Dr. R.K. Srikantan


Vocalist par excellence (1920-2014)

Nonagenarian vocalist Rudrapatna Krishnashastri Srikantan who passed away at Bengaluru on 17 February 2014, was perhaps the last surviving link to a golden age of Carnatic music, and as he was active on the musical circuit till almost his last breath, he also earned the distinction of being the oldest musician to train, perform and travel at such an advanced age.

Srikantan who was born at Rudrapatna in the Hassan District of Karnataka to Krishnashastri, an orator, playwright, poet and Harikatha vidwan, was initially mentored by his father, and later by his brother Venkatarama Shastri before he came under the tutelage of eminent musicians of the time like Subbanna and Chowdiah. He had a keen ear for music right from his early days, and was a regular attendee at concerts held in Mysore, and was highly influenced by Nadaswaramvidwans and vocalists who had mastered the Carnatic genre like Semmangudi SrinivasaIyer, Ariyakudi Ramanuja Iyengar, Musiri Subramania Iyer, G. N. Balasubramaniam, and Maharajapuram Viswanatha Iyer.

However, he soon evolved his own style, and his singing was always characterised by ‘Sahitya Shuddam’ (correct pronunciation) and ‘Shruti Shuddam’ (refinement of pitch). Srikantan also attained the heights of popularity through his radio programmes where he clinically covered every minute detail of the songs he taught to his students. So dedicated was the musician to his craft that even in the penultimate year of his passing, he performed his normal quota of 75 concerts and lecture demonstrations in different cities in the country. He was also one of the very few musicians outside Tamilnadu who could storm the bastion of the Mecca of classical music, Chennai, and his concerts during the December festival were eagerly awaited by his aficionados who thronged the halls.

Srikantan, a vocalist of the Karnataka Sangeetha tradition also took great pains to set to tune the lyrics of some of the most famous poets of Karnataka including inter alia Masti Venkatesa Iyengar, Kuvempu, K.V. Puttappa, Da Ra Bendre, D.V.Gundappa and others. He also popularised the vachana-s of Shaivite savants like Basaveshwara, Akkamahadevi and Allama Prabhu. The celebrated vocalist also held workshops on the compositions of the famous trinity, Thyagaraja, Shama Shastri and Muthuswamy Dikshitar. Karnataka’s very own saint poet Purandaradasa was also one of his favourites. At the peak of his popularity, Srikantan was hailed as the ‘Semmangudi’ of Karnataka which was fulsome praise considering the fact that Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer was one of the towering personalities in the field of Carnatic music for several decades.

A number of students who trained under him have gone on to carve their own niche and they include his son R.S.Ramakanth, daughter Rathnamala Prakash who branched out to sugamasangeeth (light music), Vidyabhushana, T.S. Sathyavathi, M.S. Sheela, H.K. Narayana, veenavidushi-s Suma Sudhindra and Shanti Rao, and former ISRO Chairman Dr.K. Radhakrishnan who was among his star pupils. The vidwan always emphasised the three aspects: humility, discipline and devotion as the pre-requisites to learn music, and instilled in his students the need to follow chaste traditions while pursuing their careers in classical music.

The late vocalist was held in very high esteem by the classical music fraternity across the country, and was also the recipient of several awards and honours. Apart from the Padma Bhushan conferred on him by the Union Government, Srikantan was also honoured with the Sangeet Natak Academy award by the Centre, the Karnataka State SangeetNataka Academy award, the prestigious Sangeetha Kalanidhi award instituted by the Madras Music Academy, the TTK Memorial award for Best Musician, the Karnataka Rajyotsava award, a honorary doctorate from the Bangalore University, and the Chowdiah National award instituted by the Academy of Music. A biography titled The voice of a generation chronicled the life and times of this immensely talented vocalist.

– C. V. Aravind is a Bangalore-based freelance journalist.