Dr. R. K. Srikantan: a life of abject surrender to the Nada Brahma


17th February is the 7th death anniversary of my guru, Padma Bhushan, Sangeetha Kalanidhi Dr R K Srikantan. And I want to share here a note I penned some years ago on my guru . . .

R-K-SrikantanIt was on a hot summer's day in 1998 that I had the courage to enter the hall in which he sat. Clad in a white vest and a dhoti – he was simplicity personified – but to even think of approaching him was intimidating! He could give you the jitters just by a glance of his eye. What began on that day lasted over a decade - where each moment spent with him would be cherished for the rest of a lifetime.

Dr R.K. Srikantan – a legend, a life dedicated to Karnataka sangeetham till the very last breath.

Srikantan sir was born on Jan 14th, 1920 at Rudrapatna, Hassan in a family steeped in fine arts. His father R. K. Venkatarama Shastry (who taught him his initial lessons) and his grandfather Narayanaswamy were both eminent vidwans of their times. His eldest brother R. K. Venkatarama Shastry was an eminent violin vidwan and was also his guru. His brother would also take him to the senior vidwans of his era to learn some kritis directly from them as well.

By the time I started learning from RKS Sir, he was a lot mellowed down as a teacher; I had heard much more terrifying accounts of his strictness from his senior students.

I still remember the first krithi that he taught me – “Enduku Peddala” in Shankarabharana – each sangathi handled with such reverence to the composer, each word carefully explained so that we understand its meaning and each musical phrase deconstructed so that we could grasp its nuances. By the time, I finished learning the Pallavi, I was convinced that this was what I was waiting to experience!

His repertoire was the stuff of legends – spanning across genres (varnams to tillanas and Haridasa padams), across composers (trinity, pre-trinity, post-trinity) and across ragas (from the time tested to the rare).

Every composition from his repertoire would be neatly notated by him and filed and he had trunks filled with such files - each page of which was dear to him. He held the kriti as sacrosanct – to be learnt in the right pathanthara, to be practiced innumerable times and to be preserved intact!

He would not tolerate the slightest deviation from the pathanthara – a swara missed, a breath taken at the wrong point, a sahitya mangled or split unaesthetically – would be met with a firm reprimand.

As the years progressed, our guru-shishya relationship also went from strength to strength. I used to eagerly look forward not only to the class but also for the post-class banter if he happened to be in a good mood! His sense of humor was old school – told with a poker face, laced with sarcasm – his wit was caustic at its best.

There would never be a class gone without him reminiscing about his role models – Musiri Subramanya Iyer, Maharajapuram Viswanatha Iyer, Ariyakudi Ramanauja Iyengar and Semmangudi Sreenivasa Iyer. He would often recollect the kritis that he had learnt directly from each of these veterans.

He was particularly fond of a few ragas – two that come to my mind especially are Darbar and Huseni. He has even set a few Haridasa Padams to tune in Darbar – such was his fascination with this raga. He fondly recollected once to me that in his debut concert at the Music Academy (sometime in early 50s), he had delineated Darbar in detail and Musiri Subramanya Iyer, who was one of his biggest role models, had appreciated him for it.

RKS sir’s advice to students and aspiring performers was to build a very strong foundation – a foundation rich in repertoire, strengthened by sadhana and fortified by manodharma. He would tell me that while practicing, one must try everything – be it rare ragas, fast prayogams, intricate ‘kanakku’, tricky eduppus, etc. as it helps one grow as a musician.

However, in a concert, he emphasized that aesthetics came before everything and one should not sacrifice aesthetics at any cost. He would plan his concerts down to the last detail. His lecture-demonstrations were a delight to students of music – not a moment wasted, not a word out of place. Once, I even saw him rehearse a small speech that he was asked to give – when I questioned him about it, he said, he wanted to ensure that he did not cross the time limit of 5 minutes allotted to him!

Despite being a staunch traditionalist, RKS Sir was also incredibly broad-minded when it came to musical matters. Back in 2002, when I expressed a desire to also learn from T. M. Krishna, he said “Go ahead – learn and practice more and more…one lifetime is not sufficient!”.

His contributions to the Carnatic firmament are plenty – the myriad Haridasa Padams set to tune by him (including the immortal “Narayana Ninna Namada” in Shudha Dhanyasi which was set to tune by him), the compositions of the Maharaja of Mysore which he systematically notated and sang in many of his concerts and above all his steadfast discipline.

One day in late January of 2014, I called him up on his cell phone and he was in Udupi for a concert. Incidentally, I had called him up to check whether he would be available to inaugurate Ranjani Fine Arts’ February 2014 festival. He checked his diary and he said “No, I am busy that day – my dates are booked in advance, Ravi!!!!”

A few days after his return from Udupi, he took ill. On February 16th, in the hospital ward, he even sang Begada ragam for a few minutes to check whether his voice was affected – his voice was still the same.

The next day, on Feb 17th 2014, he breathed his last.

 A life dedicated – nah, dedicated is too mild a word – a life of abject surrender to the Nada Brahma.


Ravi Kiran is a Carnatic music vocalist and promoter of Guruguhaamrta