Neela Ramgopal – A Life of Musical Adventure


Neela Ramgopal – A Life of Musical Adventure

Brimming with joy of music, of love, of life, that was Neela Ramgopal, a stellar artist in the realm of Carnatic music. Her very appearance, impeccably clad in bright silks, ornaments and a beaming smile at all times, spread cheer as much as her music did. Like a child that is thrilled at all the wondrous things around, she perceived music, not as a pastime or a vocation, but as an adventure full of new vistas to explore.

Intrepid and innovative, she could paint new colours with her rendering of ragas and manodharma in niraval and swara. Youthful effervescence was in her music whether she performed on stage or taught her innumerable disciples. She inspired her students to strike out boldly, to think out of the box and not keep to the easy and beaten track.

Unfazed by serious health issues, she always bounced back, rejuvenated by her zestful pursuit of music. Whether it was reviving old forgotten compositions, or recording an album of compositions of a contemporary composer, she took up each task with enthusiasm and dedication.

Fluent in many languages she could speak and present her lecture demonstrations to any audience in India or abroad. An esteemed vocalist in Tamil Nadu and Karnataka, she received several honours  such as the Sangita Kala Acharya from the Music Academy, the Sangeet Natak Academy Award from the President of India, Sangeeta Kalarathna from the Bangalore Gayana Samaja, the Kalasri from the Karnataka state Sangeetha Nrithya Academy and many more. Her workshops  at home and outside have been rich experiences for all participants.

She was as much a rasika as an artist herself. And she was prompt and generous in conveying her appreciation of an article  she read, a concert she heard or a dance or drama she watched. Honest to the core, she would not mince her words when she had to express her disapproval.

Her passing at the age of eighty-seven has left a void in the arena of Carnatic music, as she had so much more to give. 

Sujatha Vijayaraghavan


 Tribute to Vidushi Neela Ramgopal 

It’s a chaotic Thursday evening in Bangalore, with the bustle of the city in full swing in the busy Bannerghatta Road area. However, inside an apartment in L&T South City, is a sanctum of calm and divinity - one that makes it easy to shut out the noise of the city and enter the realm of art in its purest form. 

On one such evening, Sangita Kala Acharya Neela Ramgopal, or Neela Mami as she was fondly known, was teaching me the exquisite Sakhi Prana (the iconic composition of Dharampuri Subbarayar). She weaves an intricate raga aalapana that features slow, meandering Senjurutti phrases, slow and languorous over the ri and ga, with some quick phrases sneaked in towards the nishadam, finishing off with an undoubtedly classical, Ri-sa-riphrase that leaves the listener no doubt as to what composition will follow.

She sings the first line of the composition – Sakhi prana sakhuditu jesene. The second sangati is electric where she lands on the word prana from below (one can visualise a circular motion that goes from the mandra stayi to the shadjam when she sings this phrase).

In that moment, the room was filled with musical beauty that I cannot describe in words. She turned to look at me to repeat after her, asking me to channel the angst that the lyrics evoked, but I could not. I was choked with tears of bliss from the incredible delicate music I had just witnessed. I could not afford to ruin that moment with my repetition, and I knew I could never create that level of beauty that I had just witnessed, one that takes complete surrender, introspection, and reverence to the art, to create. 

Neela Ramgopal originally hailed from Tamil Nadu, born to a traditional Tamil Brahmin family. She moved to Bangalore after she married the effervescent and eloquent Ramgopal Mama, who was her biggest champion. Though she did not know Kannada when she moved to Karnataka, Mami - who had an uncanny effortlessness with languages, learned the language, formed lifelong connections in the city, and truly made it her own. She even tuned several devarnamas. 

As a Musician and Guru 

To me, Neela Mami’s style can be classified as a rare example of chaste classical music, adapted to a modern paradigm. She never compromised on her core musical values - to her, aesthetics was core, and central to everything she sang. 

For example, when she sang Khamas, she rooted in the traditional ‘gmnd’ prayogam, while weaving the freshest, most unique phrases that encapsulate the spirit and soul of Khamas in ways that one could not imagine. Her raga essays were never predictable, always surprising us with new twists and turns while not wavering from the aesthetic core. She infused new life into ragas like Khamas, Jayantasena, Begada, Surati, Ritigaula, Abheri (in its original form), amongst others. She infused exquisite emotion into ugabhogas in Kannada, Tamil viruttamsand Sanskrit slokas. 

Her rendition of compositions is a study in itself. She never missed a sangati - something I vividly remember in Raksha Bettare, the Bhairavi masterpiece which presents the most exquisite phrases of the raga. Through Mami, I have seen different flavors of this raga - for example, the alapana’s she sang before Raksha bettare was slower and had a greater emphasis on the ri-ni swara nexus. Her alapana before Balagopala was a chaste, classically Bhairavi rendition, and more elaborate. On the other hand, her rendition before Upacharamujeseva was shorter, and had faster brighas. 

Her compositional style was imbibed from different styles. For instance, Karu Baru in Mukhari was from the Brindamma pathantara, whereas others were imbibed from the Semmangudi pathantara, for instance. She also tuned several compositions herself. She was absolutely uncompromising when she taught her students compositions - not moving on until we captured every nuance to her satisfaction…something I very much faced when she taught me Nannu brovu Lalitha” in the raga Lalitha, which took me over a month to perfect to Mami’s standards! 

Neela Mami – the ever-inspiring human being

I vividly remember an instance where I walked outside her music room after a particularly challenging class, where I had received my fair share of reprimands! I remember the mood in the class was one where the atmosphere was very strict, and challenging. We walked out of class, and Mami wanted me to have a snack with some guests who had just arrived. We walked into the kitchen, where Mami told me to slice up a watermelon. In just a matter of minutes, her demeanor changed from strict guru, to bemused maternal figure, amused at how I struggled at cutting up this watermelon. That was the same relationship we shared every time we went to Chennai for the December music season. I had the honor of accompanying Mami at several of her concerts, where she would throw googly’s and teach me a song the same day as her concert, challenging me to memorise it by the time we got on stage! Once we got off stage, she would light up in smiles, and tell her friends “Iva yen pethi madiri” (she is like a granddaughter to me), and we would grab a bite at her favorite Music Academy, or Parthasarathy Swamy Sabha canteen.

Mami touched the lives of several musicians. G Ravikiran once remarked to me how Mami recognised his talent long before others did. K Arun Prakash reminisced on how Mami would always send him the most encouraging text messages after his concerts or lec-dems. And every single person she met, were touched by her infectious positivity and energy.

With the passing of this great musical veteran, there has been a void left in all of our lives. With that, though, we have much greater responsibility, particularly in two aspects. First, to constantly better ourselves, musically, and not settle for ‘almost fine’ in raga aesthetics, sruti suddham, laya rigor, and our Sadhana simply has to elevate. We need to strive for what Mami referred to as ‘Svanubhavam’, the highest level of introspection, like when Mami said she visualised Lord Krishna standing in front of her when she was singing niraval for Balagopala.

Second, we need to emulate Mami’s values in living her life. To persevere, never give up in the face of adversity, her infectious positivity, and the immeasurable ripple effect she created from all the lives she touched. 

I respectfully place this tribute at her feet, and seek her grace in all our lives. 

Priyanka Prakash

(Priyanka is a disciple of Neela Ramgopal currently based out of Chicago)