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Chat with IIM Alumna and Classical Musician Manasi Prasad: A Voice of Excellence
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Posted by : thedesk   Nov 18 2009
Manasi Prasad talks about how she pursued her life's passion despite other choices, and more.
One of the first things that strike you about Manasi Prasad is the purposefulness and directness which she brings into her conversation. It’s this clarity that has enabled her to time her decisions well, especially the most critical and difficult ones in her career and life. Clearness of thought comes from pragmatism of mind - a quality that saw Manasi challenging herself to two careers before deciding upon throwing her lot with the one continuing love of her life, the one that has grown up alongside her, from being a childhood companion to a life’s passion - classical music. No wonder when the 6bridges team spoke with her, she chose to lay emphasis upon the importance of the head and heart in making vital decisions.

There are substantial elements of the head as well as the heart in her achievements, quick climbs, decisive turns and precise timing that mark Manasi Prasad’s career. Brilliance took her to IIM-B where she studied for her MBA and later got an offer from Goldman Sachs in the US. The heart decided to stay back but the head said doing two careers simultaneously was a preferred option at the start. So, Manasi began working in Standard Chartered Bank in Bangalore but soon discovered that her heart was solely into music. Once deciding to move on with her singing career, there was no looking back. The singer added the prestigious Bismillah Khan Yuva Puraskar from Government of India’s Sangeet Natak Akademi to her repertoire of awards that included the Aditya Birla Scholarship while at IIMB.

Manasi has been performing for over a decade and has traveled extensively across the world, having performed in concerts in the US, Singapore, Middle East and Africa. She has been a prolific, versatile talent who has, besides classical singing, hosted live shows and TV programs as a compere, composing and singing music.

An exceptional, aspiring musician-philanthropist, Manasi’s world vision goes beyond the confines of the stage. She plans on taking music to the people, working on unique themes that focus on strong women personalities, is currently constructing a music center, and in each of her pursuits, strives to give back to this field that has given her so much.

In her achievements and aspirations, Manasi combines her talent with a focus that is resolute and a dream that is as single-minded as one of her favorite characters from history - Meerabai. Indeed, her head is where her heart lies.

6bridges: Hi Manasi, welcome! You decided to make a choice early on to give up a lucrative corporate career in favour of classical singing. Tell us what went into taking up a full time career in classical singing, especially after engineering and IIM.
Manasi: It was a hobby that I had been pursuing and nurturing for a while, and it wasn’t an idea that came at the drop of a hat. I had pursued it parallel to my academics and post my MBA, I did work for a year and a half at Standard Chartered Bank. It was after that that I took the decision to plunge full time into music. Here, what went into making this decision was the question that cropped up in my mind, ‘If not now, when?’ If I hadn’t decided at that time it would have been difficult. The more I would have gone forward in my corporate career, the less easy it would have been to take this decision. It was a question of deciding upon the right moment and making the jump.

6bridges: Even then, was there a particular incident or moment at Stan Chart when you said, ‘Okay this is it. I am not going to Stan Chart now; I am going to be a singer.’ Talk us through it.
Manasi: Not really, there wasn’t such a moment. I guess I knew from the beginning what I wanted to do. The reason why I joined Stan Chart initially was that I wanted to see if I could manage two careers. Immediately after my MBA, I didn’t want to jump into music. I wanted to give it (a corporate job) a shot and see whether it was possible to pursue two careers together. However early on I realized that a corporate job was a very demanding one, especially with regards to time. The corporate career is such that even though you may manage your time, the demands of the job make it difficult for you. Early on, I realized that pursuing two careers together was difficult though I gave it a shot for a year and a half.

6bridges: You have trained as a classical singer and a dancer from an early age. You gave a dance performance at the age of 14. So, did you make your decision to go full time into classical singing and dance early on?
Manasi: Absolutely, I did entertain such thoughts at many points in my life. When I was doing my engineering, I was toying with the idea of taking up music full time, at that time as well. It’s a question of getting the right opportunity. When an MBA beckoned, I decided to do it because it’s a course that teaches you skills that help you in the long run. At the back of my mind there was this thought that I want to take up music full time. When I was doing my MBA, I knew it wasn’t something that would take away anything from my final career. The skills that you learn, the people that you meet, and the experiences that you have, add to your knowledge of a lot of things. I don’t think that education waste at all.

People’s reactions to her decision

6bridges: How did the people around you react to your decision? How did you handle different reactions?
Manasi: I think my nearest and dearest ones - which included my family, my mother, my fiancé who’s now my husband were all very supportive of my decision. They could see that the pressure was telling. Spending 5/6 days in the bank and then rushing off to concerts was taking a toll and there wasn’t a moment for me to pause and reflect. So, people closest to me could see that it wasn’t an ideal situation.
However, after the MBA when I gave up the Goldman Sachs offer, people would often roll up their eyebrows and wonder if it was the right decision. After all, people always dream of such a job. In fact, not very many people in the music field were supportive. Perhaps, having gone through the trials and travails of survival, they would caution me and advise me against a full time career in music. This included SP Balasubramiam and classical musicians who advised against a full time career in music. They told me to be prepared for hardships.

6bridges: Did you face a struggle within yourself about whether to take it up full time or restrict to doing it in a limited way that you were doing?
Manasi: I think I decided to be associated with music a long time ago. I was in Singapore where attending a concert. I remember going to the concert and really crying. I told myself, ‘Hey this is what I love and this is so beautiful. What am I doing away from it?!’ So, the moment for me happened quite a long time back. Yet, I was very clear that I wanted a strong academic background also in place. So there wasn’t a particular moment when I made the decision to be a classical musician; I think it was a gradual realization that happened.

6bridges: How do you view this decision in retrospect?
Manasi: Well I am glad that I went to IIM Bangalore. There are two reasons specifically. One was what I learnt from it personally. Two, I got to meet different kinds of people at IIM in terms of the students and faculty. Also the brand value is a big advantage. There’s no running away from the fact that the IIM is a huge brand. Whenever I go to a concert, the fact that I am degree holder from one of the premier institutes holds a lot of value in people’s eyes. Taking such a decision (of following your passion as an independent career) requires certain amount of time and maturity. There are people who have taken the decision immediately after graduation when they decide that this is the only thing they want to do. But for me it’s been a gradual process of realizing that ‘hey, I can’t live without music.’ I realized I couldn’t imagine a life without music. But that insight requires a certain amount of maturity.
I don’t regret the decision. However there are days when I may be feeling disappointed and dejected because it’s a competitive field and it’s an unorganized sector where you don’t know what steps you need to take and your career path is not decided. There are days when I question myself about various things. But as I have said earlier, ‘it’s not about making decisions but instead it’s about living with those decisions.’ I have the conviction that I made the right decision and having made the decision I need to make the best of it. That’s more the way I look at it.

6bridges: Your mother was a classical singer. Tell us how your family background contributed to your career.
Manasi: My mother was a very big influence in my life. She used to teach students while we were in Kuwait. There was an atmosphere that embraced music, and I would watch people holding others to rapt attention with their music. I said to myself that this was what I wanted to do. My mother’s influence extends even now. She has followed me to the music concerts and has been my strongest critic. So definitely, she has been a very big influence in my music.

6bridges: You spent time growing up in the Gulf and also went to school in Singapore. Did growing up in different cultures and places influence your thinking and attitude?
Manasi: Sure, it did. Being in different places taught me that there were different ways of leading your life. In Singapore there were different types of people - there were authors, graphic designers, artists, sportsmen and others. You can do a lot of things in life - that’s what you are able to realize. We grow up in Indian families with a traditional approach about who you can be. I traveled a lot and realized that there were different ways in which you could lead your life. So, growing up in different places definitely had an impact, I would think.

6bridges: What would you advise young professionals when they are confronted with the dilemma of choosing between their passion and a career that has a defined path. How should they look at assessing career-choice decisions?
Manasi: I think the decision is as much about the head as it is about the heart. People should know where they stand and take a calculated decision based on it. For instance, I know where I stand in the music field in terms of skills and talent. I think that’s where people have a problem. For instance, just because one likes writing doesn’t mean that the person has the skills to be the best writer. I think having a passion is necessary but along with the heart its important to also know where you stand and whether you will make it. This is a cruel world and people must be aware that there is a risk. So I would say, hold your heart but be very real.

6bridges: So, did you take the decision because your qualification from a premier school gave you a cushion?
Manasi: I agree that education qualification is a good backup. However, I didn’t take this decision thinking I will go back to my corporate career if doesn’t work out. I took this decision with no thought of turning back.

6bridges: Would you have taken this decision if you hadn’t had the benefit of extensive training and recognition in music, even though you may have had the talent?
Manasi: In that scenario, I would have thought a lot about it. As I said one needs to take a calculated decision on such things. Maybe I would still have taken the decision that I later did, but I would have had a more difficult time arriving at such a decision.

6bridges: Was there a moment of uncertainty after you had chosen your path? How tough was the initial part, after you had chosen your path?
Manasi: Even now, every day is uncertain. There is a lot of competition and there are days when you feel that you deserve more. But there have never been any regrets. If nothing else it is the sheer wealth of experience that I have got as a musician, which I would never have got had I continued on the regular path of being an engineer and an MBA. This rich wealth of experience that I have got as a musician more than compensates for the lesser financial reward which one has to forego. I feel more complete as a person having become a musician than I would have felt had I followed something else.

6bridges: Did you have an alternative plan if things didn’t go as per planned in your chosen pursuit of passion? Was there a plan B?
Manasi: I didn’t take the decision with any timelines and deadlines. I have been into it for a while now and I did not have any timeline because it only adds to the pressure. I think it’s difficult to have it that way. All I think of is giving my best in a concert. I never gave myself any deadline for succeeding.

6bridges: A music career might be less financially rewarding than a corporate career? To add to that, classical music is less financial rewarding than commercial music. So how have you thought through your financial plans.
Manasi: I agree with you that commercial music is more rewarding than classical music, especially in the initial stages. Also I am well aware of the fact that I won’t make as much money as in a corporate career. So if that meant certain compromises in lifestyles etc. I am ok with it. I understand that I won’t be having a multi million dollar home and private jet, but as long as I am happy doing what I want, and have a comfortable standard of living, its fine by me. Also, in such careers, as one goes along, rewards do come and one needs to have the patience for it.

6bridges: Is it also easier for a woman to pursue one’s passion as a career, compared to a man, especially in the Indian context, considering the conventional social pressures upon a guy are comparatively more.
Manasi: I think in today’s world it’s equally difficult for a woman or a man to take a decision such as this. In our generation, even in India, there are double-income earning couples, so financially it’s equally difficult for both. However, from a social perspective it is different as we are still conservative and hold the view that a man is expected to be the primary breadwinner. Therefore, if I were a guy I would have felt more pressure than what I have undergone otherwise.

6bridges: You trained as a classical singer and a dancer from an early age. How did it help you to cope with the pressures when you started your independent music career?
Manasi: I think that I must give credit to my family for this. There has been an ingrained striving for excellence in whatever we did - whether it was academics or music. And the other aspect is learning to enjoy what you do. Many a times, we do a thing without realizing whether we enjoy that particular thing or not. I do not sing with a view to win a reward, it’s because I love it and enjoy doing it. I think that takes away a lot of the pressure. Also I feel that when I was doing both music and dance, there was academics that helped me get away to, besides work.

6bridges: You have been a multifaceted talent. A singer and a dancer, you have also been a compere, a TV artist, a producer and a music composer. What keeps your adrenalin ticking, besides the self-belief in your versatile abilities?
Manasi: I am someone who enjoys doing different things every single day. If there’s something I hate it’s the routine part of any work. One of the immediate reasons for quitting the job was that the routine got to me after a while. I can decide what project to do and I can work towards bringing them to fruition; so there’s a satisfaction in working each day. What gets me going is that each day is different, each day brings a new challenge and each day brings a new reward with it!

6bridges: You’ve experimented with different forms. You’ve done a one-woman show with Giridhar Meera and presented the story of Kunti. There’s a sense that you are influenced by strong woman characters from history and mythology. Does it tell us something about your own way of looking at things?
Manasi: I resonated with Meera because like me she was at crossroads but decided to go with her heart. Meera was brought up in a lap of luxury. It can resonate with a lot of people who have decide whether they have to follow the mainstream or go with your heart. There’s a resonance that I have with Kunti too. However it’s to a lesser extent. Kunti was a mother and a sacrificing person as opposed to me who’s doing things more for my self fulfillment. India has great examples of women who are very strong, bold and courageous. My role models have been all women. If there was one woman who I would want to emulate it would be MS Subbalaxmi who was one of the greatest musicians and Rukmini Devi Arundale, who was the founder of Kalakshetra, one of the very fine art institutions of our country. I am definitely influenced by strong women and my mother is another one who has influenced me.

6bridges: You have had Rukmini Devi and MS Subbaluxmi as idols. You have been involved in music related causes too. Tell us about your long term goals. Is there a larger goal - of going beyond being a performer alone?
Manasi: There are two things here. The first part is that I want to give back to music especially in terms of helping young performers who are looking to chart the same path as I did. There is a seminar that I have launched called music chit chat. It’s involves sharing your knowledge with young musicians. Generally people are a little conservative in the music field and do not share the information with others, the details of what they can do to get ahead. This is so since they feel they would create more competition for themselves. There is a series of seminars that I have started where I invite speakers to speak to young musicians on a variety of subjects. Last month the topic was about how to manage your music career and how to become a concert musician. The next one is going to be about how to practice effectively. In my own small way I have started things to give back what I can to the field of music.
The second part is that I have just started a project which will have a music experience centre in Bangalore, with the support of leading corporate firm. This music centre is going to be a combination of research centre, museum and an academy. It’s still in the process and it’s a little premature to talk about it now. The music centre is something I am working on right now and it should be up and running in a few years from now.

6bridges: You’ve performed in Chile and different other places where people may not even understand this form of music and then in places like Bangalore and Chennai where they are perhaps very knowledgeable and hence, critical about comments. How do you prepare yourself to facing these different kinds of audiences?
Manasi: In India there has been an upsurge of interest in classical music and there are a lot of young people who come to these concerts. Classical music is definitely on the upswing in India. In terms of preparing for concerts and audiences yes, I do prepare thoroughly for different audiences and do keep in mind what kind of audience I am presenting to. I do use modern tools and technology to help get it across to the audience. It may sound clichéd but I must tell you this. When I went to Chile, I used a PowerPoint presentation which I translated into Spanish with the help of a local translator. It had the history of music and how it evolved among other things, which made a lot of difference to the impact. I make it a point to communicate with my audiences, irrespective of where it is. For instance, I performed at the inauguration of a new batch of PGP students at IIM - B this year.

6bridges: You had a Bangalore Dream when others usually thought of the American Dream. And you turned the dream into reality in a short time. Where does the dream go 5 years from now?
Manasi: The dream very much remains a Bangalore dream - an India dream, but with probably a wider view than I had a few years ago. Yes, my dream of making it to the top echelons of classical music is slowly taking shape (I wouldn’t say it has fully turned into reality). My wider view of taking classical music to the youth is also slowly taking shape; especially through this ambitious new project I am involved in - the setting up of a Music Experience Center, showcasing Indian music of all kinds. It will be up and running in a few years. I don’t think now there is a large divide between a Bangalore dream and an American dream. We are moving to a world where your physical address is immaterial - we are all traveling across the world- but the place where the impact of your work is felt is important.

6bridges: Right work-life balance helps one in rejoicing every passion. Earlier you had academics or corporate work to turn to, to find balance from music. What do you look for a balance in life now, after music, especially since the other two don’t exist as earlier?
Manasi: Well, this new project certainly is nourishing both sides of my personality - the artist side and the management side. Yes, I am not the kind of person who can do music 24/7. Which is why I involve myself in other pursuits - television, writing etc? Apart from that, I enjoy a long run in the park, a nice book, or a nice evening out!

What she cherishes most from the IIM days
6bridges: What do you cherish most from your IIM days? Can you share any particular memory from those days?
Manasi: Definitely, the friends I made. I had this most amazing group of girls in my hostel block - one topped the batch (Anushree Laturkar), another (Yamini Natti) turned down a foreign investment bank job like me, went to work at McKinsey in Mumbai and has the brains and the passion to become India' s next economic policy advisor!
But we were of course normal girls, looking out for the 'rare-to-find' cute guy in our batch or among exchange students, shopping etc. Some of my professors were amazing, and it would be a pleasure just to go to their classes and hear them talk. The lunch table discussions, late-night study sessions, long walks on campus, all remain cherished memories.

6bridges: Tell us one you would prefer from amongst the following:
a) Bharatnatyam or Carnatic vocal
b) Schooling in Singapore or in India
c) Performing before 300 people in places like Chile where people speak spanish or before demanding audiences on home grounds like Chennai or Bangalore

Manasi: a) Definitely music. I feel it is possible to be good at more than one thing, but when you find the thing that you enjoy the most, its like all the stars align!
b) School in Singapore (very challenging), undergraduate studies in India (lost of free time to pursue passion).
c) Third one is very tough, because both give you different kind of fulfillment. But if I had to choose, I would say 'being accepted in Chennai and Bangalore' because that’s the hardest test. And the thrill of doing well in a tough exam is the best, right?!