Together on a tuneful journey

M. Lalitha and M. Nandini

M. Lalitha and M. Nandini   | Photo Credit: S_SIVA SARAVANAN


Lalitha and Nandini on how the violin has taken them around the world and helped them connect with diverse cultures

“You have made a good beginning. You got first prize in violin, played in saint Tyagaraja’s house and now, you are performing in the French Embassy. I pray to God for your concert’s success and hope you both perform many more,” wrote the loving grandfather V. Lakshminarayana to his grand daughters.

The words and wishes turned out to be prophetic and the two sisters went from strength to strength, not only charting their path as a successful violin duo, but also spreading the beauty of the instrument and Carnatic music around the world. Dr. M. Lalitha and M. Nandini, the fourth generation practitioners of a musical lineage have returned from a successful Europe tour to soak in the annual Margazhi musical atmosphere.

The sisters spoke about their memorable moments and experiences of the tour. “The most memorable moment of this tour was the opportunity to perform in front of the Pope in Vatican. We presented the great Carnatic music tradition for the first time in the Vatican. The fact that the day also coincided with the 150th year celebrations of Mahatma Gandhi made this concert a truly cherished experience,” says Lalitha.

They have performed in many festivals such as World Music Festival, Bratislava, Festival in Turin and Umeå Jazz festival, Sweden. They also performed in Paris, Brussels, Germany, Carpi, Bolona, Zurich, Gnesta and Cremona.

The sold out concerts at the prestigious Parco Della Musica, Rome and Oranjerie Theater, Roermond were “unforgettable experiences”.

Speaking about Cremona, Nandini says, “It was like a pilgrimage since it is the land of violin where the best hand-crafted violin-making families Stradivari, Guarneri, Bergonzi and Amati live. We went to see the violin museum. Right from the crafting of the instrument to its different parts and other related instruments including viola, cello to the violin played by Louis XIV, it’s an amazing display.

“In many of these places people had not heard Carnatic music, so it was a joy to talk about our art and perform for them. Besides many interesting questions, they were also curious to know about playing the violin in a sitting position. We had to explain that to play the gamakas, where each note is ornamented, it is necessary for the violin to be supported by the shoulder and leg.” The sisters not only focused on music but also spoke about the heritage and culture of South India. The most amusing aspect of their visit was when they were invited to a workshop for pregnant women and midwives. “A Frenchman, who had done research on the impact of Carnatic music in enhancing natural delivery wanted us to share our thoughts on the healing effect of our music,” say the sisters.

Recalling their performance earlier at the International Festival of Music, Norway, they say it was an emotional moment when the Indian Ambassador there invited them to lead the Indian contingent carrying the Tricolour during a march-past of musicians.

Their Europe tour highlights an interesting incident mentioned in their grandfather’s letter — their first concert at Alliance Française where they were students. “In 1985, when a medieval singer Jean Billiard came to perform, the director of Alliance Française wanted us to play Carnatic music. We had not played a concert earlier and were also hesitant as our grandfather was in the U.S., but he blessed us and told us to go ahead. So the collaborative journey began from our arangetram kutcheri,” says Lalitha.

The sisters grew up in a musical atmosphere. “Our mother Subhulakshmi Muthuswamy was pregnant when she was learning from Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer. May be a reason why we took to music naturally. We were taught music by our mother and grandfather. Woken up at four, we had to practice before school. Our uncle L. Vaidhyanathan would come to teach us too. In the evening again we had to practice till our father came home, which would be anywhere between 6 p.m. and 9 p.m. “We were also taken to concerts of great musicians. Our mother would pack some biscuits and chocolates to keep us silent,” laughs Nandini.

Besides the learning at home, they also trained under Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer. “His teaching methodology was such that we had no notation, but learnt only by listening. We therefore imbibed and internalised, not just memorised all that was taught to us. Direct interaction with the guru helped us pick up the nuances, which doesn’t happen in the skype classes today.”

Speaking about notation, they say it can form a broad framework, but the asaivu and gamakam cannot be notated. “That is where your training and imagination come into play,” points out Nandini.

Both of them studied at Queen Mary’s College, Chennai. While Lalitha did her M. Phil, Ph.D before going to Pittsburgh on a Fullbright scholarship where she specialised in composition writing for fusion music, Nandini, a triple Masters degree holder, went on a CWIT Fellowship to London, where she studied Ethnomusicology.

The sisters have not only performed across the world, they are also musicologists and teachers. Taking the time out from their busy Margazhi schedule to look back on their journey, Lalitha and Nandini are grateful to their gurus and grandfather for laying a strong foundation on which they have built their musical dreams.

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Printable version | Jan 21, 2020 4:46:08 AM |

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