R.S. Sreenivas strikes the right note with research, sitar
Professor Ramavarapu “RS” Sreenivas pushes the limit with his electrical and industrial engineering work. He thrives on finding and solving challenges in the control of discrete-event/discrete-state (DEDS) systems, particularly those that reside on the boundary between what is humanly possible and impossible, between what science has the resources and money to solve and what it does not.
The DEDS systems that Sreenivas works with are person-made systems with a logical or symbolic description. Examples of such DEDS systems include: computer networks, air-traffic control systems, automated manufacturing systems and operations-management of multi-component organizations with event-driven dynamics like shipyards, airports and hospitals.
“The control of such systems can be profoundly intractable in their general descriptive setting,” Sreenivas said. “The research of my students and I is about identifying normative guidelines for the construction of easily-controlled versions of such systems.”
Likewise, Sreenivas also pushes the limit with his personal interests. In addition to his engineering work, he plays the sitar daily and hosts an Indian classical music radio show.
He first picked up the sitar in 1997.
“I wanted something more of a challenge,” he explained. “I enjoy my teaching, research and writing, but some ennui set in and I just wanted a change, and I discovered learning the sitar was a profound challenge for me.”
He chose the sitar after attending musical performances that included this instrument. His ever-present curiosity stirred while watching the shows, and he wondered what went into playing the sitar: why one particular note could sound good while another could sound terrible.
“I found the answers given to me by other musicians to be unsatisfactory and decided to figure it out for myself,” he said. “I think I’m reasonably comfortable with it now. I understand it – I can’t play perfectly, but I can explain the subtleties in the music and instruct others.”
Sreenivas studied under renowned sitarist Sri Patric Marks in Chicago until 2008, when Marks passed away. He has since taken lessons from Professor Sanjoy Bandopadhyay of India via Skype.
Sreenivas discovered many parallels between music and mathematics since learning the sitar. For example, the raga, the grammar of Indian music, is context sensitive. This means different notes evoke different responses depending on the context in which they are played. Some results in the learning of context sensitive behaviors of DEDS helped him understand the sitar better, he noted.
“Also, when playing the sitar, I repeat a phrase three times and then land back at the beginning. There’s a mathematical categorization to all of that,” he said. “Real professionals can do this intuitively. But I have to think before I play – my instructor tells me I play like a computer programmer.”
The sitar is also a stress reliever for Sreenivas.
“I use it in a way in which some people might watch TV,” he said. “If I’m working on something and need a break, I just pick the instrument up and play for 10 or 15 minutes, and then I feel refreshed.”
Sreenivas is one of the faculty-advisors of the University of Illinois chapter of SPICMACAY, the Society for the Promotion of Indian Classical Music and Culture Among Youth. Through the group, he met Mike Szerba, who hosted “S’Ruti: The Music of India” on Champaign’s 90.1 WEFT. When Sczerba could not continue to host the show, he asked Sreenivas and two others – Prof. Doogar, a UIUC professor of Accounting and Dr. Avashia, a Food Scientist at Tate & Lyle – to take his place.
“Every third week I’m on. Half of my show contains Bollywood songs done chastely in a classical music setting that seems very modern. Essentially, we’re bringing a 200-year-old raga back again in synthesizers,” he said. “The other half of the show features more classical music. I play crackly, old music taken from my large collection.”
Being a professor, Sreenivas enjoys teaching his listening audience as well. While he has never given a live sitar performance, he has taped himself playing and aired it to illustrate certain ragas.
“I think a good education should include music in its curriculum,” he said. “Every mathematician should learn music. Even if you end up playing like a computer programmer, that’s okay. If that floats your boat, fine. Just find your own genre of music and start learning.”
Professor Sreenivas can be heard hosting “S’Ruti: The Music of India” every third Sunday from 12-1 p.m. on 90.1 WEFT. He will next host on Sunday, March 7th.