Music is God’s language- Use music to make friends
A conversation with ‘Srini, the Meanie’, percussionist, teacher and artist- Srinivas Krishnan
The day we meet Srinivas Krishnan he is busy accomplishing what he thinks is significant. He is getting weeds removed from his farm to help plants he brought from Karnataka grow properly. Krishnan is emotionally attached to his farm. He walks there barefoot and often breaks into songs. As he walks by each plant, he stops to tell us its name and how tall it will grow in the future. He also keeps drawing parallels between the foliage, food and music.
Not surprising since Krishnan is first and foremost a musician of repute. He runs an academy called “LEAP Boundary Breakers” in Chennai. After having taught music in universities like Miami, Columbia, Vermont and Cincinnati for more than 30 years he moved back to India some years ago. While in the US he had been running a project called the “Global Rhythms” and used to organize a show called “Voice of the Future”, on his return he had initially been the principal of A R Rahman’s music conservatory.
Like all things in life, the pandemic has changed the functioning of his academy. “You can’t do choir and ensembles online. There’s a team spirit that is required, and that’s gone,” he rues. He used to have over 700 students; now only one in 45 has stayed on. Each of them performs solo in the online classes and are getting groomed individually now.
To make these online classes less mundane, Krishnan has also introduced a new model of learning. He has begun involving parents in the various activities. He is taking things beyond music to get back to it with greater vigour and involvement. So, he takes the students outdoors to his farm.
He’s planning on involving them in making achaars and paneer. A trip to Tiruvannamalai is also on the cards, where they would learn history with him. He says, “[The idea is] to develop an open channel so that they can come to you for anything and everything. Tomorrow, I’ll be bringing an autistic student to the farm, and his mother says he’s very excited about it.”
This new model of his will keep evolving as spontaneous plans would keep emerging through the summer. He adds, “I plan to keep this a small batch in the future as well, because personal grooming is how you find your individual expressions.”
Krishnan wants to turn each student into a leader so that they go beyond music to find themselves. V Vaibhav Krishna, an 11-year-old, who happens to be the team leader of the current batch in LEAP, agrees. “Though I prefer offline classes, the online ones really helped me. Earlier, sir didn’t even know my name, and any mistake I made would be overpowered by the choir, but now we perform solo and sir has bonded with each of us on a personal level.”
Though Vaibhav says Krishnan is a kind teacher, he can also show his hard and rude side in the class. Krishnan nods, “The kids call me ‘Srini the Meanie’, but I’m a cool professor too. [Back in America] I used to hang out with my students, go trekking with them, eat waffles with them at midnight and talk some crazy rhythm with them.”
Rhythm is something everyone is comfortable with, he thinks, and that also forms a significant part of his work along with an intermingling of sounds and styles. He explains that little children hum nursery rhymes more than they speak. He also believes that music has no barriers.
In all of his classes, he mixes different languages, genres and styles of music while teaching, and intermingles them with folk tales and stories. “You can’t give Americans dal and make them appreciate it, you have to make it palatable for them. Give them pita bread and dal as a dip. [Likewise], take [our] drumming and make it something else, for them to appreciate it.”
Interestingly, mixing is also how he started teaching music. An environmental toxicology postgraduate, he was studying at Miami where he was influenced by his teachers who stressed on freedom of thought and action. So, he started “extrapolating rhythm patterns and transcribing them to marching percussions”, and that caught on as his signature style.
Krishnan grew up in a world dominated by arts and aesthetics. His mother had a music school, and the evening aartis at the Ramakrishna Math, which were set to Dhrupad, inspired him to take up the tabla. Bhimsen Joshi’s classical ragas charmed him too. But, he says, “There was never any intent to be an artist. The intent was to celebrate, to enjoy and share. This is what separated me. If you are not a rasik (appreciator), of music, of life, you are a poor human being.”
Krishnan is both optimistic as well as sceptical about the future in the light of the reality of the pandemic. He’s been producing music videos with his students but he misses the music tours they took—to Varanasi, Mumbai, Siliguri, New York, Singapore, performing at the Kalaghoda festival finale, watching Broadway.
“Last year, we had a 25-day tour planned of the US. We had invitations from NYU, Miami, Columbia and Chicago. The kids were heartbroken,” he says. He doesn’t know what the future of choir would be, post-Covid. He says he’s been getting invites to perform online, but that is not something choirs are cut out for.
His only advice to people starting out? Use music as an avenue to make friends and don’t come in with expectations. He says, “Music is God’s language.”