Harmony of Flavours ~ Gujarati Couple Sumitra & Pratapkumar Toliya

by on September 5, 2016

Way back in 1974, the Jain community was astounded by the release of two audio clips of the Bhaktamar Stotra and Atma Siddhi Shastra. The music was soulful and the voices mesmerising. Steeped in devotion and spirituality, these LP records were extremely well-received. The visionaries behind this musical rendition were Shri Pratapkumar Toliya and his wife Sumitra. There has been no looking back since! Their music, recording and publishing company, Vardhaman Bharati, went on to produce masterpieces in spiritual verses and classical music and they have been bestowed with myriad awards and accolades.
Living up to the dictum, ‘You are what you eat’, these Gujarati Jains based in Bengaluru view food not just as a means to satisfy the palate but a way to stir the soul and music within. Sumitra is a sprightly 78 and her husband is 86 years young! Their devotion to music appears to have kept them young at heart and their lifestyle reflects a strong Gandhian influence. As I chatted with them, I realised that the tapestry of their lives is interwoven with three powerful strands: a spiritual and noble upbringing amid seers, dedication to music; and their choice to lead a simple sattvic lifestyle.

Sumitra & Pratapkumar Toliya

To begin with, how did your journey with divine music begin?

Pratapkumar: Music is an experience of serenity and divinity. We have learnt Hindustani classical and Rabindra Sangeet and are deeply influenced by them. For us, words and bhava are more important than the musical element.
What is your forte in music?

Sumitra: Our journey led us to create unique music for meditation as a tool to self-realisation. In America, Jain monk Sushilkumarji bestowed the title of ‘Sangeet Ratna’ upon Pratapji. We have also forayed into music for Jain raas-garba, devotional bhajan, discourses, etc. You can say our forte is spirituality in music.
Does your family share this love for music?

She: We both enjoy being involved in all the projects. Our daughter Kinnari used to sing with us but now she lives in the US. Our eldest daughter Parul, who is no more, weaved excellent poetry with her words. In a way, yes, the entire family is nourished and connected through music.
Since childhood, I have grown up listening to your CDs and learning chants and stotra. How many have you produced to date?

He: To date, we have created more than 100 music CDs as well as 52 discourse CDs, the latest being an audio-video album of Anand Ghan Chobisi. We have published 11 books; the latest being Sahajananda Ghan Guru Gatha and Vishwa Maanv Rajchandraji. We have also performed and participated in over 1,000 concerts in India. Between 1981 and 2000, we performed extensively in London and the US.
How did your musical genes surface?

He: I learnt to play the sitar when I was quite young and practised it diligently. Sumitra started learning classical music at the age of 10. She has passed ‘Visharad’ [a three-year music course equivalent to a bachelor’s degree] in music.
Do you feel your efforts in the field of music have been rewarded?

She: Our reward is spiritual, not material. But we have enough and we are very content. We experience spiritual contentment.
What sort of upbringing and value systems did you both grow up with? Sumitraji, can you enlighten us?

I grew up in a Gandhian environment. My father Harjivan Dasji Kotak was involved in the khadi movement as was my mother Sharada Ben. She was a strong yet silent worker. After a few years, Bapu invited them to settle down in the Gandhi Ashram in Sabarmati. My father was responsible for establishing the first Khadi Bhandar in Ahmedabad. It was known as Gandhi Haat. When we were young, even our handkerchiefs were made of khadi. Both of us have always worn khadi, right from childhood.
Tell us about your education and other milestones, Sumitraji.

I did my MA in Hindi and Sanskrit. At 22, we got married in the Ashram. Gurudev Rabindranath Tagore’s disciple Gurudayal Mallik was instrumental in getting us married.
What are the memories that reverberate in your life, Pratapkumarji?

I was born in Amreli in Saurashtra, but after my high school I went to Ahmedabad and later to Hyderabad for higher studies. I have done my MA in Hindi, then MA in English as well as the Sahitya Ratna course. At 15, I went to Pune and spent 15 days with Gandhiji as a scout volunteer. It was a memorable period and left a deep impression on me. During my BA, I stayed with Pandit Shuklalji. I have done a padayatra with Vinoba Bhave. After my education, I partnered with my brother-in-law in an engineering company. I also taught at colleges in Bengaluru and Ahmedabad. In 1970, my elder brother asked me to come to Bengaluru. Sumitra was also a college lecturer. She has taught music to hundreds of students.
Your simple and serene lifestyle coupled with your dedication to music is an inspiration. Tell us about your children.

She: We were blessed with five daughters, but the eldest, Parul, passed away. Three of them are married. All of them are working. We also have three grandchildren.
How do you perceive the change in times across generations?

She: When we were growing up, family was very important. Our elders had a great influence on us and we spent a lot of time with family. Nowadays, children like to spend time with their peers and that becomes their influence. The mental development is different across the decades. I am keenly interested in education and knowing which field children are specialising in.
How have you nurtured your own interests across decades?

She: It is a natural part of us. Music is our life and we cannot imagine life without it. It dominates everything else. Even the food that we eat.
Please elaborate.

She: As our love for singing is a priority, we have to take care of our voices and throat. We never use chillies or too much oil in our cooking. The food at home has always been sattvic—in our home, at his house and even in my maternal home.
Would you attribute your good health to sattvic food?

He: Yes, certainly! We have always believed in naturopathy and have never taken allopathic medicines. The right food in itself can be the medicine.
What is a typical meal at home?

He: Typically our food is infused with some Gujarati influence following Jain principles. We don’t eat root vegetables nor do we eat after sunset.
Do the children relish such food?

She: They too enjoy simple food, but certainly not as bland as ours. So we cook for them separately. Even the simple home-style dal is made differently for them, with
more oil and spices.
You are indeed blessed. How did your interest in religion and spirituality arise?

She: I was born in a Hindu family, yet my parents gave us a secular viewpoint. We were not compelled or influenced by any particular religion. My father taught me to accept life’s turnings with equanimity. I think the best thing in life is to keep one’s mind open. This infuses us with adaptability. As life moved on, I kept adapting, I kept flowing with life. However, I was greatly influenced by Jainism because of Muni Sant Baal. He was a great Jain monk and deeply associated with Gandhiji. I always enjoyed the morning prarthana time in Gandhi Ashram.

He: My childhood was steeped in religious samskara. One of the strongest influences in my life was that of the great Jaina seer Shrimad Rajachandra. At 16, I read his Mokshamala. It deeply influenced me and I stopped eating after sunset.
To which Jaina sect do you belong?

He: I think in the true spirit of things, we are not just Digambar (sky-clad) or Shwetambar (whiteclad) but can call ourselves ‘Atmambar’ (soul-clad, soulful).
That’s such a beautiful expression! It would be so wonderful if all of us could look at ourselves beyond sects and castes. Thank you so much.
Photo Courtesy: Harmony Magazine

Part-2 of this post is the recipe of Moth ki Sabzi, a sattvik yet tasty dish from Sumitra & Pratapkumar Toliya’s kitchen.
First published in ‘Heart to Hearth’ – a column in Harmony Celebrate Age magazine. A series about elders who believe in nurturing the body and mind as the key to joy.


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