Many years ago, an expecting mother in Bangalore, Karnataka, found herself pulled in multiple directions—both literally and metaphorically. An electronics engineer by profession, she would weave through Bangalore traffic to three corners of the city: her factory on one side, her house on another, and her guru’s residence on the third. To make matters more complex, she had been initiated into the world of Carnatic music when she was seven—and won many prestigious awards to boot—but it was now Hindustani music that pulled at her heartstrings and captivated her mellifluous voice.
Armed with her husband’s support and a caregiving network in place, she took the plunge, abandoning both her career in engineering and her years of prior training to embrace, wholeheartedly, the Hindustani music tradition. She has never looked back since. And the Indian classical music world is grateful for her resolve.
The artist in question is Bharathi Prathap, a graded artiste of the AIR (All India Radio) and Doordarshan. Not only has she been a lead vocalist in several eminent projects, she has performed solo both in her homeland and abroad, including the prestigious Sawai Gandharva Bhimsen Mahotsav in 2015 in Pune and Dover Lane Music Conference in Kolkata in 2019. She is the recipient of the Daughter’s Day Award, 2015, as well as the Rageshree Puraskar, 2020 and was conferred with the coveted title of “Ganashree” at the Sri Guru Puttaraja Puraskara 2017.
Of the switch, she says, “I felt there was some kind of freedom here to create and explore…more liberal compared to Carnatic music, which was a very structured, very systematic way of gayaki.”
The illustrious Agra Gharana (a gharana is an umbrella of a certain style or school of music) she is a torchbearer of is steeped in centuries of tradition and known for its vast repertoire of ragas; it is equal parts methodical and majestic and distinct in the open-throated gayaki and inextricably intertwined notes and rhythm, called layakaari. Such characteristics make it profoundly unique: “You can make out that a composition is from the Agra gharana as soon as you hear it,” says Prathap.
“The gharana absorbed all these diverse influences, without forgetting its roots, for over a century and blossomed into a complete and multifaceted gharana where, starting from Dhrupad, dhamar and khayal, the repertoire includes tarana (composition using musical syllables based on Persian and Arabic phonemes) … It has in equal measure almost all the angs (aspects) of the classical and semi-classical genres … which are used appropriately depending on the raga, bandish (words of the song) and format,” writes N. Jayavanth Rao, who retired as the Resident Director for India of the Power & Transport multinational ALSTOM and has written a biography of Padma Bhushan Ustad Khadim Hussain Khan titled 'Sajan Piya'.
As a female maestra, Phrathap credits the artists such as Zohrabai Agrewali and Vidushi Lalith J Rao, an outstanding exponent of the Agra-Atrauli gharana (whose tutelage Prathap has studied under and whom she credits for her ‘rebirth’) for reconceiving and reimagining the genre in a way that helps retain its richness, “The blended Dhrupad and khayal gayaki has its own flavour and touch,” she says, adding that pioneering female maestras adopted aspects that suited the female voice while staying within the ambit of the gharana. “I’m one of the blessed students in the lineage of this gharana,” she says.
Like a sculptor reluctant to stop chiseling at their masterpiece, Prathap says of her riyaz: “Rather than putting in a certain number of hours, it’s a matter of fine-tuning and ensuring certain attributes are being worked on in a sincere way…about picking up a particular aspect and polishing it—it could be the bol taal, laai or alaap. Singing an Agra composition can be quite challenging, as there are certain aesthetics that go into the composition. It has to be sung in a particular style, with the pauses and the meends, in the way the composer conceived it.” That’s important, because as Prathap explains, two ragas may have the same notes, but the nuances such as the landing notes can be different, making the experience vastly distinct based on the gharana or style it is presented in.
The most enchanting aspect of her music, perhaps, is that it, “Insists on an oral tradition.” She says, “It has to be taught by a guru and absorbed by the student. That’s how the vidya [learning or knowledge] is transferred.”
It’s also deeply linked to enhancing wellness and mental health. When the audience walks into the sabha or concert hall, explains Prathap, “They forget about their worries and their problems. The mundane melts away. For that duration, they are lost to the music. When that happens, one unknowingly enters into a state of meditation. For meditation is just keeping your mind focused; it doesn’t always have to happen with your eyes closed. Even if you don't understand what is happening or the raga or tala, you won’t think of anything else for that while. And that automatically brings in wellness, a state of poise. A state of peace. That’s the feeling that you hold on to. That’s what lures you back.”
She believes the ultimate goal for the performer is that their music, while being technically correct and sound, must also touch the soul.
“It’s Atmaranjan—or that which touches the soul. Not Manoranjan, which is entertainment. Indian classical music is not that.”
And with her striking vocals, nonpareil finesse and devolational rapture displayed with tremendous grace during her performance, touching the soul is exactly what she does.
“I always feel very touched and satisfied when someone says ‘your music transported me to a different world…I was lost…I had tears in my eyes.’ These things mean more to me than any awards,” says Prathap.
Ever humble, she holds steadfast to the belief that the musician and artist are simply the medium or instrument through whom the vidya flows. “Music is a complete surrender…so whatever is presented is divinity, and that’s why it's sacred…that’s why it has endured for centuries. And why it will endure for many more.”
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