes it difficult for others as much as it does for himself.

I know there is so much more depth to what he says than what is heard, and I am disturbed that his thoughts have been straitjacketed within a cultural milieu. And hence, I have constantly pushed him to discard diplomacy, correctness, inhibitions and fear, reveal his own doubts and say it the way he sees it.

Shriramkumar has been an integral part of my life for the past 28 years. I am here today because he has been, and still is, with me as a confidant, mentor, discussant and dissenter. There are many who wonder how we could be such close friends.

The answer lies in the question itself. Maybe there is hidden in each something of the other.