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In Conversation With Rasika Murali Mohan

Ranjani Saigal

Rasika Murali Mohan is an accomplished violinist and vocalist with an illustrious musical lineage. She commenced vocal training with her mother, Boston’s treasured, Smt. Geetha Murali, and has been fortunate to be under the tutelage of the esteemed Smt. Tara Anand since age 7. For the past year, Rasika has also been blessed to receive advanced vocal training from the eminent Palghat Dr. R. Ramprasad. Rasika currently teaches Carnatic vocal and violin at the Saikripa School of Music in both Norwood and Cambridge, MA. Professionally, she completed her masters in Speech Pathology from Boston University and is a practicing speech therapist in Beverly, MA.

Rasika will be presenting the grand finale at Geethanjali, a musical program presented by local music teachers that is coordinated by Smt. Aparna Balaji. 

The event is a tribute to Geetha Murali. It is also a fundraiser for Cancer Institute (WIA) Foundation.  It will be held on June 16 at 3:00 pm at the Trottier Middle School Auditorium in Southborough, MA. Buy your tickets at http://www.lokvani.com/lokvani/cal.php?stage=1&event_id=13720

Can you give us an overview of Geethanjali?

Geethanjali is a fundraiser music program on June 16th, 2018, organized by the Cancer Institute Foundation (WIA) - Boston Chapter. The event is a tribute to my mother, Late Smt. Geetha Murali, a celebrated Carnatic musician and teacher in the Greater Boston area, who passed away in June 2016 after a long battle with cancer. The program includes performances by local Carnatic music teachers and their students, and guest speakers. I will also present a tribute concert at the end of the program. All proceeds will go to the Adyar Cancer Institute in Chennai, India. 

Why do you think this event is a perfect way to celebrate your mother? 

Since Amma’s passing, I have typically been hesitant to talk about her on a public platform because I always felt uncomfortable and afraid of what would come out of my mouth and whether I would be able to hold my composure. In the back of my mind, I have been wanting to do some sort of a tribute for her for the past two years but never felt quite emotionally ready to accept and deal with her loss enough to put on something so public. When Aparna Aunty and Sreeranjani approached me with the idea of Geethanjali, something inside me told me the time was right. It wasn’t just an occasion for students to perform or another concert that we could casually dedicate to her. Most importantly, Geethanjali wouldn’t be an event hosted just by me or my students, but a community initiative, a tribute offered by our Greater Boston music community - our extended family. It is heartwarming to know that the community loves Amma so much as to organize something like this in her honor. Needless to say, the fact that this event is also a fundraiser for the Adyar Cancer Institute is particularly fitting because cancer is something our whole family lived with for years. Amma fought the disease valiantly. Her music and the music of her students are what allowed her to live those years with fulfillment. I couldn’t be more grateful for this artform and to this community for keeping Amma spirited and herself amidst that battle. 

What was it like to have a famous musician like Geetha as a mother? 

You know, it always feels funny to me when people put Amma on a pedestal as a star and a celebrity, because to me, she was just my best friend. Many people are close to their mothers, but my Amma and I have been best friends since I can remember and still to this day. Hers is the only validation and approval I ever sought, and a bringing a smile to her face was always my biggest achievement. Of course, I would never admit this to her verbally or even to myself, but tacit acknowledgement of our importance in each other’s lives revealed itself in so many ways. I think now of our everyday squabbles, never-ending inside jokes and banter. We fought and cuddled within a span of seconds and took turns playing the role of mother and daughter.  Only in retrospect do I realize what an outstanding human being, mother, musician, wife, daughter, and friend she was. I treasured our relationship then, but I do so even more now. 

Could you share some things about Geetha that may not be well known to us? 

Amma was a phenomenal storyteller. She had a dynamic, inimitable style of narrating stories that would keep anyone on the edge of their seat- shedding tears at one moment and breathless with laughter the next. She had a way of making even the most mundane incident a thrilling adventure just with the way she described it. Be it stories from mythology, or incidents in her own life, she brought narratives to life, much in the way her voice brought to life the songs that she sang.

Why do you think her music was so special? 

I think everyone already knows the answer to this; her Bhakti. Amma’s devotion to God was something indescribable. I was always astonished at how steadfast her faith was despite all the trials she underwent - more than a regular human being could handle, I thought. Still, she never let go of her faith, and this is undoubtedly what kept her so strong. Of course, Amma was extremely talented musically, but to me her Bhakthi will always remain what was most unique about her. Even during the toughest times, she wouldn’t go to sleep without singing her favorite Sai Bhajan “Sai Matha Pitha Deena Bandhu Sakha, Tere Charano Me Sai Mera Koti Pranam” and this continues to ring in my ears daily. 

What role does music play in your life now?

One of the most important things that Amma wanted for me, was that I make music a part of my life in some meaningful way. She never demanded I become a professional musician or start teaching full time, but rather allowed me to engage with music the the way I wanted to. I initially participated in Carnatic music because Amma told me to, and because I wanted to make her happy. But it was not until middle school that I started developing a love of my own for it. The relationship deepened as I became more aware of the connections between spirituality and music. Through my schooling, college, and graduate school, there have been times when I’ve been intensely involved in Carnatic music, and times  when other commitments have stood at the forefront, but my love for the art form has remained constant. Amma was my first teacher and I owe everything I know to her guidance. I struggled with the absence of that support in the months after her passing. I didn’t know if my music could survive without her. But I am so incredibly blessed to have the love and guidance from my beloved violin guru Smt. Tara Anand who has always been a second mother to me. Tara aunty is one of the few people who knows me almost as well as Amma did and I lean on her so much to help me navigate my lifelong musical journey. I have also been blessed to pursue advanced vocal training with the eminent Dr. Palghat R Ramprasad. He has kindled a new surge of passion and musical curiosity in me and his adherence to classicism and discipline have no doubt added different dimensions of rigor to my training as a Carnatic vocalist. 

I always imagined that teaching music would be an integral part of my adult life, given that I had taken interest in it while helping Amma with her classes. While I had never expected that I would begin teaching so soon, I felt a responsibility to keep alive Amma’s music school after her passing. Of course, I can never and do not aspire to take Amma’s place as a guru, but I do find purpose in helping others continue their musical journeys, and thereby pay homage to the many years of hard work she invested in building and developing the Saikripa School of Music.

What lessons do you draw from your mother’s life?

I know one of her main goals was to instill a love for God and love for music in me, which is something I try to remember and reflect on everytime I sit down to practice and perform. My mother spread so much joy to so many people; there really isn’t a person I’ve come across who didn’t adore her. She taught me what resilience was. She taught me how to spread cheer in the face of adversity. She taught me to think beyond oneself. I feel so very fortunate to have shared an unforgettable 23 years with her because I know she lived many of those years just for me. I am incredibly grateful and proud of the fact that she is loved and remembered by so many. I hope to continue spreading her love for music and for life with the people around me. 

Anything you would like to share with our audience?

Our family has received so much love and support since Amma’s passing and continues to do so. I just want to thank this community for being so thoughtful and generous. Her energy, love, and music continue to live on because of all of you. 

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