On this auspicious day of Vijayadashami, a celebration of timeless values and truths, I wanted to share this lovely tribute to my late guru, T. Brinda. I came across this article sometime in my early 20s, in a cultural magazine called Rasamanjari. As someone who loves good writing as much as music, I remember going back to it many times simply to savor it more. I salute the author Sri. Seshadri, who wrote under the name Aeolus.
“There is rosemary, that’s for remembrance; pray, love, remember; and there’s pansies, that’s for thoughts.”
- Ophelia in Hamlet, Act IV, Scene V
These lines aptly evoke Brinda, for her name itself denoted a fragrance, that of the tulasi (holy basil). And her personality, like her music, had not only a cosmetic smoothness but also a medicinal astringency, again like the tulasi.
First for the rosemaries. My earliest memory of Brinda is connected with the Experts Committee meetings of the Music Academy, when these meetings were held in the PS High School premises at Mylapore. The experts and the lay were not separated by a proscenium, but sat in easy insouciance, in the small room and shared music as an intimate and mutual experience. In the discussion of every raga lakshana, the Experts Committee would dissect a raga to the bones, but finally referred the raga as regards usage to either Brinda or Jayammal, the mother of Balasaraswati. Their word, if not final, went a long way to shape the finality of the committee’s decision. The experts were formidable scholars and practitioners of the art of music, like Tiger Varadachariar, Mudicondan Venkatarama Iyer, Prof. Sambamoorthy, C. S. Iyer (that uncompromising gladiator), Vissa Appa Rao and the like. By their side, Brinda should have passed for a callow acolyte, but she had the weight of authority of the Dhanammal tradition - a tradition that drew directly from the Trinity on the one hand, and the Tanjore Quartet and Kshetragna on the other. It was a tradition that Brinda carried lightly, as Rama did the Shiva Dhanush, though it could have crushed many another musician with less humility and less poise.
The next time I saw Brinda was in a music concert of Ramnad Krishnan, held in the College of Karnatak Music, where Brinda was a faculty member. During his career as a performing musician, Krishnan had learnt a number of pieces from Brinda, especially javalis but invariably he added to the immutable renditions of the Dhanammal pattern with his elfin imagination. It was an inalterable law with the Dhanammal rendition that there should be no, repeat, no change of even a minor inflection in the format of the piece. But Krishnan could not be contained by any format, not even of the Dhanammal school. Brinda must have felt offended by the effrontery of Krishnan, but was in the end, silenced by the beauty of Krishnan’s singing. I remember vividly the Sriraga which Krishnan sang that day. So should Brinda have remembered. That a person like Krishnan could have got off with the liberty he took with Brinda’s priceless cameos of songs by the sheer beauty of his singing speaks as much of Krishnan’s greatness as a musician as of Brinda’s depth of appreciation.
The third rosemary pertains to a visit of Brinda’s to a private function at which she readily agreed to sing with her sister Mukta after an interegnum of nearly a quarter century. It was with a lot of trepidation that it was suggested to her that she might pick up a relationship that had lain dormant for such a long time. The Dhanammal clan was given to as much internecine rivalry as to a united front against the ‘others’. The very suggestion that they might sing together was perhaps lese-majeste to the imperial temperament of Brinda, as the oldest celebrity in the clan (T. Shankaran though older than Brinda and a celebrity in his own right, did not belong to the competitive fields of personal glory). But Brinda extinguished the quarter century in a moment and gracefully agreed to sing in tandem. They were once more the happy sisters of yore, though Mukta was as much as a disciple of as sister of Brinda.
Now for the pansies. One cannot think of Brinda’s music without experiencing a kind of mulling, within one’s psyche, of its “deliberate speed, majestic instancy”. Like the hound of heaven, it was inveterate and saving. Brinda’s music was not a singing from her heart; it was a singing from the heart of music. Her music advocated not the expression of personality but the extinction of it. This was classicism of the highest order. If Brinda sang Purvikalyani, there was no Brinda there but only Purvikalyani.
The first pansy goes to the union with sruti. Brinda’s sense of sruti alignment was monolithic. It permitted no vagaries of temperament, no personal sallies of the ego, no attempt to cut capers. It invested her music with that silkiness and warmth which were insidious in their influence. After coming into the web of her sruti alignment, you could not think of any demand you could make on her music but could only be aware of the demand her music made on you. The demand her music made on you was for total awareness. The powerful fragrance of tulasi had you in thrall.
Brinda’s elaboration of the raga was deceptively predatory. The more she plundered from the raga, the more it yielded to her. She was not a hatchet predator, she worked with a prising knife, and systematically and with meticulous delicacy took out the precious stones, one by one, and held them to your view and wonderment. She did not strike you speechless by the riches of the horde; she rendered you quiet by the plentitude of the separate gems.
That which held all of Brinda’s music in its place was her sense of laya. Laya for Brinda, as for the school of music she represented, was not a measure of the music; it was the maturation of the music. It was not the outline of the music, but its outcome. It was fractal in its penetration of every swara of the dhatu and every syllable of the matu. There was nothing very surprising in this beacuase the Dhanam school was a repository of kritis of Dikshitar and Syama Sastry and the padams of Kshetragna. The dhatu-matu relationship of these songs defined an entire architectonic of stress and balance which was a challenge to even the most alert and self-assured of singers.
The placement of the stress - and as often its displacement - on the important syllables of the sahitya and the important swaras or gamakas of the raga was the basic matrix in the Brinda’s music, within which the quantas of musical energy were exchanged. It was a ‘gloaming’ of the gods where the graces of the microtones between the swaras met and parted in the creative play of nuances of unsurpassable musical subtlety and beauty. It was lovely to watch the anuswaras leap and sidle, embrace and tumble. Brinda’s music established clearly the fact that the characteristic beauty of Karnatak music lay in the integrity and subtlety of anuswaras rather than in the swaras per se. The anuswaras were the quarks of the musical universe, giving concrete shape to the swaras.
Brinda’s fidelity to the handed-down tradition was uncompromising, notwithstanding the exceptions like Ramnad Krishnan, who perhaps elicited amusement rather than approval in Brinda. The inherited tradition represented a treasure-house of riches which were as invaluable as they were inexhaustible. Brinda’s tutelage was under Kanchipuram Naina Pillai who was himself a purist in the transmission of the vast pathantara that he gleaned from his gurus. Her inheritance of Dhanammal’s hoard of padams and javalis, learnt by the latter from Padam Baldas and Dharmapuri Subbaraya Iyer, gave her the status of a ‘defender of the faith’ in the musical realm. But for all her awesome credentials both in her own right and as a representative of a noble line, Brinda was a very accessible and kind person. While she castigated the charlatans, she loved the genuine seekers of musical culture, especially the youngsters. This culture united her as a person and artist.