Meet sisters M. Lalitha and M. Nandini, who are on a mission to turn Carnatic music into a global art...

M. Lalitha and M. Nandini were in the midst of rehearsals for their concert when I met them.

Surprised, I asked, “considering your experience in music, do you really need such rigorous practice.” “Irrespective of the stage we play on,

this is a must and till date we have never gone on stage without a good practice session,” the siblings replied spontaneously.

Growing up in a family of internationally–known violinists, it is but natural that the sisters took to violin at a very young age. Their maternal uncles, L.Vaidyanathan, L.Shankar and L.Subramaniam, were the toast of rasikas as the violin trio in Carnatic music during the 1970s.

Ubiquitous on stage during the trio’s concert was their grandfather and guru, V.Lakshminarayana, a violin vidwan of great repute, who watched his sons display their skills.

“It used to be interesting to watch our mother Subbulakshmi Muthuswamy, also a student of our grandfather, join her brothers in concerts. Grandfather, a strict disciplinarian, insisted on daily practice irrespective of concerts. No wonder our uncles grew to be men of stature in music, the world over,” began Lalitha and continued, “I learnt from my mother that my training in violin started when I was about 3. Lessons were first from my grandfather and mother. At times, our uncles would take the classes. ” The case was the same with Nandini, the younger of the two.

Academic route

M. Lalitha has earned her doctorate for her thesis on “a comparative study of violin techniques in Western and South Indian classical music” from the University of Madras. The sisters possess the highest grade in Western violin, both in theory and practical, from Trinity College of Music, London.

Lalitha was awarded the Fulbright Fellowship in Performing Arts that helped her foray into studies on various forms of music at the University of Pittsburg with focus on “Composition writing for Fusion music,” under the able guidance of Professor Akin Euba considered to be the father of Avant Garde music. She has also been visiting University of Iowa for lecture programmes and teaching of Carnatic music under the Fulbright Nehru lecture fellowship.

The Charles Wallace India Trust (CWIT) Fellowship helped Nandini with a Masters in Ethnomusicology from the University of London. Her accomplishments at a very young age look impressive. “I joined the the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), London, where I had the opportunity to collaborate with Middle East and Chinese ensembles. I have the unique privilege of introducing and teaching Carnatic music at SOAS to students from all over the world”. Nandini was also the first educational director and conductor of the United Kingdom Youth Orchestra for Indian Music. She helped in setting up a music college in Mauritius and headed it too for some time being responsible for planning the curriculum and syllabi for Carnatic music.

The sisters learnt the grammar of world and fusion music from their uncles, which they felt has benefited them in collaborative concerts around the globe. It was only during the last season, their uncle, L.Shankar, returned to India to play concerts with his nieces.

L. Shankar trains them on difficult pallavis set in complicated talas, whenever he is in India, and advises them on the latest developments in fusion and world music. “In that way we remain contemporary,” said Lalitha.

“After our forays into various genres of music and music systems, we strongly feel that Carnatic music is the root of all systems of music. Our mission is to take it to every part of the world, share its beauty and make it a global art,” a smiling Nandini pointed out. Her elder sister nodded in agreement. Their father Muthuswamy has been a pillar of support in their musical endeavour. The sisters were featured in a music summit titled, ‘Vithala Vithala,’ organised by SMP Sankirtan at

Narada Gana Sabha over the past week end. Going with the theme, ‘Musical Bliss and Bhakthi Varsha,’ the duo’s careful selections were befitting the occasion.

Nandini presented the pentatonic raga Suddha Dhanyasi. It was on pure Carnatic mode.

The delineation was sans any western-oriented phrasings. Dikshitar’s ‘Sri Parthasarathi’ with swara exchanges was of the same tenor. ‘Raghuvamsudha’ (Kadanakuthoohalam) at a breathtaking speed was blemishless in terms of maintaining the tempo throughout. Lalitha’s alapana of Lalitha Ragam (‘Hiranmayeem’ -Dikshitar) was soul stirring.

Her mannerisms on stage kept reminding one of her late uncle and music director, L.Vaidyanathan. Nandini chose Reetigowlai (‘Guruvayurappanay appan’) for her raga essay It was tranquility, with her unhurried, laidback style. A mention must be made of the way she enhanced its intrinsic beauty with a meaningful approach.

Nandini continued in the same mood for her detailed sketch of Kalyani that followed next. It was a sumptuous treat with creative intuition coming to the fore. Nandini’s poise, in general, reminded one of her uncle, L. Subramaniam. The duo played ‘Pankaja Lochana’ ( Swati Tirunal- Mishra Chapu) bringing out its magnificence. A lively exchange of swaras lead to the tani by Sridharan Shankaran (mridangam), G. Ravichandran (ghatam) and Mayavaram Venkatramani (ganjira and konakkol).

Uncle’s pearls

“I was getting ready for my University exams and my uncle, L.Vaidyanathan, whom I had requested to teach me, was there at our house punctually on the dot at 5 the morning,” said Lalitha. “I wanted Anandabhairavi but he said, 'I am not in the mood for that raga but let me try.' Then he taught us for about 45 minutes. The next day he was back and asked us to sit for class. He went on for nearly 90 minutes, teaching us the nuances of that raga. “How come this change?,” I asked him. “Since yesterday, I have been pondering over the beauty of this raga and researched into it and I have come to give you the pearls.” To date, that session remains clearly etched in both of our memories.