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Saturday, May 28, 2022

The Bharat Sundar Interview: ’I like anything that’s abstract…’

Among the new generation of Carnatic musicians, Bharat Sundar is an absolute delight to watch, and a little different from others in his overall demeanour and style.

Written by G Pramod Kumar | Chennai |
Updated: January 19, 2022 12:31:54 pm
Carnatic musician Bharat Sundar (Photo credit: Rajappane Raju)

On stage, Bharat Sundar can generate an intense storm, still remain unruffled even as it sweeps everybody around him. He can take you through quite a range of emotional experiences, but can still remain sufficiently aloof. He is a picture of quiet confidence and effortless elegance, and his music, deceptively powerful, optimally intricate, and more importantly, full of heart and soul.

Among the new generation of Carnatic musicians, Bharat Sundar is an absolute delight to watch, and a little different from others in his overall demeanour and style. Devoid of the discernible Carnatic characteristics of a certain finishing school that make at least some musicians sound similar here and there, Bharat is distinctively different. He resembles nobody. He has a lilting voice that has been trained to reflect self-assured bearing and mastery over his art and runaway imagination; and a repertoire that has been handpicked from sources that are quite diverse in terms of style and substance over a sufficiently long period of time.

Probably, it’s the eclectic training, openness to heterogeneity and his own musical cosmopolitanism that makes Bharat a very interesting contemporary classical musician. His raga alapanas try to make even familiar journeys experientially new (probably a combination of his voice that’s capable of vertical take-offs, imagination that seeks to find newer spaces within a raga and expressions that can move you) while his neravals accord a keen insight into the inherent lyrical-musicality of a composition. And in terms of swara singing, he is as imaginative and impromptu as any other improvisational musician can be.

Bharat doesn’t come from a family of musicians, but his parents always loved music and were keen enough to note that their son had an ear for music when he had won a light music composition at the age of five. So, like any middle-class household in his community, he too was sent for classical training. His teacher, incidentally his aunt, was trained at the Music Academy as well as by B Rajam Iyer. Subsequently, he learned from teachers such as G Srikanth and later, from the latter’s mother, Leelavathi Gopalakrishnan, who had been trained by Musiri Subramanya Iyer as as well GN Balasubramanyam’s disciple /Town/ Balu. In terms of /patantharam/and style, Bharat’s foundation was set by these long years of training under her. The GNB-lineage of his guru was more pronounced in this training and that instinctively attracted him. Subsequently, he also learned from the famed teacher PS Narayanaswamy and received training on Pallavi singing from Trichy J Venkataraman and Srimushnam Raja Rao.He has also been learning from Dr, Sowmya and her father, Dr. Srinivasan.

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Among the new generation of Carnatic musicians, Bharat Sundar is an absolute delight to watch, and a little different from others in his overall demeanour and style. (Photo credit: Ramanathan Iyer)

Probably Bharat’s effortless and breezy style as well as the stirring expressions come from his early involvement with film music. In his early years, he was part of a professional troupe, Abaswaram Ramjhi’s /Mazhalai/, that regularly performed movie songs on stage. His recent productions on a Subramanya Bharati song and six songs from Kambaramayanam, in which he uses harmony quite delectably, is a telling example of this unusual felicity.

Obviously, Bharat doesn’t play it safe. “Not all” he says. “I love living on the edge.” He also likes to explore the abstract. What better art than music? “I like anything that’s abstract. For me, more than finding the beauty of something that has already been structured, exploring what abstractness sounds like is exciting.”

Unlike most Carnatic musicians, you don’t come from a family of practising musicians. More over, you had started with light music before getting deeper into Carnatic. Where and how did that switch to Carnatic music happen?

In my school and college days, I used to sing film songs and also participate in competitions even when I was learning Carnatic music. I had thought of all that as Carnatic. But things changed when I became a runner up in a popular classical music contest called /“Ragamalika.”/The organisers gifted me a CD-box, the /“Charsur 2000 album,/” which featured artistes such as TN Seshagopalan, TV Shankaranarayanan, Sanjay Subrahmanyan, TM Krishna and so on. Their music opened my eyes and ears to a new world. I remember listening to TN Seshagopalan in that album and feeling that what I had been doing was not even one percent of what was possible. That’s when I started taking up classical music more seriously. Their music also made me realise that if I practised, I too could reach there some day. I realised that this was what I wanted to do, but wasn’t fully equipped.

It’s now 21 years since then. How has your music evolved?

It is still evolving. When I was young, I used to get this comment: “This guy has a lot of robustness and potential, but the bhava is lacking.” I think it’s the case with any musician at that age. But I didn’t take that criticism negatively. I always believed that forcing yourself to appear calm and composed on stage would not work and you have to naturally evolve. I still remember reading about the great GN Balasubramaniam (GNB). Apparently his father complained to Ariyakkudi Ramanuja Iyengar that he was singing too fast, Ariyakkudi apparently told him that he had something that none of them had and that he should be allowed to evolve as a musician. “Don’t nip it in the bud” before it blooms. I always believed in it and took all the suggestions that came my way.

One of the reasons for this “bhava” part is that you also lack life experiences when you are young. Isn’t it?

Yes. When you are younger, you also try to approach music cerebrally. You may think, “Oh, this is brilliant, let me do this.” But in the process you don’t get to the soul of it. Some people make comparisons with KV Narayanaswamy’s (KVN) music: “Look how /“bhavapoornam”/his music is” etc. While saying that, one should realise that KVN’s music too had evolved to be like that and that he may not have sung like that when he was young. In the 1960s, his music was like that of Ariyakkudi, very racy.

Your calmness on the concert stage is very consistent. How much ever robust you get, your demeanour is very calm. Has it been always like this?

It has certainly changed over time. In the beginning, one would have a lot of things to worry about. First, there is this period when your voice changes. Then, we sing a lot of concerts, make a lot of mistakes, unlearn things etc. So, things keep changing. I wouldn’t say that this is the final stage, it’s still evolving. Comparing yourself with another musician may not be right, comparing your today with your yesterday would be much better.

Can you foresee the path you are moving into?

I am definitely moving in the direction where I want to. My approach is to take whatever comes my way, analyse it, think about it and then decide if it suits me or not. I even try some stuff some times, if doesn’t work, it doesn’t work.

What are some of those things you would like to do or try to do?

I have an interest in composing, mostly in Tamil. I try to write songs that are very easy to understand. I also want to write more socially relevant songs.

Bharat doesn’t come from a family of musicians, but his parents always loved music and were keen enough to note that their son had an ear for music when he had won a light music composition at the age of five.

Since you mentioned about social relevance, do you mean things that you want to write and compose will have a contemporary flavour?

I want them to be socially relevant. It doesn’t mean I am discarding core ideas such as bhakthi. It’s a very personal thing and there can never be a standard definition.

In terms of musicality, what are the things that you are exploring?

I would like to explore more ragas that have not been sung much, for instance, /Punnagavarali, Navaroj, Grandha/ etc. Some think that people are not very fond of such ragas and that they are too technical, but I feel that a raga has always been a melody and will remain so. All these rules and grammar were to just codify them because it’s a classical form. When you use the term classical, you have to accept the fact that it will be codified. I want to try and see if I could make people like these ragas.

You mean sing them as more elaborate pieces?

Yes, alapana, RTP etc. I want to do more of that.

I am also interested in knowing the history of music, how has it evolved over time. Not just Carnatic, but other forms too. There must have always been cultural exchanges at every point of time. You can make out from the names of some ragas that there have been such exchanges. They have also been documented pretty well. I often feel that musicology has been thought of as a cerebral thing, whereas in reality it must be considered a practical tool. You cannot write something out of thin air, so I want to see the feasibilities of certain things that have been documented. How can they be practically applied now even if they are age-old concepts.

In your singing, all the elements — ranging from the basic compositional singing to lively manodharma — are enjoyable. Are there any areas that you particularly enjoy?

I like anything that’s abstract. For me, more than finding the beauty of something that has already been structured, exploring what abstractness sounds` like is exciting. Coming to the specifics of your question, I like /Alapana/ and /Virutham/Slokam/. I always feel that when you sing /Virutham/ with good flavour, if you are able to enjoy it and connect with the audience, then you can be a very good tunesmith. /Virutham/ is about tuning without /thalam/on the spot. You give a lot of importance to the lyrics and you can’t randomly throw in sangathis. You start thinking about the emotion of the lyrics before you tune and sing.

That means your concerts will invariably have ‘Viruthams’?

Yes, /Viruthams or Slokams/

Aren’t Viruthams bhakthi based?

Yes, mostly.

He is a picture of quiet confidence and effortless elegance, and his music, deceptively powerful, optimally intricate, and more importantly, full of heart and soul, writes G Pramod Kumar. (Photo credit: Ramanathan Iyer)

Can one compose Viruthams outside this realm of bhakthi, particularly since you like to write on socially relevant issues.

Definitely. There are philosophical /Viruthams/too. You may have heard about people such as Thayumanavar and Thirumoolar.

You are one of the millennial singers, and going by your following, a potential cross over star. Would you prefer such a transition where you are not bound by a genre?

Definitely. A lot of people say that they don’t attend Carnatic concerts because it’s hard to understand. If you can listen to an Ilayaraja melody with all the complications that he has done, why can’t you relate to Carnatic? So, evidently it’s not something to do with the music as such. The problem lies in the way we portray or present our music. The image does matter.

It’s time we think about these things. We always brush things under the carpet. We have to start accepting the reality. Having said that, I also think that this change is actually happening now because this season I see a lot of younger people. You can also see from Instagram stories and other social media posts that younger people are interested in Carnatic music. Things are slowly changing.

Do you listen to other streams of classical music? If you do, do they influence your art?

Like everybody else, I also listen to Hindustani classical music and also western classical. Though my understanding of the technical aspects of Western music is limited, I would like to learn more and understand.

As a trained musician, you may be finding a lot of common grounds with other forms that can influence your musical expressions. Has it happened to you?

In my personal opinion, when you try to incorporate an idea from another form of music, you have to be extremely mindful of the fact that you have to have a proper understanding of that form.

“In my personal opinion, when you try to incorporate an idea from another form of music, you have to be extremely mindful of the fact that you have to have a proper understanding of that form”, Bharat said. (Photo credit: Rajappane Raju)

For example, there is a scale called Lydian and some people say it’s Kalyani. You cannot blindly make a statement like that because Lydian is not Kalyani. It has the notes that Kalyani also has, but the music is different. Same with the Pann system in Tamil music. A lot of people equate Pann to Ragam. I personally feel that Pann and Ragam always coexisted and that there has been cross-genre exchanges, but they are not the same. When you start comparing things inappropriately it gets problematic. So, my point is that when we want to incorporate ideas from outside, we have to have a thorough understanding.

However, it does happen involuntarily. If you are a regular listener of Hindustani, for instance, some phrases of common ragas might manifest in your singing. You may not even know.

In film music, the way they approach the melody is interesting. Even when you look at the compositions of Thyagaraja, if you forget the raga for a while, you can see how he has approached the melody. What went into making that tune, the relationship between the lyrics and the music etc. Their music and the lyrics are not separated. It’s fascinating.

Music is universal. A good idea can be in any form of music. Any form of music is as great as Carnatic music. That’s how you democratise music.

A lot of younger singers these days use Hindustani ragas and techniques. Do you also employ those techniques such as short-gun tans?

Not quite.

I always feel that when we sing Hindustani ragas we are only acting that we are singing well (laughs). They have a totally structured way of practising, approaching a raga etc. When we sing those ragas, we will mostly approach it with a Carnatic mindset: we like the sound and we are trying to imitate that. However, any type of music that you keep listening to will have its influence. They will keep coming back to you.

How big and diverse is your repertoire in terms of ragas, compositions and language?

I would consider it to be reasonably vast. I also have an interest to learn more Tamil songs. I love languages. When I sing in different languages I try to learn the meaning and context.

What’s your process of learning? From people, recordings, books, notations?

It varies.

Sometimes I learn from notations (e.g. /Varnams/ for which we don’t find recordings). Sometimes when there are no tunes, I try to tune them myself. I usually try not to learn from recordings; not because I am against it, but I feel when you learn from recordings you may miss out on many things probably due to poor recording quality and you may wrongly assume certain things. In fact, I have had bad experiences in the past trying to learn from recordings. Unsurprisingly, those songs have never stayed with me.

What would do you if you want learn a past master’s song? You would have to learn from somebody who has been trained by him/her.

Yes, I don’t mind learning from anybody.

So, you may go to different people to learn different songs.

Yes, I also do that. For instance, I learned /Dharini Telisukondi/ from Dr. Baby Sriram. I have learned many songs from her. I learned /Sree Subramanyaya Namaste/from Sreeranjini Santhanagopalan. I liked /Sree Madhurambike/ in Kalyani when I heard Abhishek sing it. I asked him, and he helped me.

On another occasion, I had to learn a Purandaradasar composition for a tour of Thiruvannamalai with Mr. V Sriram. I couldn’t find any version, but I had heard that Ram (Ramakrishnan Murthy) sings it. So, I asked him; he recorded it and sent it to me. A lot of people ask me too.

That sounds lovely. Peer-to-peer learning in a competitive world!

Yes, if I we ask for help, people will definitely help; but the point is, do we ask? (laughs).

Has it been always like this, or it a new trend among the younger generation of musicians?

I think it should have existed even earlier because I have heard senior musicians saying that they had learned such and such compositions from such and such people; so, we can assume that it has always been there. Professionally, musicians may have many differences of opinion, but when it comes to art I think they are really together.

How does it work in practical terms?

If they have the time, we meet and learn.

Line by line?


And your Guru Dr Sowmya has a huge repertoire too!

Yes, I have learned a lot of songs from her. Her repertoire is really vast. For instance, her /patantharam/ from the Brinda Muktha School. And a lot of unknown, but beautiful songs that people don’t sing these days. I have also picked up my reading habit from her.

Are there compositions that you are looking to learn, but are available only with some people?

Yes absolutely. I was recently listening to the /Swarajathi/in Todi by Mayuram Viswanatha Sastri – /Sarasadala Nayan/e. I have heard Sowmya Akka sing it and asked her to teach me. In fact, there is one /Kanavenum Laksham Kankal/in Suruti, which I think most sing in Adi talam in a higher tempo. In the documentary on Sanjay Anna (Sanjay Subrahmanyan) I liked the way his guru SRD Vaidyanathan sang it and wanted to learn that version from Sanjay Anna, but somehow I couldn’t reach him. Then I learned from the recording in the video.

Bharat Sundar also learned from the famed teacher PS Narayanaswamy and received training on Pallavi singing from Trichy J Venkataraman and Srimushnam Raja Rao. (Photo credit: Ramanathan Iyer)

Do you go to instrumentalists to learn because the sound and details of instrumental music adds a different dimension to vocal music. These days, a lot of people want to learn from Nadaswara Vidwans, particularly for those intricate sangathis, long alapanas, limitless raga enunciation possibilities etc.

I always wanted to. Probably at some point of time I will. I have learned some compositions from RK Sri Ram Kumar Anna as well.

How improvisational are you? How far will you go?

This is a multi-layered question. My quick answer to that will be: I love living on the edge. I have never enjoyed a safe zone. There’s no comfort zone for me.

As some would say, “you are looking for trouble…”

(Laughs) Yeah, if you want to put it like that, yes.

Not that I don’t plan for my concerts; I do plan, but I don’t rehearse. I do practise. And I don’t cringe any more when I make mistakes. I look at it as an opportunity to learn. In the initial years, I used to show my dissatisfaction on stage if I make a mistake. In Tamil there’s a saying, which translates into something like “don’t try to wipe off your mistakes” because it will get dirty. If you make a mistake, let it be. Nowadays, I don’t react at all even if I make a mistake, I just move on. I may try again to get it right. When you reach a certain level in your professional career, as you keep singing, you would know technically if the next move could be a checkmate. When I enter a zone and see if it’s not going to go the way I wanted, I would have to change my path and go elsewhere. If you rehearse for a concert, there’s no scope for this.

Which areas of singing is this approach applicable?

‘Alapana, swarams’ etc. For instance in ‘swarams’, as you know, you randomly pick up a pattern and sing. Creating complicated patterns or structures on stage is not that easy and that’s something I love to do. I don’t play safe.

When you make those complicated swara patterns, getting out of that will also be difficult if you get stuck, isn’t it?

However you term it, complicated or whatever, the brain and musicality should go hand in hand. At this juncture, whatever I do, I look for an aesthetic way of trying it out. Even if I get out of it, it should be aesthetic.

Like in a game of chess, you will have to anticipate a few steps ahead, right?

Yes, that’s why my favourite player is Mikhail Tal. He sacrifices things just to find out what options are there.

In terms of improvisation, what are the things that you would like to do more?

Anything that’s abstract has a lot of scope for improvisation. However, I find singing a proper neraval is a little challenging. In the sense that you have to not only sing the lyric exactly at the correct places, but you also have to know how the song goes, maintain rhythm and maintain the raga bhava. You also you have to see if the phrase of your choice is appropriate within the context of the overall literature. The bigger picture should be that the neraval shouldn’t sound boring. You should also challenge the possibilities and your own capabilities to sing it with flair.

‘In your raga singing, what’s the most that you naturally rely on? And how does it work.’

I rely a lot on motif.

You pick up one phrase and start developing it, it will lead to another phrase and to another and so on. Meanwhile, some phrases from some compositions might come in because that’s how your mind works. All these things are fed into your mind through your listening. Ninety nine per cent of what you sing is what you listen. I may not sing exactly – and intentionally – what I had listened, but my brain might combine two-three things that I might have listened and produce a new phrase.

I constantly try to listen to myself when I am singing and I try to lose myself in it: not worry about the process too much, about what’s going to happen, or what might have happened etc. Basically, trying to listen to the moment.
However, I won’t say that I lose myself completely in a raga because that will be a big lie.

Past and present influences?

Certainly. Lots of them. I used to crazily listen to yesteryear masters.

But, some of the old recordings don’t have enough details because of poor recording. How do you make up for that?

Only some won’t have details, but you use your musical sensibility to absorb them. We also listen to them more number of times. Whenever I sing alapanas there are a few people who come to my mind such as GNB, TN Seshagopalan Sir, Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer, Ramnad Krishnan and Nedunuri Krishnamurthy. You shouldn’t try to imitate them. If you do that, it’s not only detrimental to your career, but also an insult to them; but their musicality can be certainly absorbed.

What I have figured out is that each voice is unique, Bharat Sundar says. (Photo credit: Ramanathan Iyer)

A lot of musicians these days seek professional help to strengthen their voice, do you do that?

What I have figured out is that each voice is unique. The only person who can help with your voice is you. That means you have to have a proper understanding of how it functions. You can certainly seek professional help too, but there’s no single way of getting it. It has to be customised. You have to train your voice depending on your music, depending on how you want your music to sound and also taking into account the longevity of your voice.

The intense singing that many musicians resort to these days might affect their voice mid-career. Many western concert piano players injure one or two fingers before they are 50

It’s a trade off. You have to decide how do you want your music to sound. If you really cannot compromise on that for the sake of longevity, just go for it.

Means you don’t want to play it safe, but live in the moment?


Does one need special training for some of the voice techniques such as quick tans, those fast and deep brigas-laden sangathis etc?

It’s not special training, but practice. You need to practise.

When I was beginning college, I used to practise a lot with fellow musician and friend R Raghavendra (popularly known as Sean Roldan). That’s when we had gotten interested in Hindustani type Tans etc. That’s also when we started listening to S Kalyanaraman sir. It was a rage. We would practice the whole night – from 10 pm to say 4 am. Every night! For about 18 months that was our routine, I almost quit college. My attendance was only five per cent (laughs).

See, we have all the systems to practise starting with /Varisais/. But nobody has the patience to sit and do it. Even if you don’t do it, sing compositions every day. In other words, sing every day. Singing compositions is very important because when you sing /akarams/you are only singing vowels, the strain to your voice happens only when you sing consonants. For instance, if you sing /“Upacharamu”/ your mouth keeps moving along with your involuntary muscles. When involuntary muscle movement happens, it affects your voice. You have to figure out by singing compositions as to how you can overcome that. You may notice in Dr Balamurali Krishna’s music that he never stresses on a word too much. (Sings a phrase to demonstrate). Evidently, he had analysed these things.

Probably Bharat’s effortless and breezy style as well as the stirring expressions come from his early involvement with film music, writes G Pramod Kumar. (Photo credit: Rajappane Raju)

Interesting point to note – without singing compositions, you don’t get your voice rounded. Right?

Yes, compositions are the best for your voice training.

I have noticed that you also have a straight, elegant posture. Is it natural or based on some advice?

I always sat straight; but in between I had gained some weight and my posture and appearance had changed a bit. I didn’t like it when I saw myself on videos. That’s when I started working on my fitness. Coming back to your question, yes, I do make sure that I sit straight. It’s important for longevity too.

Since you mentioned fitness, are you one of those new generation singers who do weight training? There is a common belief that exercise is important, but not weight training because it will affect your vocal cord. In fact, many musicians do believe it and hence do only endurance workouts.

I do weight-train and I think it’s very useful. Dead-lift is very good for your posture and back. Weight training deepens your voice too. It has certainly worked in my favour. However, you must know how far you can go.

How did you survive the Covid pandemic?

For the first two months it was very difficult because a lot of concerts got cancelled. And tours got postponed. It’s our livelihood and evidently it was affected. But then we started accepting the fact that it’s going to be the same for at least one year. Initially we all thought it would get over in one year, didn’t we? (laughs) When it got longer, I personally started taking it as an opportunity to introspect and reflect on music and life in general. I tried out a lot of things. Tried composing songs (Bharathiyar songs, Kambaramayanam) with harmonies etc. I played a lot of chess, picked up crosswords, started working on my repertoire, new ragas etc. Professionally it was indeed a setback, but when you think about it, it was like a sabbatical. It’s like taking a break from your routine. Now when I sing a concert, the way I look at it itself is very different. I think the break was useful that way.

Did you take any harmony/counterpoint training for your work on the Bharathiyar song?

No I didn’t. I have a very basic understanding of how harmony works. But I don’t know the whole thing. It’s like knowing only some phrases of a raga and not the whole thing for which you need training.

I have heard people trying harmony in Carnatic, but I don’t think they ever really worked, except in rare cases. In a conventional way, with its gamakas etc, Carnatic music is not harmony-friendly, but yours seemed to have worked.

I had worked on it for a month and it was a great learning experience. My friend Ravi G, who is a brilliant musician himself, helped me with the sound, mixing and mastering. Got a lot of ideas from him.

I feel it’s very important for us to actually think and even re-invent what /gamakams/we are singing. That’s also one of the things that I always think about. Has it become too much, has it been exaggerated – for a lack of a better word – and so on.

In an interview with me, Sri TV Gopalakrishnan had used the term “Carnatic mannerisms”.

Yes, the problem is stereotyping. Some people think that only if you do certain things, or sing in a certain way, the music sounds Carnatic. It’s also very subjective.

You had said that you wanted to write and compose on social relevant issues. Anything specific?

I have been singing a song on equality where I use the idea of /panchaboothams/ to speak about what equality actually means. It’s not treating somebody equal, but feeling equal. When you treat somebody equal, you are putting yourself in a higher position, you are condescending. I wrote this song after the floods in 2015 in Chennai which saw people from various economic backgrounds, caste and creed being in the same plight. I love reading. Varied topics. Everything.

I initially had found it a slightly difficult to figure you out – you have a contemporary as well as a little traditional appeal. Which exactly is the real you?

(Laughs) I respect tradition, but I am also clear that it shouldn’t box me. Tradition shows you the path that people before you have travelled. If you want to stay in that path or rather stay only on the roads people before you travelled, then you are not contributing anything to music. You wouldn’t have got the tradition that you enjoy now if the people before you hadn’t improvised, or hadn’t paved new ways for you. So, any musician should respect tradition completely, but should also take a leaf out of that book and use their brains to think and move forward. Some of us stop with respecting traditions, but we have to move forward too. We have to add value.

Outside music, as a social being, where exactly do you stand? Are you contemporary or a traditionalist? Or a mixture?

I am certainly a contemporary person who respects tradition and I will certainly question things that are not acceptable to me. “I am the questioning type”. Same way, if I make a mistake, I don’t mind being questioned. I will certainly correct it.

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