Taking classical music out of sabhas into vibrant cultural spaces brings out its ethereal dimensions. The recent Tiruvaiyaru Festival of Sacred Music on the banks of the Cauvery successfully recreated the original intimate settings of this art, says cultural historian David Shulman, Professor of Indian studies at the Hebrew University, Jerusalem

Nightfall on the Cauvery at Tiruvaiyaru. The second Tiruvaiyaru Festival of Sacred Music, organised by the Prakriti Foundation in Chennai with the Maribu Foundation of Dr. Rama Kausalya of Tiruvaiyaru, is about to start. In the Husoor Palace, that is, what is left of the old summer palace of the Maratha kings of Thanjavur, they are lighting tiny oil lamps in each and every niche of the tall dovecot that still stands overlooking the river. The surviving arches and crumbling walls of the inner palace are also illuminated in soft oranges and subtle greens, and the inner courtyard is elegantly adorned with intricate kolam designs and more oil lamps. Even before Vidya Rao sings her first note tonight, February 26, I am moved to the verge of tears by the sheer magic of the setting.

Make no mistake: the setting matters. There are many ways to listen to classical Indian music — in the private, somewhat sterile perfection of the CDs and DVDs we play at home; in the concert sabhas of Mylapore and T. Nagar; on the music channels on TV or on YouTube, which now carries a little or a lot of almost everything, often in choppy, byte-size pieces. But I happen to think that this music sounds best outside, on a hot spring or summer night, with the taste of pollen and dust on your tongue and mosquitoes circling around your feet. Music is a tangible thing, to be felt in the pores of your skin no less than in the ear; you just can't do that very well in the concert halls where the temperature is usually fixed at sub-Artic levels and the amplifiers are invariably turned on too high.

Performance spaces

We tend to forget that much of the classical music of India, both Hindustani and Carnatic, was meant for intimate settings like the royal court, the jhalsa-ghar, or the elite salons of patron-connoisseurs. These were not, of course, the only antecedents of today's performance spaces; the tradition was also moulded by the temple Periya melams, on the one hand, and the early-modern operatic genres popularised by composers such as Arunacala Kavirayar, on the other. But in the course of its astonishing transition to the modern concert stage, Carnatic music in particular has sacrificed something of the delicacy and subtlety that were perhaps its most salient features. One of the great achievements of the Prakriti Foundation's Tiruvaiyaru festival — one of several — is the re-creation of a context for listening in which subtlety and intimacy can assume their natural role. Another major goal, truly worthy of all praise, is the conscious attempt to bring this music back from the big city to the settings in which it was actually created and where it was originally meant to be performed.

A third achievement is the variation in style and the adventurous taste of the organisers. Thus the first night was devoted to Vidya Rao's Hindustani thumris (with Idris Khan accompanying on Tabla and Madhusudan Bhatt on the harmonium). Thumris are highly emotional compositions; they were sung by Vidya with a restrained, lyrical intensity. She took pains to explain the texts before she sang them (Kausalya translating into Tamil): “Boatman, oh Boatman — my lover is on the other shore. This river has become an enemy to me. Boatman, I will be your slave, I beg you, just take me across.” She aptly recalled Tulsi's beautiful verse in which Guha, the boatman, refuses payment from Rama for ferrying him across the Sarayu: “We two belong to the same biradari. I carry people across this river, you ferry them across the ocean of life.” I can only speak for myself — but I was fiercely happy and at the same time overpowered by that nameless longing and restlessness we all know; Vidya carried me across that night.

You wouldn't have thought the setting could be improved, but Ranvir Shah again worked his sorcery with the backdrop to the second night's kacceri, which took place at the Pushya Mahal Ghat leading down to the river. The Kaveri flowed behind us, and a brilliantly lit mandapam in front of us framed the performers: Pandit Krishna Ram Choudary on shehnai, Pinnai Managar Shri. Dakshinamurthi and K.M. Uthirapathi on nadasvaram. There was no dearth of mosquitoes. Before the performance began, we poured pots of water onto the sandy bank of the river as the priests pronounced Sanskrit mantras to increase the flow, to bring rain — but I think the music itself was the most effective mantra. Though physically ill, Krishna Ram Choudary played with the most remarkable verve and energy. He had, he said, always yearned to do a jugalbandi with south Indian musicians, and tonight this wish was fulfilled. They concentrated on ragas common to both north and south — Hindolam-Malkaums, Kalyani-Yaman, Kiravani. I will not forget the aged archaka from the Pancanadisvara temple who, ready to go home while Kalyaniu-Yaman was still moving toward its climax, approached the dais with folded hands and, in a kind of ecstasy, blessed the musicians at length as they went on with their improvisation. The nadasvaram has a deeper tone than the shehnai, which seemed at times to hover over these eerie depths, at other times to weave the webs of sound together into a single sustained and complex whole. When it was over, we were far too moved by what we had heard and seen to retire to sleep, so we sat for another hour in the dark Husoor Palace and recited poems and sang to one another and to the almost-full moon.

Ideal setting

It was entirely full the next night — another thoughtful touch of Ranvir's — and we watched it rise from our seats before the Rama Mandapam in the outer prakaram of the Pancanadisvara Temple itself. The outer and inner gopurams were alive with gently understated lighting, and oil lamps in many rows and levels formed the backdrop to the stage where Aruna Sairam took her place together with Raghavendra Rao (violin) and Patri Satishkumar (mridangam). This was the first time I had the privilege of hearing Aruna in person, though for years I have collected and studied her recordings. As if guided by an unerring intuition of my idiosyncratic taste, she made Subha Pantuvarali the centrepiece of the performance, with an extensive, bold, deeply engaging alapana improvisation followed by a perfect rendition of Muttusvamy Dikshitar's kriti, “Sri Satyanarayana” (Aruna has recorded this kriti in a splendid CD, my favourite). Subha Pantuvarali is a raga of haunting transitions, at times verging on the dissonant. Aruna and Raghavendra Rao, improvising together with great precision and mutual attunement, held us captive for long minutes in the tensile link between tivra ma and komal dha— an open space at the heart of this raga (which is formally similar to Hindustani Todi). This tour de force was followed by several shorter compositions including the Kshetrayya padam “Paiyada paimeda” in Nadanamakriya, sung in the old Thanjavur style which Aruna inherited from her great teacher Brindamma. If you want to have an idea of what one strand of the Carnatic tradition sounded like three centuries ago, you should hear Aruna Sairam sing such padams — deeply unsettling, even unnerving both in melody and rhythm and once again beautifully dissonant, pitched at the very limit of human musical invention and of the mind's ability to understand, like Beethoven's late quartets (especially the great Op.130). There is no way one can squeeze such masterpieces into the conventional rules and protocols of their respective musical canons. Great music, like great poetry, always at once fulfils and transcends its given form.

With great generosity of spirit, Aruna sang something for everyone that night, including several shorter pieces (such as Uttakadu Venkatasubba Aiyar's “Alai payude kanna” in Kanada) which seemed to be offered as a special gift to Kausalya's young students from the Music College, who were there en masse. And I have not yet mentioned the wonderful Tyagaraja kriti “Bale balendu-bhushani” in Ritigaula, presumably composed right there in the shrine of the goddess Dharmasamvardhini in the Tiruvaiyaru temple. How often does one have the privilege of hearing a composition brilliantly performed at the very site where it first came into being in the presence of a goddess? On my way to the temple I sent an SMS to my wife in Jerusalem saying that I was sure the Lord of the Five Rivers was himself waiting, expectant, for tonight's kacceri. I am sure he was very moved: this was a concert worth waiting for and a rare gift to those of us who were there to eavesdrop on his delight.

There was the added joy of having dinner with Aruna after the concert (as we had with Vidya Rao two nights earlier) and being able to chat with her and hear her story, though in my confusion, or maybe it was too much happiness, I of course forgot to ask her any of the questions I'd been storing up for years for just such a moment.

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