Until four decades ago, Mysore revolved round the palace and the raja and watched with fascination the display of royal splendour for nine days during Dasara, the ‘navaratri'. But the magnificence of royalty could not mask the simple and joyous celebration of the common people for whom ‘navaratri' was essentially a festival of lights that would illumine each and every home. Ramanavami was another festival, even as it strongly fore-grounded Lord Rama, truly reflected the genuine bhakti of the common people who saw in the figurehead virtues and ideals that every human being had to practise. Lord Rama resided in every human heart and to celebrate his virtues one did not have to locate him physically at Ayodhya. A bow wielding Rama, crushing the enemy did not have to figure even in the imagination. Ramanavami was a delightful, simple affair filled with the piety of common people. A small city like Mysore did not convert Rama into a major cult figure built on a violent religious consciousness. In the public realm, the most outstanding feature of Ramanavami was the music festival that became an invaluable part of the celebrations. Ramamandirams, big and small, organised music concerts featuring novices, middle level performers and, of course, the great and big names of Carnatic music. Looking back, one recollects how great composers, performers and music teachers came together to organise the music festival at the Bidaram Krishnappa Mandira (also known as Prasanna Seetarama Mandira), which housed a music school and imparted rigorous training to young learners. It was here that the legendary Mysore T. Chowdaiah was groomed. Eminent scholars, practising musicians, musicologists and aestheticians assembled at the mandiram; a sharply critical audience was the spirit that marked the concerts at the Bidaram Krishnappa Mandiram. Stalwarts of Carnatic music were aware that the concert had to be pitched higher and the biggest names openly acknowledged this. The fact that young musicians were brought face to face with very distinguished and senior vidwans in these concerts was astonishing. Ariyakudi Ramanuja Iyengar, GNB, Madurai Mani Iyer, Alathoor Brothers, Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer, Palghat Mani Iyer, T. Chowdaiah, M.L. Vasanthakumari, D.K. Pattamal, and Palani Subramania Pillai performed with youngsters like T.R. Mahalingam, Palghat Raghu, Lalgudi Jayaraman, who, of course, later on became the leading figures of Carnatic music. The general audience was essentially a middle class one and a romantic picture of how each member of the audience was scholarly in orientation cannot be painted at all. They were very evolved in their sensibilities and grasped the finer nuances of great music registering the presence of a living, oral tradition. All these marked the efforts of the great vaggeyakaras, teachers and performers of Mysorelike Mysore Vasudevachar, Bidaram Krishnappa, Veene Seshanna, Venkatagiriyappa and many others.
The remarkable fact that music was – literally and metaphorically – resonating in the streets of Mysore needs to be recorded with great emphasis. At D. Banumaiah's Chowka, Chamundipuram Circle, and, at the Aralikatte Rama Mandira (a small temple situated at the intersection of Devaparthiva Road and Manuvana Park Road), the reigning masters of Carnatic music came to perform. The roads were blocked, the pandal was full and people sat through concerts that lasted for long. It is very essential to underline the fact that Mandi Sahukars, petty shopkeepers financed these festivals expecting nothing in return. Never did one see really talented youngsters pathetically begging the organisers for a “chance” to perform. There was in fact no exercise of power – either by sponsoring agencies or by organising committees – over the artistes. On the contrary, main artistes would determine the choice of accompanists and promote them without prejudice.
It was such an attitude that brought fame to Mysore Chowdaiah, Veena Doreswamy Iyengar, Mysore Nagaraj and Mysore Manjunath (young kids trailing behind their father Vidwan Mahadevappa during the mid seventies) at Madras and brought many bright youngsters to Mysore. Recommendations by senior artistes were honoured and carried out without any delay or rancour.
The Aralikatte Ramanavami music festival stood out for the total dedication of the youngsters who organised it. One of the most important organisers, Lakshminarayan alias Babu, who continues to be an active part of these festivals in Mysore, struggled hard to put the festival together with the help of his friends. The greatest tribute to the Ramanavami festival at Mysore comes through an acknowledgement of the simple truth that people formed communities transcending caste and class distinctions and went beyond hierarchical structures created by scholars who believed they were the custodians of the fine arts. Notwithstanding all these claims, one should realise that no theory of music can explain why many youngsters with no formal knowledge of music were forcefully drawn to the intensity of playing of Palghat Mani Iyer and Palghat Raghu and the deeply rich bass voice of M.D. Ramanathan. After an exposure to them they would not listen to others of lesser stature. There are two images – among many others – that capture the essential spirit of the communities of Mysore of those decades. How is it possible to forget the sight of the reputed Nadaswaram player, Sheikh Chinnamoulana Saheb, a pious Muslim, remove his angavastram, tie it round his waist, go round and round the mandapam, receive the holy water and the mangalarathi from the Hindu priest who offered them to the artiste invoking the blessings of the Lord aloud. The entire audience stood up and participated in the ritual, unmindful of distinctions between Islam and Hinduism and Allah and Rama. One cannot forget how Madurai Somasundaram, who, while in full flow, would all of a sudden burst out crying “Andava, Daiva, Gurunatha” before the audience. As a youngster I was stunned by the reply he gave my father who asked him why he did so. With the raging violent polemics unleashed by the DMK, guided by Periyar Ramaswami Naicker, all over Tamil Nadu, Madurai Somu, certainly not from the upper caste, remarked he could not erase from his mind all those scenes of the Hindu gods paraded in the streets, beaten and garlanded with chappals. Somu said that his profound religiosity, even as one who could have ideologically sympathised with the DMK, was deeply wounded, for it went beyond his personal caste location. These were great learning experiences for many youngsters like me. A Ramanavami music festival was an immense experience created in a small city that was never a centre of power as Madras was. The enormous clout that the Sabhas and the corporates wield today is an altogether different story. When the world of art and culture is invaded by the rich and the powerful lords of a globalised world, the imagination of simple, innocent communities disappears, as do the metaphors and symbols of harmony and conviviality they engender. No account of the Ramanavami festival of Mysore of the past can overlook this sad story.