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.
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-ri” phrase 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 viruttams, and
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
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
Neela Mami – the ever-inspiring human
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 is a disciple of Neela Ramgopal
currently based out of Chicago)