Interview: Charulatha Mani

Isai Payanam – An enchanting journey of ragas

by Subha Dilip

Charulatha Mani, known for her creative spiritdeep passion for ragas, and well-researched presentations, is synonymous with her widely acclaimed show Isai Payanam. Trained under her mother, Hemalatha Mani, a veena artist, Charulatha later came under the tutelage of vidwans Sandhyavandanam Srinivasa Rao, Calcutta K.S.Krishnamurthy, and Savitri Satyamurthy for over two decades. A regular performer since 1999, she has won several prestigious awards, including the Yuva Kala Bharatifrom Bharat KalacharIsai Kurisil from the Government of India, M. S. Subbulakshmi Endowment Award from Narada Gana Sabha, among others.  

Besides her singing projects, she provides diverse training modules for singers to enhance their skills and performance.  For intermediate learners, the focus is on varnam, while advanced learners are trained in kritismanodharma and concert coaching. She also offers a unique course on raga-based film songs, where learners are taught to identify and decode swaras and sangatis. Her 'Raga Lakshana' module focuses on key phrases in Carnatic ragas, ornaments, and grammar, including allied ragas. The manodharma module offers training in alapanakalpanaswara, and niraval

Charulatha has also established herself as a playback singer, earning recognition for numerous popular hits in various South Indian languages. She launched the iconic Isai Payanam in 2006, first as a show on Jaya TV and then as a concert series at Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, Chennai. Isai Payanam, an innovative concert format, combines the rich elements of Carnatic ragas and classically influenced film music, creating a multilingual,pan-Indian experience. Over the last 17 years, Isai Payanam has become popular programmeAfter a gap of four years, Charulatha Mani was back in Chennai to perform for the music season 2023.


Charulatha Mani, in conversation with Shuba Dilip


Was the inception of Isai Payanam a spontaneous idea that occurred to you, or did it bring to life a childhood dream?

Well, it's definitely a long pending wish! As a child, my house was filled with music - classical or Indian cinema. My family and I used to have long conversations and discussions on the tunes and rhythms of many songs. I love raga lakshanas and was drawn to the unique flavour of each raga. The delivery of two songs from the same raga excites me, and I felt that it was a good idea for a TV program where I could bring in raga analysis sections, interesting anecdotal explanations, vintage to modern coverage, and classy aesthetic appeal to demystify Carnatic music to be enjoyed across social divides. The show became a huge success, and I launched it as a concert series too. 


Many individuals appreciate music broadly, even without being acquainted with Carnatic music. While some enjoy Carnatic music concerts, encountering unfamiliar elements can be overwhelming. The awe and wonder are accompanied by a sense of deficiency from limited exposure to classical music. To address this, we should begin by leveraging their strengths. What are these strengths? One place to start is familiar songs or tunes they already know or have heard before.

That is where Isai Payanam comes in. My concerts offer the listeners a deep dive into Carnatic ragas, tracing their signature phrases across Carnatic, semi-classical and film music. They are designed for the education and entertainment of all the listeners, linking their prior knowledge of film music with their new understanding of Carnatic music or vice versa. 


Can you tell us about your move to Australia and your research work?

After Isai Payanam became successful, I started getting many opportunities to sing in films. I have done interesting work with legendary music directors in Tamil, Telugu, Kannada and Hindi. After a point, I wanted to take a step back and see where I stand with respect to music and life and have clarity on what I wanted to do in the future. That is when, in 2015, my husband Kartik got an opportunity to work in Australia, so we decided to live in Australia for some time. I was offered a Ph.D. program at the Queensland Conservatorium Griffith University in Australia on synergies between Carnatic vocal music and 17th-century Italian opera. I looked at some parallels; for example, opera singing has brigas and gamakas, like our Carnatic music. I re-imagined a 17th-century opera and made a production out of it in my thesis. Then, I did a two-year post-doctoral research fellowship at the University of Queensland in 2022 on human flourishing and music. I worked on designing and lecturing courses on different topics concerning music, health and ethnomusicology across universities in Australia. I have worked on 23 publications relating to the role of music in the lives of migrants and refugees, the role of music in health and wellbeing, prenatal contexts, singing, and so on. 


What do you have in mind for the years ahead?

I definitely want to do more Isai Payanam tours. I have recently shifted to California to facilitate easy moving across Europe and other countries. I have always wanted my contribution to society to be a constructive one. I want to focus more on creating albums and Carnatic music videos from a healing point of view. Music alongside primary education is another concept I had worked on during my postdoc. I wanted to focus more on that. 'Sing to connect' is another concept I have been working on where singing lullabies connects mothers from diverse cultural backgrounds with each other, their babies, the midwives, and the broader community.

Traditional music and languages from various cultures are rich ways to express respect for each other. 'Sing to connect' sessions create a safe space for sharing, caring, and relaxingI want to develop an online series on this, if time permits.


Can you tell us about your presentations at the December Season 2023

I performed in Chennai after a long time. Each of my concerts was designed to relate to every listener. My concert/presentation spanned several years, and through my research, I connected the classics and film music in many Indian languages, including Tamil, Hindi, Malayalam, Telugu and Kannada. 

The two-hour concerts were followed by audience interactions and questions, allowing for clarifications and discussions on aspects of ragas and their facets. The main idea was to bind the audience together, fulfilling the promise of unity in diversity across forms, periods, genres and languages. Regardless of the extent to which individuals immerse themselves in film music, my ultimate goal is to guide them to appreciate the beauty of Carnatic music.

My wish is to unite the audience, delivering on the commitment to showcase unity in diversity across various forms, periods, genres, and languages. Regardless of how much film music individuals may be accustomed to, my ultimate objective is to immerse them in the beauty of Carnatic music.