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Music review: Kennedy Center 'Maximum India' festival opener U. Srinivas

The U. Srinivas concert at the Kennedy Center.
The U. Srinivas concert at the Kennedy Center. (For The Washington Post)

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By Mark Jenkins
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, March 2, 2011; 6:58 PM

"Maximum India" may be all downhill from here. Mandolinist U. Srinivas, who inaugurated the Kennedy Center's three-week Indian arts and culture festival Tuesday night on the Millennium Stage, played so dazzlingly that it's hard to imagine his concert will be eclipsed by any of the dozens of subsequent performances.

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Of course, Srinivas and his troupe aren't easily compared to most of "Maximum India's" fare, which includes dance, theater, art, film, literature and cookery - and surprisingly little Indian classical music. The fest will encompass Indo-British bhangra/hip-hopper Panjabi MC, Bollywood pop vocalist Kailash Kher and South Asian takes on jazz and blues. One of the few Indian classical performers, tabla maestro Zakir Hussain, will be debuting a concerto he composed, joined by the National Symphony Orchestra.

In fact, "Maximum India" includes no classical performances by major stars of the Hindustani (north Indian) tradition. Srinivas - like violinist L. Subramaniam, who appears on Sunday - works in the Carnatic (south Indian) style. The northern and southern modes are subtly different, although both entail improvisation on a raga, which establishes the scale and fundamental melody.

While Hindustani music often features sitar or sarod, both native to India, many Carnatic players have adopted European instruments. But anyone who expected Srinivas to employ his mandolin to play tinkly Renaissance madrigals would have been confounded. The musician and his cohorts performed utterly Indian music; the electric mandolins used by Srinivas and his brother, U. Rajesh, had been modified to allow bent, sliding and sustained notes, as well as rubbery bass tones far deeper than the instrument usually issues.

The mandolinists were paced by an electronic drone (taking the place of a tanpura player) and accompanied by two percussionists: S. Swaminathan on mridangam, a two-headed barrel drum, and B. Subramanian on the tambourine-like ganjira. It's a little misleading, however, to call the drummers "accompanists." Both took exuberant solos and were integral to music that was profoundly rhythmic. At one point during the quartet's rendition of "Shanmukhapriya," the evening's magnum opus, Shrinivas put down his instrument and joined the percussive conversation by clapping. And throughout the concert, when the two mandolinists weren't playing, they counted the taal (or rhythm) with sinuous hand movements.

Srinivas and company played four pieces, including a brief one with a Middle Eastern feel and "Raghupati Raghava Raja Ram," a Hindu devotional tune sung by Gandhi and followers during the 1930 march against the British salt monopoly. But the centerpiece was the 30-minute "Shanmukhapriya," a beautifully sustained raga adorned with twists, turns and amazements. Srinivas played speedy riffs any fusion-jazz guitarist would envy, yet also gave the music room to breathe. Ecstatic outbursts contrasted sudden stops, and flashy individual showcases - notably Srinivas's stunning left-handed fretboard workout - yielded to seamless unison playing.

Toward the end of "Shanmukhapriya," Srinivas picked up his mandolin and insouciantly plucked a single, perfect note. At the opening of a festival that emphasizes contemporary crossover, that rapturous sound was a triumph for tradition.

Jenkins is a freelance writer.

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