The December Music and Dance Season is over and Pongal has been celebrated. It is time once again to pay homage on Bahula Panchami Day, the day when Saint Tyagaraja left Tiruvaiyaru for ever to join his ishta devatha, Lord Rama.
In fact, a joke used to do the rounds a few years ago, that while buses and cars were plying full to Tiruvaiyaru, one bus carried a lone, troubled-looking man travelling in the opposite direction. On enquiry, it was found that the man was Tyagaraja, who was fleeing the onslaught of good, bad and indifferent musical fare offered on his Aradhana!
But jokes apart, the cool, misty air, the trains full of vidwans and bhaktas, budding romances, the early morning alighting at Thanjavur followed by a hot cup of coffee and idlis served on plantain leaves… they all create a divine mood that’s unmatched at any time or place in the musical calendar.
People face many hardships to reach Tiruvaiyaru to soak in the five days of akhanda ganam by young and old musicians alike. The Samadhi Mandapam is quaint with many kritis inscribed on marble tablets.
At the other end, there is another samadhi – that of Bangalore Nagarathnammal, musician and court dancer of the Mysore Samasthanam. In her last days, this Tyagaraja devotee sold her properties and shifted to Tiruvaiyaru where she started and regularised the ‘utsavam.’ In fact, she had a dream and was ordained to build Tyagaraja’s Samadhi as a temple, which she id. She also fought for the participation of women musicians in the till then all-male Pancharatna singing. So, vidushis who sing there today have to thank this grand old lady for her courage and far-reaching reforms.
As there is still not a permanent structure, an old fashioned pandal with white cloth and flower decorations is put up around the Samdhji for those five days. It is well-lit and has two stages put up side by side (an innovation of vidwan M. Balamuralikrishna) to save time, where the Bard of Tiruvaiyaru’s kritis are sung non-stop from eight in the morning to ten in the night.
Each concert, barring the National Programmes, is for 20 minutes only, without any swara prasthara. But musicians kick up enough excitement in the raga alapanas for which they are generously applauded by a highly knowledgeable crowd of ‘Thanjai-Kudanthai’ rasikas. They were known for their caustic comments and bold, verbal reviews of concerts while chewing delectable Kumbakonam vethilai (betel leaves). One can fool a Chennai audience but not a Kumbakonam one. They are proud of Thanjavur musicians and attribute their ‘gnanam’ to the Cauvery.
On this occasion, many nagaswaram concerts are held as well. Handsome men walk around in groups and play some divine music, which waft through the unpolluted Tiruvaiyaru air, creating thrilling sounds. When I listen to the nagaswaram, I feel good. It does create a certain atmosphere.
At a separate venue, ‘shraddham’ or the annual ceremonies are conducted by priests for Tyagaraja’s soul and spirit.
On the last and fifth day, by 6 a.m., crowds start flowing in, eager to listen to and participate in the Pancharatna singing where the musicians not only from South India but also from abroad take part. There is an air of expectancy and the secretaries can be seen walking about busily, looking into various aspects. Soon the Unchavrithi procession arrives, with a person dressed as Tyagaraja.
Then begins the sand-walk (the place is strewn with cold river sand). Women in bright silks, with fresh jasmine in their hair and sparkling jewellery, head for the venue, looking for a comfortable spot to sit. They are followed by the male singers, who too are dressed for the occasion.
It’s time for some music for the soul. After the nagaswaram stops, the flautists take up ‘Chetulara’ in Bhairavi, again a tradition. The back-up flutes are in different srutis (another Tiruvaiyaru tradition). This is followed by ‘Sri Ganapathini’ in Saurashtram and ‘Guruleka’ in Gowrimanohari.
By this time, the TV cameras have started rolling and the lyric books are opened ready. As ‘Jagadanandakaraka’ (a thousand names of Rama) in Nattai rents the air, it is worth the wait.
Heads crane to see the correct thalam. When Kunnakkudi Vaidyanathan was at the helm, he used to step in at that moment and like the conductor Zubin Mehta, wave his arms and restore rhythm to the group.
The religious fervour of the abhishekam for the Tyagaraja idol, with milk, honey and sweet pongal, makes one forget the minor glitches.
The Pancharatnams come to an end and Arathi is offered to the idol. At that moment, you feel a sense of peace and fulfilment.
The ‘anna dhanam’ follows and everybody head for the dining hall.
Inside the mandapam, the Tyagaraja idol stares ahead with stone eyes. But there are two droplets now. Maybe Tyagaraja thinks a la the Bard of Stratford-upon-Avon, ‘All’s well that ends well.’
Mangalam. Till next year…
(Charumathi is a leading vocalist, musicologist and writer and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)