Courtesy: Sri.PP.Ramachandran


Anecdotes about Musicians—26.

26--Bombay Sisters




Saroja Lalitha

Saroja and Lalitha are sisters, who were born in Trichur and have lived in Chennai for nearly 4 decades but are known as " Bombay Sisters ". When they sang at a Navagraha Puja, Mouna Swamigal of Ambattur gave that name as his blessing. They were brought up in Bombay with seven siblings. Their first lessons in music were from their elder sister Sethu. Then they learnt from Chellamani Bhagavthar, the father of singer Hariharan. When Saroja got a fellowship in 1958 from the Central College of Music, Madras they shifted to Madras, Lalitha too bagged this fellowship.


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They started with light classical music, progressing to pure Carnatic and classical music. Their repertoire includes songs in different languages as Sanskrit ,Kannada, Telugu , Tamil , Malayalam, Hindi and Marathi .


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In Madras they learnt under Musiri Subramania Iyer who was a stern teacher. His comments could be excruciating. Mispronunciations made him say, "The tongue must be honed with darbha grass. He put them under the care of T.Govinda Rao.. For the sisters the turning point came at a huge Saibaba Festival, when Madurai Mani Iyer suggested that the Bombay Sisters should take his slot instead, as illness prevented him from performing that day. "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.", said Lalitha.


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The sisters love recalling early Bombay days including father Chidambara Iyer's iron discipline , 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. The Father postponed the 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."


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The sisters are disciples of T. K. Govinda Rao for over 40 years. He taught everything from ragam-tanam-pallavi to Dasarnama. They rate listening to the greats as a matchless learning process.


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Once their car broke down and they had to travel by a truck."We were fortunate to have my Athimbar's (sister Saroja's husband) presence", said Lalitha. "Athimbar was reluctant to allow two women to travel by car through the night and hence had decided to accompany us. Well, after the car broke down ( it was around midnight!) and it was evident that it was a major repair, Athimbar then decided to try to flag down passing lorries. After a few just whizzed past, one stopped. The driver seemed to be surprised to see us stranded on the highway."
After he agreed to drive us back, the driver was gentleman enough to tell his companion sit at the back, said Saroja. "Both of us sat in front with my husband squeezing himself with the lorry driver's companion at the back. And the lorry driver ordered his companion not to smoke and things like that since women were traveling with them!"
"And that was not all," chimed in Lalitha. "The driver dropped us at Saidapet in the early hours of the morning. As Athimbar tried to locate a taxi, a car stopped by us and a man got out. He said 'aren't you the Bombay sisters?'
"When we replied in the affirmative, he said that he has been a long standing fan of our cassettes. Coming to know that we had been stranded and had been dropped off in a lorry, he actually insisted he would drop us home, even though it was completely out of his way. Really, God was great!"
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Lalitha said, "I would say that we were double blessed to get an Athimbar like him. He chose to stay alone in Delhi during his tenure as the Chief Secretary of the Lalita Kala Academy. and stayed away from his wife and only child, for the sake of his wife's career. My athimbar used to hobnob with the likes of all the top politicians and VIPs like Indira Gandhi, Rajiv Gandhi and several others. He opted to stay alone in Delhi.


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"We had signed a contract with a premier recording company whose period was to last for twelve years. Our first release was a compilation of kritis, one of which was Periyasami Thooran's Taaye Tripurasundari in Suddha Saveri, and our Guru Shri TKG's thillana in the raga Gambhiravani. We were accompanied by Shri H.K.Narasimhamoorthy on the violin, Shri Kuttalam Viswanatha Iyer on the mridangam and Shri Palakkad Sundaram on the ghatam."









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"Fortune then favoured us, when at the end of the 12 years, the recording company Sangeetha approached us,said Lalitha, with an air of satisfaction. "They were impressed with our Purandara Dasar's devarnamas' renditions."












" Sangeetha," approached us first to record a cassette of Devarnamas. This was followed by our first Sanskrit sloka album that contained Ayigirinandhini, the Kanakadhaara Stotram, the Lalitha Pancharatnam and the Lakshmi Ashtakam. This album's success led to our mega-hit Lalitha Sahasranamam which happened soon after."








"In fact, a similar thing happened when we recorded the Sringeri Sharada Suprabhatham," said Saroja. "We wanted that the Mutt's Pontiff should release it. But he did not agree to release it without listening to it first. However when he did hear it, he showered his blessings by presenting us with the sari that was draped around the deity Sharadambal. We were really overwhelmed by this gesture and can never forget this."


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"Without T.Govinda Rao , we certainly would not be where we are now. We definitely owe our success to him. He used to tune the Devarnamas in the most appropriate and choicest of tunes, actually learn kritis for us, polish kritis by adding his own sangatis by delving into his rich musical knowledge, equip us to sing multiple 'nadai' pallavis where the occasion demanded it and much more. We would say that he had the dedication to teach us like a parent towards its child."


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The sisters have performed in All India Radio's national programmes, in Doordarshan and other private satellite channels. They have also fetched the honour of being the Top Grade Artists of the All India Radio. As recognition to the expertise of the sisters, the National Sangeet Natak Academy, New Delhi, conferred on them the opportunity to do research and traditional and folk marriage songs for their repositories. Their research works later on were taped in audiocassettes for the welfare of Tamil scholars and music lovers.


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They have amassed several awards—such as Isai Peraringar , Sangeetha Kalasikhamani, Kalaimamani , Sangeetha Kalanidhi and Nadakalanidhi They are the first women to be conferred the status of Asthana Vidushi by the Kanchi Mutt.


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As the sister duo have underwent a lot of struggle in their early career, they have established a trust after their parents, the Mukthambaram Trust. The main aim of this trust is to promote deserving young talent and to foster, nourish and give proper exposure to young artistes in the field of Carnatic music, thus enabling the youth to carry forward the torch of traditional culture into the 20th century.