She sang a jugalbandi with the shehnai of Ustad Bismillah Khan. She impressed the top film composers of the '50s, and was invited regularly to perform before world celebrities. Lalitha Nagarajan now lives in Bangalore, recording for radio, and a little puzzled why she is so infrequently heard on the concert circuit.
In those days, the route to stardom in playback singing was through a contest run by the Murphy radio company. She won the contest in the early '50s and was invited by the legendary composer Vasant Desai to sing for films. This was a big break, but things didn't quite work out for her that way. "We came from an orthodox background, and there was a stigma attached to the cinema business," she recalls. Her parents were not too pleased, and her chances of becoming a playback singer quietly slipped away.
But that didn't stop Lalitha from singing for the radio, which was considered a far more respectable medium. She lived in Delhi, where her father was employed, and became a regular singer for composers like Vijayaraghava Rao. She also found a guru in N S Ramachandran, director-general of AIR, and he helped her continue her pursuit of Karnatak music.
Between 1950 and '93, Lalitha sang regularly on Delhi radio. She was also invited to sing on the Dehra Dun and Lucknow stations of AIR. She is now an A grade artiste and broadcasts classical music regularly from the Bangalore station.
Although Lalitha is trained in Karnatak music, she was exposed to a lot of Hindustani music in Delhi, and picked up enough of that genre to be able to sing bhajans and thumris well. A Hindustani composer praised her saying she had the voice of MS, and many northern composers enjoyed composing for her.
Lalitha's story is one of commitment to music through the trials and tribulations of a middle class life. She was already performing when she was 15, and had caught the attention of vidwans like G N Balasubramaniam, who used to visit her parents. K B Sundarambal, another big name, offered to train her, but again Lalitha's parents were not sure they wanted a career for her in music.
Most of her recordings for AIR in Delhi were in the Hindustani style, but she was much sought-after as a Karnatak classical concert singer. When she took an audition as a classical singer, she was asked to stop after she had sung just a single phrase: the judges were convinced she knew the right way to sing the difficult raga Todi, and selected her rightaway. She later came to know that great masters like Emani Sankara Sastry and Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer had been on the panel. In later years, Emani invited her to try out many of his own compositions, especially his javalis and bhajans.
Lalitha began her singing career began in 1947. Her gurus Raghavan and Lakshminarayana Iyer (whose three children became famous violinists -- L Subramaniam, L Vaidyanathan and L Shankar) groomed her. When her father was transferred from Madras to Delhi, she was introduced to a whole new world. Her vocal skills got her concerts whenever the authorities decided to treat visiting VVIPs to south Indian classical music. Thus she got to perform in the presence of very big world leaders, and before prime minister Nehru and presidents Rajendra Prasad and Giri.
The recording with Ustad Bismillah Khan is a high point in her memories. While the ustad played raga Bageshri, she sang Sriranjani, a raga close to Bageshri but not identical. "Khan Saheb liked it a lot," she says. And once her credentials were established, the government sent her on cultural exchange programmes all over the world. She was also sent to perform at Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan in London.
Lalitha lives with son Dr Karthik Nagesh, who is a neonatologist at Manipal Hospital in Bangalore. Her cassette of bhajans on Shirdi Sai Baba has turned out quite popular, and when we met her for this interview, she was planning to get more copies made. "It's all god's grace, and whatever music I sing comes from him," she says, with humility and faith. Her only regret is that she is not on the mainstream concert circuit these days, but she is delighted by the lavish praise she gets whenever she sings at religious congregations.
Write to the editor
Published on 21 March 2002
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