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A late bloomer

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Despite her late start, talented singer Neela Ramgopal shows that true grit can make dreams come true, writes Chitra Ramaswamy

From music as a passport to getting a worthy groom to music as a way of life, as meditation and worship… it’s been a long and meandering journey for Bengaluru-based Neela Ramgopal. An accomplished singer, Ramgopal, 81, started her career as an artist rather late in life, making her achievement that much sweeter.

Hailing from Thiyagarajapuram, a hamlet close to Kumbakonam in Tamil Nadu, she was born into an orthodox Iyer family in which “learning music was only to get a suitable groom, to sing before his people, a ritual followed by most conservative families in those days”, she reveals. After marriage at the age of 19, Ramgopal moved to Bengaluru and soon became a mother of two. But her turning point came at the age of 23, when during Navaratri, she was asked to sing in the house of a guest. “Another girl, Meenakshi, was showered with praise for her lovely singing,” she remembers. A distraught Ramgopal came home in tears. “In that instant, I felt I had to excel and become somebody in this field.”

The budding singer immersed herself in the depths of Carnatic music. While her husband took care of their children, she travelled to Chennai every December to attend concerts and to train. A decade and more of disciplined learning catapulted Ramgopal from an ordinary housewife to a performing musician. She morphed into the ‘somebody’ she had vowed to become that Navaratri day. Her stage debut took place at the age of 30, at the behest of Ratnam Iyer, father of the spiritual leader Sri Sri Ravi Shankar.

Despite being a late entrant to the field, Ramgopal has scaled peaks aplenty, winning awards, honours and titles. She has published a book of Tamil compositions in Kannada; has released albums such as Tamizh Inbam, Rama Upasana and Narayana Enniro; and actively performs, conducts lecture-demos and organises concerts for other musicians. In February, she was conferred the title ‘Sangeetha Vedanta Dhurina’ by the Sri Rama Lalitha Kala Mandira, which also published a biography on her life titled Neela Ramgopal, A Musical Journey, authored by Harini Raghavan. Music and a profoundly positive attitude to life also helped Ramgopal beat cancer in 1990.
“Music is a great healer,” she affirms. “I want to sing till my last breath.”

Photo courtesy: Neela Ramgopal
Featured in Harmony — Celebrate Age Magazine
March 2017