It's one year since veteran musician G.V. Ranganayakamma passed away. Her sister and musical companion G.V. Neela remembers her sister fondly. The unusual sisters dedicated their lives to music and Neela continues to serve it selflessly, unmindful of her age
Anybody familiar with Karnataka's Carnatic Music scene would agree that amongst the most unassuming yesteryear musicians, the talented vocalist sisters G.V. Ranganayakamma and G.V. Neela figure prominently. From the 1950s the committed sisters had their hands full with concerts, and their 40-year professional run had never missed annual performances at programmes organised by government bodies. Their humble persona never allowed them to refuse wedding concerts too. But those were down-to-earth, unpretentious times when marriage concerts drew in a great number of music enthusiasts together. For the G.V. Sisters though, performing was only a miniscule part of their larger passion for the art, and their moving away from active concerts in the 1980s to train students for music ensembles and tala vadya sessions. The duo proved to be a guiding lights for hoards of students in their school, Rama Lalitha Kala Mandira, that their father, an educationist, G.S.Vedanta Iyengar started in 1955.
“It is one year since my sister Ranganayakamma passed away on June 6, 2011, but I cherish the memories of her journey, her drive and determination that has made a difference to thousands in society,” says septuagenarian Neela. “If there was one dream that my father often expressed to everyone in the family, it was his vision to spread music awareness and encourage women to pursue art. With Ranganayakamma being the mentor, our family's unstinted focus helped us realise his dream, although each time we think we are moving closer to the destination, it moves away from us, ” she says.
Recounting their memorable childhood years, an emotional Neela says, “My father was an acclaimed educationist who won the admiration of the Mysore royal family. Spreading knowledge was his mantra. When young Ranganayakamma had sung at the Kikkeri school in interior Mysore, the guest of honour Diwan Mirza Ismail was moved and immediately helped my father shift to Mysore where he could look for better avenues to teach her music. As fortune would have it, my father used to meet his friend Mantri Sampath Kumar, father of the then leading vocalist Selva Pillai Iyengar in Mysore during his regular walks. Although my father wanted both of us to learn from the maestro, after persistent goading, Selva Pillai conceded to teach only Ranganayakamma and immediately put her on an intimidating schedule. My sister had all the grit to take up challenges of attending music classes and school.”
Ranganayakamma would quickly share everything she received from her guru with Neela, including his strict pathantara. “Pillai taught the modalities of developing the spirit inherent in the lyrics, so that we could capture the intrinsic bhava. He constantly made Ranganayakamma get familiarised with the ‘character and soul' of the kriti. ‘Feel the nucleus and mood of the song to understand and revel in its glory' was the constant sermon that the sisters were trained to imbibe.
Pillai never believed in imparting a bank of kritis. ‘The repertoire, he believed, was in rendering them in chaste quality. “Each of Ranganayakamma's classes would comprise delineating just one sangati,” explains Neela. “The more the perfection, the more the lessons. This was the reason why we got to learn only 60 kritis in 10 years!” says Neela.
When you tell Neela to speak something about herself she is not very forthcoming, “I was my sister's shadow, she was totally in control of our musical endeavours. She was a teacher, and a trained vainika. My father wanted all his children to learn different instruments and form an ensemble at home!”
Both the sisters have trained more than 1000 students spread throughout the globe. “Both of us received our vidwat before we turned 20 with veterans like Bidaram Krishnappa and violin Chowdiah being our examiners! Selva Pillai did not believe in these certificates, ‘Bury it deep into your suitcase! Sing for your soul, it's more satisfying,' was his practical advice.”
It was in 1955 that the family shifted base to Bangalore when Vedanta Iyengar started the Rama Lalitha Kala Mandira in Basavanagudi. “In 1960 we stepped into R.K. Srikantan's house for learning more, but initially Srikantan said, ‘If you have learnt under Selva Pillai what more am I going to teach you?'A nyway, a treasure trove of kritis gradually got added up to our stock,” she says.
The late Ranganayakamma and her sister Neela are graded artistes of AIR and have received the Gana Saraswati Award from Rajaji, the Karnataka Kalashree, amongst several others. Four out of the seven siblings didn't even want marriage to create hurdles in chasing their father's dream. While Iyengar's son mridangist Krishna Prasad is behind the Mandira activities in Bangalore, one of his grand-daughters Jayashree Varadarajan, founder of Rama Lalitha Kala Mandira in the U.S. received the ‘Best teacher of the Year Award' at the Annual Cleveland Tyagaraja Aradhana this year.
Another set of Iyengar's grand children taking his name forward include the Mysore Sisters - G.S. Kamala and G.S. Rajalakshmi, and percussionist G.S. Ramanujan. Ranganayakamma and Neela are not only pillars of strength to their family members, but also a lasting inspiration to the music community itself.