It is not often that in a performance by a veteran dancer, you forget to watch the dance and instead find yourself focusing on the singer and her riveting music. With a silken voice that she uses beautifully to produce a myriad of emotions, the young singer effortlessly takes the quality of the dance performance up several notches. Whether she’s singing in a dance recital or in a solo concert, she sings with abandon and an unmistakable cheeriness. On the stage and off, she displays a rare joie de vivre in everything she does. Meet Vasudha Ravi, talented young vocalist and disciple of Dr Manjula Sriram.
Do you come from a family of musicians? When did you start learning Carnatic music?
My paternal grandfather Shri Nagasubramaniam was a musician. He did his Sangeetha Bhushanam from Annamalai University, and was a student of Shri Tiger Varadachar. On the maternal side, my cousin’s great grandfather was Prof. P. Sambamurthy. I started learning music formally when I was seven, though my paati and amma had taught me songs and short kritis much earlier.
Was Dr Manjula Sriram your first guru?
Yes. I vividly remember how I was rushed to Mami’s place for the first time while I was watching Vikram Aur Vethal on Doordarshan after school one day! I sang a few bhajans and the ragamalika Karpagavalli Nin. When I was done, Mami said, “She will be my shishya-ponnu”!
Tell me about your tutelage with her. You say on your website that she has been your guru not only musically but also spiritually.
Anyone who knows my guru personally will vouch for her passion for music. In the beginning, my classes were between half an hour and one hour long. After class, she would let me play with Barbie dolls and a kitchen set! With time, the classes extended to two, sometimes four hours! Classes were holistic — learning included clarifying the authenticity of sahityam, understanding its meaning, understanding raga lakshanam, listening to recordings, building on ideas from the recordings, even narrating musical anecdotes and sharing a hearty laugh! On weekends, classes would go on endlessly! I’ve spent more than 20 years with my guru — that’s more than I’ve spent with my parents, I think!
Mami observes several orthodox practices — she does not teach ragas like Varali, Manirang, Shree and Madhyamavathi. She insists that kritis with bheejaksharams like the Navavarnas and other such compositions of Muthuswamy Dikshitar are rendered with ‘madi’ and ‘aacharam’. If we sing Ahiri in class, Mami asks us to follow it up with a guru stuti, Shree raga or Madhyamavathi. She gave me a book on Shree Chakra when she introduced me to the Navavarnas and taught me Kamalambam Bhajare in Kalyani. She has spent hours talking about vachanas, Kanakadasa lyrics, VeeraShaiva saints, the purpose of music and so on! Mami is my guardian angel and my guru in every possible way — she has given me a thirst for music, shown me my life’s path, but also made me chart my own course.
Tell me about your first public performance.
I can never forget my first concert! I must have been in my 5th standard. It was in the Moolaprakrithi Amman temple, which is in the same premises as the Nungambakkam Cultural Academy. This was the same temple where — by divine grace — I met my guru for the first time. We didn’t invite anybody at all, because in those days, arangetrams were not a big deal! There was no special preparation — all I knew was that I was going to sing most of the krithis that I had learnt until then, without any manodharma. I remember that Mami told me very clearly, “Don’t worry about singing into a microphone. Don’t bother about who is in the audience and who’s not. The most important member of your audience is Ambal and she will be listening to you.” And that’s the same advice she gives me even today! Young as I was, I implicitly absorbed everything that Mami said though secretly I was extremely nervous about Mami listening to me from the audience!
When did you decide you were going to become a full-time professional musician? I believe you have an MBA and worked in an IT company for a few years.
Well, it just happened! I love nutrition dietetics, in which I have a BSc. In the final year of my BSc, I had a major paper in HR and I fell in love with it — hence the MBA! I had a small fancy dream of working in an office with glass doors, so I began working a 9 to 5 job! And believe me, I loved every bit of it!
Here again I must mention my guru. She never wanted me to quit mainstream education though my dad had been keen since my school days that I pursue music full time. But whatever Mami said was always the final verdict, I didn’t think much about or analyse it!
Did you move to America for a few years, and when exactly was this? Do you think that slowed down your career growth?
Yes, only for two years — between 2009 and 2011. It was a fresh chapter in my life, and enjoyable every minute! My husband and I were both active, performing and practising. The move actually gave us new opportunities, helped us develop new perspectives and made us less myopic!
How has marriage and a child impacted your music? Considering your husband is also a musician, what is his contribution to your musical growth?
Marriage, husband, in-laws and child – they are all blessings I’ve received from heaven! My mother-in-law has been a music teacher for four decades now at Kendriya Vidyalaya. She is also a President awardee. My father-in-law, though not very involved in music, is very encouraging — which is evident from my mother-in-law’s career. My husband learnt the mridangam and classical vocal music. He plays the tabla in concerts and also sings in collaborative shows. My son seems to show me the beauty of life in every way, every day. We have now started singing small songs together! My family has given me my space and complete freedom, because they know what it takes to be a performing musician. My own parents did exactly the same thing before I got married.
Are you an avid cook as well? I saw a few blog posts you wrote in 2010 on making noodles, mor kuzhambu, etc.
That was a short-lived interest! One of my friends from school asked me to post quick recipes, hence the blog! In reality, I prefer eating to cooking!
I love Bharatham. I wanted to learn Bharathanatyam, but it never happened. It is quite challenging to sing for dance in that one must be in constant pursuit of creativity and emotiveness. Working with ace dancers and doyens like Rajkumar Bharathi sir has given me an altogether new perspective to singing, helped me push my boundaries and overcome my limitations. Singing for dance involves exploring emotions with your voice while you watch the dancer’s movements. The singer’s role in a dance recital is like the voice in a dubbed movie. As one famous dancer said, “See the music, hear the dance”.
You have a very pleasing disposition on stage, breaking into wide smiles often. Does that come from your own enjoyment of your music?
Yes! As my guru says, concerts are offerings to the Almighty, a humble submission of the self in all happiness to the Lord. And in my guru’s words, “If you enjoy yourself and delve into the world of music with sincerity and devotion, the audience will come along too.”
You have worked with music director Ilayaraja on Swappnam — can you tell us more about the project? How was the experience?
During my school days I had the opportunity to do chorus for Raja sir as part of a children’s team. As a soloist, Swappnam was my first rendezvous with Sir. It was an eye-opener. I was stunned everyday — by the way the idea was conceived, the way the tune was brought out, the way the team rehearsed, the discipline in recording, the voice production — I could just go on and on! It was an experience of a lifetime!
When did you start teaching — after you moved to the US? Do you have any teaching methods that are distinctively your own?
Yes, the US stint brought out my liking for teaching. I taught one-to-one classes, with the sole intention of transmitting the art experience my guru has given me. Every child is unique, so I adapt my teaching methods to suit the child’s requirements.
Your voice stands out for being extremely sweet and melodious. Did you do any special sadhakam or voice culture?
No, only the same sarali varisai and alankaram exercises that everyone does. They are the magic tools, in my opinion.
Have you been to any other guru?
My guru took me to TRS mama a couple of times to learn the nuances of pallavis. For a brief while I also had the opportunity to learn from A. Sundaresan mama. Mama and my guru were colleagues at the Music Academy, where they worked as lecturers.
When did Mami move to Bangalore? How have you been learning since then?
Almost eight years ago. She does not Skype, nor is she comfortable teaching on the phone. So I go to Bangalore to learn. Each time I go, I learn enough to work on, to research and to practise. Each Bangalore trip is like an energy drink, it leaves me all charged up — that’s the Mami Effect!
In your opinion, what’s the best compliment you’ve received for your music so far?
There’s one incident I remember vividly. It was the first time I performed in Raga Sudha Hall, and also my first ever sabha concert in Mylapore. So Mami asked me to sing Bhairavi. Till today, I record every concert I sing; Mami listens to the recording and reviews it for me. When I was a child, Mami was never generous in her appreciation of my singing lest I become complacent. So the post-concert, in-person review of that Raga Sudha concert was critical. But the TDK 90-minute cassette had “Good” written in her handwriting! I will cherish that compliment from Mami forever!
Tell us three things about yourself that we don’t know.
I’ll tell you three things I love: eating, roaming around and laughing to my heart’s content!
Where do you want to be in the music field 10 years from now?
No goals set! I will be in pursuit of good music as always, true to my guru and her teachings!