The Festival of Sacred Music at Tiruvaiyaru in Tamil Nadu ventured into experimental waters this year, but the essentials were just as they should be.

The town of Tiruvaiyaru in Thanjavur district is steeped in music, but a three-day festival brought unusual notes to music lovers here. Father Joseph Thattarachery, parish priest of St. Mary's Church in Tripunithura, led a group of 14 in singing Christian bhajans. It sounded like a neighbourhood Sai bhajan, with more devotion than technique and simple lyrics meant for everyone to sing along. Father Joseph had trained in Carnatic music as a youth and he wanted to introduce that culture into the Catholic Church, “the joy, the anand, the power of Indian music that makes us closer to God”, expressed in what he calls “a new type of adoration”.

The Festival of Sacred Music ventured into experimenting this, its third year. The Prakriti Foundation of Chennai and the Marabu Foundation in Thillaisthanam put it all together. Father Joseph, as Dr. Rama Kausalya of Marabu expressed it, crossed boundaries of faith and language to bring this music to Tiruvaiyaru and to remind us all that Marykumaran and Devakikumaran were the same. We heard the words we wanted to hear, and it was the ragas that took us straight to adoration.

Brothers rock

Ganesh and Kumaresh came up with a violin concert that same evening. These two brothers, still cherubic, flamboyant, and full of hair-tossing drama, are the closest thing we have to rock stars in Carnatic music. They played “raga elaborations” of their own composition, with no lyrics. And, just in case, they ended with a run-on of popular devotional songs, all segued into the mangalam.

Some of us spoke afterwards of whether it was traditional or not. Mostly not, we concluded, and the mood had veered from devotion to display. But while the music was on we never thought to question it. Between Ganesh's balletic tiptoeing across the notes, Kumaresh's more haunting strains, and the percussion accompaniments, they all showed us the true meaning of “concert”. The ragas had again taken us to another plane, and they spoke wordlessly to our souls.

At the Pushya Mahal the second evening, young music students filled the seats well before the performance started, with silver anklets on their feet and ipad earphones. In the fading light, as the bats swooped about, we listened happily to Nadaka and Gopika of Auroville perfecting their sruti. Om alone is sufficient, even without music, but music without Om would be unthinkable, as this couple understood so well. Their performance conformed so faithfully to traditional Vedic chant that we were halfway through the concert before anyone thought to applaud.

The band Yodhakaa followed, radiating a personal warmth that had been missing in the Auroville performers. Yodhakaa are an adorable bunch who play a bit with Sanskrit slokas and put them to a beat. The vocalists are well trained in classical music, so sruti and raga are spot on.

There are many musicians who have fun with Sanskrit chants, but this live performance was worth watching for its novel instruments. ‘Darbuka' Siva led the group, wearing dancers' bells on his ankles and sitting on and playing the cajon, a Peruvian instrument that looks like a tea chest.

Madras String Quartet

Near the Amman sanctum at the Panchanadeeswara Temple the next evening, the Madras String Quartet led by V.S. Narasimhan essayed a few simple kirtanais. The second violin, viola and cello provided harmony. With some ragas, the distraction of oompah oompah took some getting used to, but Nalinakanti seemed to ask for such treatment. The quartet, more touchingly, played “Krishna Nee Begane Baaro” with the sense of the kriti, cajoling and pleading, rather than with just the notes.

As always, the final performance, by T.M. Krishna, anchored the festival firmly to tradition. In his kritis Krishna invoked first Nada and then the spirit of the cosmic dancer. He won local hearts with his rendering of a Tamil kriti in Shanmukhapriya, praising the lord of the five rivers.

The evening had some of the glitter of city kutcheries, with royalty and religious heads in attendance and an unparalleled performer on stage, but the music belonged to Panchanadeeswara, and the town over which he rules.

Music is just one part of the Festival of Sacred Music. Quite as important is its encouragement of rural tourism and the rediscovery of forgotten spaces. Opposite the town bus stand, an archway that people duck into when it's raining became this year's discovery. It opens into the 150-year-old, family-run C.N. Anna Chathram, an intimate and yet grand space, with gracious arches, pillars, and an open courtyard roofed with coconut thatch. A vast hall to the side ends in a tiny Nataraja shrine. Everywhere, the tremulous light of oil lamps and the mystifying smoke of sambrani primed us to enter another world.

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