Sixteen and strumming it

Krsna live in action.
Krsna live in action.
Krsna live in action.

A tete-a-tete with chennai based singer-songwriter-guitarist Madhavan Siddarth Krsna. BY DEVARSI GHOSH

When I first saw Krsna perform at Justice Rocks 2015 at Spaces, I was drawn to him because of his baritone voice rather than his musicianship. Sure, he did play the guitar well enough to enthral a crowd of some hundred-odd people but it was his quiet, confident way that I found interesting. His demeanour seemed to say, “I know this is my stage and while I am here, no one can take this moment from me.” When I left Spaces that night, I knew that the sixteen year old would go on to become a commanding stage performer as he grew in both experience and stature. I also knew somewhere at the back of my mind that we would probably meet him again — not as performer-audience, but as two guys talking about “stuff”.

A little more than a month later, I am at his house and we are talking about “stuff.” Given that I’m a music aficionado and he a musician and I was on an assignment to do a profile of him, much of that stuff ended up being about music. In the beginning, I was a bit lost on how to progress with the interview because he came off as a really polite, reserved guy so the onus was on me to break the ice. I needed a cracking copy at the end of the day! So, I guess, that was why I asked him does he ever get angry and when he does, what does he do?

“I don’t get angry much,” Krsna said, “I rarely get into fights. If something does make me angry, I think things through and react appropriately.”

I pressed him further – “Have you ever had any deep difficulties that stopped you in your way? What did you do in such a situation?” – expecting him to open up and give me something that would fit my idea of an angsty teen musician.

Instead, with a hand on guitar and a smile, he said, “No. No difficulties as such. If they do come I will tackle them head on.”

Indeed, he has had a comfortable life and there are no stories of rebelling against family opposition for picking up music seriously or quietly performing without the knowledge of his parents. He has a musical lineage, after all. His mother Jaya Madhavan, a celebrated author of children’s books and a columnist for The New Indian Express is the granddaughter of Kalaimamani (late) Seetha Doraiswamy, a legendary jalathrangam player and his father is Carnatic singer Madhavan Gopalarathnaman and it doesn’t end there.

“My father’s grandfather Sri.R.S.Gopalakrishnan [Violinist] was an AIR [All India Radio] artist and has accompanied M.S.Subbulakshmi, M.L.Vasanthakumari and other greats,” Krsna rattled off, “My grand uncles [paternal side] late Sri. V.K.Venkata Ramanujam and Prof.V.Balaji [both accomplished violinists in both streams of Carnatic and Hindustani] are faculty members in Benaras University, Department of Music. My cousin B.Ananthakrishnan [s/o Prof. Balaji] is a popular violinist in Carnatic music circuit. On my mother’s side, besides my great grandmother Smt. Seetha Doraiswamy, my grandmother N.Visalakshi is a B High Carnatic vocalist in AIR and is a composer. Her daughter and my aunt Bindhumalini Narayanaswamy is a popular [Hindustani] singer, with whom I performed in Bangalore recently.”

As you enter the drawing room at Krsna's residence, the three Tanpuras will immediately catch your eye. Krsna often accompanies his father in the latter's concerts where he plays the Tanpura.
As you enter the drawing room at Krsna’s residence, what catches your eye immediately are the tanpuras. Krsna often plays the tanpura at his father Madhavan Gopalarathnaman’s concerts.

I was not sure whether to be stunned or impressed by hearing about so many talented people who have accomplished so much in performing arts being part of the same family tree. What was obvious that it had been a great, spirited environment for the young musician to blossom.

“We have always been supportive of his life choices and he can do whatever he wants to do,” says Jaya, “I see him doing music for a very long time and that is fine by us.”

When I met Krsna, his second term exams had been postponed due to the heavy rains that pounded Chennai in November. He is studying Commerce at the Abacus Montessori School. I ask him what he wants to do next, academically.

“I want to study Media. I am interested in writing and working on commercials and screenplays”, he says, “But after that I want to study at the Berklee College of Music.”

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Krsna accompanying his aunt Bindhumalini Narayanaswamy (right) at a concert.

Krsna began playing the Mridangam from the age of seven. But his interest shifted to guitar some four years back. He received his initial training at home from Vikram Kannan (The Shakey Rays) who had to discontinue teaching because of his band commitments. Since then, he has learnt his craft from the Internet and workshops. He speaks fondly of a jazz workshop by Denis Stern that he attended six months ago. At present he is learning music from Mr. Ramesh Mani, founder of Do-Mi-So School of Music, under whose tutelage he plans to appear for his “Trinity exams” next year.

“Who are your musical inspirations?” I ask him – a copybook question every journalist asks a musician and characteristic of any self-earnest guitar player, he says, “Oh, John Mayer and Eric Clapton!” He goes on to talk about his interest in jazz music (particularly Space Jazz and I make a mental note to come home and check what that is) of late as he talks about Joe Pass and Pat Metheny. He also likes Electronica artists like Chet Faker and the fusion funk group Vulfpeck. And while he appreciates the craft behind the Metal genre, he adds with a twitch, “It’s not to my taste”.

I ask him about which local musicians in the scene he looks up to and he says he has barely any idea about the Chennai indie scene because he has never been a part of it! My obvious next question is how did he land up at Justice Rocks 2015, the concert that was organized as a sign of protest against Unilever’s contamination of Kodaikanal.

Vishnu [of Vishnu R Collective, a group with which he performs once in a while] told me of Justice Rocks and I teamed up with Nikhil to perform,” he says. Vishnu, with whom he has been playing since last year, has played an important role in Krsna’s evolution as a musician. It was Vishnu who taught him his first chords on the guitar.

As I get up to leave, he reminds me with a disarming smile to mail him a copy of the text for this piece before publishing it and I’m once again taken aback by his calm professionalism, in addition to his reserved personality – all at the tender age of sixteen, an age when I and many of my generation were all over the place. My gut tells me that Krsna will go on to become a highly successful person and if he sticks to music, it will be yet another proud addition to the Madhavan family.