Tales of a Musical Trio
Listening to the Mambalam Sisters one evening, I was struck with inspiration – why not visit them? I was in See-people-when-you-can mode for a few weeks, and this interview was the result of that mental state (eh?). Chatting with them was surprisingly easy; my preconceived notions of uptight musicians stuck with their art was rather thrown out the window. What was more, they were eager to share things with me too.
As I push the gate open in a quiet street in Mambalam, the sound of music falls upon my ears, a young voice beginning the slow, steady ascension into the higher reaches of music. Twilight is falling around the tree-covered house, and I witness a scene of domestic clamour as I step in. A young girl is busy practicing music for the evening, while others run around with their homework, or eager to play.
Though everything else may appear shallow and repulsive, even the smallest task in music is so absorbing, and carries us so far away from town, country, earth, and all worldly things, that it is truly a blessed gift of God.
– Felix Mendelssohn
“Our musical training began when we were six,” says R Vijayalakshmi, one half of the Mambalam Sisters, who have been making waves on the musical scene for a while now. Upstairs in their elegant little home, she’s joined by R Chitra. The sisters have been a part of the South Indian Classic scene ever since they were twelve.
Mambalam, quintessentially artsy Chennai from way back, has known these sisters right from their birth, playing witness to every step of their growth.
“Our father was, and continues to be our inspiration,” chimes in Hemalatha, the third of this musical trio, and an accomplished violinist. They call for and eagerly welcome K S Rangachary, a kanjira artist of renown in musical circles for the past 45 years. As their father takes his seat, the pride and affection they hold him in becomes obvious.
“Perhaps it was because of his own exposure to the classical music scene – but we were introduced to the Carnatic music world at a very young age,” says Chitra. “He’s a disciplinarian every inch of the way.”
Asked who made the decision for them to be vocalists, while the youngest sister opted for an instrument, they smile. “It was Appa’s decision all the way. At six, he arranged for us to be the disciples at the Sadguru Sangeetha Vidyalaya. Our music training was strictly managed – no excuses, no lapses.”
Later, they continued training under Alagramam Sri Ramanchandran, the disciple of late Sri Maharajapuram Viswanatha Iyer. They undertook advanced training as well, under Sarvashri B V Raman and B V Lakshmanan. “We learnt a great deal of rare krithis from him,” they say.
“At the moment, we’re undergoing training from Smt Suguna Varadachari,” says Vijayalakshmi. “At no point can you say that you’ve accomplished all there is, in music, can you?”
The sisters schooled in Sharadha Vidyalaya, and the emphasis was steered onto music from day one. Their day, as girls, began at 5.30 AM, when their father sat down with them to begin lessons. “He would play for us, so that we understood the intricacies of laya and thalas,” they explain. “Of course, he had to practice for his performances, as well, so we learnt early on what it was to practice for the sabhai.”
Learning at home and under teachers, no matter how beneficial, is never quite the equal of experience gained from listening to actual concerts: the sisters attended as many as they could. “We gave small, impromptu performances at places like Ayodhya mandapams,” says Chitra, glancing at her sister for confirmation. “You could say we had stage fear ground out of us. Performance mattered, more than anything else.”
“Our days were quite full – we rarely had time for anything else,” says Hemalatha, while the other two chuckle.
“She was the one who escaped,” asserts Vijayalakshmi. “She was the youngest of us all, so she was allowed to get away with things we couldn’t have dreamed of. She always managed to get off early during practice sessions. Then it would be discovered, and there would be quarrels galore,” they all laugh.
The vocal duo made sure they earned their degrees at B.Com and B.Sc Chemistry respectively, but decided that music clearly came first – which meant that academics took a backseat. “It was a conscious decision,” they echo. “We knew that we wanted to devote ourselves to music, so we gave ourselves to it.”
Hemalatha, on the other hand, seems to have taken the road less traveled here too. “I topped my BA course in music,” she quips. “It was Appa’s decision that I specialize in it. Later, when all my friends joined MA in music, I did too. It was an experience and a half.”
Learning music on an academic basis formed an excellent foundation for her own musical career, in her opinion. “I hadn’t really taken music very seriously until then – but things changed in college,” she smiles. “I grew to appreciate what I had, and to increase my repertoire.” She went on to complete her M Phil, and even her PhD. “I specialized in Dhikshithar’s 72 melagarthas, Raganga ragas in the Sangeetha sampradaya,” she elaborates. Needless to say, she has now gained a new appreciation of her gift.
The sisters have a brother as well, who began his musical training with them, but later switched careers. “He played for us occasionally,” they say. “He and Hemalatha were our accompanists.”
What began as short displays of music on occasions such as weddings of relations and festivals, slowly graduated to full-fledged concerts at prestigious Sabhas. “We began to sing at Sabhas such as Indian Fine Arts Club and Mylapore Fine Arts Club when were 18 or 19,” they say.
Didn’t they ever feel the pressure of nerves thrumming before any concert?
“Not really,” says Vijayalakshmi, after a thoughtful pause. “I suppose we’d been singing for so long that we simply didn’t think about such things.”
That may have held good for smaller performances – but what about the larger Sabhas with a much more discerning and critical audience, such as Music Academy, for instance?
“We performed in 1989 for the Spirit of Youth festival there,” remembers Chitra.
“Oh, by that time, we knew enough to be nervous,” declares Hemalatha, to much laughter.
From then on, there was no looking back. Word of the sisters’ proficiency and musical prowess spread; concert performances ranged all over the country, from Delhi, Mumbai, Bilaspore, and others. The sisters are A Grade Artists of AIR in both Carnatic and Devotional Music, and the vocal duo has been awarded the Government of India Scholarship for advanced training in music. Though Hemalatha, the youngest, has toured through Switzerland, South Africa, the USA, Kuwait and Australia as violinist for senior performers. The vocalists admit that they have based their performances mostly within the country. Part of the reason was that they had to perform together, they say. Another was that by this time, both were married and had families of their own. Care and attention had to be given to them, which rather limited their touring on an international basis, though offers did arrive.
One memorable trip was to Singapore, they remember. “We’d committed ourselves to a temple concert at 6.30 PM, and had prepared ourselves for it – and imagine our consternation when we heard from our mridangist that he couldn’t make it!” says Chitra, her eyes wide with remembered dismay. “He was caught in a terrible traffic jam. How on earth were we to go on with the performance without our accompanist?” In the end, an accommodating thavil player, who was part of the audience came to them and offered to play, providing away out of their difficulty. “He was a godsend, and the audience was very satisfied,” says Vijayalakshmi. “Our mridangist arrived three hours later, and was very relieved that nothing had gone wrong because of his absence.”
Another memorable incident happened in New Delhi, where the sisters had arrived to give a concert on National Television. “This was back in 1998,” they remember. “We were supposed to perform at 8 o’clock, because we had to catch a train soon after. And then there was a fateful power-cut. What were we supposed to do?”
A harried Director promised that their performance would be recorded as soon as the power came – which it did, at the last possible moment. “Oh, that was tense,” they remember. “But we can’t help but recall how helpful people were, assisting us in getting together the instruments, conduct the performance – and then sending us off, safely.”
Adventures seem to have preceded them every step of the way, along an illustrious musical career. Washed out bridges, broken roads, railroad accidents – “There were bodies along the tracks!” – sudden flashfloods in the rainy season that flooded their car and made travel impossible … there seem to have been no dearth of them.
“That’s part of concert life,” they say candidly. “They make our performances memorable. What would it be like if everything was the same?”
But ask them the performance that means the most to them, the one that they cherish for all time, and they fall silent as one. “I don’t think there can be any doubt that it was the one we sang in front of MS Amma (M S Subbulakshmi),” says Chitra. Apparently, the PA of the legendary singer had listened to the sisters perform, and promptly conveyed opinion on their singing to her.
“We were dumbfounded when we received a call from her, asking us to sing,” say the sisters. “We performed for around 40 minutes, singing old favourites like Kuraiyondrumillai … and a few Annamacharya songs.” MS, they recall, was a woman of utter simplicity and candour, with not an iota of self-importance.
“And MS Amma said, in the end, that though she’d heard many singers sing her songs, no one had every sung it like they did,” pitches in Rangachary, a silent witness to their conversation thus far. “She said that they’d followed her style perfectly. It was a compliment of the highest order.”
Hemalatha, on the other hand, has equally inspiring anecdotes to tell. In 2005, the violinist accompanied noted musician Balamurali Krishna at the Swati Sangeeth Utsav, in Trivandrum. “I was keen on performing well, despite my coming down with a fever, and this was a world-famous singer. Naturally, I had to be on my toes,” she says.
When the concert was at an end, however, the singer called her aside and said that, though he usually did not depend on his violinist, this time, he had found it a pleasure to do so.
“I was amazed at his generosity towards younger musicians, particularly the accompanists,” says Hemalatha, her face glowing. Thus far, she’s won the Yuva Kala Bharathi Award from Bharath Kalachar in 2000, and the title of Nada Oli from Nadha Inbam in 2002. The Music Academy awarded her with the title of Best Senior Violinist for 2002 as well.
The list of accolades won by the vocalist duo is long as well. They’ve bagged the prize for Best Rendering of Ragam, Tanam and Pallavi in Vivadi Raga from the Music Academy, in 2000. The Kartik Fine Arts awarded them the D K Pattammal Award for Excellence in December 2003. They are also the “Isai Arasigal’, as recognized by Pamban Swamigal Trust, in 2003. The ‘Nadha Bhushanam’ Award was theirs in 2006, conferred by the Shanmukhananda Sabha, New Delhi.
Their repertoire includes more than 700 krithis of various composers, and they’ve given more than 60 audio cassettes on Pancharathana Keerthanas, Annamacharya Keerthanas, the Venkatesa Suprabhadham, Jayadeva Ashtapathi, and numerous others.
What do they do to unwind, when the stress gets to them from such an obviously hectic pace?
“Music is everything to us,” they smile. “There’s no case of searching for relaxation, when we’re already involved in what is life and soul to us.” Then they say, in one voice, “Our families offer us everything that we might reasonably need in the way of support and relaxation – so there no question of needing anything else.”
With sons, daughters, full-fledged families with school and every attendant concern, how tough is it juggling these responsibilities?
“Well, it’s a bit difficult on the kids when they have to do without us for weeks, when we’re off on concert tours,” admits Vijayalakshmi. “But we live so close by that one or the other of us always takes care of the others children when we’re away. It’s a large, joyous joint family. Our in-laws are extremely co-operative.”
Their children, they now say with a chuckle, are well-used to their regime, and even take part actively in discussions on music, concert dates and schedules.
“They understand that this is something we have to do,” the sisters chime. “We find it fulfilling to trade ideas with each other, to just sing together, that not doing so would be unthinkable.”
With a satisfactory December season, they’re pretty satisfied with their lot. “We’ve always given our best – and we’ll continue to do so,” says Vijayalakshmi, seeing to her childrens’ dinner – and incidentally, mine as well (!). Talk about being hospitable.
If music is the food of the gods, as they say – then the Mambalam sisters are certainly past masters in serving up delectable fare.
PS: Apologies if the post is over-long … but I thought it expedient if it was posted in one go, as it’s of uneven length.