Bombay Sisters – The singing duo of Carnatic Music
The siblings – C. Saroja and C. Lalitha, known as Bombay Sisters (‘Bombay Sahodarigal’) is a very popular singing duo of Carnatic Music. Born into a Brahmin family of Thrissur, Kerala to Mukthambal and N. Chidambaram Iyer, most of their younger days were spent in Mumbai. The inseparable Bombay Sisters have been singing since 1963, and it broke in 2023, with the death of younger sister C. Lalitha on 31st January, 2013, thus completing 60 glorious years together. She battled with cancer for many years and died aged 84. She was survived by her husband.
They have been honoured with Padma Shri in year 2020. Kalaimamani by Government of Tamil Nadu, Sangeetha Kalanidhi Award 2010 by Madras Music Academy, Sangeet Natak Akademi Award 2004, Sangeetha Choodamani Award 1991 by Sri Krishna Gana Sabha, Sangeetha Kalasikhamani, 2006 by The Indian Fine Arts Society, Chennai etc are some of the prestigious honours received by the siblings.
Their younger years were spent in Matunga, Mumbai
C. Saroja was born on 7 December 1936 and C. Lalitha on 26 August 1938 into a Brahmin family of Thrissur. Later the family moved to Mumbai, where the sisters completed their education. Grew up in Brahmin housing colony, Matunga of Mumbai, their early schooling was done at S.I.E.S. Later they continued studies at Bhopal and completed graduation from Delhi University. Along with their academic studies, they took formal learning in Carnatic music as well, and got opportunity to train under the musicians, H. A. S. Mani (father of famous singer Hariharan while at Mumbai.
Family shifted to Mylapore after getting a scholarship for studies in music
After studies, the family moved to Mylapore, Chennai in 1958 when Saroja received a scholarship from Government of India to study music in Chennai. Initially Saroja received training for 2 years from Musiri Subramania Iyer under the scholarship. Later the younger sister also received the scholarship, and the sisters trained under T. K. Govinda Rao.
Their first performance was at Saibaba temple in Mylapore, which they got by chance. Initially they were given a timeslot which was reserved for junior musicians. When famous musician Madhurai Mani Iyer couldn’t attend the concert, the sisters got lucky enough to perform in that slot in front of house packed audience. There was no looking back after that.
During their formative years, Mouna Swamigal of Ambattur blessed them and addressed them as ‘Bombay Sahodarigal’ which means ‘Bombay Sisters’, and they later took this as stage name. Both the sisters got full support from their husbands in pursuing their musical journey and the sisters give them due credit as well. Saroja was married to Rajaram, former chief secretary of Lalit Kala Akademi, and Lalitha to Chandran, an advocate & former advocate general of Tamil Nadu. After getting married, they had to adjust time to practise together and also looked after the families. Both their spouses were accommodating.
The sisters entered the music scene in the 1960s
Since 1950s, many duos have entered Carnatic music and it was a glorious era too. Bombay sisters started performing together since 1963 and they performed together for decades. They sing in multiple languages including Sanskrit, Kannada, Telugu, Tamil, Malayalam, Hindi and Marathi. They began with light music and gradually moved towards Carnatic, and established themselves as leading singing duo in this genre. They have released several albums belonging to Carnatic, Malayalam, Tamil and Sanskrit. They tried to include situation in which each composition was made. They emphasised on quality, rather than trying new. They have also done albums for traditional wedding, lullaby etc. They resided in Chennai for more than 6 decades.
Bombay Sisters – Some interesting and less-known facts
1. Initially Lalitha was not keen in music and she wanted to become an English professor. It was Saroja who encouraged her to sing.
2. They were the first women to be conferred the status of Asthana Vidushi by the Kanchi matha.
3. Both the husbands have been supportive towards their respective wives in building their careers together. While working as the chief secretary of Lalit Kala Akademi, Rajaram would prepare coffee and bring it to them.
4. They sang only in two films, ‘Arunagirinadhar’ and ‘Yaar Jambulingam’. As most of the offers received later were for singing alone, they were not interested. Yes, they shunned money and fame, just to be together.
5. Receiving Sangeeth Natak Akademi award by former President A P J Abdul Kalam is the most memorable moment in the career of the sisters. In fact they performed a song written by Kalam, in front of him.
6. On the occasion of 75th anniversary celebration of their alma mater – South Indian Education Society High School (SIES), Matunga, in Mumbai, both the sisters were honoured. It was Kalam who presented the award, and he recognized them to their surprise.
7. They regard M. S. Subbulakshmi, D. K. Pattammal and M. L. Vasanthakumari as their inspirations. They were among the early names who showed to the world that women could enter this field and also shine as their male counterparts.
8. All the Suddha Madhyama ragas are favourite with Saroja and the Prati Madhyama ragas are Lalitha’s favourite.