Dr Charulatha Mani is helping “culture, midwifery, and wellbeing to connect through music”


Dr Charulatha Mani has a lot of projects to her name. From being a musician, researcher, and composer, to starting her own multicultural music ensemble, to leading a singing and wellbeing project for new and expectant mothers from culturally and linguistically diverse (CALD) backgrounds, Charulatha is undoubtedly leading the way in conversations around cultural diversity in classical music and how music helps to create a sense of community.

We chat with Charulatha about her various projects, and what she has learnt from working with CALD communities and musicians.

Hi Charulatha, thank you for taking time out to chat with CutCommon today! Tell us what you do.

I am a singer and music researcher. I am originally from Chennai, South India. My primary field of expertise is Karnatik music, the music of Southern India. I also sing and research early opera, the opera form that originated in early 17th-Century Italy. My research examines music across cultures.

I perform with artists from all over the world, record and compose music, and lead projects that are socially impactful and meaningful. I am passionate about social bonding and connectedness between marginalised people here in Australia.

I hold a PhD from the Queensland Conservatorium Griffith University, and have just begun a Postdoctoral Research Fellowship with the University of Queensland, School of Music. Exciting times.

Exciting times indeed – you’re doing so much! Your name is very well-known in Karnatik music. Can you explain more about Karnatik music, for those of us who are not so familiar with it?

Karnatik music is the traditional music form of South India. The vocal style is known for melodic types with typical phrases, Ragas. The ornamentation is very beautiful in the tradition, and the rhythmic possibilities are aplenty.

You’re also the research lead and founder at Sing to Connect. Tell us about it.

Sing to Connect is a singing and wellbeing project for new and expectant mothers from culturally and linguistically diverse (CALD) backgrounds.

Singing is recognised as hugely beneficial for the mental health and wellbeing of individuals and communities. Singing in CALD populations also invokes their cultural strengths.

Sing to Connect allowed space for culture, midwifery, and wellbeing to connect through music.

It was a successful program, and ran between August and December 2020, in partnership with Metro South Health, Logan City Council (funder), and Access Community Services.

The website has many interesting songs and a research report too, so check it out!

Why did you decide to start Sing to Connect?

When we were in the thick of the COVID-19 pandemic in May 2020, I felt the weight of social isolation. As a woman of colour and a mother of twins, I began to reflect on the difficulties that those like myself and those less privileged might be encountering at this time.

It was then that I decided to put in for a grant with the Logan City Council for doing Sing to Connect for mothers and babies at the Maternal and Child Health Hub at Logan.

There’s plenty of evidence that music and singing in a community are beneficial for specific populations like deaf and hard of hearing children and people with dementia. But why did you decide to focus on the benefits to mothers?

Great question! Singing is beneficial for us all – you and me and others around us.

As a mother in a new country, I found a lack of opportunities for social bonding. I wanted mothers like myself to have this. To have a way to connect with their songs and cultural artefacts along with their babies in a safe space.

My identity as a woman and mother who is also a passionate advocate of music inspired me to focus on mothers.

What have you learnt from working with mothers of such diverse backgrounds?

I learnt so many songs and lullabies from various cultures. I learnt about their hardships in refugee camps. I heard stories of courage, loss, and triumph.

The biggest learning was that when women from the margins are given the space, time, and tools to share their perspectives, they enrich lives – both theirs and others around. They look into the centre and interrogate it – not by choice, but by chance. They are naturally subverting norms that are oppressive.

Such a wonderful way to be well and happy, music-making with others.

Why do you think it’s so important to have a music and health initiative specifically for mothers from CALD backgrounds?

Many of the music and health initiatives are focused on English-speaking and Western audiences. To understand the needs and contributions of CALD peoples, approaches that give them the space and means to explore their artistic and cultural processes need to be embraced.

This will, in turn, tell us more about how health and wellbeing in these populations can be positively influenced through the arts.

Another project you have is A Garland of Languages, which is a multicultural music ensemble of which you’re founder and artistic director. Tell us what kinds of music the ensembles plays.

We are a group of migrant artists here in Brisbane who all come from various parts of the subcontinent. Our music is a mix of classical and folk traditions of our lands, and takes much pride in the language of the poetry that we sing.

We also weave in stories and memories of our countries into our performances. We feature guest artists and commission new works and installations, including stories and poems, that speak to our lived experiences. Check out our program at the Brisbane Multicultural Arts Centre!

What is your approach to A Garland of Languages and cross-cultural music in general?

My approach is a hybrid approach; the notion of a third space where forms of musics can preserve their identities while also morphing into a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts.

Cross-cultural music is both a bridging and a bonding approach. It offers social capital and cultural vitality to all participating cultures.

What advice do you have for someone who would like to explore cross-cultural music, granted they have the background, knowledge, and experience?

I think being respectful and curious are both very important. Having the love of learning and a spirit of transcendence, where things are admired and appreciated first rather than critiqued, is a lovely place to start from.

Full power to all those who wish to explore and enjoy the musics of others.

Lastly, what can we expect from you and your projects in the rest of 2021?

I am excited about the research that I am continuing to do in Sing to Connect with mothers and women more broadly. I think there is much scope and challenge in this work.

I will also be composing and performing more works, and writing articles. 2021 is a year of hard work – I am ready to take this on!

Learn more about Dr Charulatha Mani on her website.

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