In November 1990, renowned Carnatic vocalists, popularly known as The Priya Sisters — Shanmukhapriya and Haripriya — went on the prestigious stage of the ‘Spirit of Freedom Concert’ when they were mere teenagers. The dais had had stalwarts like Pandit Jasraj, Hariprasad Chaurasia and Balamuralikrishna render performances. The siblings were unaware then that their voice would be heard throughout the country and that the concert would pave way for golden opportunities. Their only objective was to give an impeccable performance. Clad in modest salwar kameez, as they were too small to wear saris, they gave a performance that brought the audience to their feet demanding encores. The 40 minute concert was extended by another half hour.
The performance was telecast on the national network a few months later and they were engulfed by letters and phone calls in appreciation. “That is one of the most memorable performances,” recalls Haripriya. “We became popular overnight and we were teenagers then. Fame had its attractions. But that was when the real struggle to gain excellence began. We realised that we had to prove ourselves in every concert. We needed to prove that we deserved the success,” continues the younger sister.
Shanmukhapriya was five and Haripriya was four, when they could repeat the Carnatic song that their father and first guru V. V. Subbaram sang. They didn’t have the formal training of waking up at 4 am to do sadhakams. But, they lived in a house that was filled with Carnatic music, as their father was a teacher. They didn’t learn Sarali Varisai and Janta Varisai, which is considered the basics of Carnatic music. “If our father sang one pattern, we would go on with the next pattern. We listened to him and that was our way of learning. It’s hard to remember when we really started learning Varnam and Keerthanai,” says Haripriya.
The sisters, were born in Chittoor, but moved to Chennai with their mother, when they were about 10, to learn Carnatic music. Their father wanted them to master the art of Carnatic music under the tutelage of popular vocalists Radha and Jayalakshmi. “My father had to continue his classes in Chittoor. He was warned that it was a big bad world out there and moving from a small town to a city might be too much for us. But our father was firm that we had to be given access to good education and scope to learn music from the masters,” says Haripriya.
They learnt under Radha and Jayalakshmi for five years and continued to learn from T. R. Subramaniam till his passing away. The sisters dedicate their success to their gurus, who shared their priceless knowledge and their parents, who sacrificed much for their welfare.
Besides music, the sisters pursue other interests like cricket, dance and playing instruments. Haripriya is a guitarist and played cricket at school and state level tournaments. “And that was why I had to sport a short cut since I played a lot,” laughs Haripriya, whose coiffure was a surprise those days for no Carnatic musician sported a modern hairstyle! Shanmukhapriya learnt Bharatanatyam and nursed her dream of becoming a doctor, while Haripriya was a dream factory herself. “Our innate ability became our final choice. We were united in choosing singing,” says Haripriya.
Although their performances were considered divine, the Priya sisters, who made heads turn, had to encounter brickbats too, which they have artfully batted away. “Dealing with criticism has improved with time. When I was a kid, I used to say that the critics didn’t like me. But there was always some truth in their opinion. Feedback, which is not sugar-coated hurts sometimes. We were accused of being fast paced and that our performances lacked the depth of classical music. It was true to some extent. We worked on all those shortcomings. Musically, we have definitely matured,” she says.
“It is very easy to criticise. To sing on stage is a different ball game. A critic’s job is mistaken for picking mistakes, but it is beyond that. We are our best critics and the most heartless. One’s own conscience knows if a musician has done his/her best. We are always learning,” shares Haripriya.
The sisters have performed about 2500 concerts together and have lent their voices for devotional albums. Haripriya says that they have plans to release albums of their performances and they would also venture into teaching in a while. “All these years, we couldn’t find time to teach. In truth, we don’t use the word ‘teaching’. During our classes, my guru TRS used to ask, ‘What shall we learn today?’ And that will be our perspective. We will learn along with our disciples,” says Haripriya.
Having been Margazhi veterans, Haripriya reckons that a lot of youngsters perform these days. “At the same time, too many concerts are happening at the cost of quality. Sometimes quantity takes a toll on quality. But Margazhi itself is a beautiful time. The number of music aficionados has also gone up. Thanks to the Internet invasion,” says Haripriya.
They have been singing together since they were toddlers. Even informally they don’t sing when they aren’t together. Known for their unbelievable synchrony, they sound one. Haripriya reveals that they don’t consciously work on synchronisation. “We always sang together, the bonding that we have off stage as sisters also works on stage. We are both two different personalities. But musically we think alike. Our interests are also similar. It is like how it is to be twins. We meet everyday and practice together. We plan the repetitions of sangathi that we render during performances. Spontaneously she comes up with an improvisation. And I catch up on that. It all happens naturally,” concludes Haripriya.