Manisha Eerabathini, Playback Singer
Meet Manisha Eerabathini, a playback singer who is making waves in the Telugu film industry. Manisha graduated from UC Berkeley with a degree in Electrical Engineering and Computer Science. She never considered pursuing music professionally until she participated in and won fourth place in Padutha Theeyaga, a reality-based Telugu singing competition that seeks to discover the best musical talent. From that moment on, Manisha’s career as a musician took off. Today, she performs all over the world and shares with us her story of following her passion, melding identities and charting her own path. Read on to learn more.
“I grew up in the Bay Area, and at the time, the area was just beginning to see an influx of South Asian people. Today it’s completely different and totally like a mini India!
I started learning Carnatic music and Bharatanatyam from an early age because my parents are interested in both art forms, but nobody in my family had ever learned these classical art forms until I did.
Looking back, going to these classes was really impactful. Every week, without fail, I’d attend class, meet so many other people who were similar to me or grew up like me, and who were also learning about Indian culture.”
“Truthfully, I didn’t actually look forward to music classes as much as my dance classes until I was in high school. At the time, I was more interested in dance vs. music, so continued to go to music classes out of obligation. But in high school, I started discovering the Internet and YouTube and realized how much music there was out there for me to explore.
My music teacher, Jayashree Aunty, encouraged us to do our own research and actively find different types of music. Covers were a really early concept then, and I remember watching so many covers in their primitive stages and discovering Telugu music that way.”
From Engineering to a Passion for Music
“When I started college at UC Berkeley, I was very unsure of what I wanted to pursue academically. My dad is in the engineering field and suggested I look at engineering because I was pretty good at math, and because it would allow me to work in whatever field I’d want to. When I was choosing majors, I saw computer science as an option, but then saw electrical engineering and computer science (EECS) as another option. I think I literally clicked EECS because it was two majors in one and I was trying to give myself more optionality (in retrospect I probably should have been more thoughtful!).
EECS ended up being really difficult, but I made it through. Coming to Berkeley, everyone in my program was brilliant. I met so many people who would code for fun and who literally loved to stay up all night to work on a coding project because they were passionate about it. I realized with time that I wasn’t that person, which was OK, but I just went through with the program to complete it despite it not being my passion.
At the same time, I joined Dil Se, Berkeley’s South Asian a cappella group, which provided my first venture out of classical music into film music. I spent so much of my college career with the team, and for me, this is what I wanted to stay up all night doing. I really developed my passion for music through Dil Se, and music never felt like work to me.”
Her Big Break
“At the end of my sophomore year, my dad told me that he’d heard about US auditions happening for a Telugu TV singing competition judged by S.P. Balasubramanyam sir called Padutha Theeyaga. The show had been around for over 20 years, and my dad had been watching since I was a child (he even used to rent cassettes of the show from our local Indian grocery store!). He was convinced that I should audition and kept pestering me about it, so I finally went to one of the music rooms in my dorm and recorded something super quickly. I posted it on YouTube and the video did pretty well, but I didn’t hear back from the competition team so assumed it hadn’t really gone anywhere.
However, a year later at the end of my junior year, I got an email saying I’d been selected and would need to be in Dallas in two weeks to film the first episode. It was so sudden, and by that point, I’d accepted a summer internship and wasn’t sure I could juggle the six week commitment to the show. Thankfully my company was flexible and allowed me to take six Fridays off so I could do rehearsals with the orchestra. I’d shoot on the weekends, come back to work on Monday, practice from Monday to Thursday after work and head back to the shoot.
It was a whirlwind of six weeks and really gave me a first dose as to how things work in India. At that point, I knew how to read and write Telugu but had no practice speaking, so I barely spoke during the shoots. I’d say the minimum possible amount and my parents would end up speaking for me as my messengers! I think it was just as much of a culture shock to the administrators as well, as they’d been so used to shooting in India which is much different than the U.S.
As challenging as it was, I just pushed through, thinking I’d probably get eliminated pretty early on. I didn’t even know a full Telugu song until I started the competition. I also didn’t have the typical Telugu voice that was suitable for the traditional songs I was expected to sing. But I took it a week at a time and would listen to each song a hundred times before even trying to sing. That approach is literally how I made it through to the end. I’d listen to a song all day while at work until I came home for dinner and just immersed myself in it completely.”
Early Innings in India
“The show started being telecasted in November of my senior year and it did really well. I started getting a lot of messages from folks in the industry and also started to perform at Telugu Association shows in the U.S.
At this point, I had also started interviewing for software engineering jobs, but one day, someone asked me if I had thought about pursuing music full time. I had never realized a career in music was even a possibility but I was just about to graduate with an EECS degree from Berkeley and the timing with the show was just perfect. It was scary to think of this huge change but ultimately, I didn't want to regret giving it a shot. So after months of contemplation, I made the move.
I’ve gotten so many questions about why I decided to go to India when all the opportunity was in the US - I’m pretty sure people thought I was crazy giving up the financial comfort of working in engineering. But my friends were all super supportive, and I think that the concept of pursuing what you love is something our generation is more supportive of. In comparison, our parents had to come to America and all they could think about was stability, so they naturally have a more conservative view. But our parents came to this country to build a better future for us and have given us so many resources, so it’s up to us to be successful in our own ways and take advantage of what they have done for us.”
“Moving to India was definitely a big adjustment. I had visited growing up, so I knew what India was like in terms of superficial things (like mosquitoes and electricity outages, ha), but there were certainly other aspects I hadn’t prepared for. To start with, interacting with people is so different in India. I’m by nature a more soft, less aggressive person, and I came in with a very apologetic, “oh I’m so sorry, whatever you want, if it’s ok with you” attitude. In India, people are more straightforward and will say what they think to your face, so I had to both get used to receiving that and being extremely direct myself. For example, people will just tell you if they think your skin is too dark or if you look like you’ve gained weight, and that mentality extends to everything. I’ve since learned to be a bit more aggressive, respond quickly and take a different approach to conversation, which has been really important in terms of building connections in the industry.
My first two years in India were really about building my network, working on small recordings and developing my voice. There’s a lot of competition in this industry, so I realized early on that I’d need to offer something that doesn’t already exist in the market - my voice, my split identity between India and America, and how I can do mashups and independent arrangements that showcase my unique identity.
I’ve also realized how important it is to be patient in this industry, which was tough to get over when I started out. You’ll never know when you will get a call, or what recording you’ll be in, or when someone will listen to you six months later and refer your voice to someone else they know further down the line. Everything you do is a piece of the larger puzzle and it’s important to work towards that bigger picture. I recognize that I’ve been very lucky to have advanced this far and gotten such great support from my family and community.”
“My followers still shock me and I can’t believe there are so many people around the world who listen to my music. I still get excited if someone comes up to me and asks for a photo - it’s surreal and that feeling definitely hasn’t gotten old. It’s crazy that people are deeply impacted by my voice when I sing, or to think that they start their day off listening to me. I got a message once after I sang a short song for Instagram where a mom-to-be told me that her baby started kicking while listening to my voice. The fact that an unborn baby is responding to my voice is just so crazy and humbling! And of course, seeing my parents be happy about my success and getting even more excited than I do is the best part of it all.
Regarding future growth opportunities, I’ve acted in one movie so far with a director I really admire. I’ve gotten a lot of acting calls in the past, but am being selective about what I choose to pursue as I want to act in roles with substance. I’ve gotten opportunities to be the hero’s sister, or the heroine’s friend, and while these are great, I want to focus my time on singing unless the opportunity is pretty significant. I’ve worked really hard to build a foundation in singing and want to maintain that core focus going forward.
My advice for young women interested in careers in music is to firstly be passionate because passion itself is what's going to motivate you every day during this emotional roller coaster of a journey. Secondly, be practical about the opportunities you may get, how you define and represent your talent and the connections you have within the industry. It’s extremely competitive out there, and you’ll need to look at things pragmatically. Be super patient and mentally strong too, as not every day will go your way. A lot of it isn’t in your control, so it’s a mixture of being proactive and patient.”
“My followers still shock me and I can’t believe there are so many people around the world who listen to my music. I still get excited if someone comes up to me and asks for a photo - it’s surreal and that feeling definitely hasn’t gotten old.”
“Overall, my parents have been really supportive of me going to India. My mom is even here with me, and though I didn’t ask for that, my parents have refused for it to be any other way. My dad will occasionally debate if I should come back to the US, but he knows I won’t make that switch until I feel like it’s the right time (or if, at all!). I’m also at the age where people love to start bringing up marriage, but it’s been difficult having been brought up in America and now living in India. There are a lot of cultural differences and especially now that I’ve been here for four years my identity is even more mixed. I can walk between the Indian Manisha and American Manisha very quickly, but it’s a tough place to be in in terms of finding someone to settle down with and getting married. My lifestyle is really unpredictable as well, and I don’t think I can bring someone else into that just yet on top of the cultural alignment. Even though I feel the pressure, I’ll figure it out with time. It is hard though when half of my Instagram feed is filled with posts of my friends getting engaged!”
On India’s #MeToo movement...
“It’s such a complicated subject because there’s so much gray area here. It’s incredible that so many women are coming forward and voicing these stories, because they’re literally going against society by doing so. It’s a very uncomfortable thing to do but so courageous. I was featured in a music video called “Arupu” that was released recently about the struggles of a female growing up in India - it’s very intense, and I’ve realized that these things happen everywhere. It’s not just the entertainment industry, and it’s not just India - it happens everywhere. I really think every bit of awareness helps, and even if you think discussing and voicing your opinion won’t matter, you never know who you can make an impact on.”