There is something that music does to you that you can’t quite explain. One of the things that keeps reminding me of this fact, is a song called “Raghuvamsa Sudha”, a light-hearted composition that a man, who would later become one of my favourite musicians, is particularly adept at playing. I still remember the day I first heard the song.
My father kept telling me that there was just something different about this song, something that he can’t explain, and that if I came with him to the concert that night, he’d show me. My 10-year-old self was frankly more interested in the new friend I’d just made around the block, whom I could play cricket with.
‘Come,’ said father, though. ‘It would be magical.’ My ears pricked up at hearing the word ‘magical’. Even at that age, I knew one thing: my father never overestimated.
So I trudged along, and off we went in that noisy little moped of ours: mother, father and I. At the gate, the artist’s sister shakes our hand warmly, absolutely prohibits us from buying tickets, and whisks us off to the first row. Colour me impressed. I didn’t think father was a ‘big man’. I promptly ask mother, and she says, ‘Out here, he is. He’s been following this man’s career for more than twenty years. I think his record of not having missed a single Chennai concert of his, was broken a mere three years ago.’ Why had I never known this about my father before? And more importantly, why is this worth missing the cricket game?
I’ll be frank about this – the first hour of the concert was a dull affair. That’s what I thought, anyway. I was too young and too inexperienced and too illiterate in music to understand the true nuances that were hidden in what I was hearing. I, having finally given up any hope of cricket, was drifting off to sleep. I voiced this concern in no uncertain terms, to father, and to this day, I believe that was the only time annoying father did any good to me. Father sighed, and whispered to me that if I was patient, he could do something. And so, he tore off a small piece of paper, and wrote “Raghuvamsa Sudha” on it, discreetly walked backstage, and handed the chit over to the mridangam player during a break between songs.
And I could have sworn that I saw Mandolin U Shrinivas give father the tiniest of winks as he read out what was on the paper.
Father came back, settled down, grabbed my hand tightly, and said, “Listen.”
I had no idea that this song, in Shrinivas’s particular rendition, would become by stock response to whenever I’m asked the question of what I thought the greatest piece of instrumental music ever made, was. Not right then. But for some reason, and this still amazes me, even to this very moment when I’m writing this and the song is playing in the background, I couldn’t stop smiling. There was a deep sense of happiness emanating from somewhere within me, and as I looked, smile still plastered on my face, I saw that my expression was mirrored in my father’s face. He, too, was smiling; eyes half-closed and head bobbing to the beat.
And, his hands playing across the tiny fret-board of the electric mandolin, switching notes faster than the eye could comprehend, the same smile was mirrored on Shrinivas’s face as well. The ecstasy of art, manifested in a boyish grin of unbridled, unadulterated joy, complemented by those twinkling eyes of inimitable charm.
We were in a world of our own. He had taken us to this exquisite world that only he could conjure up. Just like the rings of smoke through the trees of Robert Plant’s thoughts, except there were no words. Just incredibly talented men and their music, a confluence of all things beautiful.
It was too good to last. The good things always are. The song came to an end, and while ten-year-old me would prioritize cricket over carnatic music in the days to come for quite a long time – too long, in hindsight – those ten minutes had lit a flame inside me. I wouldn’t come back to carnatic music until I turned 16, but somewhere down the line, I owe it to this man for having taught me in ten minutes what a beautiful world there was, that I hadn’t explored yet. A world where I stand at the entrance and hesitate.
I now bitterly resent not having gotten to hear the best of the legend while he was still alive: there will be cassettes, there will be mp3s, but the magic of that moment – the utter serenity of that smile, born out of the joy that only the creation of art could produce – is lost, forever.
The news of his death came as an utter shock to my father. When I saw the news, I called him up immediately, and he said he was going to go to ‘Mandolin’s house to pay his respects.
To father, he was always ‘Mandolin’. He always kept saying that it is a great honour that an instrument is known after a man. That a random village in Andhra Pradesh, and a random instrument with roots in medieval Italy, were brought to prominence due to the sheer genius of a man who could move rocks to tears.
To me, he would always be the man who had a friendly smile and a respectful greeting to people whom another in his place would have considered ‘simply fans’.