Today (it still is Nov 5 here in the USA) happens to be Sangeeta Kalanidhi Smt T Brinda's 96th birthday. As someone who was fortunate to learn from her for nearly a decade, I cannot help but feel a huge sense of loss that she is no longer with us. However, on the other hand, I also feel that she is always with me - that is the depth and extent of her impact on my music. More importantly, my appraoch to music.
I first fell in love with Brindamma’s music when I heard her render a beautiful phrase in Tyagaraja’s krti in Balahamsa, ‘Parulanu vedanu’. She was singing the anupallavi of this song and this phrase lasted all of one second. But she sang it with such clarity and sophistication that it was as though a new world had opened up in front of me. I must have been around 14 or 15 years old then. That one second of music had tonal purity, depth, voice modulation, note spacing, emotive appeal and a host of other intangible features that represented the very best of Carnatic music.
From my childhood, I had always had a healthy regard for Brindamma because of the awe with which other musicians and connoisseurs used to speak of her. After that superb radio concert, I spoke to my father about learning a few masterpieces from her. He had no hesitation in agreeing to it. He told me that he had himself learnt from her when he was studying in the Central Music College.
I knew that Brindamma generally lived in the stratosphere - those who had learnt from her included legends such as Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer, Ramnad Krishnan and M S Subbulakshmi. She had turned down numerous eminent artistes for one reason or the other.
Luckily for me, she agreed to teach me and the next 10 years were among the most precious of my life. She showed what microscopic music was - and gave me a high powered microscope to appreciate it.
I realised over a period of time that she was not merely a gifted artiste to whom music was as natural as breathing. She possessed one of the sharpest intellects I have seen. She could be keenly analytical when discussing subtle points.
Her music was awe-inspiring, to say the least. She had a captivating voice that possessed almost all aspects ideal for Carnatic music. It had clarity, sweetness, depth and majesty. She was in control whether she sang soft or loud, super slow or super-fast, plain or oscillated notes.
She was probably the first vocalist to employ voice modulation as a major aspect of music and it made a tremendous difference to the class of the music. Recordings of many of her contemporaries – both male and female musicians - testify to the fact that they believed in singing mostly in their natural voices.
Brindamma started modulating her voice to make it sharper when she sang subtle, fast phrases in higher regions which imparted a laser beam precision and intensity to the notes. She made her voice deeper and more powerful when she sang in the lower octaves or sustained notes.
This was a marked contrast to many artistes singing louder as they approached the high notes and loudest in the pauses in notes like the high pa. Recordings will again show that several of these artistes were not comfortable in the lower octaves.
Brindamma believed that screaming in the higher octaves prevented clarity in the lower octaves and moreover, was ruinous to the vocal cords in the long run. How right her judgement and technique was, was evidenced in her concerts in early 1990-s when she performed with no range or clarity loss even when past 80.
I had, in my early years, developed an image of Brindamma’s comfort zone being limited to slow music and was most pleasantly surprised when I heard her effortless handling of fast or medium fast kritis like Manasa etulo (Malayamarutam), Nee muddu momu (Kamalamanohari), Vinave O Manasa (Vivardhini), Janakiramana (Shuddhaseemantini), or Chinnanadena (Kalanidhi). She sang even pieces like Pakkala nilabadi (Kharaharapriya) or Epapamu (Atana) at speeds above average and laced with demanding variations.
Even though she was a specialist in Tyagaraja, Dikshitar, Shyama Shastri, Veena Kuppaier, Dharmapuri Subba Rao and a host of other composers' works, most listeners almost associated her with padams.
Her rendition of pieces like Moratopu (Sahana), Ninnu joochi (Punnagavarali), Rama rama (Bhairavi), Ososi (Mukhari), Tamarasaksha (Yadukulakambodhi) and Yalapadare (Begada) were beyond words. As Semmangudi sir declared in the Music Academy once, 'We would all consider our life somewhat successful only if we could render even one padam the way Brinda can.'
One important misconception is that Brindamma’s style, especially in padams, is all about oscillated notes. Actually, Brindamma’s greatest asset was her ability to create silence in sound through long, plain notes with her tranquil voice and intersperse them with gems of microscopic phrases with oscillations - an incredible combination of two extremes that is so difficult to even conceptualise, leave alone accomplish.
More amazing than all these was the fact that she was a person with an incredible amount of conviction and the strength of will to stick to values she believed in for nearly 75 years. To me, this is what the word character means.
On a personal note, she was most affectionate towards me and treated me as a member of her 'family' (which in her dictionary meant relationship through music rather than one born out of blood!). She had a fantastic sense of humour and would have my siblings and me in splits with her sophisticated wit. We all had a great time when she would spend a few weeks at our place on occasions.
I was abroad on a concert tour when I received news of her demise in August 1996. Needless to say, it still ranks as one of the saddest days in my life.
In my mind, she is forever etched as a rare human being to whom a great style of music was merely the only way of life.