A sum total of the Carnatic aesthetic tradition

Centenary Notes: Admired by her contemporaries and respected by all, T. Brinda blazed her own trail

Updated - November 17, 2021 12:43 am IST

Published - December 23, 2011 11:01 pm IST

T. Brinda. Photo: Raghavendra Rao

T. Brinda. Photo: Raghavendra Rao

T. Brinda — the name conjures up different images. To the musically uninitiated, it is just another name. To the newly introduced, it is a vague recollection of a name associated with music that was too other-worldly and certainly not ‘popular'. The music lover and student utter it with reverence, as belonging to an artiste whose musicianship was superlative. To the connoisseur, it is an association with the highest principles in art and life, far beyond the immediate and short-lived thrill of a concert. To the Dhanammal music fanatic, it is the only music worth listening to.

The birth centenary of Brindamma (as she is referred to among the music fraternity) falls in the year 2012. What could she mean to my generation that barely heard her music while she lived, and to the next crop of students and young artistes who have only heard her voice on a record?

I was introduced to her music by my mentor Chitravina Ravikiran nearly 15 years ago, shortly after my move to Chennai and sadly, Brindamma's demise. It was a music that grew on me gradually, and within a few months, I could not have enough of it, despite the fact that I had access to very few recordings. Ravikiran, who had learnt directly from Brinda and who had the good fortune to host her in his home, says she was deeply loyal to the music she had imbibed from her guru-s and steadfast in her musical principles and ethics, never succumbing to the pressures of having to satisfy an audience. Her voice was capable of malleable softness, clarity and depth, all at once. It could handle highly slow or fast tempo with the same ease.

The early training Brinda received from her mother Kamakshi, her grandmother, the legendary Veena Dhanammal, and her tutelage under Kanchipuram Naina Pillai, gained her, besides a formidable repertoire, a unique style of music that blended the brisk, gripping and powerful with the delicate, tranquil and intricate. She was a storehouse of many rare compositions of the Trinity as well as innumerable padams and javalis that were rendered with an effortless sheen that comes only with a unique understanding of raga music. Today, she is almost synonymous with the works of the Trinity, Subbaraya Shastri, the padams of Ksehtragna and Ghanam Krishna Iyer, and the javalis of Dharmapuri Subbarayar, Pattabhiramaiyya and Patnam Subramania Iyer, thanks to her matchless style of rendering compositions such as Rama Rama (Bhairavi), Ososi (Mukhari), Moratopu (Sahana), Payyada (Nadanamakriya), Yala padare (Begada), Mosamaya (Ahiri), Sakhi prana (Chenjuruti), Smara sundaranguni (Paras), Adi neepai (Yamunakalyani) and many more. One never tires of listening to these renditions and is constantly awed afresh by the unusual approach to each raga in these compositions.

Around 1934, A.R. Sundaram, the first of Brinda's many students, was all of 15 years when she began her training with the latter, who, despite being a young guru of 22, was as demanding and strict as ever. She recalls how Brinda was unrelenting about the learning process, for she would allow no notations during class and would expect a perfect rendition of the new lesson in the subsequent class. She was discipline personified and would not tolerate any changes in the songs that she taught, a rule she consistently followed throughout her own life. Sundaram still cherishes her memories of the nearly decade-long discipleship, during which period she learnt a priceless selection of songs from Brinda and also had the good fortune of accompanying her for a concert at the Kapaleeshwara temple in Madras.

Students, stalwarts and peers

Many yesteryear musicians came under the influence of Brinda's music. Among those who learnt directly from her include none other than Ramnad Krishnan, Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer and M.S. Subbulakshmi. Others such as Aruna Sairam, B. Balasubramanian and Ravikiran have been Brinda's full-time students while T.K. Govinda Rao, S.R. Janakiraman, T.R. Subramaniam, Rama Ravi, Unnikrishnan, Shashikiran and Anooradha Sriram studied under her in academic settings such as the Music College or Sampradaya. S. Girish, Brinda's grandson and direct disciple, is also an accomplished Carnatic musician. In her earlier years, Brinda performed extensively with her sister Mukta and in her later years, with her daughter, Vegavahini Vijayaraghavan.

For all her strict adherence to the traditional repertoire she had imbibed, she was also a cerebral and analytical artiste. She held the post of Professor at the Central College of Carnatic Music, Madras, and also was the Visiting Professor at the University of Washington, Seattle. Among her titles and awards are the Sangeeta Kalanidhi by The Music Academy, Madras (1977), and the Sangeet Natak Akademi award (1965).

‘Spencer' R. Venugopal, an ardent votary of Brinda's music, observes, in his inimitable style: “Music requires diverse skills that in consummation should hardly disclose their presence, verily like the flower which blooms after absorbing the myriad powers of nature and reveals nothing but its own unique beauty and fragrance. Likewise, Brinda integrated several artistic virtues in her holistically beautiful music. To describe the beauty of her music through a discussion of its technical or artistic merits is like dissecting the flower to discover where its beauty came from. It is even difficult to say if her inimitable tonal excellence was the cause or effect of her music. She sang naturally without ostentation or camouflage. Even if she had tried, she could not have sung differently. She sang a pure ‘art' music whose emotion was aesthetic, not dramatic. Whilst she blazed her own trail no doubt, she also illumined the sum total of all our aesthetic tradition. She achieved what she did not through conquest but surrender to the beauteous joy of classical art.”

As Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer asserted, “Even if one can sing a single padam as well as Brinda, one can consider one's life well-spent.”

I have had the opportunity to learn some padams like Adiyokka (Kambodhi), Payyada (Nadanamakriya) and Poosa daramu (Todi) from A.R. Sundaram, besides many others from Ravikiran, both of whom have been vital links to my understanding of a great musical style and lineage. As evidenced by available recordings of her music and the testimony of her circle of close associates, T. Brinda was a stellar musician and more importantly, a human being with profound commitment, clarity of thought and strength of character. These are values, both personal and musical, that could provide much-needed inspiration for the coming generations of students and musicians.

(The author is a Carnatic vocalist, writer and painter)

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