Come Easter break each year, the Cleveland State University (CSU) undergoes a unique transformation. Thousands of Indians gather to attend the 'Cleveland Thyagaraja Aradhana' in their swishing silks and sparkling jewellery. This may sound like a scene from a veritable big fat Indian wedding, but the focal points here are Carnatic music and Indian classical dance. The average Caucasian American sports a perpetual expression of bewilderment at the constant sounds of Indian dialects, the strains of music wafting in from classrooms and auditoria, and not least of all, the aroma of avial, rasam and lime pickle. An electric atmosphere reverberates through the Comfort Inn lobby across the CSU, milling with artistes and attendees.

The Aradhana - in its 33rd year - has grown to unbelievable proportions today due to the never-say-die attitude of a core group of volunteers.

Modest to mammoth

In 1978, three families, V.V. Sundaram-Gomathi Sundaram, Cleveland Balu-Gomathi Balu, and, Toronto Venkataraman-Padma Venkataraman kicked-off the first 'Cleveland Thyagaraja Aradhana' in the basement of a Presbyterian Church with 70 people in attendance. Ramnad Raghavan, brother of the inimitable Ramnad Krishnan trained a few people to sing the Pancharatnas with the help of All India Radio recordings. They moved the festival to the CSU the following year and began to invite one senior artiste with a small team of accompanists each year. Over time, the number of concerts increased gradually and the festival now hosts over 60 performances. Indian classical dance, and music/dance workshops became added features.

The Aradhana has also instituted awards to recognise the achievements of artistes and gurus. Among the notable awardees are Dr. Flute N. Ramani (a close associate of the Committee), K.V. Narayanaswamy, Umayalpuram K. Sivaraman, Lalgudi G. Jayaraman, and M.S. Gopalakrishnan. At times, says Sundaram, artistes are recognised with the Aradhana awards even before the more popular awards. "We ensure that veterans are recognised each year. We have had the honour of awarding greats such as T. Mukta, Parasala Ponnammal, Kalpagam Swaminathan and this year, D. Pashupati and Radha Viswanathan join the list," he adds. The Committee is particular about regional representation of Carnatic music and chooses competent artistes from States other than Tamil Nadu. The programme schedule also includes a nagaswaram, two veenas and other instruments to showcase the various sounds of classical music.

The indefatigable and ubiquitous Sundaram can be spotted at the performance venues from 8 a.m. to 10.30 p.m. on any given day of the festival. Despite the four hours of sleep each night, he is everywhere - at the audio console, manning the camcorder, discussing music and logistics with artistes, handling a meltdown by a flustered parent and even taking a moment to play with his grand-daughter. Brushing aside the compliments, he is very clear that the Aradhana is a reality only because of the generous spirit of the artistes and the committed community involvement.

What gives him the motivation to keep at it year after year, especially since he has a busy career as a promoter for a big health-care project? "The manner in which U.S.-born Indian children have taken to this movement, their zeal and enthusiasm to keep the Indian arts alive are reasons enough. They are completely charged-up when they meet artistes they only hear about. This festival is for them!" exclaims Sundaram emphatically. He chuckles that there was no vision when they began the festival 33 years ago, but adds that the challenges are many to sustain an event of this size and stature. He dreams of an independent facility with small theatres for the competitions and a large auditorium.

The number crunchers

Roger and Jaya Natarajan, successful actuaries by profession, have been associated with the Aradhana for more than 25 years. As Treasurers of the Committee, they have the onerous responsibility of breaking even each year. Flying artistes from India, visa processing fees, hotel accommodation, artistes' remuneration, chauffeuring artistes, serving food and raising funds are a small part of their portfolio. Roger quips, "I deal with 50 crises every day at the Aradhana and find that I cope much better at work thanks to this experience!" The Committee was in deep debt last year and the Natarajans decided to rope in patron members to help the festival. The cheerful and gregarious couple have achieved nothing short of a miracle in this regard and take their role very seriously. How does a Global Product Manager for CIGNA International responsible for 28 countries make room for such a time-consuming activity? The Natarajans are quick to say that they love the experience and have fun all the way. The Aradhana is a big part of their lives and Roger ensures he incorporates a window for the festival as part of his non-negotiable vacation time. There have been instances when he has brought in corporate sponsorships for the festival. A thorough professional, Roger is always looking to improve and streamline the various processes at the Aradhana.

Food, the all-important

The challenging task of providing food for the 8,000 attendees at the Aradhana falls on the able shoulders of Gomathi Balu. Till a few years ago, she used to cook all the meals with the help of volunteers. Now, Ganesan, a cook from Pittsburgh, is hired to make the food under Gomathi's firm and careful guidance. Keeping with tradition, lunch on the first Saturday of the festival is prepared by 70 families of the local community. The preparations for the festival begin a month before the festival. When not in the kitchen supervising menus and recipes, Gomathi nips across the street to listen to a concert at the CSU. Her main objective is to ensure no one goes unfed and her untiring team of volunteers including her daughter Radhika Balu, help to serve the food well into the late hours of the night.

Green cop

The role of Divya and husband Nigamanth Sridhar at the Aradhana cannot be over-stated. They have the responsibility of managing the trash that is generated at such a large event. Says an eloquent Divya, "Call me the trash police if you like. My role at the Aradhana is simple. I would like the huge amounts of waste generated to be disposed off gently, and if possible, as a resource input to another project. The hope is to make it a Zero Waste event."

Spread over 12 days and 25 meals, the Aradhana generates compostable richness which is distributed to urban farms or market gardens sprinkled around Cleveland. The 2009 Aradhana harvested 165 46-gallon bags of bagasse and Poly Lactic Acid compostable items that were distributed to two farms and two community gardens to serve as rich organic fertiliser. Moving from styrofoam and plastic in 2006 to bagasse was no easy task financially. The change also meant a new challenge of disposing the new items in the right way. The Aradhana has set the trend in disposing off huge volumes of trash locally and gently, thanks to Divya's perseverance and the co-operation of attendees and artistes.

Next gen

A wonderful aspect of the festival is the whole-hearted participation of sharp, young volunteers. Mony, Shankar and Gopi Sundaram (sons of V.V. Sundaram), Karthik Venkataraman (son of Toronto Venkataraman), Radhika Balu (daughter of Cleveland Balu) and Bala Shankar from Sydney, Australia, are a few of the major contributors in this regard. Gopi, a business school grad, manages the Aradhana website and every aspect of the music competitions held each year. Shankar, a Corporate Strategy Consultant, and Karthik, Senior vice-president of Technology at a real estate firm, manage the sound system during the performances, among other tasks. Karthik also plays the kanjira for many of the concerts. The two young men have invested a lot of thought and finances on good audio equipment. Juggling numerous tasks at the same time, it is not an uncommon sight to find Shankar or Gopi in a corner of the auditorium attending to work on their laptops.

The dance competition has gained immense popularity over the last four years thanks mainly to the efforts of Radhika Balu. The visiting dance gurus and dancers judge the contestants and the filtering process is done well ahead of time by reviewing the video clips of participants. Normally featured on the last day of the festival, it is quite hard to find a vacant seat in the auditorium during the contest!

Shankar's and Karthik's memories of the Aradhana are from the time they could walk! The festival is a time to re-unite with friends and family. Is this thrust on them because of the obvious association with their fathers? "Absolutely not. I am here because I have to be here," says Shankar. He also feels a deep sense of gratitude and responsibility towards the artistes he has known since childhood. Having learned many compositions from them, the brothers feel the need to give something back to the art.

Shankar's wife Kanchana is keenly involved in the organisation of the festival at various levels. Shankar jokes that the women married into the family have little choice in the matter! Karthik's yearly visits to Cleveland are a norm and he relishes and plans for the festival with his wife Lavanya (also a volunteer at the festival).

As the festival draws to a close on Sunday, there is a sense of relief, fatigue and jubilation among the volunteers. Plans for 2011 are already underway. An air of camaraderie prevails - artistes, organisers and volunteers all batting for the same side...