Vandana Srinivasan, Kanakavalli’s September Vignette, is a musician trained in Carnatic and Hindustani traditions, a playback singer, a performer and an entrepreneur with a great love for beauty. Growing up in the Middle East, she was always deeply connected to her Indian roots, and pursued her dream of becoming a singer when she moved to Madras, a city she fell in love with. In conversation with Aneesha Bangera for The Kanakavalli Journal, Vandana talks about the highs and lows of life as a musician—the unforgettable moments and the struggles with self-doubt. Believing that art should be accessible, Vandana runs a platform for YouTube collaborations with upcoming artists, an experience she finds deeply gratifying. In addition, she and her partner launched Ana Stories, an online venture curating beautiful objects. Learning to be unapologetically herself is a journey that has taught Vandana lessons she’ll never forget, while allowing her to rediscover the joys of female friendships. For Vandana, the sari is an integral part of her identity and her everyday life, and the act of wearing a sari is a tradition she celebrates. Taking a moment out of a busy schedule, Vandana curates a selection of kanjivarams from the Kanakavalli repertoire that speak to her sense of beauty and aesthetics. Excerpts from the conversation below…
Life in Tune
Tell us a little bit about your childhood growing up in Doha. What role did music play in your life as a child?
My parents moved to the Middle East in the 1980s, but made sure that my brother and I were aware of who we were and where we came from. We had friends from different countries, but at home, things were typically Indian—in the food we ate and the languages we spoke. Like a lot of Indian families at the time, our parents signed us up for classes when we were quite young, so we could stay in touch with our cultural roots.
I look back on my childhood as one of the happiest times in my life. We would visit India every year, spending our summers in Bombay and Bangalore, with a few days in Madras. Our parents would let us go out in the monsoon rains to ‘build our immunity’ and I have memories of eating pani puri in the midst of a downpour. Our trips to India became an annual ritual that we looked forward to.
Both sides of my family have a deep connection with music, with many relatives trained in classical singing. My parents were inclined towards Hindi music, and I grew up listening to ghazals. I started training in Carnatic music under my first Guru Seetha Krishnan at the age of four. She was a fantastic teacher—tuned in to the pulse of her students and able to make learning fun. I never wanted to skip paattu class because she made it so inspiring. I trained with her right up until the twelfth grade and she continues to be a big part of my life, and a mother figure to me. As children, my brother, who plays the piano, and I began performing informally at family gatherings while my mother and father would often sing old Hindi and Tamil songs together. My mother also performed professionally at concerts in Doha for a few years. I have fond memories of my father driving us to her rehearsals, and watching the process in awe.
Above (clockwise from left): Vandana's maternal grandparents look with pride at her first award; Her parents giving a speech at her brother's wedding last year; A musical collaboration with her brother.
Over the years, I had realised that as much as I’d enjoyed my training, I loved the idea of learning Hindustani music. Involuntarily, I had been moulding my voice to be more playback singing-friendly, which is more aligned with Hindustani music. Thus, when I moved to Madras for college, I began my Hindustani training under Tanushree Saha and it was wonderful to learn the style that I had subconsciously already made my own.
When did you know that you wanted to be a singer? What were your early experiences of the Indian music industry like?
Ever since I was a child, I dreamt of becoming a singer, but it seemed so unattainable then. I’d fantasise about making it big, using a hairbrush as a microphone and standing in front of the mirror belting out songs. Even as I grew up I continued to nurture this dream, and when I moved to Madras—rather serendipitously, for college—I felt that if I didn’t give it a shot, I would regret it for the rest of my life.
While studying Psychology at WCC in Madras, I tried to network as much as I could with people in the industry, while also getting comfortable in a recording studio, which can be quite intimidating. I started out recording ad jingles, working on scratches for other composers, and recording a few demos. I would do a round of the studios once a month to hand out copies of my demos, and while nothing big happened, the experience taught me so much. It’s thanks to those three years that I now know how to conduct myself in a studio, how to communicate with sound engineers, and how to feel at home in this environment. On the other hand, I also experienced a touch of disillusionment—I’d imagined meeting somebody who would give me a big break. I had this graph of success mapped out in my head. But I didn’t have anyone to guide me, and I was naïve in many ways. Still, I’m grateful for everything I learnt during that time and have wonderful memories of my first few years in Madras, a city I quickly fell in love with.
How did you decide to return to India from London to pursue music?
The time I spent at the London School of Economics was incredible and intense, but this period also gave me perspective on what I really wanted to do—and that was music. I did perform as much as I could on campus, and also had the chance to be a part of the annual music event of the Bangladeshi community in London—an experience that reaffirmed my belief that even the most traditional music could be reinterpreted and rearranged for a modern context. As much as I fell in love with London, I also realised that if I stayed on, music would take a backseat. I thought I might be able to pursue music more professionally in India, so I began to apply for jobs and once again I found myself back in Madras, working at a young start-up.
It was during this first year back that a lot of things began to happen. I had stayed in touch with many people from the music industry with whom I reconnected, and I got together again with a band called Staccato, with whom I’d performed during my undergraduate years. There were weekend concerts and studio sessions too. At the end of that year I got a call from composer G.V. Prakash’s studio for an audition. I was so nervous, I remember being almost in tears, but the song I sang was love at first listen. A few days later, a friend called to congratulate me, because G.V. Prakash had tweeted that he was going to be introducing a new singer—me! After that, and a few more projects with other composers on other films, there was no looking back.
What are some of the most unforgettable moments from your life as a musician? What are the struggles you have faced?
When I left London, I was upset because I loved the city, but I always hoped I’d be able to return as a performer. I feel so lucky, because less than two years later, I had the opportunity to perform at the London 2012 Olympics with Staccato. It felt like a beautiful dream, and this will always be a milestone moment for me.
Among many other unforgettable moments is the opportunity I had to collaborate with Shankar Tucker, a really thrilling experience. My first big concert in Dubai in 2012 was like a dream, with a big audience, a massive stage, and my voice filling up the auditorium.
When I finally made my film debut, it was more than I could ever have imagined. It felt like many parts of my life coming together—it was a duet with the singer Haricharan, whose voice I love, and the song had Middle Eastern elements. I went on to win the Best Singer Debut in 2013, and that was very exciting.
In 2013, I was selected for the INK Fellowship organised by INK Talks, a sister concern of TED. This was a life-changing experience, not only because of the incredible people I met and the wonderful friendships I formed, but also because of the amazing interdisciplinary collaborations that came out of it. I also had the opportunity to sing with Usha Uthup, a truly memorable moment.
Above (Clockwise from left): Vandana sharing the stage with Usha Uthup at the Ink Conference in 2013; Performing with the band Staccato at the London Olympics in 2012; From one of Vandana's earliest Youtube collaborations with Shanker Tucker.
Being an outsider in this industry has its share of struggles. The hardest part is that there is no roadmap to success. You can try as hard as you want, but ultimately, it’s a combination of so many things—being in the right place at the right time, and having the chance to work with the right people. Although I put in the hard work from 2006 to 2012, I am still so fortunate for the opportunities that came my way.
There is also self-doubt, that universal feeling. As intoxicating as the highs are, the lows can be just as devastating. I’m lucky to have a solid support system; people who have stayed by my side through the difficult times, and who are always there to give me a reality check when I need one.
Tell us about your YouTube musical collaborations. What has been most rewarding about these projects?
I started working on YouTube collaborations in 2012, and in 2016, my partner Anand and I started Musicalorie Productions. This is a banner under which we organise events and collaborate with other artists, featuring original compositions as well as reinterpretations of songs. Through Musicalorie, I try to work with musicians who might not be very well established, but who are passionate about what they do. In this sense, I want to create a platform that can help others build their own portfolios—not just musicians, but also video editors, sound engineers and other members of crew.
This has been a very gratifying experience. I believe that art should be accessible, and opportunities within art even more so. I’ve been so fortunate for the opportunities that came my way, and this is my way of paying it forward.
In addition to your life as a musician, you recently became an entrepreneur too. Tell us about your venture.
Some years ago, I began to think about the way I had started accumulating possessions and decided that I didn’t want to be weighed down by what I own anymore. I’ve always taken very good care of everything I own, so I began to sell pre-loved pieces from my wardrobe and jewellery collection on Instagram, and donating a part of the proceeds to a few initiatives I support.
At the same time, I started receiving enquiries on social media about the clothes and accessories I wore to concerts and on my travels. I began to help people source things they loved, and this started to gain traction. I really enjoyed curating beautiful things, and Anand encouraged me to build a brand.
We launched Ana Stories in 2018. Ana in Malayalam means elephant, a symbol of many wonderful things—stability, affection, longevity. When we began, the online boutique was focused on silver jewellery, with a special emphasis on mookuthis which I love, and this year we are adding saris to the collection. It’s been a very fulfilling process and working for myself has been wonderful.
I’m very clear that music will always be a big part of my life, but I want to do other things as well. I don’t believe in the ‘Jack of all trades’ saying—I think if you pick your areas of focus carefully and plan your time, you can do everything you choose to really well.
What does friendship mean to you?
Growing up, friendship was such a big part of my life, and friends have always been family. But in my early twenties I began to focus more on work and other relationships, and my friendships got neglected. Only when I realised what a void this had left in my life did I begin to surround myself again with people who inspire me. I also discovered that while men can be great friends, female friendships are especially important, and I am fortunate to count many women of substance among my close friends. I never imagined that a photo sharing platform like Instagram would make a difference to my life, but I have met some incredible women through this medium. We have had the best conversations and discovered common ground despite being so different from each other.
Above: Vandana with the inspiring women in her life that have helped her rediscover the joys of female friendship
One of the things that has helped me open up to new friendships is the fact that I’ve learnt to be unapologetically myself, a very liberating experience. Growing up, I was a bit of a people pleaser so I had to do a lot of unlearning and rewiring to become the person I am today. I finally believe I’m in a space where I feel free; where I can speak my mind without worrying about consequences. I also read somewhere that ‘you can’t pour from an empty cup,’ and today I unapologetically tell people that I am my number one priority. If I don’t take care of myself, I can’t do anything or be there for anyone else.
I didn’t know who I really was until just a few years ago, and finding myself has led to rediscovering the joy of friendship. I wouldn’t give these lessons up for anything.
Above: All the mother figures in Vandana's life at her Mehendi ceremony, including her mother (second from left) and her first music guru (extreme left).
What is the role of the sari—and the kanjivaram in particular—in your life?
My mother tells me how, when I was just three or four years old, I’d insist on wearing her saris. After she had folded them to fit me and painstakingly pleated them, I’d pose for the camera. I always thought my mum looked so beautiful when she dressed up in saris and jewellery. She had a lot of kanjivarams from her grandmother, mother and mother-in-law, and I was awestruck by these heirloom weaves.
Despite this fascination, I wasn’t very comfortable in saris until I began wearing them to concerts. Performers are expected to dress up, and I didn’t like the idea of having to buy different outfits for every event. But I had access to the most gorgeous saris thanks to my mother and grandmother, and I could pair these with different blouses to create new looks. And so, I came to be known as the sari-wearing singer on stage, and I loved this image. I would borrow saris—many of them kanjivarams—from friends and family, and each one felt like time-travelling, thinking of all the women who had worn that sari and their stories. In my collection, I’m lucky to have some really beautiful heirloom pieces, including a gorgeous benarasi in deep purple with silver zari that my maternal grandfather bought in Benaras over 50 years ago for his daughter.
Above (left to right): Vandana wearing an heirloom Benarasi sari that her maternal grandfather bought in Benaras over 50 years ago; Wearing her mother's sari at the age of three; Vandana loves styling saris in contemporary ways and here she wears it with a crop top in Bangkok.
Getting comfortable in a sari was such a beautiful experience. Now I don’t go anywhere without a sari, whether I’m travelling for a concert or a holiday. I enjoy styling them differently, sometimes traditionally and sometimes in creative and contemporary ways.
In 2015, I came across the 100 Sari Pact online, and this became a way for me to get to know more about fabrics and weaving. I visited a weaver in Kumbakonam with my grandmother and watched for the first time how a sari was created. There was a shift from mere appreciation of the sari as a garment to recognising the efforts that went into its creation.
Above: Vandana at her wedding with many dear friends from different times in her life.
How do you define beauty and tradition?
Growing up, there was a lot of conditioning about what an ideal body looked like, and there was this widespread obsession with fairness. My definition of beauty today is completely different—it is about the kind of energy a person brings to a conversation, the kindness in their gestures, how thoughtful they are. I am also a firm believer in the idea that less is more, and this is reflected in the way I dress—sometimes I will accessorise a kanjivaram with nothing more than a statement mookuthi.
For a long time, I associated tradition with being orthodox and it was something I shied away from. However, I’ve realised there’s a big difference between the two. Traditions are the things I would like to retain and follow in my life, that remind me who I am. Even the simple act of wearing a sari, for me, is tradition. And there is beauty in that.
What’s the story behind the Kanakavalli sari you chose to wear for the Vignettes shoot?
My brother got married last December and of course Kanakavalli was one of our first shopping destinations. My mother picked this beautiful deep purple kanjivaram, and it was love at first sight for both of us. She wore it first, making it so much more special, and it is now woven with memories of my brother’s wedding.
Vandana poses beside a 40-year-old tanpura, an instrument used in Hindustani classical music, made in Calcutta. She is wearing a magenta kanjivaram shot with black and embellished with peacock and chakaram motifs. Floral and geometric patterns adorn the borders and pallu in rich gold zari.
LISTEN TO VANDANA'S RENDERING OF BHAVANI DAYANI -
Vandana graciously agreed to sing for us - and we hope you enjoy her beautiful rendering of a snippet from Bhavani Dayani below.
- Vandana Srinivasan, in conversation with Aneesha Bangera, photography & videography by Raghuram Vedant.
View Vandana's accompanying guest curation here.