Smt.Lalith J Rao - A "Saraswati" amidst Chitrapur Saraswats
"If music be the food of Love, play on“.
So said, Sir William Shakespeare in
his well-known drama “The Twelfth Night”. How very true, isn’t it ? Music has the inherent magical quality of attracting all music lovers and keeping them enthralled and entranced in its web . Medical science has proved beyond doubt, that human beings can get relief from stress-related problems by listening to quality music of one’s choice and liking. Music has the benevolence of tranquillizing a disturbed mind, ensuring a positive solution to the vortex of stress-connected thoughts and anxieties. In India, Classical Music has been given its own place of respect and reverence over the past several centuries, mostly due to the encouragement of its rulers. In the North, Hindustani Classical Music flourished under the Mogul rule and continued its undeterred path for centuries. In the South, Carnatic Music found favour with the Dravidian kings and rulers. Classical music had the patronage of the Royal dynasties all over India. Hindustani Classical Music has been the forte for the Chitrapur Saraswats (read Bhanaps) settled all over the country from Kashmir to Kanyakumari and Kolkata to the Konkan coast. This could be attributed to our Origin. In the late 19th Century, Classical music was looked down and frowned upon by our community leaders and elders, for the simple reason that it was the bread and butter of “Dancing Belles”, thus turning to be a discouraging factor for the Bhanaps to learn music. However, with the passage of time and changes in the outlook of our community leaders and religious heads, Hindustani Classical Music gained its popularity among our members, with men and women taking up singing in real earnestness. Some of the doyens of the past include Pandits Chidanand Nagarkar, S.C.R.Bhat, Devendra Murdeshwar, Dinkar Kaikini – to name a few. Learning Hindustani Classical Music became a passion in our community vis a vis dancing. The encouragement given by our religious heads and community leaders has been the impetus in grooming several musicians and artistes from our community. One such artiste leading from the front is a rare gem born into our community - Smt. Lalith J. Rao.
On 6th November 1942, when the entire nation was celebrating Diwali, a festival of Lights, the home of Dhareshwar Prabhakar and Ramabai (from Bangalore) seemed to glow in delight as a baby girl was born to them at Madras. The child was named “Lalith”, one of the names of Goddess Saraswati as well as one of the Morning Ragas, who was destined to be a shining star of the illustrious Agra-Atrauli Gharana in due course of time. In one way or the other, Devi Saraswati seemed to have blessed Lalith by endowing the child with the zeal and interest in music. At the age of 2, she could easily pick up her favourite disc of Pandit Narayan Rao Vyas from a pile of 78 rpm records and demand listening to it. Her love and devotion to Agra-Atrauli Gharana seemed to have fascinated her at the age of 3 itself when she sat through the entire four hour recital of Aftab-e-Mousiqi Ustad Faiyaz Khan, completely fascinated and spell-bound. This was, perhaps, her initial tryst with the great Gharana, of which she was to become one of the outstanding exponents in her musical career.
Lalith studied at Sophia High School in Bangalore till completion of her matriculation. She was not only good at studies but also in sports during her school days. She generally stood first in her class, besides actively participating in all school games and sports, ultimately to become the Captain of the school Athletics team. She held the school record for Javelin throw for several years. She learnt a bit of classical Dancing – Kathak – in her early years, although music was always uppermost in her priorities. At the age of 9 she was quite fortunate to be a student of Pandit Rama Rao Naik, living in Bangalore, who was trained in the Agra-Atrauli Gharana and was directly associated with Ustad Faiyaz Khan. Lalith gave her first public performance at the age of 12 under the aegis of Bangalore Sangeet Sabha in 1955, to the great delight of the cognizant audience. In 1957, while still in school, she participated in Sur Singar Samsad’s All India Classical Music competition at Bombay for upcoming musicians under the age of 30, and, won the 1st Prize although she was just 14 years of age. During the same year she participated in the Swami Haridas Sangeet Sammelan and became the youngest participant of this prestigious event. The day started with her performance and ended with the recital of Surashri Kesarbai Kerkar. Lalith’s musical extravaganza received appreciative reviews in the newspapers of Bombay for her enthralling recital, making her parents and her guru, Pandit Rama Rao Naik , justifiably proud of her achievement. Having added a feather to her cap, she devoted most of her time to studies and sports. She distinguished herself by securing the 2nd Rank in the Higher Secondary, 4th Rank in All India Senior Cambridge and in the Mysore State Pre-University examinations. She joined Maharani’s College, Bangalore, in 1958 and graduated with a B.Sc degree in Physics, Chemistry and Mathematics in 1962. During her College career she was the Athletics and Games Captain, besides representing the College in various games and sports. She was a member of the victorious Mysore State Basketball Team in the All India Inter-State Tournament. Having completed her B.Sc degree course, she joined the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore, and secured her B.E.Degree in Electrical Communication Engineering in 1965, securing a First Class with Distinction. Her thirst for pursuing higher studies, duly encouraged by her parents, enabled her to join the University of New Brunswick in Canada to complete her M.Sc Degree in Bio-Medical Electronics in early 1967 with distinction. She had submitted a Thesis on “Elimination of Cross-talk in Myo-Electric Control Systems” which has since been quoted as an important reference work on the subject. While still studying in Canada, her parents decided to seek a matrimonial alliance for her. She was engaged to Jayavanth Rao, son of Shri.Naimpally Ramanand Rao (former Managing Director of State Bank of India), working as an Executive of a British Company (English Electric Co) based in New Delhi. They were married on 19th May 1967 at Bangalore. Lalith confesses that a certain gentleman had attended a private concert of hers at Madras in 1965, who appeared to be totally mesmerized by her rendition, shaking his head in tune with her, during the Raga-Vistar and Layakari. That gentleman was none other than Jayavanth Rao, whom she married less than 2 years later. Jayavanth proved to be a catalyst during the course of her musical journey in life, besides being a source of inspiration, support, a staunch admirer, a non-compromising critic, whose implicit faith in her musical capabilities enabled her to reach the heights of musical glory. Strange that destiny had moulded them as a couple “Born and Made for each other”.
Lalith and Jayavanth Rao were blessed with a son at Bangalore, on 25th June 1969, who was named ‘Sanjeev’ which was the name of his great grand-father. Sanjeev grew up in Bombay till 1983 and later studied at St.Xavier’s School in Delhi, graduated at Manipal Institute of Technology, Manipal, with a B.E. degree in Electronics & Communications in 1991. He undertook a Graduate Training programme in England for 2 years and a year on a job till 1994. Later, he moved to Montpellier, South of France, as the Marketing Executive of GEC Alsthom for 5 years. He secured his MBA from INSEAD, Fontainebleau, France, in 2000 and took up the assignment of a Consultant with Boston Consulting Group (BCG) in Paris from 2001 to 2004. In the year 2004 he started a business of his own in Paris and moved to India for good in July 2006 and started his own consultancy firm by the name of G2i Venture Management Pvt. Ltd as its CEO. He is married to Claire Lemoine, a French national, who has graduated in Arts. They have a son Manou and a daughter Leela. During the arduous study for the Engineering course, Lalith had to relegate music to a lower level in her list of priorities, since Academics was at the top. However, her guru, Rama Rao Naik, ensured that music did not get sidelined all together in her pursuit of studies. It was during this crucial time that Pandit Omkarnath Thakur happened to hear Lalith singing. He was so immensely impressed with her singing that he requested her father to persuade her to come to Benares, giving up her studies, to enable him to groom her into an ace performer. She had to decline this magnanimous offer of Panditji. Incidentally, when she was in school, Pandit Jasraj, once happened to hear Lalith singing. He was so impressed with her prowess that he requested her father to send her to Bombay for full time training in music under him. Even this offer had to be declined – perhaps she was destined to sing only for the Agra-Atrauli Gharana and not for the Gwalior or Mewati Gharanas.
After her marriage in 1967, she moved over to New Delhi to continue her career in her specialized field of engineering. However, it was at the insistence of her husband Jayavanth that she took to music as a duck to water. Fortunately, Pandit Dinkar Kaikini was stationed in New Delhi working with All India Radio. He agreed to fine tune her music lessons learnt so far to brush away the musical cobwebs that had gathered during her engineering education abroad and brought her back on the right musical track. Even though this training lasted barely for a year, she could gain enough confidence in her musical skills. She was offered a lucrative job with IBM in New Delhi but did not take up the offer since her husband was under orders of transfer to Bombay. Perhaps, providence had different plans for her future. After the birth of her son in June 1969, her musical journey took a new twist. Ustad Khadim Hussain Khan, the doyen of Agra-Atrauli Gharana, who was also residing in Bombay, came into her life as her musical ‘Messiah”. The Ustad found that Lalith was an accomplished musician with a firm background in the traditional Gayaki of his Gharana, in view of her formal and basic training received from Pandit Rama Rao Naik and Pandit Dinkar Kaikini. He took upon himself the onerous task of thoroughly polishing her singing style and guided her into the finer aspects of the Gharana, delving into an ocean of Ragas and Cheezas of his great musical heritage. Lalith was at the cross roads of her life – having a child to be taken care of and the continuous coaxing from her husband to take up music instead of engineering – she had to take a firm decision, which she finally did enabling herself to mature and mould into a reputed singer of the Agra-Atrauli Gharana, bringing laurels to her gurus and to herself. As providence would have it, she was chosen for the Bhulabhai Memorial Scholarship to pursue advanced studies in Classical Music under Ustad Khadim Hussain Khan. Her Ustad encouraged her to give public performances, so that once she made her mark in the minds of the public, she would not look back to pursue her engineering studies. However, due to her absence from the musical scene for a number of years, she had to commence from the bottom rung of the musical ladder. So she decided to perform at the Kal-ke-Kalakar Sangeet Sammelan organized by Sur Singar Sansad to encourage upcoming artistes. Ironically she had won the first prize thirteen years back in the competition held by this very organization. She went on to perform in the Swami Haridas Sangeet Sammelan and subsequently in all the music circles and major musical events conducted all over the country. She regaled her audiences with her rich repertoire comprising Khayal, Dhrupad, Dhamar, Thumri, Tarana, Hori etc. She was particularly acclaimed for her delineation of a wide range of Ragas bringing out their aesthetics and purity. She developed her own style of singing Taranas under the guidance of her Ustad during the period from 1969 to 1983. She is a “Top Grade artiste of All India Radio, one of the very few from our community. In the mid ‘70s Lalith, along with a few other disciples and admirers of Ustad Khadim Hussain Khan, started a music organization in Bombay called ‘Sajan Milap’, named after Sajan Piya, which is the nom de plume of her Ustad. The objective of this organization was to project lesser known but talented artistes, publishing books on great musicians. The most significant contribution of Sajan Milap was the introduction of a unique annual Gharana Sammelan in 1979, which was a trail blazer in the Bombay Musical scenario.
While residing in Delhi upon the transfer of Jayavanth, she was invited by the Sangeet Natak Akademi to interview senior artistes of the country to share their rich musical experiences. She also interviewed several well known and famous artistes/musicians such as Gangubai Hangal, Mallikarjun Mansur, Firoz Dastur, S.Balachander (Veena) Zia Mohiuddin Dagar, Naina Devi etc for Doordarshan. During 1989-91, the Sangeet Research Academy of Calcutta appointed her as their first Chief Co-ordinator for an archival project funded by the Ford Foundation. Under this project, she recorded the traditional Ragas and compositions of a large number of senior Ustads and Pandits of different Gharanas.This gave her a wonderful opportunity to come in close contact with the musical ethos, characteristics and repertoires of various Gharanas. She was able to interact closely with these maestros and understand their thought processes and approach to their musical heritage. In 1993 she was invited by the Ethno-Musicology Department of the University of Washington in Seattle to record the traditional Ragas and Cheezas of the Agra-Atrauli Gharana for their archival project. She has rendered nearly 500 traditional compositions in a wide variety of Ragas for the University. She has done a similar project for a music foundation in Ahmedabad. She has also recorded a 13-episode series for Bangalore Radio’s “Amritavarshini” FM channel on Samaprakriti Ragas in Hindustani Music. She has given a LecDem (Lecture Demonstration ) with Multimedia Power Point Presentations on the Agra-Atrauli Gharana for the Bangalore Gayana Samaj. She was also featured in the French World Celebrity Magazine “ MATCH DU MONDE ” alongside Pandit Ravi Shankar. She has given many programmes in the “Chayan” series of All India Radio with commentaries on Gharanas and legendary musicians of yesteryears. She has also done book reviews on music for the Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, Literary Review and other journals. In 1981 she undertook her first concert tour abroad, performing in France, the UK and all over USA and Canada. Her musical recitals were very well received by the knowledgeable audience. Since then she has performed abroad several times – in 1984-85 to UK, USA and Canada ; in 1993 to USA and Canada. During the period 1973 to 1993 she has performed in musical concerts all over the country – Agra, Ahmedabad, Akola (Maharashtra), Baroda, Bhopal, Bombay, Brindavan, Calcutta, Chandigarh, Chennai, Cochin, Darbhanga (Bihar), Dhar (MP), Gwalior, Indore, Jabalpur, Jaipur, Jodhpur, Lucknow, Mathura, Mysore, Nagpur, Pune, Surat, Varanasi, Vijayawada, Wardha. She gave her first music performance for the National Programme of AIR, New Delhi, in 1978. Her performance in the National Programme for Doordarshan on TV was in 1983. She recorded her first audio cassette for Swara Shree in 1974, She recorded for Rhythm House in 1981-82 and again in 1984-85. Her rendition was recorded by HMV in 1984-85, Magnasound in 1988. Navras Records of London, in 2002 (in Raga Durga). As a token of appreciation of her musical talent, Sony Music released her audio cassette in 2002 (in Raga Durga) on the occasion of her 60th Birthday. Her first audio CD was released in 2002 in two volumes (Vol.1 – Raga Lalith and Vol.2 – Ragas Kalyan Nat and Adana). Very soon thereafter, Navras Records of London brought out her CD in the same Raga Durga. She also had the distinction of recording a CD for Ocora Radio France, Paris, in 2003 with Raga Darbari (a rare rendition by female artistes in this raga – normally Darbari is sung by male artistes). Her first performance in the august presence of HH Shrimat Anandashram Swamiji was in 1953-54 at Chitrapur Math, in Bangalore, rendering a composition in Raga Bilaskhani Todi. Her opportunity to sing before HH Shrimat Parijnanashram Swamiji was at Bangalore, Khar Math, Bombay and at Virar in early ‘70. She had the privilege of composing Raga Bhavanishankar for the Tercentenary Celebrations of Shri Chitrapur Math, Shirali. She also had the proud honour and privilege to present a Musical extravaganza – “Bhairav to Bhairavi” – which was entirely conceived and directed by her in 2005 to raise funds for the Chaturmas of HH Sadyojat Shankarashram Swamiji at Shiva Krishna Mandir, Hubli. Later, the entire funds collected from the sale of CDs of this performance amounting to Rs.2 lacs was donated to Shri Chitrapur Math, Shirali. This unique concept presented by her students and youngsters of Bangalore, consisted of several Ragas usually sung from Dawn to Dusk. The programmes were very well received at all centres where it were performed and at the National Centre for the Performing Arts in Mumbai, it was a complete sell-out. It was totally a successful achievement for Lalith Rao with a sense of ‘job satisfaction’ both for her and the participants. “Saroopyam Sadrushyam Trayam” a musical presentation on our Guru Parampara was composed by her and rendered mainly with other Bhanap musicians at Shri Chitrapur Math, Shirali, in 2008. Another one titled “Guru Vatsalyam Shishya Sharanagati” was specially composed by Lalith on HH Parijnanashram Swami in February 2009 and performed again with several Bhanap musicians at Karla Math, Karla. Just before embarking on a musical tour of the UK, Switzerland and France in 1993-94, Lalith had to go through the most traumatic experience of her life, as she suddenly lost her voice. She had not only to cancel the foreign tour but literally stop singing altogether. Fortunately, she was introduced to Peter Harrison, a voice Teacher in London. Under his able guidance, slowly but surely her voice started to improve and she regained her voice almost completely. Peter Harrison, who was attached to the Madrid and Oporto Operas, is considered by Lalith Rao as her fourth Guru. However, seven years without riyaz, and that too at the peak of her performing career, caused an intensely emotional and psychological catharsis from which she thought that she could never regain her confidence to perform again. She is convinced that it is only by the Grace of God, the Blessings of her spiritual mentor, HH Sadyojat Shankarashram Swamiji and the good wishes of her Gurus and well wishers that she has been able to resume her musical career. Having completed nearly three and a half score years, Lalith Rao, has recapitulated names of personalities who have come in her life and made a difference to her. She first attributes all her achievements to her parents. She believes that her mother taught her to believe that if one tried hard enough and aimed for the moon, he/she could at least reach the tree tops. Her father was a silent and a strong bedrock of patience and fortitude, who encouraged and supported her in everything that she wanted to learn. She feels that her achievements in life are entirely due to them. She recollects of being jealous of her cousin, Dr.Shanta Savur, singing with a tanpura (the object of her jealousy) on her lap. Lalith remembers to have cried till her cousin put down the tanpura and took her on the lap. She has a good word for the father of Shanta Savur, viz Basrur Ganpath Rao, who had persuaded her parents to teach her classical music. Her aunt, Sharadabai Balse and her daughter Manorama Gangolli, had persuaded an initially reluctant Rama Rao Naik to start teaching classical music to a 9 year old Lalith. She is at a loss for words of appreciation and love for her guru Rama Rao Naik who started teaching her classical music and groomed her with care, affection and dedication for over a decade and gave Lalilth a deep insight into the intricacies and nuances of the musical heritage. She is unable to forget Dattappa Garud, who used to visit her house, either partly by bus, partly by walk, despite his physical disability, just to accompany her on Tabla during the Riyaz. Punctuality was another name for him given by her. He taught her the total concept of Laya and Taal structure in classical music. She attributes her comprehension of Taal and Laya that she has learnt during her musical sojourn entirely to Dattappa Garud. Two more Bhanaps have come into her life – Sode Shankar Rao and Shivanand Bankeshwar – who have played no lesser role in her musical journey. Both used to come once a week to her residence and one of them would ask her to sing while the other would play on the Tabla as her accompaniment. Shri.P.N.Chandavarkar and his wife Rukmabai too had a big role to play in her musical sojourn. The nostalgic memories of Bangalore Sangeeth Sabha for taking a bold step in arranging her first full concert in 1955, when she was just 12 years old, and the exposure she derived from listening to other concerts of the Sabha towards HIndustani Classical music other than the Radio are evergreen in her mind. She also remembers Dr.M.C.Munshi, who ensured that she was introduced to every artiste who performed for the Sabha as well as having the unique honour of inviting them home and singing for them. Thus, she met great musicians like Pandit Omkarnath Thakur, the elder Dagar brothers, A.Kanan and his wife Malavika Kanan, Gangubai Hangal, Pandit Bhimsen Joshi, Mallikarjun Mansur, Sharafat Hussain, Pandit Jasraj, Gulam Mustafa Khan and several others. She also vividly remembers the reviews of music critics, in particular B.V.K.Shastry, Sethuram and Mohan Nadkarni. No musician can ignore the knowledgeable audience, without whom a musician can never get the impetus to perform in public. Lalith is no exception, as she confesses that the love and appreciation given by her audience was the real adrenalin which influenced her musical sojourn in life and she owes it to them. Last, but not the least, the untiring and unstinted support of Jayavanth was the real catalyst during her life to achieve Himalayan heights of glory and fame in the quest for reaching the pinnacle of musical achievements. She vividly recalls what Shri Dharamsey Vallabhdas Khatau told her in the ‘70s at the end of a particularly satisfying concert in Bombay, which he had attended. He climbed all the three floors to reach the flat in which she was residing with her family only to advise her thus – “ Lalithji, when you sing well and get a lot of accolades, do not give yourself the full credit. Remember that you start off in this life from wherever you left off in your last. So, it is a collective ‘Sadhana’ over so many births, and not just your talent and effort in this life ”. Truly a very emphatic and spiritual advice from the great human being. Since her persistent sinus and voice problem made her give up singing in public, she has dedicated herself to ‘Vidya Daan’, so that the ocean of Ragas, Cheezas, and musical aesthetics so lovingly handed over to her by her great Ustad is perpetuated for posterity. However, because of her voice problem she has had to necessarily limit the number of disciples she could take on. She is currently grooming some very talented disciples in Bangalore in the authentic Agra-Atrauli style, some of whom are already accomplished performers. One thing she is particular about is that she will not charge any fees for teaching music. Some of her disciples who have already made a mark on the musical scene are Bharathi Prathap, Tara Kini, Susheela Ullal-Mehta, Pratima Bellave-Ganesh (currently living in Singapore), Deepa Karnad (now living in the UK), Meera Sahasrabuddhe and Mallika Kilpady. She is also grooming many other promising disciples like young Nishant Panicker, Kailash Kulkarni, Vir Das Mohapatra (all three are male students), Vandana Pandit, her Tabla mentor Dattappa Garud’s daughter Lalitha, etc. Lalith Rao has been honoured with Life-Time Achievement Awards from prestigious music organizations such as the Bangalore Gayana Samaj, Puttaraj Gawai Samman etc. Undoubtedly, Lalith Rao is a Jewel in the Crown of Chitrapur Saraswats (Bhanaps), perhaps the only female artiste from our community to have scaled such heights in Hindustani Classical Music and brought glory to the “ Agra-Atrauli Gharana ” her Guru, Padma Bhushan Ustad Khadim Hussain Khan, a doyen of this traditional style of singing. Her achievements in the field of Hindustani Classical Music has made every Bhanap proud. May Lord Bhavanishankar, our Guru Parampara and her Kula Devata, shower upon her lasting Blessings for a Blissful, Peaceful, Healthy and Contented Life. Nandakumar Hattiangadi,
( email – email@example.com ) ( inputs sourced from N.Jayavanth Rao )