Interview with Srinivas Rajagopal at Bangalore Bistro

WTS had a talk with Srinivas Rajagopal about his earliest memories of live music in India and what followed was a journey through the live music scene right from the British Raj to the present day – here’s one of our best and most memorable interviews with a humble musician from Bangalore who has a lot to share from his experiences and a story to tell.

WTS: Srinivas, let’s talk about all that you know about the history of the live music scene in India. As far as you can remember, when did it all begin and how did it take shape over the years?

Srinivas: Ok, I think I should start with my own experiences… I studied in Bangalore in Clarence High School; since I went to a regular Anglo Indian school, I was always interested in western music. I come from a very Anglicized family – my father was an air force officer and my mother was very much into music and she had an MA in Indian classical music, but on the other hand she had a very wide knowledge of western music. My father joined the Royal Indian Airforce which was a very westernized air force at that time, with a lot of western music, parties and dinner dances. Both my father and mother were quite knowledgeable about music; we always had music in our house.

I remember as a small kid, our house had those old, ancient gramophones; we’d wind it up and play all these 78 rpm records. In fact, during the war my father made friends with a gentleman by the name of Spike Mulligan, who was a very famous writer and comedian in the old days. There used to be during the war a thing known as ENSA Calling which was a services entertainment kind of company, his job was to go and entertain troops all over the place and that’s how my dad came across him during his service career and later on during the early fifties Spike Mulligan had come and he gave my father a whole set of almost a hundred of these 78 rpm records of those times- jazz, be-bop, popular music of those days. Today, I still play a lot of that music which I heard as a young boy for example Danny Kay, Bill Crosby, Frank Sinatra… I still play a lot of those songs.

When I came to college was when the music scene was just getting on, people were forming bands… I joined college around 1968, but I knew that a scene like this existed way before that. In fact, I remember in 1966 just after I finished my tenth standard, I had gone to Delhi. I remember there were these Christmas jam sessions. When I went there, the first thing my sister told me was “We’re going for a jam session today”. At first I thought “What is this jam session? Maybe its some bread and butter and jam” – I didn’t know the concept of a jam session.

Then I went there and I saw two bands there one of the bands performing there was Raja Andrews and The Sisters. Raja Andrews was another gentleman who retired from the airforce, probably a musician in the airforce and he formed one of the earliest bands and probably one of the earliest recordings during those days. Raja Andrews and The Nawabs was what they used to be called and at this show he came with his sisters – their band was known as Raja Andrews and The Sisters.They did a lot of western music, the girls were also singing.

There were lots of bands. In 1973, I went to Allahabad which is a typical North Indian small town, and I went there and joined a band – an Anglo Indian band and there was this guy called Larry French who used to play saxophone in our band and his father used to play in a band and his grandmother used to sing with a band, all in India, all in Allahabad. And they had a club there called ‘The Thornhill Club’ which was this ancient old club of Anglo Indians and Larry used to tell me that my grandmother used to play in the same hall that we played in we had done quite a few shows there.

I remember a lot of bands that played during the time and I have brought them into my memoirs. I’ve been slowly plodding over it and it has already gone up to about 45-50,000 words. I’ve only come as far as 1977, and I’ve still got lots more to write. The first show that I saw was of Raja Andrews and The Sisters which was a band doing pop numbers of the time and at that show there was another band of young guys called The Beathovens and they were doing Rock n’ Roll and they were really piling into it, and the whole thing was so fascinating – it was my first experience. And that’s when I decided that this is what I want to do in life.(laughs)

Promptly, when I joined college I joined a band and then learnt to play the guitar – that was another very strange thing… I got a bass guitar and joined as a bass guitarist. In those days, the western bands they referred to as Skiffle bands – small college bands. There used to be this thing of skiffle music you know, if you see the Creedence Clearwater Revival album cover called Willie and the Poor Boys you’ll get the idea – this is how the boys used to get together with a washboard or string bass, the washboard is actually a western type rattle-board they washed clothes on – CCR used that as a percussion instrument, and then you had this string bass which is actually just a tea-chest with a stick and a single string , and then you go thump thump thump – thump like a double bass on that… I’ve played that too, very nice, we used to play that in Victoria Hotel where the Bangalore Central is now. And then I came back, I heard other bands –  I heard a band called Pebbles from Delhi, and later on I came to know those people, because one of them came to Bangalore to form a band called The Void.

WTS: So this whole culture of attending gigs was there even back then?

Srinivas: Yes, very much. In fact, I think it was around 1964-65 that the first attempt at popularizing these bands in some way started with the Simla Beat Contest, there was this thing called Simla cigarettes- it was a cigarette company which organized this Beat Contest where bands would participate and they would be selected and would go on to finals… and this used to happen in Bombay, Delhi Calcutta, and a few places like that – so that was there, and there were what later on came to be known as “discos” like Raspberry Rhinoceros in Bombay, Trincas in Calcutta, a very famous place that still exists. I remember one of the most famous singers Pam Craine was from there.

The earliest band which I came across, I used to see them practice near my grandfather’s house in Benson town, and that was The Trojans – the band that Biddu Appaiah used to play with. In 1965-66, Biddu Appaiah made his first album Under My Thumb and there were two songs in that. There was another band called The Mustangs from Chennai – it was an, instrumental band like The Ventures and The Shadows and all that, who made a record called Escape. Generally, there was a music scene going on, there weren’t many music teachers but we used to get together and hear other musicians play and slowly learn. By the time I had come to my final year in college, the Simla Beat contest didn’t happen for some reason that year but another company Estrella Batteries organized a big Beat Contest and we played for that contest, I had my own band called Stone Package from Central college, another band was from St. Josephs college, and another band from RC College.

I remember the first Simla Beat contest I went to, the bands from Bangalore were Pacesetters, Mojos, The Devil Beats – very good musicians. In fact one of the people whom I used to consider as my own inspiration, the person we learnt a lot from was a gentleman called Gussie Rickye. There was a band called Silencers which came from Chennai – they were very good, the first organized band which decided to make music a career which almost every old musician in India knows about was a band called The Human Bondage -they were very good. Super drummer, super guitarist, very good singers, a very fantastic bass guitarist who eventually went away to Israel, they were the band that laid the standard for everybody else, did a lot of rock and all the numbers that we wanted to do. This was the scene, and by the time I went from Bangalore, around 1973 there would be a band playing almost everywhere. If you went to a place like Frazer town or Austin town, on any Sunday or Saturday if you walked through these places you would find at least 3 or 4 bands practicing at home, it used to be quite a big thing.

WTS: Has it gone down over the years?

Srinivas: It has gone down in the sense that in those days there were no DJs. For example, I play in a place where people who come still want to listen to retro music, there’s a market for that kind of music because it has lasted over the years. Today’s music has not lasted – it won’t last. Six months down the line you’ll ask what happened to this singer, he’s nowhere. You should also understand that there’s a very big relationship between the music industry and the technology… as it kept growing, it just expanded exponentially and as each innovation came, it got bigger and bigger.

Edison invented the phonograph and his original phonograph lost out the market to RCA’s platters, Edison thought of cylinders but RCA said no we’ll take a platter with a spiraling groove, and put the vibrations onto that – it’s an entirely mechanical device, there’s no electronics in it – the needle goes and sits there and the vibrations are picked up and amplified… I don’t know if you have seen any of those old gramophones. And that’s when the electronics came, the radio came and then it got bigger and bigger. If you see most of the old songs are about three minutes long only because you could only put three minutes of music on that. Today it’s not the case, but that’s more or less become the thing – people are used to a 3 minutes song, people are generally not used to a 15 minute song. That came with the LPs which came round about the 50s when it went from Bakelite to Vinyl and then you got stereo and all these things that came up,then you got cassettes, then it went to CDs and from CDs to one matchbox-sized thing and you can put 4000 songs in it.

I would say the peak of it came probably in the late 70s and people were really into it. The turnout was not much, not with Indian bands. You get some vague white fellows, and put them together and say this band is from Finland, nobody’s heard of them – even in Finland nobody’s heard of them – you’ll get around 2000 people. (Smiles amusedly) But if one of the local bands is playing you’ll probably get a few hundreds, and there would be a few hundreds trying to gatecrash in, or wondering “let’s see how we can get in without buying a ticket”. We used to do that, there used to be these shows in Town Hall and we had worked out a way to scale up to the roof and come down through it and every show we used to do that. The whole gang used to go and there was this huge tree that reached over to the roof. We used to climb up the tree, get on to the roof and from the roof to one of the top windows and climb down and see shows like that.

It used to be fairly small scale. We organized a kind of a… a Woodstock event in 1972; it was called Thursday because it was on a Thursday. We used to run a magazine called Rot magazine in college, it became very famous in college – it was a one of those markers in the history of Bangalore University. Bangalore University sponsored a group of students who came up with a magazine called Retort – The Essence of Student Life so we said we’ll go against it so we came up with a magazine called Rot – The Nonsense of Student Life that generally lampooned everybody and we wrote whatever we wanted against anybody we wanted and then we put up this show – an all-day show and believe you me, we got bands from Chennai, we got bands from Bombay and we managed to keep it going the whole day from 10:00 a.m. to 10:00 p.m. and we charged 5 rupees per head, that’s all, which was a big figure in those days, we can’t dream of that kind of thing now. But it was okay because out of all that if a band made 500 rupees for themselves it was a big figure then.

WTS: If we had to trace the evolution of western live music in India where would we begin?

Srinivas: Western live music came as a tradition with the British, they had these dances and balls and things like that. I think the tradition more or less took off in probably the early 1800s, I think it was round about 1830s when the British government decided that too many of these British men were taking Indian wives and all kinds of complications – many of them had wives in England and all that.

So, from the 1830s apparently the British worked out a scheme – all the ships had to come from England and they used to travel on the monsoon winds, so the ships could only come during monsoons and  return during the next monsoon because they were all wind-driven. Generally they used to send out these girls, they sponsored these girls who otherwise couldn’t get themselves hitched or they didn’t have families, or the families couldn’t afford them so they sent them out to Calcutta and in Calcutta a group of local ladies organized for them to go and visit various British cantonments where there would be parties going on – they were called debutante parties, and the British officers referred to them as the ‘”fishing fleet”, they came out to fish like you know, fish for husbands and they had just these 3-4 months in the summer, so all these things used to be organized, particularly after the British decided to move the capital to Shimla, the British capital was in Calcutta and the capital used to move every summer to Shimla for 4-5 months – a big operation by itself . So they used to go to Shimla where there was a lot of dance halls and everything like that. It started like that and they used to have live musicians. Generally the live musicians were mostly from India, within India, there used to be Anglo Indians, Goans who generally played with military bands – it was usually the military bands that used to go and perform in these things. Many musicians have heir background from military bands. So it probably started with them, and at the end of the season some of these girls wouldn’t get married, they couldn’t find their husbands and they had to go back in the ships – they were known as the “Returned Empties”. This is all a bit of the Raj history. This road was very famous (referring to Brigade Road in Bangalore). I have seen for myself , there used to be a regular British inn called The Old Bull and Bush, it was here. Then there used to be a place called Boscos. Then the Deccan Herald building – it was originally a dance hall; the old building – if you go up and see it has got a full wooden floor, it was a dance hall. There were lots of places like that – Liberty Theatre used to be an old dance hall doubling as a theatre. In fact during the war, apparently some of these areas were out of bounds for Indians and only the Tommies were allowed there; there were a lot of American soldiers at that time particularly during the Burma campaign. At that time there was a lot of music, a lot of activity going on. If you look up some old Raj literature you’ll find a lot of photos of these parties. 

WTS: You have witnessed the scene unfold, what do you have to say about the way it has evolved over the years to what it is today?

Srinivas: With the way it has evolved, for the real live musicians playing western pop music maybe it’s seeing a phase of dying out; one thing is for sure – it’s not going to be easy to find musicians who know the kind of old songs that people like me know – we’re becoming a slowly vanishing breed, I know lots and lots of songs which you people would have not even heard; I get any request I say I know this and I’ll do it and of course now I’m helped with the internet and all that, so even if I don’t have the words or anything in a minute I’ll download it on my computer and I’ll do the songs. If I haven’t heard the songs at all I can’t do it but I’ve been able to do almost 95% of all requests I get. The quality of sound is definitely improving; it’s getting better and better. When we started we had some real terrible sound, we had home made guitars and we used to take apart old valve radios and use them and these days the amount of things you get on the net is amazing. Actually today everything is easy. I have been practicing a few songs since yesterday morning with a young boy who’s here, so I told him “Come on you do some of the newer songs which I’m not doing”, a lot of new songs from Green Day, and I could immediately download the MIDI file, download the words, download the chords and done, finished. When we started with our band, we used to come to Brigade road there used to be a Koshy’s which had a jukebox and that jukebox just had some hundred songs, 50 records, hundred songs and we said “OK we’ve got to learn this song, lets go and hear it” and the 5 members of the band come here, convince that fellow to give us a 3 by 5 coffee and the coffee used to cost 1 rupee 25 paise which was a huge amount those days and we used to have that and then each of us used to put together 5 paise and go and get a 25 paise coin, and go to the jukebox, insert that coin and press that button. And this thing would go slowly and pick out that record and put it in, and we’d say you listen to your part and once the song plays, 25 paise gone and at the end of it one of the fellows says no man, I didn’t get my part and we’d say yeah yeah, you put 25 paise we’ll all listen for free. (laughs) I remember going and asking, some guitarist saying “Man, teach me the chords for this song” and that guy would then hem and haw and all that and then I’d bring him out, take him to the canteen, buy him a masala dosa and all that and seriously get it like that! (laughs) Today,with a click you can download guitar tabs but what I find is – I find a lot of young musicians play some old songs, they like the songs they play it, they play it perfectly. How they do that is they have taken down the guitar tablatures from the internet and they have totally learnt it up you know, mugged the whole thing up and play it, but if you ask them to improvise they can’t, they cant just take off. You know what we call as 3 chord blues, which is basically the foundation of Rock n’ Roll and R&B and all that – it kind of comes naturally to us, it doesn’t come to a lot of younger people and they’re not able to do that. We have spent hours jamming like this.

WTS: How did you get your musical instruments back then? Where did you buy them from?

Srinivas: Oh really terrible instruments – abba! We bought some terrible local instruments; we never had the kind of money to go buy a Fender or an Ibanez or a Hofner. Those days we used to buy Calcutta made instruments. There’s this guy who owns N. Lewis and Son, a very old company – a very good friend of mine – a wonderful man but terrible guitars. But I bought my guitars from him and he has custom made guitars for me over the years, and he unbelievably still makes guitars.  I have a guitar which is over 35 years old and I’m still using it – somebody bought it and it has gone through 101 changes, some fellow tried to do some engineering, put a tremolo arm- it’s not supposed to have a tremolo, it’s actually a Les Paul semi-solid from the 1950-60s but now you get very good Chinese stuff, I don’t have any fancy Fender or an Ibanez I use all Chinese made instruments – I use a Java which is a Fender imitation – I got it for 4 grand, I use a Pluto – 12 string , mostly I use a 12 string when I sing solo – it has a richer sound you know and it cost me about 5 grand. I have owned my sound, everything. To tell you the truth, over the last 3 or 4 years I have been realizing dreams that I had when I was 19 years old, only thing it has come at this age, at the age of 59-60 but it’s OK, this is nice. Sometimes my daughters tell me “What is this you’re rocking and rolling like this!”… it’s OK, I won’t think of age. (laughs)

WTS: What made you take up music as a career and a source of livelihood?

Srinivas: To tell you the truth, I have not really taken up music a career – I have always wanted to do that. But I have done it full time also – in fact there was a time when this was the only job I had, I had lost my other job due to various problems I had. I started my career in advertising, I studied my BSc. Honorary in Physics and then I dropped out of college, then I went and did a course in journalism because of which I got into advertising which was in 1971 –  it wasn’t the industry it is now. The total billing in Bangalore in 1971 was about 50 lakhs – totally all the companies put together and about 2 dozen ad agencies had to survive on that. Ad agencies would get 15% agency commission on that billing, that’s how they survived. I was in advertising, I became the Senior Market Research Manager and then I tried to set up my own ad agency, lost a lot of money and finally thought about what to do and I decided to go and play music. Now I need to play everyday so I started playing in the night clubs, in those days there were cabaret hotels all over the place.I played in every Cabaret hotel in Bangalore – they were not very respectable. There would be strip shows and anyway it was a job to do so I just did it, for 6-7 years I played in the cabaret hotels till it closed. Then the police came and closed everything. Once they closed everything, I had to look for another job. Then somebody told me there’s a fashion and apparel college and they need somebody to take a few classes on fashion marketing. I said okay I know something about marketing; I’ll go and take those classes so I went ahead and joined that company and the gentleman there said ‘no you’re an advertising man’; I need someone to look after the company advertising so I joined there full time. Then I got involved in the apparel and garment industry, slowly started learning it up and got trained by the Japanese and today I’m some kind of an expert on that. I have written a textbook on apparel manufacturing. I even teach, at one time I was teaching in about 4 colleges in Bangalore,now I only teach in Garden City College as a visiting faculty. At this college I also became the Vice Principal. Still, about 50% of my work is on apparel. I have, for example… right now I have 12 students from Nagpur who have come here and are doing their internship in Bangalore. I’m a consultant for the university in Nagpur. I arrange the internships for them… I contact garment factories in Bangalore, I have a lot of industry-wide contacts, and I arrange their internship that they have to do as part of their course… they come here and then I take classes for 2 weeks for them, update their industry knowledge and put them in the internship and monitor them… they are doing well. Most of them get jobs too. Slowly that has also been growing the number of people in the industry who were my students… they are very grateful to me. Now they have all reached the top level of general managers and are doing well.

WTS: With regard to your music, what bands would you consider as your major influences?

Srinivas: The Beatles! The Beatles because of the chords… in the beginning, our thing was based on chords…. we used to have this thing when we started learning – we got the idea that we should be able to listen to a song and be able to work out the chords. I said, “how do you do that”, so we used to have this thing where one fellow will sit with the guitar and the other fellow would turn around… ok I’m playing this what’s the chord, so we got used to do that. Today, as the song goes I can keep playing the chords. When I play with Indian orchestras, this happens a lot – that fellow will just take off, he won’t tell you the key or if he tells you the key he’ll say 2 and a half, or he’ll say rend re, or say eraduvare. Two and a half means E flat, you have to know that then you just hold E Flat and you see minor or major you have to still figure that out. I hear the song within the second bar I know how the progression goes and I’m playing. Many songs I’ve haven’t even heard – I play everything, Indian movies, western, classical… I play everything.

WTS: When you compare the time you started playing music first to now, what are the main differences, positive or negative?

Srinivas: Well the positive thing is there are more and more places to perform, there is more money being paid for it, it’s reasonable now it wasn’t reasonable in those days, you know the first show we played was for my grandfather’s tenant who was upstairs and he had a baby naming ceremony and then we somehow conned him and told him “Sir, we’ll play with the band” and he agreed and said, “I’ll pay you 50 rupees” “ this was supposed to be for the sound system and the transport. So, promptly we agreed to that and we caught hold of one of our friends, borrowed a sound system, borrowed the guitar, loaded it into our cycles and scooters brought it to the venue and then we got 50 rupees, we felt very great about ourselves (laughs) and we went out and had our own little party after that.  If you’ve got 40-50 rupees each it was considered good. The negatives are that there has been a lot of hard work, a lot of struggle, lot of dreams being broken in a way and in another way when you really get down to it you realize, you’ll find that a lot of young people who play music will get into bad ways, drugs etc. Two reasons for that – one reason is that music is supposed to be associated with all this. The second thing is that the frustration which sets in, the average young fellow these days thinks that he can buy a guitar, learn three chords today and tomorrow he’ll become a rockstar. It doesn’t work that way. That’s what I had to learn in my whole life. Today I’m very satisfied with what I’m doing. I have played 245 shows this year, today I think it’s the 353rd day of the year that makes it more than 2 shows in 3 days, I’m very happy. I’m not a great musician, I’m not a great guitarist, I could have become one, I also went to sleep for a long time, I played in the night clubs and there instead of improving my music I went completely into debauchery, that’s all I can say. Because everything was available – booze was flowing like water. I got out of all this; it has been about 6-7 years now.

WTS: Was there ever a point when you thought you should give up music?

Srinivas: No I didn’t want to give up; my family was against it they still haven’t reconciled. Now it’s successful but they haven’t reconciled to it. Their point was that because of this you’ll go drink, get into all these problems. I have had a full life with its ups, downs, joys, sorrows everything. Mostly musicians these days will give up. There are two things: if they don’t set their targets too high and they take what is coming, they will do well if they are realistic not only about what they can play but about what the market can take… they will do well… this is where a lot of young people think “Oh that fellow is getting 3000 rupees per night so I should also get 3000 rupees per night.” Why? “Because I play better than him”. That’s not the criteria;there are at least a thousand guitarists in Bangalore much better than me but I have got the shows- why? Because people know they can depend on me – I have built that up slowly. They know I don’t drink, many of them know I used to drink but they know that now I don’t. I’m very dependable – I come on time, I come nicely dressed, I do my show. Two to three principles I have set for myself. One is go on time, start on time. Go early, set up, check everything out and start. For me now, just to play solo takes me about 40 minutes to connect up, I have to connect my guitar, my guitar gadget, my mixer, my laptop, the output speakers, all the power supply connections, cables running all around, and balance everything, tune up everything and be ready – it takes about 35-40 minutes to set up, and if I have to set up with a bigger band then its even more important. Then finish playing, roll up all the cables – each cable separately. If you just quickly roll them all up, within two days something will give way and at the show it will give trouble – they are all electronic stuff you know – something, a small thing goes wrong and it will give out a weird howl or a weird buzz. I’ve got used to it… I do it all by myself. I do my own soldering, I know my whole technology that is involved. A lot of young people don’t want to learn, they think “Playing is important, it’s not important to do it myself. I’ll leave it to the other fellows.” Then where will you go? Over the last three years I decided not to hire any sound, I must have my own sound. Now I have acquired more than enough.

Second thing is go properly dressed, go nicely dressed. Most of the places we play in are good A-class restaurants, 5 star hotels where you’re expected to go formally. Go dressed for the occasion. “I must look freaky.” Why? “I’m a rock musician, I must look freaky. So I’ll wear some chains, buttons and all those things, some torn jean and go.” –  No I don’t need that. I can wear the most formal dress and still look freaky – I have got my long hair. I look freaky enough! Today this long hair is no heavy Goa beach philosophy or anything it’s just a part of my image, that’s one thing and the other thing is that I still have my own hair. Whenever my wife’s asked me I tell her you look at your two son-in-laws they both are losing their hair! (laughs)

The third principle is very important, now with so many shows coming obviously you’ll get a chance to perform somewhere and some other show will come up – never give up one show, when you’re committed, go and do that show. Just because some other show is giving more money, don’t go for that. I won’t do that. Many times I used to play with these Indian band orchestras – these roadside orchestras where you get 700-800 rupees just to play bass guitar. Suddenly somebody says “No man, I want a solo guitarist. I’ll pay you 2500, I’ll pay 3000 rupees”. I’d say “No boss, I’m booked. I’ll give you my friend’s contact”. Having these principles is very important and it has paid off. The other thing is people ask me, “How much do you charge per hour?” I don’t charge per hour, I charge per show. You get me a show, I’ll come for that show and charge for that show. Now you tell me show that the show is going to start from 8:00 p.m. and will be over by 10:00 p.m. And then everyone’s enjoying the music – at 10:00 p.m they are getting higher and higher and the thing goes on till 11:30 -12:00 p.m. till the cops come and close the place down. I’m not going to charge you anything I’m just going to consider it as a compliment to my music, and I’m telling you at least in town, the cops are going to show up at 10:00 p.m. because some neighbor will complain.

WTS: Which are the best venues in the city where you have played?

Srinivas: As far as regular restaurants go, I like this place (referring to Bangalore Bistro), there is not much of a crowd but he crowd that comes wants old music. In this place you get the old, traditional Bangaloreans who really like old music. Another place is Italia – that’s always full I don’t know how. That’s a vegetarian Italian restaurant and you may ask me what is a vegetarian Italian restaurant you know (laughs) but it is always full I don’t know how… they’ve got a waiting room like you have in MTR.

WTS: What message do you have for all the young musicians these days?

Srinivas: There’s a reason why I’ve been writing my memoirs – I started writing my memoirs to bring it back home to younger people. For a typical youngster these days who wants to pick up a guitar, learn three chords and wants to become a rockstar. And tell him it’s not like that, it’s not how it works. See my own life how it has gone through. So you have to be a little realistic. I’ll tell you for example, my daughter is with Balaji Telefilms she’s a Vice President Production or something like that, both my daughters are very terrific career women.  And before that when she was with Rakesh Mehra during the filming of Rang De Basanti, she was the Casting Director at that time and she had to interact a lot with A.R. Rahman and I believe he asked her “How come you know so much about old music of the 70s?” She said that my father is some kind of a guitarist, so her asked her where does your father play and she said he used to play in the cabaret hotels. A few days later, when they were going together she came across Siva Mani and Rahman told Siva Mani “Siva see this girl, her father used to play in the cabaret and I think you must be knowing her father”. So he asked her what’s your father name and my daughter told him and he said yes I know him and he told her don’t look down upon it that your father played in the cabaret. He said, “Like me there may be hundreds of very good percussionists but that I have made it is a matter of luck”. Not everybody can become a superstar and it’s very important for people to realize. Sometimes you have to be satisfied with whatever you do, I’m satisfied that I can make a livelihood out of this. I learnt this when I was in the cabaret… whatever it is I’m playing every night. Several other things I learnt in the cabaret, particularly, you’ll be surprised – I learnt to respect women there because they were our colleagues. They used to dance, they used to strip and we used to play but then we got to know them as people you know. It’s a profession – at that time my daughters could not go and tell in the school what is their dad doing, and my daughters have gone to my school where everybody knew what my profession was, so sometimes it becomes something to be looked down upon. I never felt bad. I have always been very honest with myself. At least I can do this, you know.

I have no illusions – I don’t compose music or write my own songs, I have no illusions about that. I have no illusions about making my own album and making it a bestseller and all that – no. I have a job to do, it’s just another job. Like you are doing your job, like a bank manager does his job, like a train ticket collector does his job. Many people start making airs about it – “Oh I’m different. I’m from Mars the rest of the people are from the earth.” It becomes like that. It’s very easy for musicians to become like that. But in my own experience, I have seen that the best musicians from India – I’ve known some of them personally, the really good and great musicians are very, very humble people. Like Siva Mani, like A.R. Rahman also, personally if you meet him and talk to him, a very humble person. Take someone like Kadri Gopinath, the saxophonist – they are very nice people to meet. I really appreciate that.

WTS: What was the highest moment of your journey?

Srinivas: I suppose it’s still coming! I must confess some of my misdemeanors but please don’t read too much into that, OK? There was a show we did in Kanpur… I was in Allahabad and my friend called me and said “Come, I have got a show in Kanpur”. So I caught a train and went to Kanpur – that fellow was in the railways so I called his uncle who told the train driver “Take this fellow and bring him to Kanpur”. So I got into the engine and came to Kanpur. it was a steam engine and by the time I landed in Kanpur I was fully black! I went to his house, took a bath and everything and on the way to the show, it was getting late so I didn’t eat anything. I came across one of these bhang thekas… in those days bhang was legal and you’d get it in government kind of thekas. So I said “I must have some bhaang!” Then what happened was that I went to the show and I had had this big glass of bhang and started the first song – I have heard that LP so many times you know. I started the first song and then I blanked out, I didn’t know what I was doing and believe you me, I played the whole LP – song after song because that was in my subconscious, I knew all the songs, I knew all the chords!

I played for about almost for an hour you know and suddenly I came out of it – cold sweat and everything, and that fellow said “Okay, Okay… go relax. We’ll do something”. I came down, I was shaking, the energy got completely drained and I asked “What did I do ya?”, and he said “Man, you played the whole LP ya!” And I asked “Did it come out OK?” And he said “No it came out mast like!” (laughs)The drummer guy, he’s in touch with me and he’s as old as I am and he also remembers the incident – it was crazy. That was a “high” point but really to see my highest point, I’m hoping it will come around.

I must do my magnum opus show. I have kept this guitar, an old guitar, the same one I told you about. My ambition is that on my magnum opus show, I must set it on fire and smash it – that is what I want to do. (laughs) I have a little bit of advice for guitarists – one thing I want to tell them is – don’t get drowned into the quagmire of technique. Keep your soul. Music is about soul, it must come from your soul not from your fingertips… don’t worry about technique. The guitar is a very personalized instrument – your guitar playing is like your handwriting, everybody’s handwriting is different. You know, me and a lot of us guitarists when we come across a place where somebody’s playing the guitar – from outside we can say it’s this person because you know his style. Have your own style; style doesn’t come out of perfection. Style comes out of your imperfections, how you play that song, that’s very important. There’s no such thing as correct chords, if you are comfortable with that chord, it’s OK.

There are too many of these dyed in the wool jazz fellows who will come and tell me, ‘man you should have played this you should have played that’, but the song came out, no? That’s important, that’s the way I do it. That’s very important to understand, do it in your own way. It’s a way of expressing yourself. You don’t want to express like Eric Clapton because you’re not Eric Clapton. At one point of time, I thought I should play like Eric Clapton. Worked out everything, Clapton uses only his three fingers; he doesn’t use his little finger!

WTS: Any message do you have for our team?

Srinivas: You know I think I don’t need to give any advice to you guys because you’re already doing what I would have advised you. I have been trying to tell people – come and cover musicians like me. I call myself a bread and butter musician, we’re the ordinary musicians – see I’m playing 245 shows in a year already and I’ll end this year with 260 shows you know. Raghu Dixit doesn’t do so many shows, but his name is all over the place! But I cannot deny that he has become a commercial success, I’m not a commercial success but it doesn’t make me feel bad. I’m very happy with all that I have. I have become very spiritual over these 5-6 years. There is a higher power above, which has given me something, maybe it has come at a late stage in life but it has come – I’m happy. There’s a band called The Unknowns, you must go and talk to Mr. Sridhar, he is one of the most fantastic guitarists in India. I had a band called Feedback and then the first thing you’d get when you switched everything on was horrible feedback! (laughs) That’s how the show would start you know! So I told him “Why did you call your band The Unknowns? You are still unknown”. It’s good to go and see these musicians who are making a livelihood out of this. There are session musicians – drummers, singers who play with whoever calls them. They are making some kind of a livelihood.

Photo Credits: Uday Shanker

Priyanka Shetty

Priyanka Shetty is the founder of What's The Scene? Follow Priyanka on Twitter @priyanka_shetty

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