Most of the carnatic music I’ve heard has had voices, which is normal, but this has no voices — this is violin and percussion and some harmonium buzz-squelch, a structured and roaming outreach. Violins have been in Indian music for long enough to make that unusual, rather than radical, and yet there is still a thrill when you realize how much is resting on such a small group of musicians, none of whom will be able to lean on the easy human appeal of mouth-tone, which creates a focus in a song like a face in a painting.
Srikanth began to practice the carnatic style seriously when she was five and still living at home in Bangalore with her mother Ratna Srikantaiah, who was and is a musician in her own right. The daughter latched onto the violin when she was six. Years later, during a career that began with instrumental support work on filmi soundtracks, she appeared on one of her mother’s albums (Compositions of Dasa from 2008), and Deepa Ganesh in the Hindu wrote, “It is the violin that catches your attention.”
She’s studied both Indian and European-style violin, and she’s gathered together a fusion-jazz ensemble for herself in her new hometown, London — you can hear short samples on her website — and she’s an omnivorous collaborator, though if those samples are anything to go by, she’s not a great chameleon. Her attempt at Irishness sounds like India all over again, but moderately mutant.
She seems better off in a partnership with the concert violinist Robert Atchison or in an ensemble playing Shirish Korde’s “Nada Ananda” concerto, an astringent attractive Western-Indian neo-classicism (“takes Hindustani classical music, Western contemporary sounds and the trailblazing innovations of John McLaughlin’s seminal ’70s Indo-jazz supergroup Shakti as starting points,” states the YouTube blurb). “Nanda Ananda” must have left a mark on her musical instincts, because there are times on Call of Bangalore when the South Indian classical music is infected with a similar avant-garde toughness, subtly repellent as a buzzing fly — the opening of “Annapoorna” moves with a very faint deranged limp. It’s not obvious, but I’d contend it’s there. And the time she’s spent with European or European-style folk musicians hasn’t been wasted either, because her carnatic ragas have jigs in them.
So there are these other things buried like raisins in cake. But this is subtle; the overwhelming impression is of India, the structure and the different stages of the classically-restricted extemporisation revolve around the filled, open space of the drone that fogs in at you from all angles like a James Turrell, invading the head and disorienting the listener with its absence of concrete chords or notes. Either it has no chords, or it is all chord. Then there are instants of abrupt presence, when the drummer whams down his hand or the violinist bangs through a giddy tumbling waterslide, hectic for half a minute and then gliding back into baby oil smoothness, cruising that tone as if she’d never left it — as if the memory of that mad crash has been erased; then another thing happens, a drum goes abruptly tak-a-tak-a-tak, so this is sublime disorientation. Dissection is possible, but summary sounds silly.