It has been an arduous path for Saroja and Lalitha, chosen for Sangita Kalanidhi, to be conferred by The Music Academy on January 1, 2011.

Why do C. Saroja and C. Lalitha call themselves Bombay sisters when they have been Chennai residents for over 40 years? “Years ago, when we sang at his navagraha puja, Mouna Swamigal of Ambattur gave us that name as his blessing for our future success,” Saroja explains.

Brought up in Bombay with seven siblings and tutored initially by vidwan H.A.S. Mani, the sisters shifted to Madras in 1958 when Saroja got a fellowship from the Central College of Music, Madras. (Lalitha was to get hers later).

Awe-inspiring principal Musiri Subramanya Iyer gave her direct coaching in his home, with Lalitha drinking it all in as she played the sruti box. “Even his simple sangatis, brimming with bhava, moved you to tears. Niraval and

swaram were stunning in brevity. I’d ask myself, will I ever get even halfway there?” The thrill was tempered by tension – as Musiri’s comments could be excruciating. “Donkey’s nose is getting whiter!” meant a downslide. Mispronunciations had him say, “The tongue must be honed with darbha grass.” Saroja remained stoic, but explains that “with a rowdy bunch for classmates” Lalitha fared better. “How can you find the culprit when eight throats belted it out together?” Lalitha laughs.

The turning point came at a huge Saibaba Festival, when Madurai Mani Iyer suggested that the Bombay Sisters, scheduled to sing before him, should take his slot instead, as illness prevented him from performing that day.

Exclaims Lalitha: “Imagine taking the Titan’s place before the huge crowds that had come to hear the great master! By God’s grace it went off well, and we got known.”

The sisters love recalling early Bombay days including father Chidambara Iyer’s iron rule, no coffee, no breakfast without practice, no games and no school either. The sisters started giving recitals at the local Rama Navami, Ganesh Chaturthi and Navaratri functions. Winning prizes in every competition became almost a habit. “Every year, our first concert tested the mikes for the Shanmukhananda festival.”

Prioritising music, Chidambara Iyer postponed his daughters’ marriage until he found families that agreed to let Saroja and Lalitha perform – and together. “His faith was not misplaced. Our in-laws have not only been supportive but also proud of us.”

Not that there were no twinges. “As secretary, Lalitkala Akademi, my husband M. Rajaram lived alone in Delhi for 14 years, visiting me in Chennai only when I had no tours,” Saroja explains. Lalitha discloses, “My husband Chandran, a lawyer, had to attend most family functions alone.”

The sisters are most animated when they talk about their 45 years’ “Guinness record” as disciples of Musiri’s veteran sishya, T. K. Govinda Rao. “He taught everything from ragam-tanam-pallavi to Dasarnama. “No” is a word he doesn’t know. Mention Narayana Tirtha, he’d immediately teach tarangam, say Swati Tirunal, and he’d come up with rare kritis to choose from. Something new? He’d learn it for himself or compose and teach us.”

With hectic performance schedules and the need to protect their voices, Saroja and Lalitha have few disciples. Besides, “With so many distractions, how can we expect total commitment from students today?” they ask ruefully. They rate listening to the greats as a matchless learning process. “Radha Jayalakshmi’s appeal, Pattammal’s perfection, MLV’s unpredictable spontaneity and MS Amma’s ability to invest every piece with the right kind of emotion!” Not easy for youngsters to make headway with such stars in the sky. But the Bombay sisters did manage to perform everywhere, including in remote villages in Kerala and Karnataka.

Have they ever wanted to sing alone? “Never!” they chorus. “I can’t even hum without Akka,” says Lalitha. “I forget everything without Lalitha,” admits Saroja. Not that singing together is easy. The synchronisation requires relentless practice, deep understanding and self control. “Can’t take chances. Sometimes, we may have to build up the effect by curbing imagination. Balance is vital for total impact.” Perhaps because they sing together, they have never felt stage fright or anxiety.

Referring to being chosen for the Sangita Kalanidhi award (2010), the sisters conclude, “We have been exceptionally fortunate, in music and in life. We had often seen MS Amma singing at the Kanchi Paramacharya’s puja and wondered if we would ever be so blessed. Unexpectedly, we did get the opportunity. Periyava tossed cardamom garlands at us. They are in our puja room, fragrance intact still.”

Does Saroja regret her daughter Jayantasri opting for dance? “I’m happy she did what she liked,” she replies, even as Lalitha nods and adds, “I have no children so she’s my daughter too. Saroja makes sure I have my share. My husband and I have as much claim on, and joy in our only grandson.”