Thirty Women on Stage, Singing as One Voice in Tribute to Bharatiyar

Seetha Rajan’s Mathrubrundam is an experiment with a space where women can feel empowered through music.

The event organised by Seetha Rajan. The women in orange are the singers. Credit: Ravi K.

The event organised by Seetha Rajan. The women in orange are the singers. Credit: Ravi K.

Fans of poet Subramania Bharati (December 11, 1882–September 11, 1921) secretly feel they own a bit of the poet when they rattle off his verses from memory. To his readers, he bequeathed his dynamism, eye for beauty and left clear instructions on what was worth yearning for.

One such fan is renowned Chennai-based Carnatic musician Seetha Rajan, a disciple of Kittamani Iyer and Semmangudi Sreenivasa Iyer. It’s fair to say she was born musical – she could distinguish the pitch emanating from a uniformly noisy electricity board meter of her home as a child. “It was a perfect 5.5” she says. When she was a student in college, her professors asked her to tune Bharatiar’s powerful poetry to song. “It was both doubly thrilling. The magnificent tamizh (language) leapt out at me and I tried to chisel out the perfect tune to match the lyrics,” she reminisces.

These very songs were part of a programme organised on December 11 at SPACES, Chennai, as a tribute to the mahakavi (great poet), by Rajan and her ensemble of students. A lilting ode to a sparrow, a victory march, a perspective on the dance of a storm (eerily prescient considering this was 24 hours before cyclone Vardah hit Chennai), and Panchali’s lament of desolation – the universe created by the songs was vast, straddling human and nature.

Rajan's students sing at SPACES on December 11. Credit: Ravi K.

Rajan’s students sing at SPACES on December 11. Credit: Ravi K.

The youngest student in the ensemble was 30 years old and the oldest 63. Rajan wanted to experiment with taking serious Carnatic music to older women. Two years ago, she spread a mat under the neem tree that graces her home and invited women between ages 30 and 45 to have a dialogue over music.

A 90-minute conversation would have equal measures of wit, anecdotes, music theory, voice exercises, physics and idealism. What the women didn’t know then was that serious Carnatic music was on offer – rooted in an organic approach. Rajan is more a scientist than a musician. Her research culminated into a method called ‘Bodhana’ that introduces a newbie to Carnatic music using the raga mohanam – a pentatonic scale as opposed to the traditional mayamalavagowlai that has all seven notes. Her school, Bala Brundam Sangita Gurukulam, has produced several research fellows who started on their music lessons with her at age six.

Thus far, Rajan had never tested her method on older women. She decided to call the experiment Mathrubrundam – a space where women are empowered through music. Today, around 50 women are squarely hooked to her experiment – homemakers, a PhD in mathematics, a couple of chartered accountants, even a couple of women who have won their battle against cancer. All step into class in sarees –it’s compulsory. Serendipity offered Seetha Rajan the perfect location for her classes at SPACES – facing the beach, with a bamboo gate opening into a space with 36 neem trees and a kalaripayattu pit. First step: spread out a jamakaalam (rug), sit down cross-legged and inhale, perhaps consciously, for the first time in a rushed morning. Then the class begins.

Each student has her own journey to recount. V. Durga, an engineer in her 30s says, “This is a class that came into our lives in our 30s and 40s and 50s. It’s odd. We got a firsthand glimpse of perfection in art just when we had made peace with imperfection in life. That one hour, twice a week, has brought a certain refinement in my life, has turned me into a student once again and, most importantly, demystified what I thought was an intrinsically complex music form.”

Rajan does not charge a fee for the music class. She explains why: “I am a well-travelled army officer’s wife. In my experience, charging a fee would deter a woman from learning an art. I often find that a woman leads an unsung, unheard life even while being in the nucleus of her family. When she gets glimpse of fine music that innately incorporates breathing, language, history and philosophy, I think it adds to the richness of the fabric of society.”

The Mathrubrundam class frequently has a handpicked student from her Bala Brundam stable explaining the finer points of mohanam, going over a geometric Swara pattern or teaching multiple variations of a single phrase for a whole session.

Bala Brundam’s Aarti Ananth Krishnan, 24, a performing artist and research scholar, has chosen a life of music inspired by her scholar, performer and composer guru. “Sometimes I feel my guru dates back to 100 years ago because she insists that sarees be worn to class. Sometimes I feel she’s 100 years ahead. By creating this Bodhana system, she has created an alternative musical framework for beginners that beautifully integrates the latest technology into music education.”

What touches Rajan’s students, young and old is her unstinting generosity towards them. It is a trait noticed even by musicians. Isai Venky, who has been conducting concerts in Chennai for the last 15 years, was a guest at the Mahakavi tribute by Mathrubrundam. He makes a significant point: “Carnatic performers aren’t very altruistic. I was aghast when I once saw a student hesitating to pass a tanpura to a classmate. But what I saw on Sunday reminded me of Bharathiar’s word on the ‘glow of the woman of today’. What I saw and heard was sheer dynamite. Thirty women on stage breathed as one body, sang as one voice. And true to their guru’s words, they would rather not be stage performers; if anything, they would rather be teachers and scholars first.”

The experiment is being replicated in other parts of the world, too. Dubai got its Mathrubrundam a year ago. A senior disciple of Rajan, Praveena, who is just finishing her PhD in music, has also started one in Hong Kong where she currently resides. She sums up the essence of Mathrubrundam: “My class has a Punjabi, a Marwari and a Bihari who look forward to their Wednesdays with Indian music. The Bodhana lessons, revolving around nadopasana  (in which serves as a medium for spiritual evolution) offer insights to the teachers and learners alike. I think it holds a special significance – of being comfortable with one’s identity in the midst of diversity, and without the attendant stress of a fee.”

Dhanya Srinivasan is an independent writer based in Chennai.