Saroja and Lalitha, better known as Bombay Sisters, look back at four decades of concert experience, and describe their days with the great Musiri Subramania Iyer and his star pupil T K Govinda Rao
C Saroja and C Lalitha say music should not be like a mathematical calculation but like the flow of a waterfall.
In a detailed interview with The Music Magazine, the indomitable pair talk of their childhood, their training under the great Musiri Subramania Iyer, their continued association with his star pupil T K Govinda Rao, and how they have kept their successful combination going.
Even during the interview, the sisters keep the flow going so well that when one elaborates the other is silent, only for the second to pick up smoothly where the first has left off!
Tell us how you acquired the appellation of Bombay Sisters.
We lived in Bombay in our childhood, where our father was one of the earliest South Indian residents. Our early training in music was from our eldest sister, Sethu. We then learnt from Sri H A S Mani, who laid a very strong foundation. There were good teachers in Bombay, but for advanced training, in those days one had to come to Madras. So in 1960 when Saroja got a Government of India scholarship to study at the Music College here, the whole family decided to shift here. It was then called the Central College of Carnatic Music and Sri Musiri Subramania Iyer was the Principal. Later I (Lalitha) too joined the same college.
So it was because you hailed from Bombay you got that name.
No, there is something more to it. We were singing initially as C Saroja and C Lalitha. Once we went to offer our respects to a Mouna Swamigal (saint who has taken a vow of silence) who lived in Ambattur. It was he who suggested, by writing on a sheet of paper, that we should call ourselves Bombay Sisters.
Something really miraculous happened and we feel it is all due to his blessings. Those days the Navaratri festival used to be a very prominent musical event in Madras. We got a junior slot to sing in the Sai Baba Temple at Mylapore. In the evening slot was the great Madurai Mani Iyer. He suddenly fell ill. The organisers did not know what to do. Madurai Mani Iyer suggested that we two should sing in the evening slot. This was our big break.
How was the shift to Madras from Bombay?
We can only remember and acknowledge the sacrifices our mother and father made for us. Our father, N Chidambaram Iyer, was an engineer in the railways. In the early days he used to walk from place to place to get us concerts. All he asked in return was that if we became successful, we should start a trust to help young artistes. The Muktambaram Trust named after our parents has been functioning for several years and almost every young artiste of today has been given grants under the trust. After we got married, we have to acknowledge the immense support our husbands have given us. This is especially true when we go abroad for concert tours.
Please explain some strengths of the Musiri school.
We learnt how to render a kriti properly. Where exactly to put the sangathis, neraval, sahitya suddham, bhava. Not too much of brighas. The graces are important. Swaram singing should be like raga singing. After our training under Musiri for two years, we came under Sri T K Govinda Rao, and for the past 37 years we have been learning from him. We still go to him.
What was his main contribution to your learning?
He taught us that music should be "janaranjakam" -- even a lay listener should be able to enjoy it. We still go to him for anything new. Every year for the Music Academy festival we go to him for the pallavi. Also, being a scholar, Govinda Rao Sir knows so many languages. He has tuned so many Dasar kritis. We have learnt all that from him. From Dikshitar to the light pieces one can learn everything from him. He is a complete teacher.
Talking of the Dasar kritis, the devotional element is very strong in your music.
Yes, the bhakthi element is very important. We have cut a lot of devaranama albums of the various Dasars -- Purandara Dasar, Kanaka Dasar, Jagannatha Dasar, Gopala Dasar, Vyasaraya, Sripadaraya. We have rendered the Lalitha Saharanamam, Soundarya Lahari, Subramanya Bhujangam, Aaditya Hridayam, Sarada Suprabhatam, Mookambikai Suprabhatam in Sanskrit, apart from a number of Tamil devotionals. On the instructions of the previous Jeer of the Ahobila Mutt we recorded a cassette of songs in praise of the presiding deity of Srirangam, Lord Ranganatha.
What are the ingredients of a good concert?
A good voice, melodious presentation, audience rapport, good repertoire, good technique. A concert can be compared to a good South Indian meal. There has to be a variety of dishes right from the starters to the main course to the sweet!
How do you coordinate your concerts?
Well, it has settled naturally. I (Saroja) prefer the suddhamadhyama ragas like Sankarabharanam, Todi, Begada, while Lalitha likes the pratimadhyama ragas like Shanmughapriya, Kalyani, Vachaspathi, Simhendramadhyam -- (with a smile), the more "glamorous" ragas. Since my voice is husky and hers is shrill it goes well.
Our aim is that our partnership should go on for ever. So neither of us will ever do anything to disturb it. We take care to see that. Cannot sing if the other sister is not on the dais.
You mean you will never perform solo?
No. We perform only when both of us are on stage. Even if one of us is ill and cannot sing, she has to be alongside for the other to perform. If the problem is too severe, we cancel the concert.
Bombay Sisters, 106, Prashanthi, Fourth Street, Karpagam Avenue, Chennai 600028
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