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U. Srinivas
from Radio Real World
[archived here without permission]

At only 27-years old, Upalappu Srinivas is to Indian classical music what Sir Yehudi Menuhin is to its Western equivalent. And, like the latter, U Srinivas was a child prodigy.

At the age of six he was presented with a mandolin (then rarely used in Southern India); three years later his largely self-taught implementation of Karnatak raga - an unmetered improvisation alternating between traditional and spontaneous scales - was performed with such dexterous ease that his name became synonymous with the instrument itself. Aged nine, his first concert drew gasps of awe from the initially sceptical musical old guard.

"When I started," he remembers, "I saw that only a handful of people were there, perhaps 30 at the most. They had very little idea of what was to come and this was the first time that the mandolin had ever been heard attempting the repertoire I gave. The concert lasted for four hours and, slowly, people kept coming. When the concert was over, there were 3,000 people there. For me, this was amazing."

The Madras-based "Mandolin" U Srinivas has continued to amaze and be amazed ever since. From Berlin to Paris, London to Barcelona and Mexico, audiences have delighted in the inspired sounds of one of India's most popular musicians. After riding the current creative wave of emotionally direct and impassioned Karnatak music - as exemplified on 'Modern Mandolin Maestro' (Globestyle UK) - Srinivas, together with his father, two mandolins and a suitcase full of gods (photographs of Hindu deities), headed to Real World. There he met Canadian guitarist / producer Michael Brook, producer of Qawwali singer Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan's album, 'Mustt Mustt'. And the rest, as they say, is history.

In 1992, while touring with WOMAD, the traditional record 'Rama Sreerama' was recorded as a candle-lit concert performance. Three years later, 'Dawn Raga' (WOMAD Select) was made in the waking hours of a summer's day, and 'Dream' (Real World Records), which Brook cheekily calls "an ambient-crossover-techno-fusion record", are all fruits of this fertile partnership.

Musical Genius

Born in 1969 in Palakol in the West Godavari district of Andhra Pradesh, U Srinivas took to playing his father's electric mandolin at age six. Inspired, his clarinet-playing father taught his son what little he knew. Subbaraju, a classically trained musician and disciple of famous musical stalwart Chembai Vaidyanata Bhagavatar, who had taught music to Srinivas' father, decided to teach the boy classical music. With no experience of the mandolin, however, he would sing Karnatak music which Srinivas would then play. At the age of nine he was hailed as a genius and has been surpassing his reputation ever since, with a precedent-setting, idiosyncratic style that makes all around sit up and take notice.

Today, "Mandolin" U Srinivas is one of India's most popular performers, drawing crowds of up to 10,000 - an audience demographic ranging from MTV-addicted college students, rasikas - die-hard concert attenders able to detect the slightest mistake, who shake their collective heads in disbelief at this man's prowess - and even the Madras mami, decked out in silk sari and abandoning her family's dinner-time to come out and listen.

London's Time Out magazine predicted Srinivas would be greater than Eric Clapton. He is. Recognised as a musical genius in his own country, international performances and such albums as WOMAD Select's 'Dawn Raga' and Real World Records' 'Dream' with Michael Brook have wooed global audiences and won critical acclaim. Yet the forever modest U Srinivas maintains he has a long way to go. "Where is the end to music?" he says with a grin. "The more you learn, the more you want to know."

Karnatak Music

Indian classical music is discernible by a north/south divide, the introduction of Turko-Persian elements distinguishing the Muslim-influenced northern styles from the Karnatak tradition, now restricted to the south. It is from this rich, complex Hindustani genre that the Madras-based U Srinivas comes, having started to play the mandolin - a little-known instrument in India - when only six.

"I thought that it's common to hear people playing classical music on the violin or veena, so why don't I try something new?" he remembers. "Of course, I never dreamed I would become so well known or that the mandolin would become so popular."

U Srinivas has surprised Europeans as well with the sounds that emanate from what is usually considered a rather staid instrument. The mandolin originated in Italy and was especially popular in Naples where it was used to play love and folk songs. A member of the lute family, it looks like a violin / guitar hybrid but is smaller than both. Four sets of double wire strings are tuned like a violin while frets guide the fingers of the left hand and a tortoiseshell plectrum held in the right hand is used to play the instrument. Srinivas has four specially made mandolins at his Madras home.

"With eight strings you can't produce gamakas (the lengthy intonations of Karnatak music), so I started playing with four strings. Then my father suggested that I try out a fifth string for bass which is important in Karnatak music. The scale on the mandolin I use is the same as on the ordinary mandolin. Only there are five strings instead of eight strings."