Veteran singer Lalitha Gopalan Nair recalls learning from great musicians at the Sri Swathi Thirunal College of Music. She also remembers the day when the Diwan was attacked during Semmangudi’s concert at the college

It was my father’s dream to make me a good musician and I wanted to fulfil that dream. So, there were no second thoughts when he asked me what I wanted to do after I finished school. I was more than happy to join The Music Academy, the present Sri Swathi Thirunal College of Music.

My father, the late Thalakulath Parameswaran Thampi, was a musician to the core. He wasn’t a trained musician, but played the veena, bulbul, morsing, flute… He used to teach me Swati kritis.

I was 15 when I joined the college in 1947. Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer was the Principal then. In addition to Swamy [Semmangudi], there were a couple of other musicians on the panel for the admission interview. I sang a kriti in Anandabhairavi raga that Swamy used to sing in his concerts. It was Kowdiar Madhavan who taught me the kriti. The panel was impressed with my singing and I was able to join the college.

Whenever I think about the classes, I feel really special. There was something divine and magical about learning music. Initially, I used to stay at my aunt’s house at Sreevaraham. I went to the college in a jhatka (horse-drawn cart), along with my aunt’s daughters who studied at the Maharaja’s College for Women [now the Government College for Women] then. After that I went to stay with my maternal grandparents at Veli. From there I used to travel in a bullock cart along with my grandfather Thundathil Velupillai, a lawyer. There weren’t any good roads, so travelling by the cart was quite a back-breaking affair.

Those days there were separate classes for boys and girls. Most of the students belonged to the Brahmin community. I think there were around 40 students in my class.

The best part of my college life was learning from illustrious teachers such as C.S. Krishna Iyer, Narayana Bhagavathar, Kumaraswamy, Harihara Iyer, Seetha Rama Iyer… I must make special mention of our veena gurus – the great K. S. Narayanaswamy and Sivarama Iyer. Sanskrit classes were taken by Ganesa Sarma and Krishanamacharyar. Semmangudi Swamy taught us Swati kritis.

The college didn’t have many of the facilities that it has now. I remember we didn’t have enough toilets. However, both teachers and students had a special attachment with the institution. Nellayi Krishnamoorthy, our class teacher, used to stay in the college itself. I still remember reciting our prayer standing on the portico of the present office complex.

I used to sing for programmes conducted by All India Radio even while studying at the Academy. Then it was the Travancore State Broadcasting Station with the studio located at Palayam. There was only live broadcasting then. Karamana Krishnan Nair (father of singer K.S. Chithra), C.S. Radhadevi, Santha P. Nair... were among those who sang then. I used to give classical concerts and sing light music. We did musical features as well.

Playback singing was something out of the world for us then. V. Lakshmi, one of my contemporaries in college, had sung the song, ‘Ambili ammava thirinju…’ and we all looked at her with awe. Unfortunately that was the only solo song of her career.

Years later, I too got a chance to do playback. In fact, my father always encouraged me to sing in films. But I didn’t sing in too many films, since my husband, the late Cherthala Gopalan Nair, wanted me to focus on classical music. We’ve given a lot of classical concerts together.

Whatever little I’ve achieved as a musician is all because of the college and the learning I had there. I don’t know whether the present-day students are as devoted to music as we were. There was a feeling of bhakti and divinity when we sat in the classes. After all, music is something divine.

Lost in time

It was in 1952 that Lalitha Gopalan Nair [then Lalitha Thampi] got an offer to sing in Atmasakhi at Merryland Studio. But due to technical problems, the recording was cancelled and it was shifted to Mumbai. Lalitha’s mother, Rama Bai, didn’t let her go and she lost the chance. Later, she made her debut in Avakashi (1954). However, only three of her movies were released- Harishchandra, Kaalam Marunnu and Avarunarunnu. Though she sang in Prathyasha (with Mehboob) and Kedavilakku, the films were never released.

“In fact, it was after I grew old that I could listen to some of my own songs. I have seen only one movie in which I have sung. Past is past. Today, I'm happy to be known as G. Sreeram’s mother,” says the 80-year-old. [Sreeram sang the hit number ‘Kaatte katte’… in Celluloid]

Unforgettable incident

“The most memorable and, perhaps, the most horrific incident of my campus life happened on July 25, 1947. There was a grand function that evening on the campus. I don’t remember the occasion clearly, though. Chithira Tirunal Rama Varma, the then sovereign of erstwhile Travancore, was present along with his Diwan, C. P. Ramaswamy Iyer.

Semmangudi Swamy’s concert was going on. After listening to two of his kirtans, the Maharaja left. The Diwan was still there. Suddenly the power went off. There was a commotion and people were shouting that somebody has been attacked. I was sitting at the function along with my friend Gomathi. We were so afraid that we ran towards our home at Sreevaraham. It was only the next day that we learnt that the Diwan had been attacked at the function!

(As told to Athira M.)

(A column to commemorate the platinum jubilee of the University of Kerala. Eminent teachers and people from different walks of life talk about their student days in various colleges under the University.)