Brindha Manickavasakan is one of the rising stars of the younger generation of Carnatic musicians whose art has the unusual gravitas of a veteran. Her expansive exploration of ragas with mindful attention to the intricate details both in terms of the swaras (notes) and bhava (expression) makes her singing quite delectable. She is also adept at the manodharma (improvisation) elements, be it the alapana, neraval or kalpanaswaras, in which she raises the bar each season. Overall, her concert experiences are wholesome and in her voice, ragas and compositions acquire a different gait, one that is elegantly languid, detailed and bhava-laden.
Given her relatively young age, she is a hugely promising talent. Trained by well-known performer-teacher Suguna Varadachari, who in turn had the tutelar lineage of Tiger Varadachari through PK Rajagopala Iyer and Musiri Subramania Iyer, Brindha has clearly inherited the shades of the “Musiri bani” such as emotional allure and clarity. She is also imaginative and doesn’t shy away from exploring musical ideas while in concert, even at the risk of failing. Her choice of listening also indicates her ultimate goal in pursuing music – being in the magical zone of the perfect note and microtones and hitting them as precisely as possible.
Brinda speaks to G Pramod Kumar in Chennai on why she sings and what Carnatic music means to her.
As I do with other musicians, let me start by asking about Margazhi. What’s your special for the season?
A couple of special Ragam Thanam Pallavis (RTPs) that I haven’t sung anywhere and some rare compositions such as Antharama Soundaryam in Kedaragowlai.
Are you trying out anything that you had put off earlier?
Yes, I am singing a couple of ragas that I wanted to sing last year, but had postponed.
Given the intensity, expectations of music lovers, and frequency of concerts, do you require a special training regimen and approach to performance for the season?
It requires a slightly different mindset. I don’t think the practice schedule requires any change, but you have to be mindful of the fact that every concert is important and every concert has to sound fresh. The artiste should never feel bored because if it happens, it will immediately reflect on the audience too. Each concert has to be a unique experience.
How different is the day of the concert?
Sometimes I will be mentally practicing and listening to other renditions of the same compositions that I am planning to sing that day, and sometimes I may give total rest to my voice. Sometimes, it’s also good to test if the voice is fine, if there’s extra warming-up needed etc. There’s no fixed plan, and it varies depending on the situation. What’s important is to be ready with everything so that I can sing anything anywhere.
This is a question I routinely ask musicians regarding their spontaneity in terms of concert planning: Do you change the line-up just before or during the concert?
Yes it does happen. For example, I may want to sing Todi as my main piece, but half an hour before the concert I find out that the person before me had already sung that raga. So, I would prefer to change my main raga. And because Todi changes, several other things also may have to change because of the context of other ragas in relation to Todi in my original plan.
That sounds quite stressful. Changing your plan because of unforeseen circumstances. Do such situations stress you out?
No, we are used to that.
What’s the meaning and purpose of your music? Why do you sing?
I think the ultimate thing, the deepest yearning, the deepest desire, is to hit the right spot, the right note perfectly aligned with the sruthi. Besides that, my quest is also to convey the emotion of the sahityam, celebrate and revel in the beauty of raga, and tala. I enjoy singing, and involved singing is an uplifting magical experience. Sharing that experience is also extremely special.
Some singers have told me that they can literally see the notes. Do you also visualise them?
Yes, I do. They are like waves in my mind. It’s an inexplicable moment when you get to that place, when you are somewhere close to the note. You know something magical is happening. It’s a very personal experience. I am sure that such an impact on the singer will be passed on to the audience too.
Does it happen quite often?
It’s not easy. It can happen more often depending on how much tapasya you do.
The allure of Carnatic music is manodharma or spontaneous improvisation. The more spontaneous a singer gets, the better for the audience. How much of your concert is spontaneous?
See, if I sing the Bhairavi raga, most of what I sing will be the stuff I have heard from masters and my Guru. All that’s definitely going to present itself. But where am I placing it, how I am placing it, the modulation, the phrases I am singing etc. will happen at that particular moment in a concert. It’s not planned at all. When what I have heard and learnt combine with my understanding of the raga, something new may emerge.
I also may plan a few things – say if there’s a nice porutham/korvai (crowning patterns of swaras), I can end a song in a certain way so that it sounds good. Sometimes I will put small-length swarams in certain places, or elaborate on a raga that I did not plan to, or sing neraval in a different line, which I cannot plan. They are purely spontaneous. If I get good vibes for those rounds, I may do more of it. All of that happens on the stage.
So overall, including how a lot of manodharma is actually derived from the listening and learning processes, the new part of the concert will be like 20-30 per cent.
If new imaginations happen at that moment in a concert – say some new sangathis, new phrases etc. – that are nothing like you had done before, would you still go ahead attempting them even at the risk of failing?
Yes, I will. I will know if it fits within my aesthetic frame or if it’s going beyond that.
But sometimes the idea is perfect, but you are not too sure if you are skilled enough. Will you still go ahead?
I guess I will still try. If it doesn’t turn out that great, it’s okay. It’s good to try.
Have you failed being adventurous on stage?
Yes, I have. I definitely have. For me, it’s very important to live in that moment and experience it rather than regretting it later. If you want to enjoy music and if you want your audience also to experience what you enjoy, you can’t play it safe. You should be open to that experience rather than saying you have practised only this much and hence you will sing only this much. So it’s important to be adventurous.
Are you working on any compositions and pallavis?
Yes I am; but haven’t yet done any compositions.
Classical music is very scientific and given the complexity and depth of the repertoire, one requires a remarkable ability to recall and an immense sense of distinction so that one is able to sing as precisely as possible. Classical singers employ interesting methods, some very personalised, to achieve this. Do you have any particular method?
In my practice schedule, I have a list of compositions that I have learnt which I try to practice in rotation. The more the number of songs, it’s harder to revise them quickly. But if we do continuous practice, we can manage.
What about Ragas and scales?
We mostly learn ragas through compositions. Studying compositions, we understand for example the swara range of a raga, important phrases of that raga, jeeva swaras of that raga and so on. Also, if we have worked to a good extent on certain ragas, say for example the big five – Shankarabharanam, Kamboji, Karaharapriya, Bhairavi, Todi and Kalyani, they give us a good idea about how different combinations of notes work, how several gamakas work, and so on. This helps when we try singing many other ragas.
In raga alapana, sometimes even a discerning listener gets confused because of the close similarity of the notes; sometimes even the notes are the same, but the gamakas or the style of singing is different. How does one handle that?
Yes. My father used to say that if the rasika is not able to guess the raga in the first few phrases, it’s the singer’s fault and not the rasika’s. I keep that in mind and try to avoid ambiguities and make the signature phrases stand out. One has to be careful in handling phrases that are similar for some ragas and give emphasis to the discerning elements.
How long do you take to master a composition?
This is something that I have been told by my guru and several other maestros – that you have to sing a composition at least 100 times before you sing on stage. Hundred is definitely an important number. I can actually quantify and say 100 because I have tested it myself.
How important is the bhava in your music?
I am not sure how one can sing without experiencing the implicit emotion. Take the case of Pahi ramachandra raghava in Yadukula Kamboji. Even during my learning the composition in my class, I used to feel the pain of devotion of the composer because of the way it’s written. Yadukula Kamboji indeed has immense beauty, but it’s not just the raga, it’s also the sahithyam which is an outpouring of bhakti. It’s the experience of the raga and the sahithyam together – it’s very hard not to be emotional in such situations. Bhava is created when I connect with the music, it’s the essence I feel. So, bhava is always important in my music.
Who are the musicians that you have been influenced by the most – both past and present?
Ramnad Krishnan, MD Ramanathan (MDR), GN Balasubramaniam (GNB), Brindamma, Voletti Venkateshwaralu, ML Vasanthakumari, Madurai Somu, Musiri Subramania Iyer, TN Sheshagopalan Sir, TV Shankaranarayanan Sir, KV Narayanaswamy, Dr. M. Balamuralikrishna…there are many more.
What is so particular about MDR? I am asking this because he is so different from the others. Is it his slow tempo?
Not just the slow tempo, there’s so much going on in his singing. He really gets into the core area of the raga and the composition where it touches you. It’s very serious music. The conviction that he had in his music is amazing. There are different tempos he has sung in, and in each part of the rendition he instantly connects with the jeeva of the raga. An example is his Sahana. If I try to sing a particular sangathi that he has sung, I may not be able to do it because he would have sung it to perfection and I would need to practice and internalise it much more to get closer to his level.. He’s just amazing!
Any present masters?
Sanjay Anna (Sanjay Subrahmanyan). I listen to a lot of his concerts. I also listen to a lot of Abhishek Anna’s (Abhishek Raghuram) concerts. Also, Balamurali Anna (Kunnakkudi Balamuralikrishna), Also TMK Anna (TM Krishna), Sudha Raghunathan, Raji Gopalakrishnan and Sowmya Akka (Dr. S Sowmya)
I can certainly understand your appreciation for Sanjay, but what attracts you to Abhishek’s music?
I love how spontaneous he is. To be able to innovate like him on stage, your fundamentals have to be really strong and your mind has to be forever tuned to music.
Do you listen to other forms of music?
A lot of Hindustani, and a little jazz since last year. I had been exposed to a lot of western music in my school years. For a musician, I feel that it’s important to listen to other types of music as well.
Do you try some of their techniques, say that of Hindustani musicians, since there are many common grounds?
Yes, I do try, for example in ragas such as Durga.
Do you sing Padams and Javalis? How come Carnatic singers don’t give them enough importance?
I try to sing as many as possible. They are hard to master.
Padams and Javalis capture very core raga ideas. For example, you can see the original form of Todi in a Padam in Todi. It’s as if the primordial form of the raga is frozen in it. While learning a Padam, you get to understand how the raga has evolved from its raw form since ancient times. It may have many elements of the raga that we may not find or employ while singing Todi now; so, when you are singing a Padam, you need a lot of dedication to perfect it before you sing it on stage. I may be able to master a kriti in a month, but not a Padam At least for me, it takes a few years of absorption. To understand a raga, Padam is very helpful.
Is it that difficult, even without swaras and all that?
Yes, it needn’t be even set in a complicated raga, but will be intense. There will be a lot of focus on a lot of things, microtones etc. Breath control is also important. Padams are also very hard to present. In short concerts, it’s hard to include them because a Padam will take at least 10-15 minutes.
Tell me something about your early training and evolution as a musician
I was initiated into music by my father because he loved Carnatic music and wanted me to learn. In terms of family background in music, my grandfather was a Villu Pattu (a folk music form in Tamil Nadu) performer. Although it’s not classical music, some of the Villu Pattu songs have shades of ragas such as Dhanyasi and Kurinji.
I started learning in Dubai when I was six. Because of the peculiar situation there, I have had at least five or six teachers for the next nine years. After my Class X in school, my mother and myself shifted to Chennai for my higher education as well as musical training. My elder sister is a special child and she liked music, which was an inspiration too. In Chennai, I started with Dr Manjula Sriram and trained under her for three years till she left for Bangalore for good. Then I learned under Shakuntala Sheshadri and Neyveli Santhanagopalan for about a year and finally under my present Guru Suguna Varadachari.
In the initial years, music classes were routine which I attended as I would attend school. I had no idea that it would be my career, but in Chennai under Dr. Manjula Sriram, I realised my life altering moment in music. I felt it first when I sang back what she sang to me. That day, the meaning of music in my life changed.
My present Guru, Suguna Mami, is so precious. I have undergone a complete transformation under her.
Some people allege that Carnatic music is exclusive to Brahmins and that they don’t let others in. They also allege that there are obstacles to learning and performing Carnatic music unless you are a Brahmin. Did you face any of those situations?
I have been blessed with amazing Gurus. No Guru of mine made me feel any different from others.
Wasn’t anybody curious about your surname (your caste)?
Not my gurus
Do you have any favourite ragas?
Begada, Kalyani, Surutti, Sama, Madhyamavathi, Mohanam, Poorvikalyani, Varali…
What’s you most commonly sung raga?
Probably Mohanam. I also like Durga.
By the way, like many other Carnatic musicians, you did indeed have a twin career. You are an engineer and had a Masters from Georgetown University. Have you ever preferred engineering to music, since it offers a more stable career?
Initially I wanted to pursue both careers. I had my undergraduate degree in Information Technology and masters in Biostatistics. My Guru also encouraged me to study because she also thought academics was important too. Although I studied in the US, I never wanted to pursue a career there and hence came back to Chennai and took up a job. But soon I left it to pursue music full time because I couldn’t do it part-time any more. I realised that music was more important to me than anything else.
What was the tipping point?
When I realised I was not able to do as much music as I wanted to. By November 2013, I became a full-time musician.
No. None at all!
You told me that you practise mostly at night. The only other person I have heard about practising at night was the great Hindustani musician Annapurna Devi. How did you become a night person?
When I was a student in the US, I had a problem with practising early morning because the noise would attract complaints from neighbours. Therefore I would go to the computer lab in the campus and practise at night till about 2 am. Looks like even otherwise I am a night person. I like the quiet of the night. Sitting up and practising even till early morning is not an issue for me, probably what’s difficult is waking up early (laughs).
Have you done any crossover experiments?
There’s so much to do in Carnatic itself, hence never thought about it.
Singing in movies?
Do you listen to film music?
I listen to old music, mostly Ilayaraja.
Interestingly, all the Carnatic musicians I spoke to seem to appreciate Ilayaraja
His music is natural and beautiful. You don’t get to compose like that. He is immensely knowledgeable. They way he uses ragas spontaneously is incredible. Besides him, I also like MS Viswanathan-Ramamoorthy and some compositions of A R Rahman.
What about Rahman?
Have you heard the songs, for example, Minsara kanna (Vasantha) and Soukhiyama Kanna (Maandu)? They are amazing compositions.
Do you compose?
I do compose pallavis. I have done a lot of them.
Also in multiple ragas?
Yes. But haven’t yet performed mine.
Do you think musicians give enough importance to inherently melodious and heartwarming “light” ragas? They are less often taken up for elaborate alapanas, swara improvisations and RTP.
Yes, one can very well expand them. Probably, we don’t have many compositions.
For alaapana, we need a lot of reference points and a good stock of compositions can help with that. Some of these ragas (e.g. Desh) may not have as many compositions as the big ragas (e.g. Kalyani) do. Some of these are also borrowed ragas and to internalise the nuances and the essence of the raga before we set out to explore them, we may have to listen to a lot of Hindustani. Probably, these are the reasons why many singers don’t do it. But of late, more and more people take up these ragas for long alaapanas and RTPs.
Personally, I have sung Durga to some extent. I have also made a pallavi in it.