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Interview: ‘Diversity hallmark of Indian music’

The accomplished musician has been conferred with many prestigious awards including the Sangeet Natak Academy’s Bismillah Khan Yuva Puraskar award. In an interview with DIPANKAR CHAKRABORTY, Manasi shares her thoughts about her musical journey and India’s first interactive music museum, Indian Music Experience (IME), that she currently heads. Excerpts:

DIPANKAR CHAKRABORTY | Kolkata |

Born into a family of musicians, MANASI PRASAD spent her early childhood in Kuwait learning Carnatic classical music under the guidance of her mother.

In 1990, when she was nine, the family relocated to Bengaluru after the Gulf War broke out. She continued learning music under different gurus alongside completing her engineering degree and then an MBA from IIM, Bangalore. Offered a job by an investment bank in New York, she refused in order to follow her passion to become a full-time Carnatic classical music singer.

An empanelled artist with the ICCR (Indian Council for Cultural Relations), she has been performing widely in India, the US, Europe, Australia, Africa, South America and Middle East for the last 25 years.

She invited the ire of temple authorities when she decided to perform on themes related to people’s lives instead of pure devotional ones. She has also learnt nuances of Hindustani Classical music.

The accomplished musician has been conferred with many prestigious awards including the Sangeet Natak Academy’s Bismillah Khan Yuva Puraskar award. In an interview with DIPANKAR CHAKRABORTY, Manasi shares her thoughts about her musical journey and India’s first interactive music museum, Indian Music Experience (IME), that she currently heads. Excerpts:

Q. Your concert Olave Jeevana Saakshaatkata or ‘Love is life’s fulfilment’ has been a strong statement against traditionalists deeply rooted in devotional traditions of the classical Carnatic music. You even invited their ire and were denied permission to perform in temples for some time.
A. It was a partly experimental concert. The theme was to explore different facets of love through Carnatic music. Growing as a classical musician and learning under great gurus like Ganakalabushana R K Padmanabha and Dr Sriram Parasuram, most of the music that I heard and learnt was very beautiful from a musical perspective but it was Bhakti oriented. I felt when there are so many emotions — Navarasas — to be explored, why is it that most of the classical music is confined to Bhakti-rasa. I was thinking about these questions with my background as a trained Bharatanatyam dancer wherein we explore different rasas and emotions. I subsequently wrote an article saying classical music can expand beyond bhakti. Traditionalists were very critical of my point of view. Nevertheless, I decided to try this out through an experiment to prove my point. I conceptualised the entire concert based on the Carnatic music format. But the theme of all the compositions was about love in its multifarious dimensions. Some of them were from the traditional repertoire such as Javadi (a gesture of eyes in the language of love) and extracts from Kumar Vyasa Bharata (classical Vaishnava poet of early 15th century in the Kannada language) and Kalidasa epic, etc. The audience response to the concert was overwhelming. It validated my point that whatever we present should be relevant to the audience.

Q. But in the process you provoked the temple authorities. What sparked off this revolt against traditionalists?
A. I really don’t look at it as a revolt. Perhaps the materials that exist in our tradition have not been explored. Certainly it was not a decision to move away from bhakti compositions — rather in my own way to expand my repertoire to include other things. As an artist I am looking to expand my own horizon.

Q. But you did provoke a lot of people through your action…so much so that they did not invite you to their concerts?
A. Yes, some people did react negatively. During that period some of the temples did not want to invite me for their concerts because they felt I was moving away from tradition. But what I did was to expand and not exclude anything. I do regular Carnatic music concerts with devotional themes.

Q. You did your engineering and then MBA from IIM Bangalore, and interned at a Wall Street bank in the US. And, then you chose to become a full-time musician and questioned prevailing tradition. How do you assimilate these contradictions and how have they been helpful in your journey?
A. While doing an engineering degree course I continued to do an MBA. Music which was earlier a passion is now a career. Both the corporate and academic world and art and creative world have a lot to teach each other. As a Museum Director at Indian Music Experience and with my background as an artist, I have been able to bring creative thinking into my administrative work. My exposure to the corporate world and academics has brought values like discipline and analysis to my life as an artist. It allows me to ask questions and look at traditions with a fresh pair of eyes and see how I can contribute in my own way to it.

Q. According to you, Russian dancer Anna Pavlova and Meerabai, a 16th century mystic poet, have been your inspirations. What aspects of these two personalities have impacted you the most as a musician?
A. I have always been inspired by strong female characters. Meerabai had decided to walk away from the material comfort of the palace and go out to the world at a time when women’s rights was a far cry. As a child I had read the biography of Anna Pavlova, ‘Dancing star’. She devoted her entire life to the pursuit of perfection in ballet. After the performance, she sees the audience lost in the beauty of art. For a while people had forgotten about their worries. She said her purpose was to bring joy to the lives of people through art. I also try to bring joy to the lives of people through my music.

Q. Could you tell us about your childhood in Kuwait, learning music under your mother’s guidance, then your visit to New York, etc?
A. We are all products of our many experiences. I have spent nine years of my life in the Gulf — in Kuwait. My first memory is of all those children who would come home to learn music from my mother. I would be in her lap. I formally started learning music from my mother at the age of four. She has been a great influence as my guru and critic. Once the Gulf war began my family had to come back to India. It turned out to be a blessing in disguise for me. I became a lot more serious about my music and dance.

Q. Could you name the gurus under whose guidance you learned Carnatic music?
A. I have mainly learnt from my guru R K Padmanabha, a renowned musician from Bangalore. He is responsible for shaping my music and giving me plenty of opportunities. Pandit Bhimsen Joshi’s music has influenced me a lot. I have also learnt from Dr Sriram Parasuram in Chennai, an exponent of both Carnatic and Hindustani music.

Q. How has the different music in India or in countries like South America influenced your music?
A. I stay tuned to the tradition of Carnatic music. But we have to make music relatable to the audience. In 2004, as a 19 or 20 year old girl I travelled to Chile in South America as a cultural ambassador. I got the opportunity to present workshops, concerts and lectures at the local universities. It was a unique experience for me. Their main language of communication is Spanish which I can’t speak. That’s where I found dance very useful. Sometimes I would explain a song through gestures. I also found that music has a universal language.

Q. Did you have any chance to collaborate with Bengali artists or other musicians from Bengal?
A. I listen to a wide variety of music. I do listen to Rabindra Sangeet. I see how some compositions from Carnatic music have been adapted to Tagore songs. Apart from Carnatic music I have been greatly influenced by Hindustani music. I have adopted Hindustani music and western vocal techniques into my music. Whether it is music from North or South, the best part of Indian music is its diversity. The audience should be exposed to all kinds of music.

Q. In what ways do you think have the Covid pandemic and lockdowns impacted music, its creation and musicians?
A. Lockdown has opened the door to collaborations. But it has also impacted the livelihood of a large number of artists. Live performance is very important, especially for performers of classical music. The way music is performed and consumed has come to a standstill. The corporate sector and the government must come forward to extend a helping hand to the artists across the country.

Q. How did the Indian Music Experience or IME centre in Bangalore, the only one of its kind in India, come about? What does it seek to achieve? Do you plan to set up similar museums in other parts of the country?
A. IME is affiliated to the Grammy Museum in Los Angeles. We organise a lot of programmes together. It was conceptualised about 10 years ago thanks to the initiative of the Brigade Group CMD M R Jaishankar. It is India’s only interactive music museum. It uses a lot of interactive technology and showcases musicians and instruments from all over India. There is a place where visitors can record their own music in a studio setting. There is a learning centre where about 120 students are engaged in learning various types of music. Similar interactive museums should come up in other parts of the country. They will serve an important purpose of protecting our musical traditions such as our folk music traditions from extinction.