Bill Wolak Interviews Srinivas Reddy • Empty Mirror

Srinivas Reddy began his musical training as a guitarist and composer. In 1998 he graduated from Brown University with a BA in South Asian Studies and completed his senior project entitled NaadaSat, a multi-instrumental ensemble piece that reflected his growing interest in South Asian philosophy and music.

After moving to San Francisco in 1998, Srinivas met his guru and mentor Sri Partha Chatterjee, a direct disciple of the late sitar maestro Pandit Nikhil Banerjee. Since then, Srinivas has dedicated himself to Indian classical music. He has given numerous recitals in the US, India and Europe. He has three CDs to his credit: GITA (1999), Sitar & Tabla (2001), and Hemant & Jog (2008).

Srinivas ReddySrinivas Reddy

In 2011 Srinivas graduated from UC Berkeley with a PhD in South and Southeast Asian Studies. Under the guidance of Professor George Hart, he studied Sanskrit, Tamil, and Telugu literary traditions and completed his thesis on the Vijayanagara emperor Krishnadevaraya and his Telugu epic Amuktamalyada. A translation of the work entitled Giver of the Worn Garland was published by Penguin Business Relationships in 2010. With the same publisher, Srinivas has also released two translations in the Complete Kalidasa series: The Dancer and the King (Malavikagnimitram) and The Cloud Message (Meghadutam). His new book Raya is a critical biography of the south Indian emperor Krishnadevaraya (Juggernaut Books, 2020).

For five years Srinivas worked as Assistant Professor of South and Southeast Asian Studies at IIT Gandhinagar in Gujarat, India, and is currently visiting professor of Religious Studies and Contemplative Studies at Brown University. He lives in Rhode Island and spends his time performing, teaching, and conducting research around the world.

Srinivas Reddy and Bill Wolak first met on a panel about translation at the Hyderabad Literary Festival in 2013. The two quickly became friends and began performing together later that year at Tarjuma: Festival of Translators, IIT Gandhinagar, Ahmedabad, India. Since then, they have performed around the world together.

Bill Wolak: Tell me a little bit about how and when your family emigrated to the United States?

Srinivas Reddy: I was born in 1976 in India, and soon after my family moved to Canada. My sisters were born there, and in 1980 we moved to the US. Both my parents are physicians, and we moved around a few times in the US but eventually settled in Rhode Island.

BW: So where were you born and what were the first languages that you learned?

SR: I was born in Visakhapatnam, Andhra Pradesh, on the east coast of south India. Telugu and English were my first languages.

BW: At what point did you make the transition from playing guitar to studying and playing the sitar?

SR: Guitar was my main instrument through high school and college. In 1998 I moved to the Bay Area to study Hindustani classical music, and within a year, I was totally focused on sitar.

BW: In 1998, you moved to San Francisco to study sitar with Sri Partha Chatterjee. How did the two of you first meet?

SR: I met Partha da through the Ali Akbar Khan College of Music in Marin where I first went to study ragas.

BW: What was it like studying with Sri Partha Chatterjee? How many hours a day were you playing your instrument?

SR: I learned in the traditional guru-shishya way with Partha da, albeit within a modern framework. Most lessons were three hours long, other times we spent days together totally immersed in music.

BW: Can you tell me a little more about the guru-shishya way of studying sitar. How exactly do you study? Do you study scales of the different modes or learn how to improvise? What was the modern framework?

SR: The guru-shishya (master-disciple) mode of instruction is the heart of our tradition. Knowledge is something embodied, and oral transmission is essential. Unlike many other students, I learned in the traditional way—no writing, no recording lessons, just constant listening and imitation of my teacher. In the beginning, I learned very routine things like scales and various exercises. This is essential and takes many years, but all the while you are learning in an improvisatory mode. Of course, we also have traditional compositions that need to be learned and memorized precisely. After that, the teacher will encourage the student’s creativity and scope for improvisation. I spent twelve years with my guru, and I’m still a student.

Srinivas Reddy’s first CD: GITA (1999)Srinivas Reddy’s first CD, GITA (1999)

BW: Did you begin your studies at Berkeley at the same time as you were studying sitar, or did Berkeley come later?

SR: When I first moved to the Bay Area, it was all for music. I worked as a paralegal during the days and played music the rest of the time. Eventually, I realized that I wanted to do something besides medicine, law, or music professionally. Academics and teaching were always important to me, so South Asian Studies seemed like the best fit.

BW: Which languages did you study at Berkeley?

SR: At Berkeley, I read classical Indian texts in Sanskrit, Pali, Tamil, and Telugu.

BW: You translated the Telugu poem Amuktamalyada, or The Giver of the Worn Garland for Penguin Books. How did you become interested in this work?

SR: I was interested in the Vijayanagara empire and was fascinated to learn that the great king Krishnadevaraya also wrote a celebrated epic poem.

BW: Could you describe the plot of that poem? It has been described as an epic, but the focus of the poem is not on any battles between warring cities, is it? So, how would you describe its genre?

SR: In India this kind of literature is classified as mahakavya, which literally means “great poem.” The mahakavya genre is characterized by ornate metaphoric language and sweeping descriptions of nature, love, and war. The genre is often translated as “epic poetry” in English, but that can be misleading. The narrative kernel of Amuktamalyada is the story of the Alvar saint Vishnucitta (Periyalvar) and Andal, his young daughter who is in love with Vishnu. The bulk of the text, however, incorporates rich descriptions of towns, cities, and nature, not to mention more scholastic sections on ethics, statecraft, and religious philosophy. The Indian epic is epic in its vision.

The Giver of the Worn Garland translated by Srinivas ReddyThe Giver of the Worn Garland, translated by Srinivas Reddy

BW: You’ve translated two Sanskrit classics by Kalidasa: The Dancer and the King (Malavikagnimitram) and The Cloud Message (Meghadutam). Let’s start with The Dancer and the King. This is Kalidasa’s first play. Again, can you describe the plot briefly?

SR: The Malavikagnimitram is a lighthearted play about an Indian king in love with a court dancer. It showcases Kalidasa’s early talent for descriptive language and well-paced action.

BW: Are there any major differences between theater as we understand it in the West, and the kind of theater for which Kalidasa was writing?

SR: Oh yes, but this would take a long time to discuss! At the same time, there is enough in common with, say, Shakespearian theater that a Western reader would easily appreciate the style.

BW: When it was originally written, what would the audience be like for such a play like The Dancer and the King? Who would perform such a play? Were there professional actors?

SR: Barring descriptions from the ancient texts, we know fairly little about how these plays were actually enacted. Certainly, Kalidasa’s audience was an elite crowd centered around a court.

BW: The Cloud Message is perhaps Kalidasa’s most enduring poem. It represents one of the most celebrated expressions of the love in separation theme in world literature. What is the message that the cloud conveys?

SR: The actual message that the cloud conveys is simple and elegant, like true love, but the poem is really about the journey. It’s not so much the message but the carrying of it.

BW: Could you quote a few lines from the poem to give an idea of the sumptuous, passionate imagery that characterizes this work?

SR: This is one of my favorite verses, towards the end of the poem. When the cloud reaches his friend’s beloved, the cloud says to her:

Yearning to touch your face, and hoping to whisper in your ear
That which should have been said before, he is beyond your reach
Unable to be seen, too far off to be heard, and so he speaks
Through me, with a lyric message crafted with cherished words. II.43

BW: The Cloud Message has been translated into English many times. What made you want to take on the translation of this Sanskrit classic?

SR: I wanted to say it my way.

BW: At Brown University, you teach a course on mystical poetry. How did you become interested in that topic? Which poets do you teach?

SR: In a sense, all poetry is mystical. There are so many fantastic poets in India, especially among the vernacular bhakti singers. I love Kabir, Bulle Shah, Mahadeviyakka, Basava, and so many others.

BW: What other courses do you teach at Brown?

SR: This semester I just taught “Love and War in India,” it was a very engaging course with amazing students. Next semester I will teach “Music and Meditation” which is always packed!

BW: How did you come to write Raya, the critical biography of the south Indian emperor Krishnadevaraya?

SR: Raya was a natural extension of my original thesis work. In a way, I’ve been working on Raya for the last ten years. Certainly, I’ve been reflecting on Krishnadevaraya, his life and his poetry for that at least that long!

BW: Your latest scholarly research focuses on the topic of Alexander the Great in India. So you have an idea about how you will approach his topic?

SR: Not yet! The tricky thing is finding Indian sources to tell the story.

Ajit Acharya on tabla and Srinivas Reddy on sitarAjit Acharya on tabla and Srinivas Reddy on sitar

BW: You are also an accomplished sitarist who has recorded three CDs and who has performed in recitals around the world. Where were some of your most memorable performances?

SR: Last year I performed with Alonzo King’s Line Ballet in San Francisco, that was a great honor because Alonzo has been a true artistic inspiration for me.

BW: Do you have any performances scheduled in the near future?

SR: In the spring we’re going to Lisbon to perform at Museu do Oriente, a project with sitar, violin, and a tabla duet!

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Below are some samples of Srinivas Reddy’s sitar playing.

Solo sitar: Srinivas Reddy (sitar) 4/5/12 IIT Gandhinagar (India)

Short clip: Srinivas Reddy (sitar) with Nitin Mitta (tabla) 12/25/07 The Stone (NYC)

Long recital: Srinivas Reddy (sitar) with Ajit Acharya (tabla) 2/1/17 Brown University (Providence)

About Bill Wolak

Bill Wolak is a poet, collage artist, and photographer who lives in New Jersey and has just published his eighteenth book of poetry entitled All the Wind’s Unfinished Kisses with Ekstasis Editions. He has published interviews with the following poets, writers, and artists: Anita Nair (India), John Digby (United Kingdom), Dileep Jhaveri (India), Gueorgui Konstantinov (Bulgaria), Naoshi Koriyama (Japan), Sultan Catto (United States), Ilmar Lehtpere (Estonia), Jeton Kelmendi (Kosovo), Yesim Agaoglu (Turkey), Mahmood Karimi Hakak (United States), Philip Cioffari (United States), Yongshin Cho (Korea), Manolis (Emmanuel Aligizakis) (Canada), Jami Proctor Xu (United States), Stanley H. Barkan (United States), Annelisa Addolorato (Italy), and William Heyen (United States).

About Srinivas Reddy

Srinivas Reddy is a guitarist, composer, who has performed widely and has released three CDs. As a translator and academic, he is the author of several translations and a critical biography. He is currently visiting professor of Religious Studies and Contemplative Studies at Brown University. His website is srinivasreddy.org.

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