Guest : Bombay Sisters
Meeting the Bombay Sister's C.Saroja and C.Lalitha, perhaps one of the most famous sisters' duos that the Carnatic music world has seen, was an experience. I have never met the sisters in person "off-stage". Being born and raised in Delhi, the closest I came to interacting (if it can be called that) with them was to see them perform on stage whenever they happened to come to Delhi.
The interaction with them didn't really begin the standard and formal way. Instead of starting with the usual "so when was your first concert?" or "who was your first guru" and things like that, I preferred to launch into aspects of their music that has really inspired me to this day.
Two quote just two examples, your sedate and soulful rendition of Oothukadu Venkatakavi's Ennapunyam Seideno (Ritigaula - Misra Chapu) and even the popular Mokshamugalada were exquisite", I said.
The sisters, seated at ease on their 'oonjal' at Saroja's residence in Karpagam Avenue, acknowledged this with their individually characteristic winsome smiles.
I said, "Let's begin this interaction a little differently. Instead of the usual questions, which I am sure you must have answered by the dozen, I want to begin by asking you about an unusual incident that occurred when you were returning from a concert in Karnataka. I was told that your car broke down in the middle of nowhere, and subsequently, you traveled in a truck! Did you really travel in a truck?" I asked, unable to keep the incredulity from my voice.
"Oh yes" answered both promptly together - their answer in unison being reminiscent of their singing.
"We were returning from our concert at Hassan", said Saroja. "And I was scheduled to be here in Chennai for my daughter's "talai deepavali" (first deepavali festival). Not being present would have meant a gross breach of propriety. And the concert at Hassan was fixed before even my daughter had got married! So we couldn't cancel the concert either."
"So we decided to go by car to Hassan", said Lalitha.
'What! All the way to Hassan by car?" I said astonished.
"Oh yes," replied Lalitha. "We went by an Ambassador car (and in all probability, the car wouldn't even have had an AC, I thought) and since Hassan was only an additional two hours by road beyond Bangalore from Chennai, we decided we would travel all night by car on our return after our concert. We targeted to reach Chennai by dawn!
"And, the car broke down. It was a major fault - the axle broke, or something like that, didn't it, Lalitha?"
Yes," said Lalitha.
"My goodness", I exclaimed. "How did you manage after that?"
"We were fortunate to have my Athimber's (sister Saroja's husband) presence", said Lalitha. "Athimber was reluctant to allow two women to travel by car through the night and hence had decided to accompany us. Well, after the car broke down (mind you, it was around midnight!) and it was evident that it was a major repair, Athimber then decided to try to flag down passing lorries. After a few just whizzed past, one stopped. The driver seemed to be surprised to see us stranded on the highway."
After he agreed to drive us back, the driver was gentleman enough to tell his companion sit at the back", said Saroja. "Both of us sat in front with my husband squeezing himself with the lorry driver's companion at the back. And the lorry driver ordered his companion not to smoke and things like that since women were traveling with them!"
"And that was not all," chimed in Lalitha. "The driver dropped us at Saidapet in the early hours of the morning. As Athimber tried to locate a taxi, a car stopped by us and a man got out. He said 'aren't you the Bombay sisters?'
"When we replied in the affirmative, he said that he has been a long standing fan of our cassettes. Coming to know that we had been stranded and had been dropped off in a lorry, he actually insisted he would drop us home, even though it was completely out of his way. Really, God was great!"
Lalitha said, "We were lucky that Athimber had accompanied us. Otherwise I shudder to think if we had been traveling alone and if the car had broken down…..
"And that brings me to the crucial role he has played to elevate and boost our career, Mohan. Of course there have been many factors that have played vital roles in our lives that furthered our career - our parents' and family's encouragement and support, our father's struggle to establish ourselves in Chennai (in the initial stages, we were looked upon rather disdainfully, since we did not know how to speak Tamizh properly, for we had been born in Trichur and had been brought up in Bombay) and our great fortune to have Shri TKG as our Guru. But one person, who backed us through and through and without whose support we definitely would NOT be where we are now, is my Athimber. Mohan, I can't even *begin* to tell you just how much he has sacrificed for the sake of our careers.
Saroja said, "There have been other duos - sisters who were singing and who were our peers and who used to sing quite well. But many of them could never really quite make it - due to various reasons, lack of support from the family being the principal reason. We really have been blessed in that respect".
Lalitha said, "I would say that we were double blessed to get an Athimber like him. He chose to stay alone in Delhi during his tenure as the Chief Secretary of the Lalita Kala Academy. In our patriarchic society, can you tell me if any other husband would accept to stay away from his wife and only child, for the sake of his wife's career? My athimber used to hobnob with the likes of all the top politicians and VIPs like Indira Gandhi, Rajiv Gandhi and several others. Surely any husband would have wanted his immediate family to join him at such a stage. But no, he accepted to stay alone in Delhi.
"Athimber also gave up his own house in Chromepet so that both of us could stay close to each other in order for us to practice. He has played the role of a mother to us - he would cook, bring us tea while we practiced, boost our morale - so much so that my father himself came to depend so *much* on his son-in-law.
"I would like to say one more thing about my athimber. When my husband was due for his open-heart surgery (this happened during one of the December music festivals in Chennai), it was my athimber who used to relieve us at the hospital so that we could come home in the evenings to get ready for our concerts. I have never seen such a great relationship between two shaddagars," ended Lalitha, her voice shaking with emotion.
I sat silent, moved and fascinated at this account of the gentleman who has played such an indispensable role in the sisters' career by being such pillar of strength ever so many times that they themselves have lost count. There was a short silence that I was loath to break after hearing Lalitha's touching account of her brother-in-law and the respect, gratitude, regard and indebtedness she carries for him. Saroja had remained quietly acquiescent throughout Lalitha's emotive output.
At last Lalitha herself broke the silence, "Well, what next, Mohan?"
"You have the distinction of having innumerable commercial releases. What was your first release?"
"We had signed a contract with a premier recording company whose period was to last for twelve years. Our first release was a compilation of kritis, one of which was Periyasami Thooran's Taaya tripurasundari in Suddha Saveri, Khanda chapu tala and our Guru Shri TKG's thillana in the raga Gambhiravani. We were accompanied by Shri H.K.Narasimhamoorthy on the violin, Shri Kuttalam Viswanatha Iyer on the mridangam and Shri Palakkad Sundaram on the ghatam."
"Yes," I broke in enthusiastically, "I remember my mother herself being quite a fan of your rendering of Taaye tripurasundari. I am sure there would have been many more releases through this company. Can you name some of them?"
With a whimsical smile, Saroja said, "That was our first and last recording for that company. For the next twelve years, we did not have any other release whatsoever!"
"What?" I exclaimed, naturally surprised. "Why ever not?"
"Well, apparently the company thought that the 'Bombay Sisters' were not saleable artists", replied Saroja wryly.
This was so unexpected that I just stared at them, speechless.
"Fortune then favoured us, when at the end of the 12 years, the recording company Sangeetha approached us," said Lalitha, with an air of satisfaction. "They were impressed with our Purandara Dasar's devarnamas' renditions."
"How did that come about?" I wanted to know. "I mean, how did you equip yourself so well with Purandara Dasa's compositions?"
"Ah, that again was by chance. There was one instance when our AIR Chennai broadcast was heard by one Shri Narasimhachar at Bangalore. This gentleman was so impressed by our broadcast that he got in touch with Shri Vellore Ramabadran here (who was a very good friend of his as we came to know later) and asked to be introduced to us."
"You know, Mohan," said Saroja, "Shri Vellore Ramabadran brought this gentleman to our house and it was simply POURING with rain then, wasn't it Lalitha?"
"Indeed it was," agreed Lalitha. "We were so surprised to see them - and were really gratified that they should brave such inclement weather to call on us! Anyway, it turned out that Shri Narasimhachar had come to request if we would perform for the Malleswaram Sangeetha Sabha, which was our introduction to Bangalore. So I would say that we got our first break in Bangalore with a prime sabha in a prime slot. We prepared many devarnamas to sing at this occasion. Our concert was such a success that we also recorded a ½ hour program for the AIR in Bangalore that consisted of only devarnamas like Harismarane, Ramanama, Sakalagrahabala and Neene anathabandhu."
"That was the beginning of our long and cherished association with Karnataka. I think it would not be an exaggeration if I say that we would have performed in perhaps every nook and corner of the state. You know, during Rama navami we actually used to camp at Bangalore for more than 25 days in succession."
"Yes, and we in fact used consider ourselves as 'visiting artists' to Chennai, if we had a concert here in between the Ramanavami period", said Saroja with a laugh. "Incidentally, we came to know later that that ½ hour recording AIR Bangalore was broadcast several times subsequently."
"And that was how we got noticed by Sangeetha," continued Lalitha, "and they approached us first to record a cassette of Devarnamas. This was followed by our first Sanskrit sloka album that contained I-girinandhini, the Kanakadhaara Stotram, the Lalitha Pancharatnam and the Lakshmi Ashtakam. This album's success let to our mega-hit Lalitha Sahasranamam which happened soon after."
"Yes, with music set by the inimitable Shri L.Krishnan," I said agreeing wholeheartedly. "You know, for me personally the Lalitha Sahasranamam happens to be a very firm favourite. Nothing can equal your steady rendition, with utmost care to the enunciation and most of all, not going overboard with the ragas that the slokas are set to. The choice of ragas particularly is exquisite.
"How did you happen to associate with Shri L.Krishnan?" I asked.
"Shri L.Krishnan had composed tunes for a couple of songs that we had sung for AIR Chennai. These were very well received. So when Sangeetha approached us to record the Lalitha Sahasranamam, this time to be set to different ragas, we ourselves suggested that Shri L.Krishnan take the responsibility to tune it." "And what a result," I exclaimed involuntarily in admiration. "Really, it's not at all surprising that the Lalitha Sahasranamam was such a runaway success. L.Krishnan sir definitely had the Midas touch. Another example that is a staunch favourite of mine is your rendition of Subramania Bharati's 'paayum oli nee yenakku' in the raga Abhogi, which was again tuned by L.Krishnan sir, wasn't it?"
The sisters acknowledged this with a smile. Lalitha recalled, "When we had met the Kanchi Mutt pontiff, he told us that he had heard our Lalitha Sahasranamam carefully. His comment was that he tried very hard not to get carried away by our rendition and to locate some fault in our rendition. But he said that admittedly, he couldn't find any!"
"In fact, a similar thing happened when we recorded the Sringeri Sharada Suprabhatham," said Saroja. "We wanted that the mutt's pontiff should release it. But he did not agree to release it without listening to it first. However when he did hear it, he showered his blessings by presenting us with the sari that was draped around the deity Sharadambal. We were really overwhelmed by this gesture and can never forget this."
"Coming to your Guru Shri T.K.Govinda Rao…." I began.
Pat came the answer, "Without him, we certainly would not be where we are now. We definitely owe our success to him. He used to tune the Devarnamas in the most appropriate and choicest of tunes, actually learn kritis for us, polish kritis by adding his own sangatis by delving into his rich musical knowledge, equip us to sing multiple 'nadai' pallavis where the occasion demanded it and much much more. We would say that he had the dedication to teach us like a parent towards its child."
"The devarnamas that we render and became popular were all tuned by him," said the Sisters. "In fact Violin Maestro Lalgudi Jayaraman who spoke at our Sangeetha Choodamani Award function at the Krishna Gana Sabha, Chennai, said that we were fortunate to have such a dedicated guru who was never bothered about the two "manis" - the physical money and the time factor!"
"As a musician myself", I said, going on to another pet topic of mine, "I need to have your view on practice - sadhakam."
"Without sadhakam, *nothing* is possible" declared Lalitha and Saroja nodded in agreement. "Even *now* we practice everyday for about two or three hours. You said you liked our singing Enna punyam seideno…."
Unable to prevent myself from interrupting, I said, "Yes, and even an oft repeated kriti like mokshamugalada sounds different and somehow very rich when it is rendered by you." I said with deep veneration.
Lalitha said categorically, "Believe me, if we have not rehearsed mokshamugalada for more than 10-15 days, we simply would not dare to sing it on stage, Mohan!"
Yes, and that is how meticulous they are about whatever they sing be it pure classical or devotional songs or slokas in various languages. Despite their recording slokas on almost every conceivable god and innumerable devotional songs' album, their classical presentation is untouched and undiluted with every concert being planned and delivered immaculately. The Bombay Sisters have handled every area in Carnatic music with depth, devotion, dedication and precision. Small wonder that awards and accolades have poured in as they have achieved almost every major milestone and landmark in their musical journey.
Naadhabrahmam profusely thanks the Bombay Sisters for accepting this interview and for offering a glimpse into their marathon musical journey, and prays for their continued contribution to music.
(As told to Naadhabrahmam's sub - editor - Mohan Santhanam)