She is the daughter of a venerable vocalist and a torchbearer of the Brindamma bani. Those are not easy tags to live up to, but she does it with quiet aplomb. The mark of her gurus is unmistakable in her singing, but she has imbibed the best from them and moulded it into a graceful style of her own. Her guru bhakti comes across in the reverent tones in which she speaks about them. She has distinguished herself not only as a vocalist, but also as a research scholar, having earned a doctorate in music (for her research on the Sanskrit composers in Muthuswamy Dikshithar’s shishya parampara) and presented several papers on other research topics. Meet the redoubtable Dr Nanditha Ravi, daughter of veteran vocalist Smt. Rama Ravi.
I believe you were brought up by your grandmother Smt. Thulasi Ammal until you were five years old. What do you remember from those five years? Did you learn music then?
Yes, I was brought up in Chennai by my grandmother Smt. Thulasi Ammal, who was a musician in her own right. She was an accomplished vocalist and violinist, having trained under the legendary Parur Sundaram Iyer. Although I did not have formal music training in those years, she lovingly taught me Andal pasurams, small kritis and shlokams set to tune by her, all of which I learnt playfully.
After you joined your parents in Kolkata, what are the earliest memories of music that you have?
It is difficult is recollect particular incidents from that period. But since music was always in the air in the family, it was quite natural for me to imbibe the strains through ‘kelvi’.
When did you start formally learning music, and was it from your mother?
Yes. It was much later though, when I was in my 10th standard, that my formal training began under Amma.
I assume you moved a lot because your father was in railway service. Which places have you lived in? Did this affect your schooling and music education?
Yes, the family had obviously to move to places where Appa was posted. We lived in Lucknow, Kolkata, Katihar and finally in New Delhi, which was his longest stint. But even so, the most important schooling years and my grooming in music did not get disrupted. During this period, I had the opportunity to learn from Gopalakrishnan Sir for a couple of years, who used to teach me with great love and dedication. Till this day, I have fond recollections of the Delhi days.
When you were young, did you want to become a musician yourself or did you learn music because of your mother?
Neither did my mother want me to become a musician, nor did I! I learnt music for the sake of the art.
After we moved to Chennai, under Amma’s direction, my music classes began in all earnestness with Shri Ramachandran — and they went on for a little over a decade. While this was happening, I also had the rare and unique opportunity to learn from Pattamma mami.
Both of them were insistent on pathantara shuddham and strict adherence to sampradaya.
Ramachandran Sir liked to throw us challenges by first exposing us to kritis in rare ragas and then encouraging us to be creative by attempting manodharma in such ragas, in many different ‘edams’. This instilled a lot of confidence in us and helped us stand on our own feet in challenging situations. He dissuaded us from parroting the standard ‘korvais’, at the same time demonstrating kalpana swaras in interesting sarva laghu patterns. In fact, this was his forté. His capacity to notate kritis made it very simple for his students to understand and learn them.
But above all, what stood out significantly in his role as a true acharya was his dedication and commitment to his students’ welfare — he ensured that he was on time, every time, for his classes, be it in battering rain or blazing heat! This was during his home visit days. Later, when his health did not permit him to move about, he conducted classes at home and would insist that both students and parents of students be punctual. He has a man who walked the talk. All in all, I had a memorable student life with him.
Pattamma mami had the uncanny knack of teaching in such a manner that all our learning was completed as classwork — nothing left for homework! Her stand-out qualities were her affection, dedication and most of all, her humility.
Have you learnt from Brindamma/Mukthamma yourself? If not, tell us what your mother/Shri Bombay Ramachandran have told you about learning from them.
I haven’t had the opportunity to learn from either Brindamma or Mukthamma. But I vividly remember having accompanied my mother to visit Brindamma when she had taken ill. On being asked to sing a song, I sang Tyagarajaya Namaste, a Muthuswamy Dikshithar kriti in Begada. It is but natural to have butterflies in the stomach, singing in the presence of such a stalwart. But when I finished the song, Brindamma asked me why I was nervous, when I’d in fact sung well! Priceless words of encouragement that are etched forever in my mind!
Brindamma was a stickler for discipline and conciseness, and it came through both in Amma’s adherence to sampradaya and Ramachandran sir’s teaching methodology.
In terms of music, can you tell us the most important things you have learnt from your gurus?
Adherence to sampradaya; dedicating myself to the art for the sake of the art and nothing else, with a focus on wholesome learning; and the importance of appreciating the aesthetic value of the art.
How many hours a day did you practise when you were young? How many hours do you practise now? What do you practise?
There was no particular timetable for practice sessions then. These days, music practice happens as and when time permits. It goes without saying — nearer the concert, more the practice!
Which year and what award was this?
That’s me receiving the Music Academy’s fellowship for research in 2009.
Do you remember your very first concert at the Music Academy?
Yes, I was quite confident and it reflected in the manner in which my concert was delivered. The main song was Daatsukovalena in Todi raga and Misra Jhampa tala, which by itself is considered a challenge to any first timer, especially on a platform such as the Academy. The concert was well attended, which was encouraging, considering that many might have come in to find out who the new singer was! It was reviewed well in the press. In fact, after that concert, Sangeetha Kalanidhi designate, Shri Sanjay Subrahmanyan, came backstage and thumbs upped me! Coming from him, it was a shot in the arm for an up-and-coming artiste like me! Apart from congratulating me, Shri Sanjay also spoke encouragingly to my grandmother Smt. Thulasi Subramaniam, who along with Smt. Rukmini Rajagopalan (Shri Sanjay’s grandmother), was a student of the illustrious Parur Sundaram Iyer.
Besides your mother teaching you music, how have your parents helped in your music career?
My parents ensured that I was exposed to and able to appreciate both Hindustani (my mother being an accomplished student of that genre) and Carnatic music, and of course learn good quality music. They were always encouraging and insisted that I imbibe the best traits from all performers, both instrumentalists and vocalists.
My husband, Vinod, and his family have also played a significant role in my journey as a musician.
Have you ever felt the pressure to perform, being the daughter of a very respected musician?
Yes. Expectedly, there has been pressure on me as I have had to shoulder the responsibility of stepping into the shoes of an ‘uncompromising traditionalist’ — which my mother is.
What made you do a BSc and MCA and not just plunge full time into performing?
Physics was my ‘pet’ subject, hence the BSc. In fact, I would have loved to pursue my higher studies in Physics. I studied MCA because my mother strongly recommended it.
Higher studies happened in my case for two reasons. One, my parents’ desire to give me a good education. Second, they felt that the quality of my music should not be subject to compromises of any sort for any reason, including education.
I believe you also worked for two years after that – where did you work?
Yes. I worked as a lecturer in the Computer Science department at the Kumara Rani Meena Muthiah College of Arts and Science, Gandhinagar, Adyar.
When and how did you then decide to give up your job for music?
It was during the fall of September 2002, that my mother was invited by CMANA for a tour of North America. I had to accompany her and owing to constraints on the part of the college, I had to give up my job, which I would have loved to continue otherwise.
Your PhD thesis was on the Sanskrit compositions of the Muthuswamy Dikshithar shishya parampara. Which composers did you cover, and what were your significant findings?
Within the Dikshitar family, I covered Subbarama Dikshithar, Ambi Dikshithar, et al. Outside, it was Vedanta Bhagavathar, Ananthakrishnayyar, Sundaram Ayyar, et al.
I found that all the aspects that have been touched upon by Muthuswamy Dikshithar have been collectively handled by all the composers in his shishya parampara. Each of the composers has contributed to the different aspects by which one looks at a kriti — sahitya, language, raga, tala, theme, structure and so on. Thus the composers of the shishya parampara can be conceived as the different tributaries of rivers, together representing the ocean that Muthuswamy Dikshithar was.
When did you start teaching? How do you ensure that you pass on the best of what you have learnt from your gurus to your students?
It has been a little over 15 years since I started teaching, during which time I have realized that it is one’s own dedication and commitment to the art that makes the art open its doors to you. My teaching years include my stint at Kalakshetra Foundation, where I presently work as a visiting faculty.
Do you aim to become a “star” performer in terms of the crowds you draw, or are you satisfied with the niche you have created for yourself?
It has never been my wish to be a star performer. I am quite satisfied with the niche I have created!