December 27, 2005
When Dr Mme Louella Lobo Prabhu departed this world in January 2005, the event was described as the passing of a legend.
She was born in 1942, and her academic life in the Convent of Jesus and Mary and Sophia College, Bombay was studded with academic distinctions. It was at the specific behest of Cardinal Gracias that she joined the latter, and this hope for the fledgling College was not belied when she won the prestigious Hughlings and Ellis Prizes for Literature from Bombay University.
Louella Castelino had an early debut in the public eye as a child prodigy on the piano, enjoying star billing at concerts in Bombay and different Indian cities. At nine, she was selected by the International Music Club to play a full length concert along with an American boy four years her senior. It was a happy homecoming to her birthplace Mangalore when she performed at ” The Grand Spring Concert” in 1952. The Mount Carmel College in Bangalore was even given a half holiday to hear the 10 year old child display her mastery over a challenging Classical Repertoire.
With her spouse- the Parliamentary Years
In her book “Leaves from an Old Album” she relates that a German Director of the Max Meuller Bhavan, the venue of her concert as a teenager, remarked from her performance of Beethoven’s taxing “Pathetique Sonata” that she must have been German in a previous birth.
Promising literary gifts were manifest when she wrote a novel, ” The Quest” as a teenager, remarkable for its fidelity to an English setting. Serialized in a magazine it caught the eye of J.M. Lobo Prabhu, the dashing former ICS officer, whom she married in 1964. His election to the Lok Sabha in 1967, redefined her literary gifts to make the best use of her access to political events.
With Victor Banerjee, the hero of David Lean’s film ” A Passage to India
She was the Parliamentary Correspondent of Swarajya, a columnist of Onlooker with a popular column on Parliamentary Personalities, and a distinguished personage in the Press Gallery and Central House of Parliament. She also wrote A Guidebook to Parliamentary Procedure which is still in the library of Parliament House.
In 1971, they returned to Mangalore, when political fortunes changed. Louella reinvented herself in ways that would be relevant to her place of residence. She continued to give concerts in major Indian cities, often hosted by foreign embassies and Raj Bhavans. She wrote with distinctive candoUr for a variety of publications. Her most enduring identity was as editor-publisher of Insight, which from start to finish carried her incisive views of the world, championed causes close to her heart, protested injustice, afforded glimpses of her life and served as a vehicle for her poetry on different themes . Her political analysis retrospectively possesses historical value that charts the tumult of the times. Also interesting are her short pieces of ” Pop Sociology” that are a lively observation of society.
With President Giani Zail Singh
She had a natural affinity for the Mass Media. When she played on Radio Goa at eleven, the Portuguese Governor General of India sent her a congratulatory message. At twelve, she won a Radio competition for a critique on Charles Dickens’ novel “Nicholas Nickelby.” When AIR came to Mangalore in 1975, she composed an anthem performed at its inauguration, and thereafter, communed on the airwaves with over 650 broadcasts which were a true educational experience in the nuances of Western music. They provided in-depth analysis into the lives and works of great composers, whose famous works she would play on the piano. She also brought alive the beauty of Broadway musicals, like Fiddler on the Roof and My Fair Lady, playing each piece and sharing every lyric and background thereof.
The Radio was a platform for sharing her original musical compositions. She was invited to perform at AIR stations in other cities, and even the National Program of Doordarshan. Many people in Mangalore were particularly thrilled about the Easter Program in 1986, when TV was in its infancy and a familiar face on the small screen was a rarity. Resplendent in a beautiful black and gold sari, the famous fingers of Louella Lobo Prabhu concluded the program with Beethoven’s Ode to Joy.
With nuclear physicist and kindred musician Dr. Raja Ramanna
Her maiden play ” I Have a Dream” premiered in 1975- International Women’s Year and was a favorite with Women’s Colleges all over the country. As a dramatist, she wrote a total of 42 plays, some with their own songs, performed in schools, colleges and the Radio on diverse subjects like the lives of Helen Keller, Robert Schumann, Abraham Lincoln, Razia Sultana, religious figures, The Freedom Movement, Nazi holocaust, social comedies, and children’s themes.
Her output as a poet is the core of her literary persona. She must have written close on 2000 poems some of which are published as books on individual themes, and figure in anthologies around the world. The remarkable quality of her poetry is its simplicity despite a purist’s adherence to classical form. She was not a poet who sought to be abstract; her verse was an open diary on her personal experiences that she sought to share with her readership.
The fusion of different talents furnished some interesting synergies. She set words of famous poets to her own music, or conversely set words to the music of famous composers. Her own songs fused original lyrics with musical composition. Interestingly, her first effort in the former was a musical setting to John Masefield’s ” Sea Fever” for the dashing Naval Commander George Martis, honoured for his war exploits in her tenure as President of the Ladies Club, and who co-incidentally passed away the same year as herself. She is perhaps most regularly evoked in those schools and colleges for which she composed Anthems.
In concert at The Luxembourg Embassy
She enlivened intellectual and public gatherings with her oratory. There was no subject which did not inspire her thoughts. One such memorable event was the impromptu toast she raised at the Platinum Jubilee Celebrations of Corporation Bank in 1976 in the presence of the then Vice President of India, Shri B.D.Jatti. She sought to leave her impress on a serious gathering rather more distinctively than with words alone, often illustrating a lecture’s themes with even the embroidered motifs on her clothes. Madame was a true individualist in the colorful way she lived her life.
She served on the Academic Council and Senate of Mangalore University for several terms from its inception, furnishing it with vision in affiliating colleges offering innovative courses and founding several prizes.
At 25, she was the youngest member of the National Executive of the then Swatantra party, polling even more votes than her spouse. She recalled with amusement that she would be mistaken for Maharani Gayathri Devi of Jaipur at Swatantra Party Conventions early on in her marriage! She was the conscientious better half of a Parliamentarian. The moral compromises demanded by political life didn’t suit either of them in the long run. Ironically, Madame did not live to be the keynote speaker at the National Convention of the Indian Liberal Group, held in Mangalore a few days after her passing. Writing prophetically in the Freedom First Convention issue, released at this event she missed, she said of herself and her late spouse, ” We have lived comfortably with a clean conscience and that must be our epitaph.”
Hers was a strong persona. The veteran journalist, MV Kamath in his writings, counted her among the great women of Karnataka, both from a historical and contemporary perspective. She was the Chatelaine of a famous residence which played host to Politicians, Governors, Diplomats representing different countries, intellectuals, musicians, artists, visiting members of foreign nobility and Royalty.
Madame’s most obvious legacy is her creative work, which will survive her earthly life as long as it continues to be read and performed. Some of her available publications can be accessed for just a short while longer, and a few of her plays are slated to be performed in the near future. She was both a practitioner and patron of the Arts. She ingeniously adapted her artistic gifts to circumstances in each phase of life.
Her dedication to the artistic and creative existence is inspiring in the sheer power of example. She enlivened her living space with creative inputs, moving her gifts from a small place to the outside world and not vice versa. Her versatile achievements fetched her awards and citations locally, nationally and internationally. She wrote a poem called ” Striving, ever striving , falling and rising again”, and this philosophy of her life has a lesson for everyone. We can only go forward with the power of our convictions, a capacity to seize challenges and constantly rediscover ourselves as Dr. Mme Louella Lobo Prabhu did in sixty two meaningful years of life.
(An article I wrote for a community website in 2005 in memory of my mother)-
Giselle D. Mehta