Madhura Dhara Talluri is breaking her head over legendary classical musician Muthuswami Dikshitar and his Hindustani influence. It is part of research for her dissertation at Chennai’s Kalakshetra, where she is currently pursuing a diploma in Carnatic music.
It was when she was analysing some of his work a couple of weeks ago that she got a call from AR Rahman’s Panchathan studios. “They wanted to know my full name,” she recalls, “I knew that this meant that I was getting my first big break soon.”
She is referring to ‘Unakaga’ from Vijay-starrer Bigil , through which she debuted as a playback singer in films. Posting the number, Rahman wrote: ‘Madhura is one of the most interesting singers we found in recent times... versatile with a traditionalist soul.”
Mention that to her, and she cannot stop gushing about the recording, which happened a few weeks ago when she was called in to sing “for an Atlee film.” “I recorded two versions, one with ARR’s assistants and later one with him. He suggested a few changes. I also worked extensively with the lyricist (Vivek) to understand the meaning of the lines, in order to get the emotion right.” It helped that all this action was taking place at Panchathan studio, which she describes as a ‘blessed place.’ “It is so quiet and very inspiring when you see all the people there at work,” she says.
This was the third time she was officially meeting the Oscar winner — the first time was last year when she was at Berklee for a summer programme. “We happened to meet, and jammed a bit and discussed music. Later, he called me to be part of the chorus in Bhubaneshwar for a concert he was doing for the hockey world cup,” she recalls.
If recording at Panchathan was a special experience, singing it live in front of thousands at the recently-held Bigil audio launch was another “surreal experience” for Madhura. “Though I’ve been part of a chorus before, this was me stepping in front of thousands of people for the first time. There was a massive crowd, full of Vijay fans, and I was nervous. Thankfully, once I started singing, I went into a zone...I have sung it so many times that it is ingrained in me.” She herself has listened to ‘Unakaaga’ “many, many times” since it released online. “This is the first time I am hearing my voice after it was recorded professionally. I kept listening,” smiles the singer, who also contributed to the ‘Maathare’ number in the album.
Varied musical influences
Madhura hails from a Telugu-speaking family (her father is from Rajahmundry and mother from Visakhapatnam), but was raised entirely in Gurugram. “I have been training in Hindustani music since I was five,” she says, “I even home-schooled during the Xth standard since I wanted to concentrate on music.”
Her musical influences came mostly from her parents, who were very fond of old Hindi and Telugu music. As a child, she would listen to the numbers of SD Burman and Geeta Dutt. “At antaksharis , I would always be that little girl singing very old songs. I would sing Lata Mangeshkar melodies, and everyone would look surprised,” smiles the 21-year-old.
After completing school, when she had to decide what to do, Madhura had two options to choose from: Archaeology or Music. She was interviewed for Kalakshetra, and once selected, “took a leap of faith into the music field. The first year was a big eye-opener. Here, you are supposed to wear saris , and that itself was a culture shock at first! It (Kalakshetra) is known primarily as a dance school, but the Carnatic music and visual arts department too has some amazing teachers, and our day is filled with so much music. The place provides a very inspiring atmosphere, one that is really conducive to pursuing music. Our prayers include hymns from all religions, and are set in different ragas as well,” says Madhura, who trains under AS Murali and Nandita Ravi at the school.
Post her diploma in Kalakshetra, Madhura plans to apply to Berklee and other colleges for a course in music therapy, and specialise in jazz. “I have always been interested in learning Hindustani, Carnatic and Western so that I can bring a combination of all three to the table. That has been my wish for a long time.” That is one option, i but there is one more. “I might stay back in Chennai to pursue Carnatic music classes. I am keeping my options open for now.”
For now, she is basking in the fame of ‘Unakaaga’. The day it released, she was flooded with congratulatory messages. The next day, when she walked into college, the entire assembly erupted into applause. “It felt unreal.”
Up next on her agenda is catching up on the films she has missed out in the past. “I don’t watch too many Tamil films, but I will now surely catch up on all of Vijay’s,” she says with a smile.