It’s high time India had its own piano tradition: Anil Srinivasan

The magic is not just in his fingers, but also in his words. Acclaimed pianist Anil Srinivasan opens up on his diverse influences, collaborating with Devdutt Pattanaik and being a TED speaker
For Anil Srinivasan , music is the easiest and most truthful medium to express yourself(Inni Singh)
For Anil Srinivasan , music is the easiest and most truthful medium to express yourself(Inni Singh)
Published on Jan 07, 2017 07:08 PM IST
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There’s a certain joy that infuses the air when you first hear the strains of a piano. And when it’s Anil Srinivasan working the instrument, the joy is only bumped up. The lilting tunes range from the classic to the popular – he goes as easily from Mozart to Bollywood as he does from Guns N’ Roses to Bhairavi. The Chennai-based pianist, known for his distinctive aesthetic of marrying Indian classical with Western classical styles, believes that there are possibilities in everything.

“You could do an entirely new jazz cover out of Badtameez dil. I don’t think Vishal- Shekhar would be upset if I did that,” he says with a laugh.

Srinivasan, 39, has been playing for over three decades – he took to the piano when he was just three – and has done everything from film music to albums and audiobook projects to collaborations with other artistes. “I have a very inter-connected approach to music. When you enjoy music of all forms, it becomes very easy to absorb all sides and I start finding connections between everything,” he says. While the diverse influences reflect in his music – he grew up in a traditional Carnatic-learning household and also studied in the States – there’s an unusual aspect to Srinivasan’s performances, that of storytelling.

Myth and music

Srinivasan punctuates his recitals with anecdotes about his life and music, thus engaging the audience in a two-way interaction. He remembers what Usha Uthup said to him, when they performed together last year. “She said, ‘You’re not in the business of music, but in the business of communication’. My concerts become a platform where I allow for the human experience to unravel itself,” says the Aspen fellow, who was also awarded the Kamalnayan Bajaj fellowship in 2016 that aims to build the leaders of the future.

He recalls performing a day after demonetisation came into force, a time when people needed cheering up. “These are things that affect us at a very real level, suddenly not having cash to pay the chaiwaala or sabziwaala. To disconnect from that and sit and listen to a classic music or piano recital is very unrealistic. I find that people love to connect,” he says. His fluency with words, in fact, has led to him being a popular speaker at many conclaves like TED India and Thinkfest.

Anil Srinivasan believes in pushing boundaries when it come to performing – from Carnatic concerts to performances in hospital lobbies, he’s done it all
Anil Srinivasan believes in pushing boundaries when it come to performing – from Carnatic concerts to performances in hospital lobbies, he’s done it all

In fact, it was at the first edition of TED India in 2009 that he met author and mythologist Devdutt Pattanaik, with whom he would go on to collaborate. For instance, at the Festival of Parallels in Chennai two years ago, Pattanaik’s narration of Sati’s ordeal was accompanied by Srinivasan’s musical notations. “Mythology is very much the core of south Indian classical music. If you look at Carnatic music lyrics, it’s inspired by mythology, be it the characters, or the incidents in the epics. And Devdutt is not just a specialist; he puts it in a way that everyone understands. I use the storytelling, including the way he speaks, to construct melody,” he says. The two also performed at the Singapore Arts Festival a few months ago.

Owning the piano

His goal is to push the piano to places where it wouldn’t conventionally belong. He’s played in He started an initiative to play in hospital lobbies and at the first one, a major hospital in Chennai, 450 people showed up. “It’s not about performing, but putting music at the service of the community,” he says. This belief in the power of the medium led him to start Rhapsody Foundation a few years ago, bringing children from different backgrounds and environments together. “In Chennai, we work with the corporation to teach music at schools, which normally don’t have access to music. That number has reached about 60,000 now. We’re also working with rural schools in Andhra Pradesh in collaboration with Shriram Foundation,” he adds.

Having performed at popular venues across the world like the Southbank Centre in London (with Rakesh Chaurasia) and even at a presidential debate between former US President Barack Obama and Mitt Romney in 2012, Srinivasan says that he’s now focused on “the atmosphere of possibilities”, to push boundaries when it comes to performing as a pianist. As part of a gig organised by Sofar Sounds, a global movement that aims to keep the magic of live music alive, he performed in someone’s living room in Chennai last August. He played the Summertime cover by George Gershwin to an audience of about 30 people.

“I think it was one of the most moving and authentic renditions I have ever done. If I contrast this with the Southbank concert, which was very prim and proper, this one was casual, people were sitting down with a drink. But you still had the same kind of engagement and pin-drop silence. Music gives me the ability to think limitlessly, whether that’s playing with an author or a painter,” he says.

Come March, he’s set to release a tutorial series on his aesthetic of blending two traditional schools of music. “I’m codifying it by doing individual sessions with Devdutt and the others I’ve collaborated with, where we speak about how we did it. I think it’s high time we had our own piano tradition.”

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From HT Brunch, January 8, 2016

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    Shikha Kumar is a features writer, whose primary interests include books, feminism, gender studies, and pop culture. She’s always up for discussions on Urban Dictionary, Lena Dunham’s brand of feminism and the potato wedges-french fries conflict.

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