By Sushma Somasekharan
(Conversations with emerging artists)
2017 started off on a great note for vocalist Bharathi Ramasubban. Looking thrilled and elated about her Outstanding Junior Vocalist Award for her performance at The Madras Music Academy, Bharathi is looking forward to an exciting musical year ahead. Her grandmother was a direct disciple of one of the famous Carnatic composers of the 20th century, Harikesanallur Muthiah Bhagavatar. Her mother was also a music student and has a Bachelors in music. After her initiation to Carnatic music through both of them, Bharathi trained with Seetha Rajan and is now a disciple of PS Narayanaswamy.
Bharathi speaks to Sruti about her musical pursuit.
How has your learning experience been with PSN?
The classroom was never a formal space. With sir, I was always learning; in the car, under the pavazhamalli tree, even while buying betel leaves on Mada Street! In the midst of all the chaotic hustle and bustle, he would point out the smallest error in what I sang. “Andha sangati ya innum azhutthama padu! (Sing that sangati with more weight!)” he would say.
Sir was a stickler for ‘azhuthamana’ (weighty) open-throated singing, it did not matter whether I was singing in the car or in class – I was not to compromise on those qualities! Sir lets his students grow at their own pace and moulds us accordingly. He always insisted that listening to the old masters and your peers was the best and fastest means of learning.
In my initial years of learning from him, I would go for classes straight from school. I would look forward to our mini coffee and tiffin ritual before singing. I had classes almost every day; for music gave me the support and reprieve I needed from all the academic pressure. Sometimes it would be a solo class or at other times, there would be four or five of us singing together. It was all unplanned and spontaneous.
This spontaneity resulted in camaraderie amongst Sir’s disciples. He treated us and taught us the same. He taught us to be good musicians regardless of whether we decided to become performing artistes or not. When I was pursuing my undergrad studies at Stella Maris College, I was not sure if I would take up music as a full time profession but that had no bearing on how Sir taught me. He just let me grow organically.
PSN must have shared some memorable anecdotes with you about his experience with the legendary Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer.
There are so many over the years! Sir once mentioned that Semmangudi mama had chided him for referring to a piece of paper during a concert – everything was to be memorised! He also shared with me how Semmangudi mama would sing any new song that he learnt every day for almost two months before presenting it in a concert. In order to internalise the composition, he would teach the songs to the sishyas and sing with them.
Did you start learning music with the intention of pursuing it full time?
Not at all. I used to perform just intermittently. I also took a year off to pursue a Masters programme in Biotechnological Law and Ethics at Sheffield, UK. I think it was the time away that gave me the perspective I needed. I enjoyed studying and made some life-long friendships in the UK, but music consumed me and I wanted to return to be as close to it as possible. I tried imagining myself in a law firm or a Non-Government Organisation but I knew that would not satisfy me. PSN sir jokes about how I found my Bodhi tree in England.
I am also ever thankful to RK Shriramkumar anna for being an invaluable family friend and guide. He has inspired me through his music and interaction as I made some important decisions in my life.
Even now, I am not entirely sure where my music pursuit is taking me, but I am loving this journey and there is no other ride I would want to trade it for.
Your concert listening experience – as a listener vs as a performer. How is it different?
There was a period when PSN sir used to perform chamber concerts on the 16th of every month at Mr Jagadiswaran’s residence at Abhiramapuram. It was an informal setting. Attendees included the veterans, stars of the day and up and coming musicians. He would accede to all our song requests. That, I would say, is my earliest instance of a listener striking a connection with the performer. I loved it. I wanted to soak in everything my Guru sang.
PSN sir always says that it is by listening to her seniors and peers that a musician grows and I have benefitted greatly from this advice. Listening with viveka is essential. As a musician now, I find it rewarding to gain insights into other artists’ thinking process and artistic sensibilities. It has inspired me and facilitated my growth as a musician.
As audiences evolve, so do their tastes. How do you ensure a fresh spin on your performances while retaining classicism?
As you know, our music is a blend of kalpita and kalpana sangita. Hence, I am consciously working on building a vast repertoire of compositions, rare and otherwise. Recently, many artists have taken to thematic presentations and I think this is great because it presents songs in a fresh way for the audiences. Apart from building a song repertoire, it is also important to think of new ways of presenting kalpana sangitam; taking new eduppus to sing niraval and swarams. For example, in the kriti Akshayalingavibho by Muthuswami Dikshitar, every line in the charanam lends itself to expansive and meaningful niraval elaboration. An artist can always explore new lines in the kriti to expand and improvise. I think this challenges the artists on stage and also provides something fresh for the audiences.
You are involved in several musical collaborations.
I have been a part of many of Shriramkumar anna’s lecture demonstrations and thematic presentations and sung with my fellow musicians Amritha Murali, Nisha Rajagopalan and Ramakrishnan Murthy. I was also part of a special concert along with Sowmya akka, Ramakrishnan Murthy, Bharat Sundar and Vidya Kalyanaraman for YACM’s silver jubilee celebrations. I also collaborated for a harikatha-kutcheri with Suchitra for Bharat Sangeet Utsav and learnt a couple of songs traditionally sung in the harikatha sampradaya. All these experiences have been enlightening, enriching and enjoyable.
Gowri Ramnarayan aunty and I have been part of two projects together. The first, her pet project, Oli Chamber Concerts was a yearlong celebration of the music of senior and young musicians in a mic-less, unamplified set up. This was a chance to enjoy pure, true sound and we visibly found musicians and listeners being more sensitive to it.
Gowri aunty, Anjana Anand and I collaborated for ‘Sakhi’, a confluence of dance, theatre and music to showcase friendship across cultures. I had to act and sing! I learnt all about body language and dialogue delivery. I thoroughly enjoyed learning what great poets and writers like Rumi, Kahlil Gibran and Vikram Seth had to say about friendship. My personal favourite was a kathakali padam in Navaroj that showcased the friendship of Krishna and Draupadi.
Lastly, indulge us and your readers. What is your go-to raga or song when you’re seeking a little comfort?
My go-to raga or kriti keeps changing with my frame of mind. This week’s raga seems to be Bilahari. My go-to song for the last six months has been Kamalasanavandita a nottusvara of Muthuswami Dikshitar’s. Medha, my 8 month old daughter is in love with it.
When I am feeling low, singing anything with my tambura calms my mind. Sometimes, while driving, listening to my favourite masters cheers me. I do have to admit though, listening to these giants is a bittersweet experience. The initial euphoria or bliss is quickly followed by a case of blues due to the unattainable standards that they have all set!