When it comes to women duo singers in Carnatic music, the Bombay Sisters Saroja and Lalitha are among the pioneers. They were known as much for their classical concerts as their many devotional albums in Malayalam, Tamil, Sanskrit, Kannada, Telugu, Hindi and Marathi. Their patantharam-based music stood out for the authentic presentation style.
Aware of the challenges faced by youngsters in establishing themselves, they used to go out of their way to help young artistes.
Prolific performers for over five decades, the Thrissur-born and Mumbai-bred sisters travelled across the country and outside. They sang together from a very young age and underwent training under H.A.S. Mani (father of singer Hariharan). Their parents decided to relocate from Mumbai to Chennai when Saroja received a scholarship for advanced training from the Central College of Music, Chennai, under its Principal Musiri Subramania Iyer. A year later, Lalitha too won the scholarship. The sisters also learnt from musician and scholar T.K. Govinda Rao.
The Bombay Sisters have received several honours, including the Padma Shri in 2020, the Sangeet Natak Akademi award in 2004, the Sangita Kalanidhi in 2010 and the Sangita Choodamani in 1991.
Recalling their association with the Bombay Sisters, popular Carnatic vocalists Ranjani and Gayatri shared in their Facebook post: “Utterly saddened by the demise of C. Lalitha. Having known them from our early Mumbai days, their love, support and advice were a huge source of strength and guidance. The warmth and abundant affection they showered on us will always stay in our hearts. The way they supported so many young and up-and-coming musicians, both in spirit and with their resources was humbling and inspirational. Through their Muktambaram Trust, they sponsored scores of young musicians, including us, helping them find platforms for concerts and gain experience and confidence. Their unconditional seva to the art form, duo dynamics and steadfast loving partnership will forever be a source of inspiration to both of us. Lalitha mami, we will miss your effusive smile, and affectionate presence.”
Senior violinist Usha Rajagopalan fondly recalls their generosity. “They even bought me a violin when I couldn’t afford one. On stage or off it, they never missed an opportunity to express their apprecition. When I performed with them, I would feel so much at ease.”
Veteran mridangist Tiruvarur Bhaktavatsalam says he owes his musical success to the Bombay Sisters. “I performed with them for the first time in the early seventies for a concert at Kollam in Kerala. After that there was no looking back. As a young mridangist, I had then moved to Chennai from Tiruvarur and was trying hard for performance opportunities. Happy with my accompanying skills, they recommended my name to several musicians and organisers. It was with their encouragement that I began to play for other eminent artistes.”
Says well-known mridangist K. Arun Prakash, “The Bombay Sisters ruled the world of devotional recordings with about 350 albums to their credit, most which were set to tune and orchestrated by my illustrious father L. Krishnan. I was blessed to have played for them at concerts and recordings.”