Art came to her as a choice in life and she turned her life into art – Shobha Sekhar takes us on her musical journey.
Honours have been awarded for many years on the Queen’s birthday, but this year was very special Melbourne’s own Guru, Shobha Sekhar, as she received the Medal of the Order of Australia for her service to the community and the country.
Bringing Indian arts to Australia and sowing the seeds for new artists to pursue this further and expand beyond Australia, has been her passion for 25 years. Now Shobha Sekhar is a common household name in Melbourne when it comes to Carnatic music.
A Musical lullaby…
Reaching full circle, the energetic and positive spirited Shobha unravels her life story. She reminisces about her childhood and shares that music had been subconsciously embedded in her life, beginning with her grandmother and then her mother, both of whom were musicians.
Born in her grandparents’ home in Tuticorin, near Kanyakumari, Shobha and her sisters grew up in a musical household. Without any knowledge of Raagas or musical notes, the three sisters were always emulating their mother and grandmother. Whether it was a morning prayer or a lullaby at night, the whole day would pass by with music alongside.
Initiating her formal musical journey in Bombay with her first Guru Sangitha Kala Acharya Sri Bombay S Ramachandran for vocals and then Sangitha Kalanidhi Sri KS Narayanaswamy for Veena, Shobha was fortunate to form a solid base with support from the finest gurus. Shobha always had a natural flair for music and supplemented with the right guidance, her love for music was nurtured.
On receiving OAM, she says, “my olden days memories have even been rekindled. Many school and college friends called to congratulate.” Shobha, as a student, was also incomparable, she had been a school captain and all-rounder who scored the highest in Maths in the state in her final year. Then she undertook her first year of a Bachelors of Commerce from Podhar College of Commerce in Bangalore and the final two years from St. Joseph Bangalore. There as well, she was a rank holder in the University in statistics and accountancy.
As soon as she finished, Shobha was asked by her school principal to teach year 11 and 12. This was Shobha’s first job.
Much later, Shobha pursued an MBA from Indira Gandhi University Delhi through a branch in her home town Bombay and very soon she got married. Her husband has been a pillar of support in this musical journey since then.
In 1976 the young couple moved to Cochin and soon after had their first child. However, even her busy life couldn’t separate her from her music. The young family then moved to Chennai where Shobha started learning from another stalwart of music, Sangitha Kalanidhi Sri DK Jayaraman and she has been under his tutelage ever since.
Yet again life took Shobha to a new place. Shobha, along with her family moved to Doha in Qatar, where she started working in the Ministry of Information. After spending four years in Doha, they decided to move back to India and spent two years there before moving to Singapore.
A Musical Milieu…
Till now Shobha was a musician at heart, but little by little she succumbed to a musical milieu, where the whole atmosphere was collaborative. She grew up as a professional musician and vocalist. Considering the proximity to India, Shobha could often travel to India from Singapore for concerts. She started teaching music and also appeared in a television soap series. Shobha became a columnist with the Straits Times Singapore and even got the opportunity to interview celebrities like Lata Mangeshkar, Amjad Ali Khan and Kamla Hassan. As she understood music, her columns were known for their detailed informative writing.
A Musical Comma…
After spending five years in Singapore, Shobha and her husband took a giant leap of faith, when they moved to Melbourne, Australia. Shobha was merely 26 years old who had already accomplished plenty but coming to Australia she felt she had touched the bottom again: “I felt that someone has thrown me down from the top of a cliff”. In relation to Indian Music, Australia wasn’t evolved much and because of distance from India, Shobha’s career as a performer was also impacted. Looking at the paucity in Indian music flow in Australia, Shobha started her Kalakruthi school of music to widen the circle of awareness. At the same time, she also started working in a leading Australian bank as a relationship manager and also pursued another Master’s degree.
Soon people in Melbourne realised that Shobha’s school had a lot to offer. Therefore, as the school grew, Shobha started considering the option of a part-time job and then slowly opted out, to commit full time to her students.
Her work was being recognised by several and Shobha received many research grants from the Commonwealth Government Australia Arts Council, Monash Arts Council and Victoria Multicultural Commission. Recently she was also honoured to be the recipient of the “Award of Excellence” by the Premier of Victoria for her exemplary contributions to the Multicultural Community of Australia.
Learning the methods of the modern society, progressive thinker Shobha adopted a new methodology for teaching classical music to Australian children or children with Indian background, who have no knowledge of any Indian languages.
She enhanced the usual teaching approach with the Montessori method of teaching phonetics and sentence formation rather than merely teaching musicological grammar. Following this, she started teaching young students’ small songs and shlokas to keep them interested. Before utilising this newly developed skill, Shobha got approval from music advocates like M. S. Subbulakshmi. Shobha added that, “at that time there were some eyebrows raised, but thankfully I had the video recording of senior musicians’ approval to this method”.
Reaching the highest note…
Kalakruthi school now celebrates 25 years of success under the resident director Shobha Sekhar’s guidance. The school has evolved and grown into one of the best schools of Carnatic music and vocals in Australia and Shobha holds a revered place in all her students’ heart.
Making history, she pioneered and introduced Indian classical music to Australian Universities. Shobha started teaching music in the Northern Melbourne Institute of Technology now called Melbourne Polytechnic. Within one or two years, she even joined the Melbourne Conservatorium of Music at the University of Melbourne as a Music Director. She was also unanimously elected to be the President of the flagship organisation – FIMDV (Federation of Music and Dance Schools of Victoria).
Her solo concerts across continents, lecture demos and master classes at different Universities and international forums have won her critical acclaim and recognition. Due to her popularity, the University of Melbourne has introduced Indian Music in their ‘Bachelor of Music’ curriculum & honours programs.
Some of her many awards and titles are: SUR MANI” during Sur Samsad Sammelan in Mumbai, Krishna Gana Sabha awarded her the “Best Concert and Krithi rendering” in 2001, Nritya Choodamani Award for contribution to Dance Music in Melbourne, Aramuga Navalar Award for contribution to Tamil & Music in Australia.
The maestro for Carnatic vocal and veena, a jewel to the Indian arts industry in Australia, Shobha has time and again proven her calibre and fineness as a distinguished performer, an artist par excellence, a guru and a responsible resident contributing to the community domestically and globally.
“After receiving the prestigious OAM, my first thought was, what next, I can do?”, says Shobha. Her greatest vision is to help create more harmony in this world with music education. She wants to take Indian arts to the schools in Australia. She wants to share the priceless treasures of rich art traditions to the next generation in Australia.
Taking arts to the mainstream, Shobha has now unlocked the stage for many young artists. She is an inspiration to many and continues to win hearts every day. Renowned for her creativity and deep passion for arts, she is a true artist in life.
By Sanchita Abrol