Usually an interaction done over phone is less enchanting than a face-to-face interview. But not this one. How many times have you been on a call to be treated to a gem like Narumugaye from the other end out of the blue. It’s bliss.
Serendipity has its way of working with our lives. It was the early 1990s. P Unnikrishnan was balancing his corporate career with a few Carnatic concerts. It was then that filmmaker Rajiv Menon gave a CD of his Carnatic songs to an upcoming music director, who was on a hunt for new voices. The music director was AR Rahman. And Unnikrishnan broke into the arena of Tamil cinema, winning hearts and awards with songs like Ennavale adi ennavale and Uyirum neeye. Thus began Unnikrishnan’s innings as a playback singer.
“It was not a planned move. I had second thoughts about singing in films but then I wanted to give it a try. I sang for a few years in films but I knew my roots lay in Carnatic music,” says Unnikrishnan, who found it challenging straddling the two different genres of music. “Carnatic music is extremely demanding in terms of the amount of time you spend on riyaz and the thought you put into it. Every concert is different with a lot going into aspects like manodharma. Film music is a creation of the composer and you set your voice on that pattern, which later gets registered in the minds of the listeners. They expect you to deliver it the same way every time.” After a decade in films, Unnikrishnan decided to focus on classical music.
In a space where new talent arrives by the dozen, Unnikrishnan believes that if you are quite good at your work, no one can stop you. “At the core lies your talent. Nothing can replace that. Then there are ways to improve your visibility. Today, the opportunities to create visibility are infinite with social media. But you need to be honest to your work. There have been times when a music director had okayed a take and I returned the next day at the studio to re-record the song because the entire night I would have spent thinking about not having sung a particular part properly.”
In his long career, there have been several moments cherished by Unnikrishnan. “Once Semmangudi mama (Srinivasa Iyer) came for my concert at the Music Academy and listened to my rendition of Kamboji, after which he said that I exhausted that raagam completely and left nothing more in it to explore. I had also learnt many kritis from him and to hear this from him was a great accomplishment.” Praises from the legends of Carnatic music flowed liberally for Unnikrishnan, who relates yet another instance of his interaction with the great MS Subbulakshmi. “I had sung the invocation song for her audio release function and it was the first time I had met her. She called me aside and said, ‘Nalla padarai. Aathukku vaa. Pesalam‘ (You are singing very well. Come home, we will talk). Thereafter I went to her residence and she gave me many tips on singing.”
On another oocasion, when Unnikrishnan was flipping through channels on TV, he chanced upon an interview of Mohanlal. “I have always been his fan and when he was asked about his favourite song, I was flattered when he said it was Narumugaye from Iruvar, which I had sung for him,” he says.
The Carnatic kutcheri has a format and artistes mostly stick to it. “Your innovation comes with the kind of kritis you choose and how you evolve every year as a musician. A vocalist needs to focus on the manodharma style and give something new to the listeners. A good artiste should know how to sing according to the place. MS was an artiste who perfected the art and stuck to it till her last concert,” says Unnikrishnan.
Music and performances have taken Unnikrishnan across several cities across the world and he has also visited many cities in Tamil Nadu. “I have done many corporate events in Madurai and have also given a few performances in the Trichy belt. “
Unnikrishnan spent his childhood in the palatial Kesari Kutiram, in Chennai and it was a centre of art and festivities all through the year. “My great grandfather was Telugu and my great grandmother was a Malayali. We celebrated all the festivals, like Ugadi, Vishu, Onam, Navaratri and Diwali with a lot of fervour in our home.” The vocalist has also been keeping himself busy as a teacher. “I take students under my tutelage depending on their seriousness and grasping power. I don’t charge for my classes. So I want them to take music seriously.” Like him, his daughter Uthara has also won the National award. “I am very selective about where she sings. She still has to learn a lot and there’s a long way to go.”
This interview was done an year back. I happened to meet Unnikrishnan again at the Narada Gana Sabha and spoke to him after his performance, where the listeners had touched a new peak as he ended the performance with Krishna Karunyasindho! The Krishna Ragam goes on…