At the Festival of Sacred Music in Thiruvaiyaru, Sadanand Menon encounters “sacred” music that goes beyond religion and religiosity.

From the air, the Cauvery delta looks like an immense web of scores of dry, parched river-beds — a grim reminder of the waterless future awaiting us.

But as you land in Tiruchi and drive the 60-odd km to Thanjavur, there is palpable excitement over the immediate prospect of the Cauvery filling up again, as people celebrate the Supreme Court order to Karnataka to forthwith release the dammed up water from their side. When it does happen, perhaps within a week and the waters flow in, it will be like watching a deeply wrinkled face slowly and magically fill up and bloom again.

Of course, not to miss the political mileage on offer, the ruling AIADMK party in the State has translated this into its own personal victory — in fact, a victory of their supremo J. Jayalalitha, who is now being hailed in thousands of posters and banners across the district as “Kaviri Thaay” (Mother Cauvery) or just “Kaviriye!” (O, Cauvery!). The Cauvery Delta Farmers’ Welfare Association even organised on March 9, a huge function in Thanjavur to felicitate the Chief Minister for her contribution in getting the final award of the Cauvery River Water Disputes Tribunal gazetted. The farmers’ association leaders are addressing her as “Ponniyin Selvi” (Daughter of Cauvery) and are comparing her to King Raja Raja Chola’s legendary sister Kundavai Nachiyar.

All these are developments that could easily have stolen the thunder from the fifth edition of Prakriti Foundation’s three-day “Festival of Sacred Music” from March 1 to 3 in Thiruvaiyaru, the temple town 13 km from Thanjavur, otherwise famous for the Samadhi of saint-composer Thyagaraja, who lived in a one-room house near the Shiva temple here and composed some of the greatest of his over 7,000 compositions. Every January, Thyagaraja’s samadhi on the banks of the Cauvery is the site of one of the most extraordinary music festivals in the country, drawing thousands of the musically inclined, including a stunning line-up of front-ranking Carnatic musicians, to come and join the chorus singing his immortal “Pancharatna” kritis.

But the Chennai-based Prakriti Foundation, set up 15 years ago by the mercurial businessman-turned-arts impresario Ranvir Shah, managed to pull together not only three high-voltage evenings with top-of-the-line musicians, but showed admirable organisational skills and stamina in coordinating with the local bureaucracy, the temple administrators and schools and colleges to clean up riverfront venues, creatively use temple courtyards and ensure the participation of sizeable audiences. Ample support came from the Maribu Foundation headed by musicologist Dr. Rama Kausalya, as well as from the convenor of the Thanjavur chapter of the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH), Babajirao Bhosle, senior prince of the erstwhile Maratha rulers of the region.

A thoughtful and timely addition to the three evenings of music was a special “Ganga aarati” conducted the second evening on the banks of the Cauvery at Pushya Mahal Ghat, when Ranvir Pandey, Vivek Pandey and Ramesh Shastri conducted the same ritual they perform every evening on the banks of the Ganga in Varanasi, for the good health of the river. It was particularly poignant when, at the conclusion of the hour-long ceremony, they poured three pots of Ganga-water into the dry bed of the Cauvery, presaging a good omen for a full-flowing Cauvery. While, at one level, it could be dismissed as a sentimental gesture, the symbolic value was huge in the current context of the Cauvery waters imbroglio. What an ineffectual and arid political system had complicated and sealed, bringing people of two States close to bloodshed, an imaginative and auspicious act could unlock through hope and evocation and help mitigate the bitterness. Of course, one will need more than symbolism and ritual to solve our river-waters crisis; but we will also need symbolism and ritual to return to us notions of respect and a sense of sacredness and reverence towards nature in these cynical times.     

It is, perhaps, appropriate to reflect here then on the nature of the “sacred” that a “Festival of Sacred Music” signifies. Around the world, such festivals are perhaps of about 20 years vintage. The oldest and best known of these is the annual, week-long “World Festival of Sacred Music” at Fez, Morocco, which began in 1994. It attracts musicians and connoisseurs from around the world. Then there is the “World Festival of Sacred Music”, initiated in 1999 by the Dalai Lama at Los Angeles. It is now a once-in-three-years event, with 40 events at 40 venues, spread across 16 days. There are a handful of other well-known ones too. All these have the stated purpose of harnessing arts and spirituality to promote human and social development.

The “sacred”, however, can be an elusive concept. It can be a slippery slope that merely proselytises, in which case it could stand opposed to other sacra forms. Much care will have to be taken that it does not get mixed up with religion and religiosity. The concept of the “sacred” will need to be premised on larger principles of a search for a core of feeling and understanding that can bond people across differences and diversities. Ultimately, it is the quality of the music that will speak across divides to discover common wave-lengths.

The opening day’s sitar concert by Pandit Shivnath Mishra and his son Deobrat Mishra of the Benares gharana, accompanied by Prashant Mishra on the tabla, at the very exotic open-air setting amid the ruins of the Diwan Wada Palace, formerly the residence of a Maratha king, overlooking the Cauvery with an intact kabootar-khana (structure with pigeon-holes), set the tone for the succeeding evenings. Victor Paulraj’s tasteful light effects, particularly the diyas in the niches of the kabootar-khana, transformed the venue. The sensitive areas of darkness blended with plaintive tones of the thumri in Raag Pilu (Ab ke balam ghar aaye). After a leisurely Purvi and an uncluttered Khamaj, by the time they concluded with a Bhairavi-Todi in 12 notes, the cool breeze blowing from the dry riverbed was inducing a trance. The large Tamil audience was generous in its reception, giving a good indication of their musical provenance.

The second evening exploded into fireworks with “Vikku” Vinayakram leading his ensemble of ghatam, ganjira, morsing and vocal in a “Saptaakshara” concert, which saw his son Mahesh Vinayakram and grandson S. Swaminathan engaging in some musical pyrotechnics as they negotiated “Aditya Hridayam”, even as “Vikku” made a child’s play out of five ghatams in different shrutis. His female student on the ghatam, Sukanya Rajagopal, received full-throated response from the huge audience on the riverbed even as the ensemble lent a new meaning to being awash in laya at the Pushya Mahal Ghat.

The concluding evening under the sky, at the open intersect between the Panchanadheeswara Temple and the Dharmasamvardhini Temple in Thiruvaiyaru, belonged to the exquisite and magisterial Sanjay Subramaniam. Here is a musician who knows his “material” and performs with a control and power that reminds you of many maestros of earlier decades. Inspired, no doubt, by the setting and the flattering turn out, he pulled out a Kambodhi of such depth and vivid elaboration that, for once, one came face-to-face with that sacred, transformative moment which is given to music to induce in the listener. Here was music that transcended the particularities of a genre and its sahitya to attain core humanity.

The attempt to explore identity through heritage, history, art and cultural expression that this festival of sacred music aspires for, is noble. Yet sometimes the real world impinges on such pretensions. An important element of this year’s performances on the opening day was to be the Pakistani qawal brothers Najmuddin and Saifuddin. However, the profane world caught up with the musicians in the form of a non-sacred document called a visa. The two musicians were issued visas only for Chennai and not for Tamil Nadu and were, therefore, not given permission to travel to Thiruvaiyaru. In ideal circumstances, the duo should have sung and melted the hearts of the heartless bureaucracy that blocks artistic traffic. But, in this case, they just had to go back.

Thiruvaiyaru means “the holy place of five rivers”.

The five, as described in old literature are, Arisilaaru, Vennaaru, Vettaaru, Kudamuruttiyaaru and Kaveriaaru. Just like it needs these five rivers to flow there to revive the fallow land, we too need the musical cultures of many lands and sources to recover the wetness in our dry lives. This Festival of Sacred Music might precisely achieve that in subsequent years.