T Brinda was one of the greatest musicians to have graced the field of Carnatic music. On the occasion of her 88th birth anniversary, which falls on 5th November 2000, Kiranavali Vidyasankar, the Editor of Carnatica and one of her disciples, pays her tribute.

I must have barely been in my teens. My second brother, Shashikiran’s mridangam guru, Sri Palghat Sundaram was a frequent visitor to my house. He not only taught Shashi, but also participated in our practice sessions, often singing himself and sharing interesting anecdotes on musicians. On one such occasion, my father, Chitravina maestro Narasimhan, got talking about T Brinda and her musicianship and mentioned that he was planning to send my elder brother Ravikiran, an already established musician, to learn some select Padams and Javalis from her. Sundaram mama said it would be a good idea if only Ravi could contend with her sharp tongue!

That was the first time Brindamma, as she was affectionately called, made a memorable entry into my life. Anyway, very soon, one of our well wishers, Y G Doraiswamy, a great connoisseur of arts, who knew Brindamma very well, offered to introduce Ravi to her. Surprisingly, Brindamma, who had the reputation of being very choosy about her students readily agreed. And the classes began.

The first thing that Brindamma told Ravi was that she would not just teach him Padams and Javalis, but  also rare kritis that she thought fit. How wonderful for us! The first kriti that she taught was Sri Kamalambike in Sriragam, the Mangala kriti of Dikshitar’s Navavarnams. Ravi thought he’d learn it better if he taught it to us simultaneously. The first time I heard it, I was absolutely floored! It just dripped with class! And I really perked up after that. All those years, I hadn’t heard much of her music, but this one song was enough.

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I was keen to attend the classes with my brother, if only as a mute spectator. (I didn’t have the guts to open my mouth in front of her anyway!) So the next song was another masterpiece, Vidulaku in Mayamalavagowla. And then followed other such lovely pieces like Chinnanadena (which we had already learnt from our father, but didn’t tell her for fear of sounding like an ‘adhikaprasangi’), Talachinavaru (Dhanyasi), Nannubrochutaku (Todi), Inkevarunnaru (Sahana) and so on.

During this process, I was slowly getting addicted to her style, almost to a point of no return. And Brindamma was equally enthusiastic to teach Ravi, never stinting on her vast and classy repertoire. All this while I was still the silent spectator.

One fine evening, soon after I’d finished my 12th standard, I went to visit her. She suddenly asked me to sing. I didn’t dare to sing anything that she’d taught my brother, though I knew them by heart. I instead sang  something that my father had taught me. I was naturally very nervous. However, to my great surprise, at the end of it she said, “Okay, you come for class tomorrow. Not with Ravi, but alone!” To say that I was tongue-tied would be the greatest understatement. I was thrilled beyond words at my good fortune, but equally apprehensive at the same time.

Nevertheless, I went home and practised whatever she had taught my brothers (by then, Shashikiran had also become her student when he won a Ford Foundation scholarship to learn the Vina Dhanammal bani). Thus began this beautiful relationship. Contrary to what I had heard about her, she was very gentle, diplomatic and caring while at the same time being principled and firm.

Our classes would begin at 6:30 and go on till 9 pm. My cousin, Ganesh, or one of my brothers would join me too. Those were certainly one of the most memorable periods of my life. She never charged any fees from us, but instead was very generous with her knowledge. Our classes took place everyday. Initially we only sang the songs that she had taught us, but slowly, she would ask us to sing from our repertoire too. We would start with a varnam, and sing everything in a concert pattern. She would ask us to sing kalpanaswaras and neraval too, challenging us with different and difficult eduppus.

She was nearly 80 then, but her voice never wavered or faltered, never missed a single sangati nor did her memory fail. If we made a mistake, we’d know it through her facial statement, which would be just a slight frown!

Being a predominantly lakshya-oriented (instinctive) singer, though aware of lakshana (theory), she expected us to be that way too. But our father had already instilled a scientific and analytical thinking in us and there were many an occasion when we’d look askance at some of the sangatis and prayogas. However, we didn’t have the guts to argue with her. Being the sensitive and sharp woman that she was, she would notice it and say, “Kezhkka nanna irukku daane? Adudaan mukhyam. Namba yaaru mattaratukku? Pannavaalodava nambalukku teriyum? Ivvalavu ellam pannavalukku inda tappu terinjirukkada? Edo oru kaaranatukku daan anda sangati ava pottirukka. Namba adai maattakoodadu.” (Meaning: It sounds good, doesn’t it? That’s what is important. Who are we to change? Do we know more than the composers themselves? For someone who composed all these lovely things, wouldn’t they know about the mistake? There must have been some reason behind having that sangati. We shouldn’t change it). Well, it speaks volumes about her conviction and integrity.

Often she would come and stay with us in our house because she loved the musical atmosphere. Those were really wonderful days! But initially, I was a bit apprehensive about having our guru listen to my practice sessions! But in due course, I picked up courage, overcame my fears and inhibitions and went about my routine. We had our usual classes in the evening, with the whole family participating in it.

My father’s biggest complaint was that our singing lacked the depth that Brindamma possessed. Well, it was a tall order and Brindamma told him so one day! "Ennoda vayasu enna, anubhavam enna? Ippove ellame vandutta, apparam ennoda anubhavatukku enna velai?" (Meaning: What’s my age and experience? If they are able to sing everything right away, then what’s the value of my experience and practice?!). My father would keep quiet then, but I’m sure he was never convinced!

By now, our relationship had matured to a level where it had gone beyond the realms of just guru-sishya. I was also accompanying her in her radio and other public concerts. For her stature and the amount of practice she must have put in during her younger days, one would think that she would just sing whatever came to her mind. But no, she would diligently practice the items, if only to keep her voice in shape. The commitment was so deep and total. A perfectionist to the core, I suppose she was her greatest critic! She wouldn’t easily be able to reconcile to the second best.

Her pet peeve was that some people had branded her a padam-javali specialist. Although it is true that in that area she remains unsurpassed till date, she was also an authority on many other composers’ works such as Dikshitar, Syama Sastri, Subbaraya Sastri, Patnam Subramanya Iyer and so on, having been the grand-daughter of Vina Dhanammal, who learnt these masterpieces either from the composers themselves or from their prominent disciples. Besides, she was a specialist also in Tyagaraja's kritis, learnt in the Walajapet style from Naina Pillai.

Another popular misconception about her singing is that it always “dragged”. It couldn’t be further from the truth. Brindamma, at 84, could easily execute super fast sangatis. Imagine what it would have been like in her youth! In fact, it is reputed that she used to be called the “boat-mail” by Vina Dhanammal when she used to learn from Naina Pillai. The boat-mail, an express train between Madras and Rameswaram, was then the fastest mode of transport! A thorough analysis of her tapes will reveal that she made it a point to include fast to super fast songs within the first half an hour of the concert. I’ve heard her sing songs like Epapamu (in Atana, which was full of sangatis), Neepada pankaja (Begada), Neemuddumomu (Kamalamanohari), Vinave O manasa (Vivardhini) etc at mind-boggling speeds with tremendous clarity and without prejudice to the beautiful gamakas too. And she sure did ensure that we did that in our classes too! 

Coming to the other reason why people thought (and still do!) her music “dragged” was with regard to the way she handled gamakas. Again, it is only a question of perception. She actually sang plenty of plain notes and on close examination, Brindamma’s gamakas are very appropriate and closer to the mark too.

She was a highly independent woman, disciplined and perhaps much ahead of her times. Although many awards and accolades such as Sangeeta Kalanidhi, Sangeeta Kalasikhamani, the President's Award and Swaralaya Puraskar were bestowed upon her, she was totally committed to the Art and regarded the rest as just ‘incidentals’. Her death following a brief illness on 6th August 1996 created a big vacuum not only in our lives but also the world of Carnatic music. But her music still lives on…

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