The Bombay Sisters, Saroja and Lalitha, have been inseparable from childhood, singing and breathing music together.
“Every cutcheri seems a new beginning even now, we are nervous until we sense the pulse of the audience,” say Bombay Sisters Saroja and Lalitha when you ask them how it feels to be in the limelight even as they celebrate being on stage for 50 years now. The sisters were in Bangalore recently to receive the ‘Purandara Award 2010' instituted by the Indiranagar Sangeetha Sabha in memory of the saint-composer. The Bombay Sisters' evening concert also had a generous sprinkling of Dasara Padagalu, and their numerous soundtracks of the same have seen record sales, identifying them more dearly with Bangalore audiences.
In the early 1950s when the duo singing trend was catching on, with Radha-Jayalakshmi and Suramangalam Sisters making their presence felt in the Carnatic genre, vocalists Saroja and Lalitha from Bombay (originally from Trissur, Kerala) were new faces that offered a chaste style mirroring the Musuri school.
How did the young sisters from Bombay get a foothold in the Madras music scene when the so-called Carnatic capital was brimming with upcoming and stalwart musicians all around? “Our guru T.K. Govinda Rao had groomed us so well that even our preliminary acclimatising concerts were getting noticed and appreciated,” explains elder sister Saroja. “In the early 1960s, on the day of Madurai Mani Iyer's concert during the Navarathri Festival in Chennai, we also had ours in the junior slot. The veteran fell sick, but didn't think twice to recommend our name for the main concert. ‘Chidambara Iyer's daughters can handle the evening,' Madurai Mani had assured the organisers! This proved to be a major break,” she says.
Their growing up years in Mathunga, Bombay, under the strict vigilance of father Chidambara Iyer (who was with Western Railways) was a boon, says Lalitha. “We were in a middle class joint family. Our maternal uncles and aunts were musicians. But for my intuitive father, who picked up Saroja and me (amongst the five daughters) for being vocalists, we wouldn't have seen such green melodic pastures. ‘No coffee or school if there is no morning practice',” he had warned us. That's the kind of discipline that helped Saroja bag the Government of India Cultural scholarship for classical Carnatic that landed her at the Central College of Carnatic Music in Chennai (where Musuri Subramania Iyer was then principal) for a scholarship study.
“Semmangudi Sir, Narayana Menon and Profesor Sambamurthy were the judges!” reminds Saroja. What followed later was Lalitha stepping into the same music school, because Saroja refused to study without her sister around. “From then on, we studied, sang and breathed music together,” she says excitedly. The sisters even rejected an opportunity to sing the title song for the film “Arunagirinathar” because they weren't taking up anything individually.
Is this thinking stretched to dressing too because the sisters popularised the tradition of identical silks in all concerts? “Yes, we do it on purpose for some visual synthesising,” says Lalitha. “The tonal synchrony, though, is what our guru Govinda Rao (TKG) always insisted upon and when we were on our Kamas lessons for ‘Brochevarevarura' he had trained us for days together for getting the tenor absolutely in unison as the raga and the sangatis demand an amalgam we had to follow for a lifetime,” she says. Experience also helped Saroja select Suddha Madyama ragas and Lalitha felt easy with Prati-madhyama ragas to suit their voice timbre.
Reminiscing the advanced classes with TKG, the sisters stress how the sahitya and bhava aspects were given abundant importance, even during improvisations. “Our neraval lines were diligently chosen so that we don't lose the meaning in the sahitya in unnecessary oscillations. The composer's emotion has to be respected,” our guru believed. “Apart from following a style, we were influenced by M.S' bhakthi, MLV's raga handling and D.K. Pattammal's innocence and purity of diction,” say the sisters.
The Bombay Sisters' link with Bangalore rasikas got stronger with their Dasara Pada being aired by AIR in its “Bhakthi Geethegalu” slot; their treatment of padas was being praised for emotive rendering. “If it's Ramanavami time, I think you sisters stay here for a month,” a musicologist had once commented. Such was the demand, the sisters (who have 250 Carnatic recordings and a string of awards to their credit) have performed in several countries. “Mouna Swamigal of Buvaneshwari Mutt advised us to call ourselves Bombay Sisters,” they say. From Trissur to Bombay and then on to Chennai and the Carnatic world, the sisters move on with melody.