The spirit of music at Thiruvayaru

It was five in the morning. I was walking through the narrow lanes of the veedhi sloshed with dregs of sleep, thrusting my legs forward amongst the early risers of this holy town. The cold air was suffused with the divine chants breezing from the typical antiquated wide mouthed speakers hanging at tall poles throughout the mud lanes of Thiruvayaru. The mud lanes looked more intense; thanks to the sodium vapour lamps hanging from the towering iron towers. I had started from Chennai to Thiruvayaru with my IT pals. This time, the Bahula panchami, the auspicious star for the Thyagaraja Utsavam befell serendipitously on a Sunday, making it very convenient for working folks like me. Sankar, the dulcet voiced classical singer, Sriimathy, the pretty mellifluous singer and Yashwant, the tall, perky, pencil line moustached violinist were my comrades in this musical jaunt. 

Sankar began to set his Canon Digital Camera on roll and started capturing what all his eyes laid on. Cloth banners of various organizations like THE HINDU and STATE BANK OF INDIA hung in the air welcoming us to the 161st Thyagaraja Aradhana with the immortal words of Lord Thyagaraja “Endharo Mahanubhavulu Andhariki Vandhanamu”. We trudged through the narrow roads leading to Ammal Agraharam where we stayed in Sankar’s relative’s place. The green fields on both the sides of the narrow roads soothed our eyes which were fed on a staple diet of flickering monitor screens and never ending lines of incomprehensible code. We stayed in an orthodox Brahmin family taking care of the Veda Patashala there. After tantalizing our senses with larger than life davaras of filter kaapi and pongal, we started our journey towards the Brihadeeshwara Temple

As soon as I reached the entrance of the temple, the incongruity of the texture of the sanctum disturbed my eyes. It was blatantly evident that the main Raja Gopuram had been renovated recently. The dull and morose brown hues defiled the beautiful imposing structure. As I went inside, I however found that more than one half of the temple was under renovation. 

Movies often have that indescribable power to blur reality with fantasy. As I walked past the big black Nandi statue, I could see my favorite thespian of yester years, Shivaji Ganesan (aka Raja Raja Chozhan) walking around in his inimitable regal demeanor inspecting the construction works of Nandi. As I walked by the Devi Sannadhi, the devotional vocal strains coming from the prahaaram beguiled me. 

The divine Lalitha sahasranamam was blended with bass guitar chords and Rahmanesque techno frippery. It was as if, the pious lady with big bindhi and vase of jasmine flowers in her head, L.R.Easwari was replaced with a chic sporting kurta and jeans, junk jewellery, a small dash of vibhuti on her forehead, singing with full vigour. I fell for the song, the moment I heard it. I never knew slokas could sound so rocking and youthful.

Just like any other famous heritage monument, this temple was full of scores of foreigners with sleek, sexy video cameras, enchanted by the astounding architecture of the temple. Many NRIs, desirous to get back to their roots had also thronged the temple. The temple pujari, enamored by their desi-firangi connections, performed archanai with slokas like “C2C Project Management Namyaha!!” While we were returning in our rented car, the driver proudly claimed that his car was a favorite among doyens of carnatic musicians. He recalled with fervor, how Sriram Parasuram and Anuradha Sriram would move around in his car, singing carnatic numbers zestfully, reveling in the spirit of Carnatic music. 

We went to the Kallanai (stone dam) where the good ol’ Kaveri river flows through. Carnatic music shares a special bonding with Kaveri. Several composers like Shyama Shastry and like have composed sonnets praising the beauty of Kaveri. During our journey, we came across several villages which had become an inseparable part of musicians’ name. Interestingly most of those villages came under the Cauvery belt. I was thrilled to see a small plaque written Umayalpuram as my car zoomed past the titular small village. As my car vroomed along the narrow muddy lane of the village, I wondered if I could hear the perfectly shruti aligned, singing mridangam of Shri. Umayalpuram Sivaraman amidst the rustling of trees. The incoherent chants of the village women folk sounded like ghumiki*. 

Inspired by the romantic number from the film Sangamam which showed Patteeswaram as the perfect setting for romance, Sankar was hell bent in going to Patteeswaram. We reached the small village near Kumbakonam and went to the famous Durga Temple. As we entered the serene sanctum of Vedha Pureeswarar, we were so gob smacked by the nishabd and pious atmosphere of the sannadhi that we decided to sing a kriti together in the name of Lord Shiva. Sankar in his velveted voice reverberated the sannadhi with divine fervor in his viruththam Kripa samudhram sumukam Trinethram. We joined with him in the rendition of Bo Shambo Shiva Shambo after the **viruththam. The experience was ineffable. While singing, in front of the divine, I felt the naadham of Sambho reverberating in every cell of my body. After our rendition, we were gifted with garlands and Prasad of the divine by the temple authorities. Smug with blissful happiness, we left for Thiruvayaru. 

Our journey was spiced up by Sankar updating my raga database with fresh ragas and providing interesting trivia about ragas. Sample this. If a carnatic music aficionado were to marry a Hindustani music obsessed gal and borne twins by their marriage, they can probably name them as Madhuvanthi and Dharmavathi (because Madhuvanthi is the Hindustani equivalent of Dharmavathi.) Sriimathy also sang some melodious ragas with √©lan and several forgotten numbers from Cine music. To my surprise, my car driver played that rocking Lalitha Sahasranamam which I heard in Brihadeeshwara temple. Influenced by the likes of Apache Indian and Blaaze, I tried to rap (or should it be rave??) in the praises of Ambal with the divine Sahasranamam setting the right chords for it. I really can’t comment more about this interesting experiment (you have to ask my friends). Yashwant enthralled us too with his favourite melodious numbers, animated with typical Bhagavathar expressions and calisthenics. 

After tasting the famous Ashoka Halwa - a sensuous red slimy gelly served with namkeen, in the reputed halwa stall of Thiruvayaru, we returned back early to our house to freshen up, lest we should miss any part of the action because of fatigue on the most anticipated day for lovers of Carnatic Music.

As I woke up on that lovely day, I found the glistening rays warming up my skin through the movable slits of the window. It seemed as the divine rays were eager enough to warm our bodies to make our souls receptive to the divine warmth, this special moment would suffuse us with. I made sure I dressed up royally for this grand occasion. I sported my favorite red kurta, and smattered my forehead with divine ash to immerse my mind in the divine. Sankar was in Seventh Heaven as he got ready for the day. He donned a typical Bhagavathar’s attire with the typical mild brown journalesque khadi kurta, spec less and neatly starched zarigai angavastram, traditional gopi chandan and topping it all with javvadhu scent.

Sriimathy sported a nice traditional green sari, matching with the luscious green fields which surrounded our house. Yashwant, like a typical mridangist, sported a sober white shirt and white light. I knew however for sure that none would match the sartorial sense of the legendary Kunnakudi Vaidyanathan, whose flair for flashy clothes would belittle that of Giorgio Armani’s. Though Kadri Gopalnath would give him stiff competition, Kunnakudi wins them all hands down. Be it the scores of gold coins he wears in his pity-worthy neck or the golden rings in every finger of the hand embossed with various stones or the huge monstrous golden kada he wears in his right hand, Kunnakudi wins hands down. Infact the commencement of the Aradhana gets the pomposity of a royal Wagnerian Opera with his ringed fingers moving in sync for thalam, while the dazzle of those luminescent stones moving southwards seem to bless us all with his shiny golden aureole. However all this sartorial flamboyance is of no match to his impeccable talent in making the violin sing mellifluously as per his command. His violin is his faithful, sultry (I can see your expression…I mean, considering the sexy figure of the violin….you know those curves at the right places) Nightingale who obeys to every command of her master.

As we walked past the tall grilled gate with the metal inscription of Lord Thyagaraja, musical fervor ran in my veins faster than a trailblazing korvai in the final round of Thaniyaavarthanam of the legendary Palghat Mani Iyer.
The path to the main mandap was full of stalls of various kinds offering slice of Indian traditions right from filter kaapi to carnatic audio CDs to LIC policies and antique brass Nataraja Statues for the Indian heritage devouring foreign folks. In a corner near those stalls, I found an unusual Ambassador car painted in gold with a miniature violin embossed in the chassis. I wasn’t so dumb to realize whom it belonged to. Few stalls were offering erratum filled lyric sheets of the Pancharathna Kritis (which I realized while singing, courtesy my friends) to all the people who had come to witness the spectacle.

We had a green slip which provided entry to the rasikas enclosure. Sankar tried his luck to get entry into the exclusive coterie of musicians. However, It didn’t work and we had to move towards the over full Rasikas’ enclosure. Several people who couldn’t get inside, settled down in the muddy grounds outside the mandap. We walked by the Thyagaraja Sannadhi to reach the gents area in the enclosure. Supported by large wooden poles with flags of various consumer durables, the royal white shamiyana cloth with its zari and hanging clothed pillars spread over the banks of the Kaveri river. Few things never change in life, despite engulfing changes sweeping over the world. One such is the traditional blue banner which hangs at the centre of the stage. Everything was same. The same white font on the faded blue cloth with the photo of Lord Thyagaraja in the centre; Nothing had changed a bit. As long as my memory recalls, this blue banner has been a ubiquitous part of the Aradhana. The corners of the huge mandap were swarmed with RCF-Linear Ray System speakers. In the left hand corner of the stage, AIR folks were getting ready to broadcast the event. Sankar, Yashwant and I settled in the penultimate row of our enclosure and Sriimathy had to sit alone at the ladies’ enclosure. 

However this didnt fizzle out our enthusiasm. We had come all the way for this grand event and we made sure we enjoyed every moment to the core. My eyes rummaged through the likes of rasikas and singers and few firangi folks, trying to locate my favorite musicians who were all ready to bask in that musical moment. Much to my discontent, I could see only tall hands holding digicams and other recording devices in the sea of moving heads, mostly silvered, few blackened. However nothing could stir me a bit. Sankar’s CANON digital camera came handy and I spotted the stars sitting in the front rows. I rejoiced like those star hungry paparazzi folks when I spotted T.N.Seshagopalan, Sudha Ragunathan in the circular preview of my zoomed in lens. I couldn’t get a glimpse of the violinists and mridangists as they were sitting in my side. But they made their presence felt as they were busy setting the shrutis straight with amplified speakers. Soon Nadhaswaram players began playing the introductory notes, creating the perfect mood for the divine moment. After waiting for several minutes impatiently, it began.

The beginning, defying all my gargantuan expectations turned out to be a damp squib, with Sudha’s straining, unconfident, high pitched voice resounding ‘Jagadaanandakaarakaa’. I guess this must have happened because of the confusion regarding who would start the proceedings. However this minor glitch seemed like a peccadillo of a faithful devotee who is waiting impatiently to embrace the divine. Soon million hearts soared high in bhakti bhava, singing the Nattai Composition with its regal grandeur. Sankar rendered the composition heart fully with full passion and beans along with the millions. More than dozens of violinists, mridangists, and ghatam and ghanjeera players joined with the soaring voices adorning the bejeweled compositions at the right places with right expressions. All these voices along with the instruments soothed my visibly excited mind distracted by the attractions. I went into deep prayerful state and reveled in the Eden of Bhakti. This was the moment, the perfect spiritual moment, when all the singers ranging from the poor singers hailing from Thiruvayaru, with dirty dhotis and betel stained mouths seated in the corners of the mandap to the little heavenly creatures in pavadai chattai squatted near their mothers who are humming the lines they learnt long long ago to the front row, TV posing singers of the patnam, with flashy clothes and jewels, merge into one divine voice of Carnatic music.

All those differences melted in the ambrosia of bhakti and they realized the true Brahman pervading within each and every soul. My excitement again effervesced in, as soon as I heard the Aarabi strains of Saadinchine. It was the only pancharatna krithi, I knew fully and obviously it was my favorite. As soon as I started singing it, my fingers longed to play the mirudangam. I recalled with nostalgia, how much I thoroughly enjoyed playing the charanam and anupallavi whenever my sister played at my guru’s residence. The riveting tone, replete with its instant charm makes this a favorite amongst every carnatic aficionado. Yashwant became so smitten with the energy of kriti and we both sang the pallavi and charanam to our hearts content moving our heads and hands in glee. The poor lyrics note book which was given at the stall served as some sort of consolation for my fingers as it ran past on the surface like a kanjeera with full pizzazz. 

The final jewel praising the great men who have lived through the ages, Endharo Mahanubhavulu in Sri Ragam gave the perfect fitting finish for this splendid spectacle. As I came out of my mandap, my stars and planets came at the favorable moment by blessing me with the perfect time frame coinciding my entry to the ground outside the mandap with that of the legendary Shri T.N.Seshagopalan’s. I made best use of the moment and ran towards the legend for an autograph. There were many eager enthusiasts standing like me. As I stood near the legend waiting for my turn, I recollected all the lovely moments I spent levitating in air at the creaky wooden chairs of various Sabhas listening to the legend himself. I recalled how much I gaped in awe, whenever the legend painted the notes of the lowest octave with panache. He courteously obliged and penned his autograph in my note pad. 

I pinched my skin to see if this was any dream. With mouthfuls of smile, I shook his hand and took leave from him. Sankar, unable to get out of the excitement the moment suffused with, was still humming in mini alapanas of his favorite ragas as we came along and went back to Ammal Agraharam. After sumptuous meals and thanks giving for the amazing hospitality we were given with, we packed our bags to Chennai. Before leaving I ensured that I didn’t lose any of my stuff in our guest’s house. However I knew for sure, my heart was lost in the zeitgeist of carnatic music.
* unique sound created in the left hand side of mridangam ** a sonnet