Growing up in Palakal, Andhra Pradesh, U Rajesh never saw his older brother engage in sibling rivalry. “Or revelry,” says Rajesh, “He was nine years older, would hardly talk or play and was always bent on a small fretboard, trying to figure something rest of us didn’t know. But I was a restive child, always wanting to go out to play, but he would never bother.”
In a telephone conversation from Chennai, Rajesh is referring to U Srinivas, better known to the world as Mandolin Srinivas, the famed musician who convinced the purists of the Carnatic classical world that an Italian lute, associated with court recitals in Europe, baroque concerti by Vivaldi and film music in India, could present the complexities of Carnatic music. Srinivas modified the instrument, using five single strings instead of the traditional four doubled strings and, in the process, the mandolin created gamakas, delivered nuances and gave pleasure to the rasikas as any other Indian classical instrument. Violin took decades to find that status in India. While the uninitiated enjoyed the novelty his music displayed, the connoisseurs loved the deft strokes, the technique, and the passion. So much so that when George Harrison stumbled upon Mandolin Ecstacy in the ’80s, a Srinivas album, he said in an interview, “Eddie van Halen, eat your heart out”. Halen is one of the most distinguished guitarists in the history of rock music. Srinivas wasn’t in his twenties yet. His Carnatic career with the mandolin had just begun.
But Srinivas passed away in 2014 after a liver transplant failure. He was only 45, with a Padma Shri, a Sangeet Natak Akademi award and praises from Harrison and John Mclaughlin under his belt.
But, during the time he was alive, he taught Rajesh his unique style on the advice of Paramacharya of Kanchipuram. “I learnt some krithis. I always wanted to be a pilot. My brother said he’d help in that but, if I chose music, there would be no endorsements. ‘My job will be to only teach you. No more,’ he said. I was to take my pick,” recalls Rajesh, who did choose music, thinking he could go to his brother if there was a challenging situation. The two also played many duets. “And then, in a matter of just a month, he was gone. While performing, I still look to my right sometimes to get approval,” says 38-year-old Rajesh, who will be in Delhi on August 23 for a performance with sitar player Purbayan Chatterjee as a part of the 19th Amar Jyoti Concert presented by Pt Chaturlal Memorial Society. The organisation was formed in the memory of Pt Chaturlal, a fixture in Pt Ravi Shankar’s concerts abroad in the ’50s and one of the first Indian tabla players to introduce Indian percussion system to the West. Chaturlal died in 1965, at the age of 40. Ut Allah Rakha took over after that. The performance will be followed by a flute recital by Pt Hariprasad Chaurasia.
In the last three years, Rajesh says he has been trying to find his own sound. His collaboration with Chatterjee is also an endeavour in that direction. Apart from releasing Timeless, the last live recording of the kutcheri in Mylapore where he played with his brother, and performances at Chennai’s December season, he is actively collaborating “to see how classical mandolin interacts with other Western instruments”. He’s already worked with Mclaughlin on Floating Point, which was nominated for a Grammy in 2009.
He will soon head to the US for his work with LA Philharmonic Orchestra. “This exchange of notes widens my perspective of my own music. I’m trying to be my own musician, entangle myself with challenges, find answers myself,” says Rajesh.