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Home > Discover Coimbatore > Art and Culture > Interview

Sikkil SistersThe Sikkil sisters - Neela and Kunjumani are India’s 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 days?

Kunjumani…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?

Neela…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 of Laya.

How old were you when you gave your first public performance?

Kunjumani…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 Neela?

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 playing together.

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?

Sikkil SistersThere 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 many sabhas?

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 musicians?

Kunjumani…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. Neela’s 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 time?

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.

- Janaki Subramaniam

Sikkil Sisters
Kunnakudi R Vaidyanthan
Dr Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer
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