05 November, 2008

Brindamma - Genius of the Micro Cosmic

Today (Nov 5) happens to be the legendary 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.


Anonymous said...

Wow. Parulanu Vedanu is one of my favourites.... it became so because of the Colonial cousins' fusion song that popularized it - It's gonna be alright. Pakkala Nilabadi in that most beautiful of ragas, Kharaharapriya, was also an instant hit. It is sad that a truly accomplished Carnatic artist is no longer with us.

I'm happy to see Chitravina Ravikiran's blog! Best wishes from Auburn, New York.

Anonymous said...

I was really moved by your adoration for Brindamma. Hope we can all follow your foot steps in Guru Bhakti.
I like how you pointed out her unique skill in voice modulation -that would definitely be the take home for me as for many others who read this - not to scream in the higher octaves.
Thanks for sharing your wonderful experiences.

Anonymous said...

Really pleasing to see how you admire Smt. T Brinda. Plz continue to post regularly.... hope ypur next post is on Narayana Iyer :)

Rangarajan Vembar said...

Extremely well written piece on Brindamma. Very touching to see your admiration towards your Guru.

Most of all I am very happy to see your blog and looking forward to reading your thoughts and experiences.

Carnatic Performer said...

Many thanks for sharing your experiences through blog.

I have wondered that many artistes have trouble showing good quality in tone and clarity in phrase in higher octave.

As a student, for me, it is valuable information to know, that you should not scream in higher octave and control the voice to give the oscillations that the singer intends to give.

It is amazing that Brindamma has developed these good techniques herself.

Though the quality of delivery can be shown in mere one second, she must have worked hard to get that perfection.

Not everyone has worked carefully to keep their voice good until age 80 like Brindamma.

I continue to feel fortunate for coming under your guidance. I look forward to reading more about various musical aspects by stalwarts of music.

Warm regards,

Seetha Chandrashekhar.
Dallas, TX - USA

Anonymous said...

The hall-mark of a true maestro is unpretentious authority in his/her field in combination with a respectful / humble student mentality. It is very nice to see one such maestro write on his own teacher, Smt. T. Brinda. Not a lot of information is available on this great teacher of music, often referred to as a musician's musician. From that standpoint this blog is quite an enriching contribution. Hopefully someday it will even be a little publication (may be for her birth centenary). Additionally, average rasikas of the younger generation (like myself), have not had much opportunity to appreciate Smt. Brinda's music directly. That is where we can reliably rely on maestros like Ravikiran to continue such a glorious tradition. That being said, there are a couple of video recordings of Smt. Brinda that are freely available (courtesy of Robert Garfias of UCI). In such a recording (of a soulful Merusamana) one gets a glimpse of her as a firm teacher when she asks her accompanying daughter to proceed to madhyama kala kalpana swaram with just a glance. One can only imagine the affectionate yet very firm tutelage you must have had from her. It is quite befitting that you wrote such a memoir on her 96th birthday.

On a separate note, to add a yoga connection, it seems appropriate to compare Smt.Brinda as a teacher (Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer...Ravikiran) to Sri T. Krishnamacharya (the legendary teacher of modern day yoga grandmasters like BKS Iyengar and Pattabhi Jois). Perhaps she had an element of nada-yoga in her.


Anoop Murthy

Unknown said...

Wonderful to see your blog..we have waited long for this!

Unknown said...

The article on Brindamma was really helpful especially to students. The point you had mentioned on the voice modulation in the higher octaves was excellent. I admire your Guru Bhakti.
Hoping to see more such articles ......

Anonymous said...

Thanks for such a great article on Brindamma.Would greatly appereciate if you could post an article on Muktamma too.I really love her voice especially when she touches the higher octave and Brindamma sings in the lower simultaneously.Both their voices perfectly complement each other,the way MS Amma and Radha Amma's voice used to (if I may say so).

Ananth said...

Comment from Ananth,
Your observations of Bridamma singing the lower octaves more deeply and powerfully and sharper in the higher regions made sense to me.It is also enlightening to hear this and also the note about voice strain while screaming in the higher octaves.
This article that you have blogged seems to have come straight from your heart.

Harini said...

A great bow to you Guru -Chitravina Ravikiran Sir and Guru -Brindamma.
Namo Namah, Sri Guru Padukabhyam.

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Minu Akshaya said...

Beautifully, soulfully, musically and respectfully written��
This shows how a guru should be and a Aishwarya should be. Wow! Thank you Ravikiran sir for this fantastic article.

Please keep writing more!

Best Regards and namaskarams,

Minu Akshaya said...

Beautifully, soulfully, musically and respectfully written��
This shows how a guru should be and a Sishya should be. Wow! Thank you Ravikiran sir for this fantastic article.

Please keep writing more!

Best Regards and namaskarams,

Sarojini Chandrasekar said...

Very very beautifully written and lets one know how a guru sishya relationship ship should emulate.No wonder this great guru's blessings will be always with you .I really feel how I missed an opportunity to learn under such great legend.Having lived in the same time period.pray for a next birth ( which otherwise I dont) to be a student of such an eminent teacher. Pl pass on your knowledge which you have imbibed from her to deserving students irrespective of caste, creed, rich or poor. Music fraternity will bless you.

Nupur Joshi said...

A truly beautiful article and so moving... Extremely valuable and useful for students as well... priceless

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