Sikkil sisters - Neela and Kunjumani are Indias only female
duo who have excelled in an instrument difficult to master - The
flute. They have achieved the pinnacle of technical perfection in
their rendition and have earned high respect from music critics
and musicologists. They are known for their innate sense of sruti
and laya, expansive manodharma, excellent tutelage in the classical
idioms and blending of tempos as a mark of their great vidwat. The
sisters have their own distinct style of playing, yet they successfully
harness it to their advantage, to bring out an enjoyable ensemble.
In the Carnatic music circles, the sisters are known to be absolutely
faithful to paddhati (tradition) in rendering kirtanas in a manner
that it is possible to make out each word of a song being played.
The sisters have been honoured with many awards; prominent among
them are, Venu Gana Praveena by the Mysore
Samasthanam, 'Kalaimamani' by Tamil Nadu Iyal,
Isai, Nataka Mandram, Special Honours by the Music Academy,
Chennai, the President's Award by the Sangeetha Nataka Academy,
'Sangeetha Kala Sikhamani' by The Indian Fine
Arts Society, Chennai, and a special honour by Sri Thyaga
Brahma Gana Sabha, Chennai.
Can you tell us something about your early
We belong to a small town called Sikkil in
Tanjavur district .We lived in a joint family. Our father, Azhiyur
Sri Natesa Iyer was a very good mridangam player. One of our
paternal aunts was a flautist, and so was one of our paternal uncles.
When I was young, I used to sit in a room, keep my hands near my
mouth and bring out sounds as if I am playing a flute. My father
saw this and decided that I should be taught to play the flute.
Who was your guru?
Our paternal uncle Azhiyur Sri Narayanaswamy
Iyer; our father was a polymath in music and well versed in
the theory of classical music. He also taught me the intricacies
How old were you when you gave your first
I was ten years old when I gave my first public
performance. It happened by chance. My father casually asked me
to perform at a gathering. I performed and got a very good applause.
That was the beginning of my career as a flautist.
When did you start playing with your sister
My sister was just a few months old when
I was around ten years old. Even before she could utter the first
few words, she was able to identify ragas. Music was in her blood.
She also had the added advantage of seeing me playing the flute.
Naturally, watching me, she evinced interest in the flute. She learnt
to play the flute and started giving a lot of kutcheris. One day,
we played together in our hometown Sikkil for a kutcheri. People
liked our concert a lot. My father then felt that it is better if
we establish ourselves as a duo.
When did this happen?
This happened much later. In fact I was
married by then. Immediately after marriage, there was a gap of
about five to six years. My in-laws were not too encouraging. I
was also travelling a lot since my husband was in the Air Force.
Of course, I used to perform at small concerts; seeing the applause
and the appreciation I received at my concerts, my husband felt
that it is not correct to suppress this great art form and decided
to give me all the support for becoming a professional flautist.
That was the time when Neela joined me. Ever since we have been
Who would you say has been the main inspiration?
Our paternal uncle and our father. My uncle was our guru. Our father
took on the responsibility of organising the kutcheris for us.
How has the general reaction of the connoisseurs
and the critics been, considering that it is not common to find female
musicians playing the flute?
The reactions have been very positive.
We have not faced any kind of discrimination. People have been very
appreciative and encouraging. What matters is the art and not the
gender. If you are good at what you have chosen you will be appreciated
irrespective of whether you are a man or a woman.
What do you think then is the reason that
flute is not very popular among women?
is a general misconception that the flute is a very difficult instrument
to master. It is no doubt not as easy, as say, the Violin or the
Veena, but women can definitely master it. One needs to be highly
innovative and creative. Talent is very essential. The flute has
nine holes and the variations in the octaves can be brought about
only by voice modulation. Conditioning the mind to bring out the
required tone is crucial. To maintain continuity while playing the
gamakas is very difficult. This comes only with practice. The other
reason why the flute is probably not very popular is that the instrument
requires very careful maintenance. It is prone to the changes in
the weather. The wood expands or contracts depending on the weather.
This in turn affects the sound, which comes out of it. The biggest
advantage in playing the flute is that it helps in breathing, as
we keep breathing in and out while playing. It is an excellent form
of breathing exercise, very good for the lungs.
What are the ragas that can be easily played
on the flute?
We play all the ragas but certainly ragas such as Shankarabharanam,
Karaharpriya, Natabhairavi, Nalinakanthi are some of the ragas
that sound good on a flute.
What do you think of the mushrooming of so
These days sabhas have become area specific. It is beneficial to
the rasikas as they do not have to travel much for a concert.
With so many sabhas naturally the demand to
play, for top artistes like you will be there, does it notá strain
you in the process, obliging the organisers?
No. As far as we are concerned each concert is a new concert. If
we look at it as a strain, then it will be a strain. It is all in
the mind. It is just like eating food. If we ate yesterday, we cannot
say we ate yesterday, so we will not eat today. For us music is
like food. Our father has taught us that we should never say no
when somebody asks us to play. Having imbibed the values of sincerity
and commitment, we look forward to each kutcheri and try to do our
best starting from the Varnam to the Mangalam.
What is your opinion of the younger lot of
They are very dedicated and committed to the art.
These days, due to the various television channels promoting the
classical arts, there is a great deal of awareness amongst the younger
generation. Neelas daughter, Mala Chandrashekar is
an upcoming flautist. Initially she did not show much interest but
now she has taken it up seriously and is doing very well.
Finally, How do you both spend your spare
There is no spare time. Sometimes we wish a day would have more
than twenty-four hours! Practicing, attending kutcheris, performing
and travelling for kutcheris keep us busy. Whenever we have a little
free time we watch TV.