Monday, 26 March 2012

The Neelotpalambal of Carnatic Music

By Priyanka C Prakash

Not until three years of learning under my guru, Sangita Kala Acharya Neela Ramgopal, was I to know that her name was, in fact, short for Neelotpalambal, the presiding goddess of the Tiruvarur temple. Neela Mami was singing a beautiful ‘Neelotpalanayike’ in Kannadagoula, when she quietly mentioned that she was born ‘Neelotopalambal’. No surprise then, that Mami’s music is so divine and spiritual.

Born in an orthodox Tamil Iyer household in Kumbakonam, Mami is candid as she narrates the fascinating and engrossing story of her childhood. She is as comfortable talking about her orthodox upbringing in Kumbakonam, as her post-marriage life in bustling Bangalore. Bangalore and Kumbakonam may be at opposite ends of the spectrum, but Mami loves both—she has made both places her own.

Mami fondly recalls how she began her music lessons with Nedundheru Sadagopacharya, who taught her the sarali and janta varisais, alankarams and other basic lessons. Though passionate enough about listening to music to surreptitiously sneak out of the house, against her father’s wishes, to attend concerts of great musicians at Kumbakonam, she never trained to become a professional musician.

She however, learnt many kritis taught to the girls in the house, primarily with the objective of singing before a prospective groom’s family. Interestingly, Neela Mami’s husband, Ramgopal Mama remembers he was stunned when he heard the young Neela sing Vasudevayani in front of him and his parents when they went to “see her.”

Neela Mami’s intensive musical training began only at 23 – an age at which many current musicians already have many performances to their credit. Undeterred by the delayed start, Neela Mami persevered to improve her musical prowess in a journey that reflects unflinching determination, infectious energy, and a strong will to bounce back after any number of setbacks. She has successfully overcome roadblocks in her musical career and several chronic health problems—including a brain hemorrhage and cancer. Mami’s journey of unflinching resolve continues to inspire and awe.

Karubaru Seyuvaru

At the age of 23, Mami began her training under critic, connoisseur and musician NM Narayanan. Interestingly enough, the first composition she learnt was Tyagaraja’s masterpiece in Mukhari, Karubaru Seyuvaru. To learn such a sophisticated composition as your first must have been a daunting task, but Mami recalls lapping it up eagerly and quickly. While teaching me this kriti, she painstakingly explained to me every single nuance in the pallavi, how to contrast the power of the ‘karu’ with the mellow, gentle caress of ‘baru’, how to link the last word of the line ‘seyuvaru’ with the next sangati of ‘karu’, how to prolong the ‘karubaru’ with a long karvai after the last sangati of the pallavi, a musical learning I will never forget. Such ‘sookshmangal’ make Mami’s music so beautiful and soulful.

Valaputala vasama

This is one class that will remain very special in my memory. It was after a concert in Chennai where someone had requested Mami to sing a padam, and she immediately obliged with Swati Tirunal’s evocative Valaputala vasama in Athana. The day after she came back to Bangalore, Mami began teaching me this stunning song. The way she taught it was different from how she would teach a kriti such as a Sri Krishnam bhaja manasa, for instance. She handled the padam delicately, like a flower – and yet, full of azhuttam. Mami told me, this is the purest of the pure ghee, even one drop of anything else will make the ghee impure; you have to struggle to learn it.

The way Mami sang this padam was incredible – I remember telling Mami that I did not want to sing it after she did, for I did not want to change the mood she had created – it was electric, and captivating.

The way she sang with odukkal-sedukkal’ (the musical improvisation of gently pushing and pulling the word from its place in the song within the rhythmic framework of the talam), the way she sensitively sang the ‘dp-dp’ notes of Athana, the way she oscillated each note and linked each line to the next – the effect was beautiful and blissful.

Guru Neela Ramgopal

Mami believes in the values of chaste classicism and tradition. She follows a rich pathantaram acquired from authentic sources, and is uncompromising while teaching kritis – if a single sangathi is missed out, Mami would immediately reprimand, to sing it several times so that it is never forgotten in the future! Her paathantharam and teaching methodology and singing kritis is so beautiful that several eminent musicians have remarked, ‘What a solid and strong vazhi!’.

Swaram singing

Mami’s swarams include interesting kanakku (mathematical patterns), fascinating ‘parallels’ (the name Mami assigns to singing three symmetric swara-phrases such as srsndns-pdpmgmp-srsndns, for instance), while retaining the raga bhava intact. Listeners have often remarked how effortlessly she combines kanakku with bhava – Mami has shown that the two are not mutually exclusive; she says that raga bhava is the soul of every moment of music; that swarams should have a meaning and a direction.

Bringing the lyrics alive

‘The most important aspects of a kriti and niraval singing are the raga bhava and the meaning of the lyrics’ – is what Mami remarks often. She believes that niraval should only be sung where the meaning is complete. For example, in the Tyagaraja-kriti Manasa etulortune (Mayalamarutam), Mami sings niraval at the anupallavi line ‘Dinakarakula bhushanuni’ instead of ‘Kalilo rajasa tamasa’. Similarly, in Manasu svadinamaina (Sankarabharanam), she sings niraval at ‘Raja rajesa niranjana nirupama’ instead of ‘Tanuvu tanu’.

Mami tells us that the lyrics should be sung with feeling – this is especially true when she sings Tamil compositions – for example, we can visualize the young Krishna with the dancing earrings when she sings Om namo Narayana. I remember a particularly embarrassing instance when I was playing the tambura for Mami’s concert, and ended up in tears after Mami sang a most touching viruttam on Muruga.

Neela Ramgopal the person

People often ask Mami where she derives her ceaseless energy from. She points to her head, and says, ‘It’s all in the mind - you can be 73 in age, but must be 37 in thought and action’. I have seen several times how she would have returned from a long journey from Trivandrum, or Chennai or Udupi, at 1 PM, cook for herself and Mama till 1: 20 PM, eat till 1:25 PM, and begin teaching at 1: 30 PM. Mami’s indefatigable spirit especially at age 76 is amazing.

Mami is ecstatic when a disciple wins a prize or an award. Her faith in the abilities of her disciples is a source of strength, especially at moments when we feel doubtful or apprehensive. I recall an instance when I was a little nervous before going to a competition, and Mami reassured me by reposing her complete faith and belief in me. With her blessings, I won the award.

Mami is truly selfless. She teaches her students everything, without holding anything back, she gives the most practical advice. One of her students, in a new place after her marriage, found it difficult to get accustomed to the new culture. Mami advised her, “You have to make yourself like the place, make the place your own”.

Mami is an extraordinarily affectionate person, and treats me as her own granddaughter. People in Chennai have often asked me when I am with Mami, “Are you Neela Mami’s granddaugher?”, and I always say, “I am like her own granddaughter!”.

Mami’s music is peaceful and energetic at the same time – it is ‘heavy’, sophisticated, and truly classical.

She is not just a prolific musician and a great guru, she is truly a wonderful human being – always unfailingly honest, affectionate and amazingly positive.

She is an example of how to survive and win against all odds. Her music and the fighter in her have helped her to bounce back quickly from every trial and become the Neela Mami we love, admire and respect so much.


  1. Hi Priyanka, Thanks for such a lovely heartfelt writeup about our beloved Mami. I was in tears when I read that as it suddenly dawned upon me that I missed learning in person from her. I live in Glasgow and but for skype, I dont know what I could have done. Keep up the good work in music and writing about it too.

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