Written by V. Lokapriya and published on 31 May 2021.
In an exclusive interview, popular singer, Chinmayi Sripada, talks about her musical journey, training under her mother, fighting gender bias in the music industry and life during COVID-19
The popular singer chats with ParentCircle about how she started learning music, the role of music in her life, having her mother as her guru, balancing work and family, and the importance of reduced screen time.
Watch this exclusive conversation with Chinmayi Sripada here.
Here are the excerpts from the interview
Q. Let us talk about your musical journey. Your mother, Padmahasini, was your guru. How was it to train under her?
A. She was very much like the teacher in the movie, Whiplash. She was a taskmaster very strict and very old school. However, she was like that only with me; she was not like that with other kids. She was definitely the best guru that I could have had.
Q. You used to train for seven to eight hours as a child. How did you cultivate so much dedication and perseverance from such an early age?
A. I didn't really have a choice. I had to do what my mother said because she was a disciplinarian. I think this is how it happens, especially in families where the parent is the guru. Children will not automatically do what their gurus or teachers ask them to do, they need that push. I don't think it is something that children can consciously cultivate when they are very young. They do it because they are supposed to and because that discipline is a part of their life. At least, in my case, this was how it happened. I have to be honest and say it's not something that I did willingly and automatically. I was not that child (laughs).
Q. Many parents say that it's difficult to get their child to concentrate. How did you train so long hours as a child?
A. I think that concentration was not much of a problem. My mother knew how to tailor the classes for me, taking into account my attention and my capabilities. I guess the parents who find it difficult to make their kids concentrate are usually those who don't know music themselves and want their child to learn it. When a child goes for a one-hour or a 45-minute class, they have to come back and have to practice on their own. Finding that impetus on their own is difficult, especially when they do not have somebody guiding their practice. Guiding the practice early on is just as important as learning. This is why many gurus insisted that we should practice in front of them. Unfortunately, that's not happening these days. So, it's difficult, I definitely understand the predicament.
Q. What role can music play in a child's life?
A. There are a lot of studies that say it helps with brain development. A lot of people use music as a way of calming themselves. It is therapeutic, and for many people, it helps them concentrate on right-brain activities.
You need to figure out how art works for you. Yesterday, I did a concert for a Gujarati family that only listens to South Indian songs. They asked me to sing for their family event, and I was quite stunned to see that they knew all my songs and even the ones that are not that popular! It is interesting how music can actually help people cross barriers and follow their hearts.
Q. Can parents become teachers? Did you, as a child, feel your mom was more of a guru than a mother?
A. Yes, parents can become teachers. I think that's how it has always worked. Take any playback singer or any performing artist. their parent would have been their first guru. Only later on would they have had other teachers. It is possible for a parent to become the guru as long as they know how to compartmentalize, and understand that there is no playing around when it comes to training. It usually helps if one parent takes on the nurturing role and the other takes on the authoritative guru role. In my case, I didn't have a father, so my grandparents were the nurturers, while my mother was the strict disciplinarian.
Q. You were raised by a single mother. What were the challenges you had to face?
A. There were a lot of challenges, especially the gender bias and the bias against a divorcee that society has. All our landlords, except one or two, have given us a difficult time. We have had nosy neighbors who acted as if our safety was their responsibility. All of this put a lot of pressure on us.
My mother always used to say that you have to live your life such that you prove something to society. Now, after almost a lifetime of doing that, I see that there is no point. There are many people who have nothing better to do than interfere in the lives of others and talk behind their backs.
At some point, I stopped caring what society thinks. Perhaps, this stand comes from a place of privilege because I have achieved a certain standing in society now and I also have a spouse. Because I have ticked all these boxes, I can afford not to care.
It is very sad that the stigma around divorce and single women are still very prevalent. It is tough, but I think we all have to stop caring about these things at some point and try to make things work the way we want.
Q. You trained to be a classical musician. What drew you to film music?
A. I think the songs, Hai Rama Kya Hua and Netru Illatha Matram, made me decide to be a playback singer. Although I was trained to be a Carnatic singer, I did not like the general toxicity in the Carnatic music scene and didn't want to be around that.
When I was 12 years old, I somehow decided that I wanted to be a playback singer and I wanted to get a break from Rahman Sir. My mother would laugh and say, What are you saying? It's not going to happen! However, it did happen. Somehow, the universe conspired to make my wish come true. I'm very grateful for that. I have been very fortunate.
Q. With over 1,000 songs under your belt, is there any personal favorite?
A. Not really. I don't have a personal favorite. This concept of getting attached to a song and saying that this is my favorite is very difficult for an artist because the effort that goes into all songs is the same. So, I really don't have a favorite.
Q. You have been a vocal supporter of many issues that affect our society. How do you deal with criticism, backlash, and the troll army?
A. I'm used to troll armies, as I have been facing them since 2010. If you are a person with an opinion, regardless of gender, you are going to attract trolls. I have seen that shaming is gender-agnostic, but it's a little more abusive for women. We get an additional bonus of rape threats and sexual assault threats. This happens to women across the board on social media. They just need to be someone with a face that people recognize. That is enough to attract the troll armies.
People don't know how to react to an opinion that they don't like except by giving rape threats. It is a degradation both moral and intellectual. There are people who will harass you based on their perception of you. They want to put you in a box and if you don't fit into any of the boxes, they don't know what to do.
It is sad that a lot of us have become normalized to this abuse. Nobody is making an effort to change it. No political parties are taking the trouble because a lot of it is funded by them. They need these troll armies to debate for them. No, not debate, abuse for them.
Q. What role did mentorship play in your journey as a musician?
A. I think mentorship is an alien concept for women. I don't think I have had a mentor guiding me every step of the way. There have been occasions where I have asked Rahman Sir for some advice and he has always responded. That is quite something, considering how busy he is. However, I don't think mentorship, in the true sense of the word, has happened to me.
Q. Who do you credit your success to?
A. I don't consider myself as successful, so I don't have an answer to this question (laughs). Maybe it is that I don't know what is success or I have not defined success for myself. I don't know (shrugs).
Q. Any advice to upcoming musicians?
A. Not really. I have realized that there is no single piece of advice that I can give to everybody. If you like art, stay in it for the sake of art, and not to make money. Having fame and popularity as your goal does not work most of the time. You need to be in the music space because you want to be in the music space. Over and above all of this, there is that X factor destiny or whatever you like to call it. I have seen people who adore art but still have not been able to make it. So, I don't know what to say. In this regard, perhaps you have to follow what the Bhagavad Gita says do your duty and don't expect results, as difficult as it might be.
Q. During the lockdown, you raised INR 1 crore through song requests for people affected by the pandemic. Tell us more about that.
A. Sending Happy Birthday voice notes has been a part of my life for a long time. People would send me requests to sing it to make someone's day special. So, I thought, why not turn this into a charitable effort? Thankfully, it worked out. I didn't expect to raise so much money. I thought maybe if we raised a lakh or two, that would be great.
I didn't keep a limit for the minimum amount that could be donated. So, it was a wide spectrum. I had one donor donate to 20 families; another person donated INR 27. All of this happened over time. I just got lucky with the idea. The timing also contributed, because it was the lockdown, and people couldn't order cakes or celebrate birthdays and anniversaries in other ways. One of the few things they could do was to request these videos. So, whoever knew about it and thought it would make a difference would send me a request. People also liked the fact that not only were they donating to a beneficiary directly, but were also getting something in return. In addition to the feeling of altruism, they were getting something tangible.
Q. You also have your own business venture. Tell us about your entrepreneurial journey.
A. I think the entrepreneurial journey started out of need because I realized that singing wasn't paying my bills. My company, Blue Elephant, and translations are what have been paying my bills for a long time. I was personally translating from German to English, and then we started translating for other companies. Later, we started hiring interpreters and translators.
Starting my skincare venture, Isle of Skin was a thing of passion. I heard many people complain that they were finding it hard to buy Korean beauty products in India. I saw an opportunity there and decided to pursue it.
Q. How do you balance work and family life?
A. Perhaps because my spouse is also an artist, we somehow make it work. Whatever needs priority at a given point of time is given priority and whatever needs to take a backseat, takes a backseat. We don't plan and say this is what we will do for these many minutes or hours or days. We just go with the flow.
Q. Gadgets play a big part in our lives these days. It intrudes on our time spent with family and friends. What can one do to strike a balance?
For my work, especially during COVID-19, I have been on my gadget all day taking requests, and making videos, and sending them to people. I think gadget addiction is real. We have to make a very conscious decision to stop it; otherwise, the next generation is just going to observe us and do exactly the same thing.
Q. Do you have gadget-free zones or hours at home?
A. We don't have a gadget-free hour as such. Some days, I get very tired of gadgets and I don't even want to see a gadget. My phone would be ringing and there would be messages, but I will not respond for hours. I do that sometimes. I don't apologize for it. I don't apologize for taking time off, and I don't even announce that I will be unavailable.
I have decided to slowly cut down my gadget use. It's quite challenging because many of us are recording from our phones and our laptops. Gadgets have become so much a part of our lives, especially for artists, that making a clean break from them is quite difficult. But I think social media breaks are important, for all of us and our mental health.
Q. How has the pandemic affected the music industry?
A. I don't think there have been any recordings for a long time now because movie shoots haven't happened and there is no work. Studios have not been operational. However, it's basic human nature to survive, and I'm sure we will find a way.
It's too early to tell how the music industry has evolved during the pandemic. There have been Zoom concerts and people have gotten used to performing via Zoom and conducting digital concerts. Remote recordings have their advantages, as people have to travel less. On the other hand, musicians are missing the interactions with other artists. That could affect the creative process. It will be interesting to see how this phase shapes up as we go.
Chinmayi Sripada takes the pledge to participate in #GadgetFreeHour