A festival that began on a small scale in Chennai six years ago is slowly gaining a national presence. Svanubhava is putting the youth in touch with the country’s performing arts.

When a little boy stood up and asked Nedunuri Krishnamurthy what that tall brown thing behind him was, the celebrated Carnatic vocalist indulged his curiosity and explained that it was a tanpura. Another youngster quizzed Ghatam V. Suresh: “Won’t that pot break if you hit it hard?” The amused vidwan explained how they were made, and demonstrated how strong they were and didn’t just stop with that; he also rewarded the boy with a prize for his questioning mind.

Now these, as you can see, are not the bog-standard questions that an audience asks leading Carnatic vocalists and instrumentalists after a concert. But then, Svanubhava is no bog-standard festival. It is a fine arts movement, organised by the youth, for school and college students; one that is, interestingly, spreading throughout the country.

It all started in Chennai, back in 2008. Two organisations — Matrka (founded by T.M. Krishna and Bombay Jayashri) and YACM (Youth Association for Classical Music) — came together to organise a six-day cultural festival, showcasing Carnatic music and Bharatanatyam. The festival happened across three venues in Chennai — Kalakshetra, Government Music College and Music Academy. Volunteers from these institutions assisted the core-team from YACM. And it was a hit. By the third year, it had spread to six venues (including three schools) and, by the fourth year, to Delhi. In 2012, Svanubhava went to Tiruchi and also went international — to Jaffna (Sri Lanka).

In July 2013, Bangalore joined the list. Aditya M.P., an engineering student in Bangalore, said Svanubhava was a very good learning experience. The violin duet by the Mysore Brothers particularly appealed to him, while for Vinay Sharva, classical vocalist, it was the challenging questions the audience posed the artists. “I also loved the puppetry; you don’t get to see it often!”

But Svanubhava’s expansion has not just been geographic. The focus too has grown to include more than just south Indian classical arts. Today, it has evolved into a national performing arts festival, presenting nearly 35 different art forms. Rithvik Raja, who has been involved with Svanubhava since its inception, says that the festival has been shaped and fine-tuned by the students themselves. “We asked students to give us a wish-list of programmes. We got 500 ideas. Even today, we refer to it!” he says. Children wanted to see folk theatre and puppetry; they were raring to see Kathakali. And so, they got it all! “We opened out the festival, and had Yakshagana performances and Qawwalia, as we thought it was wrong to confine it to just a few art forms. You should have seen the audience respond! They loved the Panchavadyam performance from Kerala; the response was fantastic!”

Ananta Gaur, a Std. XII student from Delhi, recalls how she loved the South Indian fare at Svanubhava, Delhi in 2011. She — and many others — had not heard the Nagaswaram until then. They were as fascinated by its deep notes as by the drama of Therukoothu.

Financial support is voluntary. People who believe in the cause offer help. There are no stalls and banners plugging sponsors at Svanubhava. In Chennai, the children who flock to the auditorium and sit spellbound and silent from 9.00 a.m. to 3.00 p.m. (with only a 15-minute break for tea, and 45 minutes for lunch) come from all over the city. The audience includes kids from Corporation schools and from the outskirts of the city; in other words, children who would not typically be part of Chennai’s famous December music and dance season.

During this year’s edition in Chennai last week, one young boy, seated on the stage to the left of the singers (the Bombay Sisters), placed his school bag in front of him to keep taalam. During the tea break, Rajesh and Sai Prasad of Sir Sivaswami Kalalaya were discussingt the thani avartanam and the thillana, which was the high point for them. Kavin and Dayan, students from Sri Sankara school who were attending their first classical concert, were listing the songs they’ve heard so far.

The sisters’ charming answers at the end of the session endeared them to the audience. How often do students get to hear a famous musician say she was not really interested in singing? “I wanted to become an English lecturer,” said Lalitha, while Saroja smiled. It was the elder sister who inspired and motivated her to become a singer, she said, adding that her voice was only a speaking one. “The singing voice was developed by practice,” she confessed. Her candour clearly impressedthe young audience.

The three-day festival — expertly organised and ably assisted by a crack-team of volunteers, including several Kalakshetra students — drew to a close with the ritualistic dances of Tamil Nadu, followed by a presentation by V.R. Devika. When the Poikkal Kudirais appeared on stage, the audience almost drowned out the accompanying drummers with their clapping. The appreciation continued for Devarattam, Sevaiattam and reached a crescendo during the Kavadi. Vedapriya, a fourth year student of Kalakshetra, said she has never seen folk dances before. Neither have many of the school students. But they all enjoyed it, visibly, wildly.

“It’s only a lack of exposure that keeps children from appreciating the arts,” says Rithvik. If all the television channels played only classical music for a month, kids will surely like it, he argues. “Classical art is an acquired taste; you need to develop a liking for it. Familiarity comes from being in touch.” And that’s exactly what Svanubhava has been doing; putting the young people of this country in touch with performing arts.