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A musician's musician

Weaving together two musical traditions, T. Brinda's style of singing won her plaudits from connoisseurs. But there was much more to her than just her music, remembers KIRANAVALLI VIDYASANKAR.


I MUST have barely been in my teens. Palghat Sundaram, my brother Shashikiran's mridangam guru, was a frequent visitor to my house. He not only taught Shashi, but also participated in our practice sessions, often singing and sharing interesting anecdotes on musicians. On one such occasion, my father, Chitravina maestro Narasimhan, got talking about T. Brinda (of the famous Brinda-Mukta duo) and her music. He mentioned that he was planning to send my eldest brother Ravikiran, already an established musician, to learn some padams and javalis from her. Sundaram Mama said it would be a good idea if only Ravi could cope with her sharp tongue!

That was when Brindamma, as she was affectionately called, made a memorable entry into my life. Soon after the above incident, Y.G. Doraiswamy, a connoisseur of arts who knew Brindamma well, offered to introduce Ravi to her. One point that YGD made when he took Ravi was that he should not seek just padams and javalis from Brindamma, but also try and learn other great masterpieces in her unique style. For Brindamma — grand-daughter of the celebrated Vina Dhanammal on the one hand and a distinguished disciple of the musical giant, Kanchipuram Naina Pillai on the other — was not only a padam-javali specialist, but was regarded highly among her peers and connoisseurs as a repository of the works of many composers including the Trinity, Subbaraya Sastri, Tanjavur Quartet, Dharmapuri Subbarayar and so on.

Sure enough, the first piece that she taught Ravi was Dikshitar' masterpiece Sri Kamalambike in Sriragam, the Navavarana Mangala kriti. Ravi, as was his usual practice, taught it to Shashi and me immediately so that he would also understand it better. This piece was enough to convince me why the best of musicians spoke so highly of her style. I was thereafter keen to attend the classes with my brother, if only as a mute spectator. During the next few years, I was slowly absorbed by the beauty of her nectarine style (as Semmangudi Mama would say, "We were like bees fallen in the honey of her music"). And Brindamma was equally enthusiastic to teach Ravi, never stinting on her vast and classy repertoire.

A few months after I'd finished my std. XII exams, I went to visit her with a close family friend. Quite unexpectedly, she asked me to sing. To my surprise, she quietly said, "Okay, come for class tomorrow. Not with Ravi, but alone!" Thus began my own journey with her, and what a beautiful and lasting one that was!

My classes would begin at 6:30 pm and go on till 9 pm everyday. For several months I went by myself. Eventually, either my cousin, Ganesh, or one of my brothers (by then Shashi was also learning from her, having won a Ford Foundation scholarship to learn the Vina Dhanammal bani repertoire) would join me. Initially we only sang the compositions that she had taught us, but over time, she asked us to sing from our own repertoire too, and would compare notes on the differences, if any. We would start with a varnam, and sing several kritis, padams and javalis thereafter in a concert pattern. Often, she would ask us to sing kalpanaswaras and neraval, challenging us with different and difficult eduppu-s (starting points).Brindamma firmly believed in the traditional school of thought that it was guru who should decide what to teach based on the student's merits, and not for the sishya to dictate what he/she should be taught. But , once she was convinced of the student's sincerity and ability, she never hesitated to share her knowledge fully and freely. She herself was a true student and set lofty standards for all her students to emulate. The constant attention she paid to basics such as sruti, laya and clarity was truly humbling to watch.

Even though she was in her late 70s when I started learning from her, her mind and ears were sharp and her memory intact. No student could slur over a single note or syllable and get away with it! The hallmark of her teaching was that she would let her art grow on you slowly and gently, so that over a period of time you would internalise its beauty so completely that everything you sang would be laced with that style. I felt this happen to us too.

Brindamma was completely against students recording lessons. She felt that the more the student relied on notations or recordings, the less he/she would pay attention in class. This would eventually affect their ability to grasp things quickly and correctly. However, one never missed the modern learning aids (except in terms of documentation) as Brindamma's communicative power, gained over several decades of experience, ensured that we remembered every sangati and nuance of the song long after we went home.

Much has already been said and volumes written about it — how she beautifully wove the fast, masculine style of Naina Pillai and the slow, seductively feminine style of her own family, how she handled gamakas, or how she modulated her voice... For me, the most soul-stirring feature of her music was the care with which she sang every note, every phrase and every song. There was no taking anything for granted. This was especially evident in her later recordings, by which time she had probably gained at least 40 years of experience, and a deep understanding of and mastery over the art. She also never seemed to feel compelled to prove anything to anybody. This mental security and singular lack of ego is indeed unique, especially in a time when most people are constantly battling for identity and trying to put their own stamp on things. It also gives us a glimpse into the steady state of her mind.

Brindamma was a predominantly lakshya-oriented (instinctive) singer, even though she was quite well up on the lakshana (theory) aspects. This came out of a deep respect for tradition and for her predecessors. Her argument was that she could not presume to know more than the great men before her, who had created all the beautiful masterpieces. However, this didn't mean that she didn't constantly go over the process of self-examination and refinement. Recordings show how the same songs acquired a better sheen over the years as her musical taste and execution were honed.

Often she would come and stay in our house. This brought us closer than ever. It was a privilege to have her listen in on our practice sessions, although intimidating for a while. During these visits, Brindamma's human side came to the fore. She took a keen interest in all our activities and, with her sense of humour, infused warmth and fun into the whole house. Reputed to be a great cook herself, she would try every new preparation with an enthusiasm that would please even the fussiest of cooks! And the evening musical sessions were always followed by a few rounds of dice! She would not play, but would ask us to play in her room late into the night. Pretty soon, she had learnt all the tricks of the game along with the jargon!

Brindamma was a very positive person, full of life, with no complaints about anything. From within the walls of her house, she kept abreast of all the happenings around her, be it music or politics. She had decided opinions on several issues from the Independence movement and Gandhi to modern dress codes and feminism! She was not quite the feminist, but she was still a highly independent woman, never fussing for attention or adopting a falsely modest manner just because that was what was expected of women in those days. This sense of independence and dignity, combined with her subtle wit perhaps earned her the adjectives "sharp-tongued" and "proud".

She also had a great sense of humour. In fact, her whole family is reputed to have made several naughty (but really funny) jokes about things and people. This, of course, didn't win them any popularity contests! But that didn't deter them from seeing the humour in any situation. What is perhaps less known is that they applied the same yardsticks to themselves and didn't hesitate to joke about their own weaknesses.

I remember an evening when I went to visit Brindamma at her sister, Muktamma's place. She said to me, "Oh, there's no class for you today", and turning to Muktamma, "This girl hasn't learnt anything but music from me. Why don't we entertain her with some jokes?" And the rest of the evening was spent with both of them regaling me with jokes, new and known! As happens to a majority of well-known musicians and styles, there are a few popular misconceptions about Brindamma's music too. The first, of course, is that she was just a padam-javali specialist. Although to this day she remains unsurpassed in that area, she was equally at home whether she sang a varnam or a kriti or a raga alapana or kalpanaswaras.

The other misconception about her music was that it "dragged". The handling of gamakas in the Dhanammal bani, and the slow-paced kritis and padams perhaps conveyed this impression. But Brindamma, even at 83, could execute super-fast sangatis with ease. Her concert recordings will also show that she made it a point to include a few fast to super-fast paced kritis within the first half and hour of the concert. The kritis she chose were complex like "Epapamu" (Atana) or "Evaricchirira" (Madhyamavati), which she could execute with energy, clarity and accuracy. In fact, it is said that Vina Dhanammal had nicknamed her the "boat-mail", referring to the express train between Madras and Rameswaram, the fastest mode of transport in those days!

A few people also felt that Brindamma's music was all-gamaka and no plain notes. This again is quite far from the truth. In fact, Brindamma had an excellent control over plain notes, found in abundance in padams and the kritis of Dikshitar or Syama Sastri. This control stood her in very good stead all her life, for her voice never acquired the shake that people typically end up with in their old age.

She had her share of recognition in the form of awards and titles among which were the Sangeeta Kalanidhi, Sangeeta Kalasikhamani, the Sangeet Natak Akademi Award, the President's Award, and Swaralaya Puraskar. The list of people who have learnt from her reads like a "who-is-who" of Carnatic music, and includes several luminaries like Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer, M.S. Subbulakshmi and Ramnad Krishnan. But Brindamma took everything with equanimity. Her identity of herself wasn't defined by the awards she got or by the students she taught. It was defined only by her music and her musical heritage.

She never talked about death at any point of time. However, what she said when she fell ill for a brief period before passing away in August 1996, will always haunt me, "I am beginning to forget music. I think it is time to go."

The writer is a vocalist and Chitravina player. She lives in San Diego, California where she teaches and performs.

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