Child’s play by Swaroop Mami

Master Madan

On Facebook, I have a friend, and he has some friends, who, just as I, haven’t been able to get over the fact that we will never be able to listen to U. Srinivas’ mandolin live again. Our posts normally involve someone sharing a video with a few words of woe, and others posting other videos in response. I comment, usually, comparing him to Hemingway or Tendulkar, and I put on my headphones and start going through my favourite recordings of his, pausing them every now and then to hum the phrases to myself or just come to terms with the beauty of what I heard.

The mark of a true child prodigy is that you don’t have to make any concession for their age. Listen to Srinivas in this video (, and you know that this music is as good as anything that an adult can produce. But many musicians hailed as child prodigies, even those for whom we don’t need to say “plays (or sings) well for her age”, fall away with time. The reason is that there are two kinds of prodigies. The first produce mature-sounding music by imitating adults, but their imitation does not take them far. The other kind is the real deal — the ones that ooze originality even as children.

Ravikiran was one of them. Even the oldest of his recordings show an evolved musical sensibility. He was never an imitator, he had his own style, his own identity. By the time he played at the Brent Festival (, he was an established sub-genre of Carnatic music.

Similarly, Sachin Tendulkar, was a classical batsman who understood the foundations of batting like balance, footwork and timing. Even in his earliest days, he had built these fundamentals into a style of his own. Hassan Raza, on the other hand, hailed once as the youngest person to ever play Test cricket, remained just that — an answer to a trivia question.

The real prodigies are those that are able to internalize, process and express what is within them.That is what differentiates the wheat from the chaff. That video of Ravikiran shows everything — classicism, virtuosity and maturity.

The other question that pops up, is, where do child prodigies go from their starting points? What do they develop into? Srinivas went through a phase when he was formulaic and did not want to meddle with what he knew the audience liked. But he was on the cusp of a breakthrough, on the doorway to a much deeper, pondering sort of music when he fell silent.

T.R. Mahalingam, the flautist who changed the way the Carnatic flute was played for ever, is known to have had severe motivation issues. He played, through much of his childhood, in order to support a family, and released of that pressure by his late teens, he lost his will to keep performing. His music also took a whimsical turn. The Mali we read about, of the incredible speed and virtuosity, was replaced by a musician who was forever fascinated by the quirky. The recordings of Mali that haunt his fans are all from this era. Long silences, broken thoughts, a dance between restlessness and rest ( He turned into a musician who treated the performance as nothing different from a casual music session at home, playing to see what else can be explored rather than to put on a show for anyone watching (

Ravikiran, on the other hand, has spread his wings into teaching and composing, developing a new concept called Melharmony, and researching on forgotten composers. Listening to him for over twenty years now, I have never once felt that his music has lost any of its freshness. No listener will ever leave his concert without something to think about.

I asked Ravikiran why there seem to be almost no child prodigies in Hindustani music, when, in Carnatic music, there have been, on a conservative counting, T. R. Mahalingam, S. Balachander, M. Balamuralikrishna, Palghat Mani Iyer, T. N. Krishnan and E. Gayatri, in addition to Ravikiran and Srinivas. The only two names that pop up regularly among Hindustani music child prodigies are Kumar Gandharva and Bal Gandharva. Ravikiran pointed me to a third — Master Madan ( There are precious few recordings of this unparalleled genius, but all of them tell you this. Here was a musician, a boy who didn’t live beyond 14, who can, filtered through a YouTube video window, in three minute time-capsules, make you stop whatever you are doing, sit up, close your eyes, listen, and hold back a tear. Has Indian music ever suffered a bigger loss?

Still, there is a distinct lack of Hindustani child prodigies. The reason is probably that Hindustani gurus are less encouraging of letting their wards perform early, whereas Carnatic music has had a long history of child prodigies. TM Krishna, who started performing pretty young himself, feels that riaz in Hindustani music goes beyond practice, it is, he says, “an internalization of the idea of music”, which implies that mere virtuosity or ability are not enough to put a child on stage as a performer. “Of course,” he says, “This has also led to some teachers just not allowing their students to perform!” Carnatic music, on the other hand, practiced and patronized by Brahmins and supported by other forward caste groups, he feels, “Looked at math and sciences as measures of intellect and achievement. The same spills over into the way we look at art. When great skill along with a scientific or mathematical bent of mind is noticed, we are excited and celebrate the child.”

Ravikiran pointed out two other things — except Balamuralikrishna, all other Carnatic prodigies have been instrumentalists. Perhaps their need to express themselves musically grew at a rate much faster than their voice, I thought. But then, Ravikiran wrote to me, all the Hindustani prodigies were vocalists! The second thing he pointed out was that they were all male. This, he agrees, is probably a function of sociology than anything else.

When I go through my nostalgia-driven exercise of listening to old Srinivas recordings, somehow, I always end up at this video ( of him playing Entha muddo in Bindumalini at the Tyagaraja Aradhana in Thiruvaiyaru “around 1984” (as the video description says). The setting of the Aradhana has not changed one bit. The stage is still the same colour, the backdrop is of a slightly earlier era but not by much, there are still two sets of microphones for each artiste (one for All India Radio and another for the local sound system) and there are people sitting all over the stage and standing all around stage. It’s like you are in some weird space-time where Srinivas, that eternal man-child stuck in an eternal time-warp, is playing music in his timeless, ageless style. This is why child prodigies hold that sway on us. They make us feel, in some way, like children, while doing something that is so grown-up.

Swaroop is a lawyer, flautist and writer from Madras. Art-iculate is his monthly column on all things art.