Getting a good guru is all about one's good fortune. By that reckoning, the Malladi Brothers, Sreeramprasad and Ravikumar, are extraordinarily fortunate. Their first and in-house teachers, were the redoubtable Malladi Srirammurthy and Suri Babu — their grandfather and father respectively. Next they came under the tutelage of the illustrious Sripada Pinakapani, Nedunuri Krishnamurthy, and Voleti Venkateswarlu.
Their grandfather who taught them basic exercises adopted a highly valuable method. Saraliswaras were taught, not straight and plain, but replete with gamakas. So were the jantiswaras and alankaras. This not only increased the Malladi Brothers' swara gyaanam, but also helped them understand the right proportions or optimum levels of gamakas. And this in turn made their passage to manodharma easy and natural, even unconscious, since they'd be involuntarily humming gamaka-laden phrases.
In fact, the brothers believe this is where and how manodharma learning begins — from the very first basic lesson. "The popular notion of manodharma as a separate, advanced stage in music-learning is a misconception." Their grandfather stressed on sahitya gyaanam. Of first learning the lyric and its meaning, and the context/mood in which it was composed. Without such an understanding, bhava can't be evoked, he would explain. For instance, a rendition of Thyagaraja's Darshana kriti "Giripai Nelakonna Ramuni", would be soulless unless you first learnt it was composed by Thyagabrahma in ecstasy after a darshan of Rama.
As a regular at the concerts of Semmangudi, Ariyakudi, Nayana Pillai, Palghat Mani, Maharajapuram V. Iyer, etc., their grandfather learnt many lessons and tips from these greats, all of which he communicated to his student-grandsons.
Malladi Brothers were also trained by their father Suri Babu. He coached them in a single or limited-avarthanam swarakalpana which enables understanding of different facets of a raga in a fixed rhythmic pattern. He also emphasised punctuation in sahitya — so in any composition, right from the varnas, he would insist on his sons perfecting every half-avarthanam before proceeding to the next one. Suri Babu's long AIR stint had made him an expert at voice modulation, mike sense and the art of bringing out all the nuances of a raga in the brief span of four-five minutes allotted to it (radio concerts have short durations). All these skills he passed on to his sons.
Suri Babu was also an expert in tuning the tanpura. "Our father imparted to us, an accurate shruti sense and precision. He would insist that we played the tanpura as we sang. Or, he'd play the tanpura as he taught us. Unfortunately, today's teachers use electronic tanpuras, a practice which reduces the shruti sense. Here, one keeps increasing the volume of the shruti box since one can't sing at low volume. This is especially problematic during concerts since the performer goes off key, unable to hear the electronic tanpura because of the surrounding accompaniments."
Essence of raga
From 1991, the brothers came under Nedunuri's tutelage. "Nedunuri had an amazing raga-oriented approach. In every phrase of a keertana he would extract the raga's essence. Some of Nedunuri's sangathis are virtually his patented ones. He taught us that if one understands the steps in improvisation of one ragam, that formula can be applied to any other ragam."
The elder of the brothers, Sreeramprasad recounts an incident: "Guruji asked me to sing Bhairavi. After few minutes, I took off on the panchama note. He immediately stopped me and asked why I was in such a hurry to go to the panchama when Bhairavi has so much scope before the panchama."
In fact, as the brothers point out, Nedunuri's approach was raagavardhini or stage-by-stage development of a ragam. Nedunuri also stressed that any ragam has salient sangathis which define its characteristic features. Having sung those, one should proceed to one's manodharma and creativity. From the legendary Pinakapani, the brothers learnt 200 krithis.
And also many of the precious lessons which Pinakapani later put into his classics Sangeeta Sourabham and Pallavi Gana Sudha. The brothers admire Pinakapani's four-point formula — learn good music, teach worthy students, sing and propagate good music, preserve music for posterity.
The Malladi Brothers' father and uncle were students of that great master Voleti Venkateswaralu. "They passed on to us, the precious knowledge they gained from Voleti and in that sense, Voleti was our teacher too. Voleti was famed for his ability in bringing out a swara's beauty. And yet for him, swaras were mere steps or means to reach that pinnacle called Naadam. And having reached there one must experience naadaanandam, Voleti would say. He was indeed a siddha purusha, a rishi in music. And we also aspire to reach that naadaanandam with his blessings."