While the mandolin gently weeps

Sep 19, 2015, 10:15 IST | Narendra Kusnur

On the first death anniversary of mandolin maestro U Srinivas, we string back memories of his genius as his mandolin plays back time

Contrary to what many people may believe, I haven't been gathering dust in a cupboard or showcase in Chennai. Rather, I have been spending each second of my life dancing to the sublime sound of golden melodies and waltzing to a treasure trove of ancient memories. I have been lucky, honoured and blessed.

A file photo of late U Srinivas in concert with Ustad Zakir Hussain and John MacLaughlin (back to camera) at Shanmukhananda Hall during a day-long concert, Shakti: Homage to Abbaji. The concert is observed every year on the death anniversary of Ustad Allahrakha 

I am a simple musical instrument called the mandolin. My master, Lord and soulmate Uppalapu Srinivas left this world exactly a year ago, only to meet Mozart, Subbulakshmi, Miles Davis, John Lennon, Mohammed Rafi, Ravi Shankar and many other great musicians up in the skies. He was only 45, but in that span, his musical output was perhaps worth over 450 years.

The world has written about his being a child prodigy. I should know best. After all, I come from a western ancestry, and my forefathers and uncles played European classical music and folk, and even American country and pop. The instrument was used in Indian film music too. Call it sheer accident or God's design; I landed up in south India, curiously enough in the hands of my master's father Satyanarayana. The young Srinivas was only six then, and through the assistance of his father's teacher Rudraraju Subbaraju, he was able to adapt me to Carnatic music, playing concerts from the age of nine. This was in the late 1970s.

I have been with him ever since, changing my personality from acoustic to electric, solo to group efforts, eight-string to five-string, purist to experimental. Our relationship was unique, and extremely hard to describe. But he treated me like a woman he adored and respected immensely. In different moments, I would be his grandmother, mother, sister, girlfriend, wife, daughter, manager or boss. He would cuddle, hug, bathe or fondle me if things went right, or simply twist my ears or wring my neck if I misbehaved and went out of tune.

We've had our glorious moments, and I travelled across the world with him. We met international music legends like Miles Davis, George Harrison, Michael Nyman, John McLaughlin and Peter Gabriel. On the one hand, we played traditional Carnatic albums like 'Rama Sreerama', 'Magic Mandolin' and 'Trio Mandolin'. And on the other, we got involved in musical adventurism on the album 'Dream' with Canadian producer Michael Brook.

My most memorable concerts were, of course, with the group Remember Shakti. My master was accompanied by Uncle John McLaughlin on guitar, Zakir Hussain Chacha on tabla, Selva Ganesh Anna on kanjira and Shankar Mahadevan Bro on vocals. It was fun each time. I'll tell you a secret. I had a crush on Uncle John's son - his guitar - and we openly flirted in front of audiences, while Zakir Chacha and Selva Anna celebrated our romance with their

Ustad Zakir Hussain, U Srinivas, and John McLaughlin perform at a concert, Remembering Shakti, organised by Pancham Nishad at Rang Bhavan in Mumbai. File Pic

Those days were different. My master never spoke in concerts or even in press conferences. He left that to Uncle John and Zakir Chacha or whoever else. He always thought I was his best spokesperson, and I was thrilled playing that role. And he would acknowledge my work, with just a hint of a smile or a twinkle in his eyes. It continued for years.

And then he suddenly fell ill. I was in the hospital with him, praying for his health and gently weeping. I wished I had a human liver to donate to him. Alas, God had His own plans, and my master just went away. An era was over.

A year has flown by. Now, his brother U Rajesh is carrying forward his legacy, and my younger mandolin sister is doing a great job there. Life goes on. But before I close, I always kept wondering why my master never gave me a name. Maybe there was no need to at that time. Today, I want to be called ‘Manasri’ — the ‘Man’dolin of ‘Sri’nivas. And I shall continue to celebrate his life forever.

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