The Festival of Sacred Music, in Tiruvaiyaru, is an excellent example of syncretic heritage conservation.
There’s a cool breeze wafting in that stirs the leaves and lifts our hair, bats flit past the makeshift stage, and starlight vies with the twinkling earthen lamps to ignite the evening. As Sufi singer Vidya Shah’s voice soars in a crescendo, the courtyard of the old Maratha palace resounds with music and a sense of exhilaration that is quite infectious. It is the first evening of the Festival of Sacred Music and we are sitting amid the ruins of Huzur Mahadi Palace on the banks of the Cauvery. Its crumbling pillars, arches and rooms have been transformed into a place of enchantment with lamps, marigolds and the graceful flourish of kolams.
The festival is in its sixth year, but it is my first visit and I must confess it is love at first sight. All around is an exquisite rightness of detail that comes as a delightful surprise. Music festivals can be just that — three or four days of excellent music — but there is so much more on offer here. It is not just a festival of sacred music, but a celebration of the sacred itself — in architecture, spaces, stories — and Prakriti Foundation’s Ranvir Shah manages to pull off this difficult feat with near-perfect orchestration and a highly tuned sense of the aesthetic. Take, for instance, the dovecote in the courtyard. It’s no mean task to light an earthen lamp in each of its dozens of alcoves, but one of Shah’s boys painstakingly climbs up each year to place them there to create a dramatic effect straight out of a Mughal period film.
Tiny detailing such as this is plentiful across the three days, with the mornings taken up by heritage visits and the evenings devoted to music. It is a fine balancing act that allows the festival to be a very immersive experience. The venue, of course, is half the battle won. Guests stay in Thanjavur, the epicentre of Chola genius, with its astonishing wealth of art and architecture radiating out into the hinterland. And Tiruvaiyaru, the Mecca of Carnatic music about 13 km away, is the setting for the evenings.
As venues go, it really doesn’t get any better. From ruined palace we move on Day 2 to the dry bed of the Cauvery. The stage is the ghat with an illuminated Pushya Mandapam as backdrop. There’s a brisk breeze blowing, we are fortified with filter coffee from the corner kadai, our feet burrows into soft, warm silt — many small pleasures that make the elaborate speeches, the awkwardly choreographed Cauvery ritual, and the ennui of the opening act happily acceptable. And then the magic when mridangam vidwan Umayalpuram Sivaraman finally gets to own the evening with a majesty that’s uniquely his. Day 3 finds us in the courtyard of the Panchanadeeswarar temple, with Shashank’s flute as perfect background score and the resident elephant listening in. Everywhere, the audience is not just visitors but large numbers of local inhabitants and students of music schools.
I wish students were included on the day trips too, when we visit the Thyagesha temple at Tiruvarur, the birthplace of Carnatic Music’s holy trinity; or the Brihadeeswarar temple in Thanjavur, attended by cultural raconteur V.R. Devika’s sensitive commentary. It’s the kind of nuanced cultural exposure that local students must get if they are to understand and participate in conservation. They need to see, for example, the fantastic restoration of the Chola-era tempera murals in the Tiruvarur temple, a project undertaken by Prakriti and Intach. We walk down a long, pillared hall whose ceilings are covered by the most exquisite representation of Chola king Muchukunda’s life. The vivid colours jump out from our large viewing mirrors, showing incredibly detailed depictions of dance girls in diaphanous costumes, graphic scenes of battle, of court and courtiers — a rich remnant of Chola life.
If music finds little space in my recounting, that too is apt, for the three days really transcended the music, excellent as it was. Vidya Shah with her wonderful, deep voice was glitteringly proficient but never crossed over into genius, unable as she is to let go; an abandonment without which Sufiana Kalaam cannot truly breathe. The closest she came was with the lovely Meera bhajan ‘More Shaam Bina’ and Rabia Al Basri’s ‘Bas Tu Hi’. Amar Sangam on the guitar is a find she should treasure.
The second evening’s music was too fragmented for the audience, in turn, to drown in the experience but Umayalpuram Sivaraman’s percussion was masterful, woven around the mystic numbers five and seven, and aided by some stunning performances on the ganjira and gottuvadhyam. On the final evening, Shashank’s pure genius was on display, well matched on the violin by the extremely talented Akkarai Subbulakshmi but somewhat blemished by an unmodulated mic that made his high notes jar. The low and meditative Sindhu Bhairavi lit up Shashank’s brilliance with an understated elegance that’s perhaps unequalled by his more flamboyant passages, which make for wonderful music but don’t achingly tug at the heartstrings as the flute is wont to do.
Yet, all three evenings were unmatched as experience and that is really where the festival’s success lies.
As India sits on the crossroads of the ancient and the modern, places such as Tiruvaiyaru die slowly, taking their rich history with them. It takes vision to set these streets to music and bring them back to life. Nothing is more moving than to see a thousand-year-old mural gleam again, or to see temples and river banks take back their erstwhile roles as performance spaces.