Carnatic artiste Madhuvanthi Badri is not the only person singing at Kapaleeshwarar Temple. She pauses for a drummer, circling the temple. As she takes a breath, preparing to launch into the next verse, a devotee begins to sing. She pauses again, and listens instead.
Mylapore on a Sunday margazhi morning is alive with an alluring pastiche of music.
Madhuvanthi, along with Rajith Nair of The Traveling Gecko, is leading an unusual musical walking tour that begins at the temple and weaves through Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, to give participants an insight into the city’s action-packed December concerts and sabha traditions.
Rajith says that the tour was initially tailored to be a travel experience for tourists, to introduce them to an aspect of Chennai’s music and dance heritage. He then realised that it was also a subject that would interest locals, and structured this walk.
Madhuvanthi’s talk, delivered between bursts of song, is carefully-researched and packed with information. It’s academic, but compelling thanks to the bustling setting. Halfway through, an elderly gentleman meanders in, drawn by Madhuvanthi singing a lullaby in the shade of a stone pillar. He lingers, enthusiastically nodding and peppering the talk with comments and questions. Till — curiosity sated — he wanders away.
Madhuvanthi says the balance between prescribed compositions and improvisation is what she enjoys most about Carnatic music. She adds “the bhakti aspect is equally appealing. There is something that connects me with the divine each time I sing compositions of our Vaggeyakaras.”
A priest begins to sing, joined by the temple-goers around him. “When you go deeper South, you will see this in every temple,” she says. “You are encouraged to sing as you pray.” She adds, looking around, “You can hear these songs all over Mylapore.”
The singer leads the group towards Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, where a concert is on, music spilling out festively every time the auditorium door opens.
As the audience filters in, Madhuvanthi explains how Sri Parthasarathy Swami Sabha was established in 1900, making it the city’s first sabha. “It was founded in Triplicane. In the beginning they had just 15 members who would meet on a terrace on TP Koil street. The Music Academy came next, in December 1927.
The tour ends with tumblers of steamy filter coffee at Mylai Karpagambal mess. As participants chat, Madhuvanthi explains how music is intrinsic to her life. She tells the story of a very sick king who was famously cured by the ‘Mandiramavadhu Neeru padhigam.’ Then adds, “When my son was born, he was in the ICU for a week. And every day, I went in and sang the same padhigam to him, as well as to the other babies there. I truly believe that is what helped him recover.”
Madhuvanthi has a lecture demonstration with musicologist Rama Kausalya on December 23, at 12 pm in Kalakshetra next.
The Traveling Gecko hosts a Srinivasa Ramanujan tour on December 22, his birth anniversary. More details on Facebook (TheTravelingGecko) and Instagram (the.traveling.gecko).