A tribute to Aruna Sunderlal, south India’s godmother of Western classical music

If Bengaluru can boast of a community of western classical artistes and audiences, the credit must go to Aruna Sunderlal.
A tribute to Aruna Sunderlal, south India’s godmother of Western classical music
A tribute to Aruna Sunderlal, south India’s godmother of Western classical music
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On June 23, Aruna Sunderlal passed away in Bengaluru at the age of 77. Her demise went largely unnoticed by the mainstream media. For someone who struggled all her life to put Bengaluru on the world map of western classical music, Aruna was a shy, reticent person.

Bengaluru was one of India’s earliest cosmopolitan cities. With the various communities that lived in great harmony for decades, the city was clearly marked out into zones. The Jayanagar and Basavangudi areas were old Bengaluru residential areas while Malleshwaram was the cultural heartland. Frazer town and Richmond town had a good share of Anglo-Indians. The Parsee community lived around the Cunningham Road area with their humble fire temple.

There was the Cantonment area and the various Petes like Chickpet and Balepet which were the trading hubs of the city. The new areas were Koramangala and Indiranagar and so forth. This way, the whole city lived in a great harmony till about a decade ago when regional chauvinists began running riot.

The city’s music scene was also laid out according to its areas. The Jayanagar and Malleshwaram areas had Carnatic and Hindustani music Sabhas. The city was also the proud home of several rock and jazz bands. But somehow western classical music was left behind. There were a few scattered practitioners who played in churches and choirs. But beyond that there was not much of a western classical scene till Aruna Sunderlal arrived on the scene.

Aruna was born in Delhi in 1939 and educated in Auckland House in Shimla. She went to the Isabella Thoburn College in Lucknow and the Christian Medical College in Ludhiana for her higher studies. She married Rajinder Phillips Sunderlal, Member of the ITC Tobacco Board, in 1958.

Aruna trained as a Western Classical singer with the famous German vocalist Margarita Schack and Herbert von Brauer of the State Academy of Music in Berlin. She undertook further training with Esther Hulbert of the Guildhall School of Music in London. Thus, she became India’s first professionally qualified Mezzo Soprano singer.

She made her professional debut in 1970 with the renowned Bombay Philharmonic Orchestra and the Paranjoti Choir under the German conductor HJ Koellreutter, as the soloist on Beethoven's 9th Symphony. Sometime later, she and her family migrated to Bengaluru and acquired a lovely colonial bungalow in Frazer Town. She dreamt of building a school of western music on the lines of what she saw in Mumbai and Delhi.

She began teaching music from her house. Her first students were her immediate family members. In 1986, Aruna gathered her courage and organized The East-West Encounter, a festival that was to become a permanent affair in Bengaluru. When she started the festival, Aruna had no funding. But she found support from the city’s Indian classical musicians.  Noted Carnatic musicians like Veena Doraiswamy Iyengar, vocalist R.K. Srikantan and scientist and pianist Raja Ramanna performed in the first festival. For the first time it was a true celebration of the east meeting the west in the country and it looked very promising in the years to come.

Aruna established the Bangalore School of Music (BSM) in 1987, and formed a small committee of interested individuals. The famous physicist Raja Ramanna was also a concert pianist. He gave her much support in her endeavour. For the next twenty-two years, she ran the Bangalore School of Music from her home. She also formed a small group of musicians who were willing to teach others.

In the following two decades, the BSM saw a dedicated group of teachers training over 500 young students every year. Over the years more than a dozen East-West Encounters were organized. Artistes from across the world came to perform in this prestigious event. Everyone from the celebrated German guitarist Roger Zimmerman and Grammy award winner Pandit Vishwa Mohan Bhatt, to Ustad Zakir Hussain and the celebrated violinist L Subramaniam have been a part of the festival.

When the Swedish Embassy wanted to celebrate the centenary of the Nobel Prize, they came all the way to Bengaluru, and instead of the standard Delhi-centric ceremonies, they contacted the BSM. Aruna had successfully put Bengaluru on the world map of western classical music.

In 1990, Aruna initiated a global Cultural and Academic Festival. In 1991 the Chief Post Master-General of Karnataka gave her the honour of releasing a stamp on Mozart. She was a founder member of the Federation of Western Music Societies and Western Music Schools in India.

She was a member of Association of British Council Scholars of South India. She was also a founder member of Indus-International a cross-cultural exchange between women of all countries conducted in Mumbai.

In addition to all this Aruna was also actively involved in voluntary social welfare work with the YWCA's Homes for the Aged, EFICOR, Samaritans' International and the Diocese of Calcutta and more.

In 2008, Aruna built new premises for the BSM in RT Nagar. The impressive new school is equipped with classrooms, recording studios and an auditorium. Over 9,500 students have been imparted formal music education in the school. BSM’s Music Outreach programme has enhanced the lives of over 5,500 underprivileged, physically challenged children through formal music education.

The BSM has one of the best in-house chamber orchestras in our country. The members of this orchestra have received professional training from some of the world's most prestigious institutes like the Royal College of Music in Stockholm. They have been groomed to become one of the country's best chamber orchestras and they perform many charity concerts to create awareness among people who were new to western classical music.

BSM has been organising at least 25 public concerts annually where reputed artists from India and overseas perform. It has a senior choir with forty members and a children's choir with fifty members who have been performing regularly. It also ventured to institute the Indo-American Arts Council in Karnataka where representatives of over thirty cultural organisations met with their US counterparts to facilitate cultural exchange. BSM also has a joint partnership with the Royal college of Music in Sweden.

At every step of this journey, Aruna was the big pillar of strength for BSM. If Bengaluru can boast of having a community of western classical artistes and audiences, the credit must go to Aruna Sunderlal, who worked tirelessly for it. However, no big awards or recognitions came her way. No Padma awards came her way. She continued to work without much fuss, till her last day. 

She is survived by her children Shefali Chandel and Vikram Sunderlal, and a large battalion of students and well wishers.  If a comprehensive modern history of music in India is ever written, Aruna’s name will go down in golden letters, not just as India’s first Mezzo Soprano but also as a revivalist and godmother of western classical music below the Vindhyas.

(Images: Ramamurthy , Nancy D Souza)

(Veejay Sai is an award-winning writer, editor and a culture critic. He writes extensively on Indian performing arts, cultural history, food and philosophy. He lives in New Delhi and can be reached at vs.veejaysai@gmail.com)

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