Senior vocalist Rama Ravi unravelled the uniqueness of the legendary musician’s artistry

Senior vocalist Rama Ravi unravelled the uniqueness of the legendary musician’s artistry

T. Brinda was a musician’s musician. Doyens like Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer and stars like M.S. Subbulakshmi went to her to learn pieces from her repertoire. Discerning rasikas became her staunch followers. What were the unique attributes of the Dhanammal bani that held them all enthralled?

Rama Ravi, the flag-bearer of the bani, threw light on this at the Archival Vintage Concert series, under the endowment of Rajammal Vijayaraghavan, at the Music Academy recently. Rama had delved deep into the archives to showcase some gems.

She had woven together significant biographical facts to highlight the background of certain aspects of Brinda’s artistry.

Rama Ravi and Nanditha Ravi.

Rama Ravi and Nanditha Ravi.
| Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

Born into a family steeped in music, Brinda and her sister Muktha were sent by their mother to vidwan Nayana Pillai at Kanchipuram to be trained to perform concerts as a duo. His extensive repertoire of the Trinity and other vaggeyakaras became the bedrock of Brinda’s musical edifice, along with the padams and javalis that were their family’s treasure.

A surprise package

While Brinda followed the kutcheri paddhati of Ariyakudi Ramanuja Iyengar, she would start with the teaser of an Ata tala varnam in a brisk tempo in Yadukula Kamboji or a kriti in a rare ragam. Kritis like ‘Aparadhamula’ in Rasali or ‘Evare Ramayya’ in Gangeya Bhushani would make vidwans sit up in wonder.

Reposeful pace was known to be her hallmark as borne out by kritis like ‘Venkata saila vihari’ or ‘Tyagaraja yoga vaibhavam’. Her immersion in slow and stately padams was reflected even in kritis like ‘Karubaru’ in Mukhari. Whether slow or fast, Brinda was in total control over the pace of the song.

Though tutored by laya maestro Nayana Pillai, she never opted for strident laya-based exercises in her manodharma flights in niraval or swaraprastaram. Instead, she pitched on raga bhavam in every breath, which made her concerts rich, intense raga experiences. Niraval of the phrase ‘Kanna thalli gada’ (aren’t you my mother?) in the Thodi kriti ‘Ninne namminanu’, the excerpt played, was an example of the raga bhavam merging with the emotion in the lyrics, giving it a poignant appeal.

Exploring long karvais

What was the secret behind such seemingly casual mastery? Rama demonstrated that the gamaka approach to the raga was the cornerstone of the unique bani. Allied with perfect sruti alignment that nailed every note, they revelled in the luxury of long karvais. They could explore and embellish the microtones that lent colour to the raga. For instance, the gandharam of Kalyani in the kriti ‘Kanthimathim’ was somewhere below madhyamam and certainly above the plain antara gandharam. This was their field of play, a monopoly Brinda’s family cherished and guarded. And who is more eminently suited to explain this elusive, nebulous track, than Rama Ravi, who was advised by her guide Viswa (T. Viswanathan), Brinda’s first cousin, to take up gamakas, or graces as the subject of her doctoral thesis?

She laid stress on the breath control, modulation and innate musicality required to sustain the smooth and steady flow of the raga, like a thaila dharai (oil flow) . Phrase upon phrase followed, each veritably growing out of the previous, in a seamless progression. Making a mention of the padam, ‘Mera gaadu rammanave’ (anu pallavi mora thopu) in Sahana, Rama reminded that it called for an amazing voice range, stamina and strength to even attempt it. Taking up such padams towards the end of a long concert, Brinda and Muktha sailed through them with ease, with nary a hint of all the effort and expertise it called for.

Ably assisted by her daughter Nandita Ravi, Rama played excerpts of Brinda’s singing as well as sang some of the passages to elucidate the complexities and the consummate mastery.

The talk that day left everyone longing to listen to a full-length concert of Brinda and Muktha from the Music Academy’s archives. A solo listening experience with earphones is no substitute to listening with other rasikas in an auditorium.

The Chennai-based author is a musician and bilingual writer.

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By Dipak

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