For only the second time in its eight-decade history, the Madras Music Academy has awarded the Sangeetha Kalanidhi title this year jointly to a pair of performers: C. Saroja and C. Lalitha, singers of great poise and classicism, who appear on their billings as the Bombay Sisters. In 2002, another set of sisters, Sikkil Neela and Sikkil Kunjumani, became the first to win the award together. As in Hindustani music, pairs of performers—very often siblings—are common in Carnatic music, so the fact that no such pair won the award for its first 73 years hints at the Academy’s odd reluctance to honour double acts jointly.

Dulcet duo: Bombay Sisters C. Saroja (left) and C. Lalitha

Only by dint of a spot of charming blackmail did the Alathur Brothers, stentorian-voiced singers, avoid a similar situation. The Alathur Brothers were not really related; Srinivasa Iyer and Sivasubramania Iyer both learnt their music from the latter’s father, Alathur Venkatesa Iyer, and thus started performing together. In 1964, the Academy named Sivasubramania Iyer its Sangeetha Kalanidhi.

This was a dilemma. Refusing the title would have involved insulting the Academy, but accepting it alone was difficult for a man who had practically grown up with his partner in song. Sivasubramania found a way out. He extricated from the Academy a promise that it would confer the award upon Srinivasa the next year. Happily, the Academy stuck to that promise; sadly, Sivasubramania did not live to see it, having died that very year.

At first blush, the notion of a double act in Carnatic music struck me as strange. This was not, after all, the same as a band performing together, each member playing a different instrument, adding a different layer of sound. When they sing a song, Carnatic pairs can do so with such perfect fidelity that each vocalist mirrors the other’s inflections, and two voices begin to sound like one. When they improvise on a raga, the singers alternate between themselves. My initial thought, therefore, was a naïve and rather unkind one: If both singers are really good enough to be on a concert stage, why don’t they just perform solo?

It took some active listening—mostly in concerts by the Malladi Brothers, who form my favourite performing pair today—to work out for myself the merits of Carnatic double acts. Their fidelity within a song is a demonstration of the strength of a bani—of the singers’ particular school of music, which can tweak a song subtly but palpably. In improvising, the best vocalist pairs visibly draw inspiration from each other, each goading the other to new creative heights.

The most electric moments come when a vocalist has successfully thrilled even her own colleague, each appearing to sing exclusively for the other, while we sit in as privileged witnesses to this musical dialogue.

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