‘Akhandam’ in Sanskrit means Eternal Light. ‘Unbroken’ is another meaning. Singing the compositions of a particular composer non-stop, say for 12 hours or 24 hour, is called Akhanda Ganam, a practice that has a long tradition. This practice went a long way in propagating his songs, bringing to light many rare ones from the 700 available.
Although there isn’t any fixed paddhati for the conduct of an Akhanda Ganam, the unwritten rule is to avoid raga alapana, niraval and kalpana swara. The focus, therefore is on the lyric and bhava. And kritis are never repeated. A register with a kriti index is maintained to keep track of the songs — at least this was the practice until digital logging took over. It is common to find young musicians constantly checking their iPad screens to enter and update entries.
I was first exposed to akhandam in the 1970s thanks to my guru Veenai G.N. Dandapani Iyer. He was closely associated with Sadhguru Sangeetha Samajam that organised Akhanda Ganam at the Pursawalkam Perumal temple and at the Saint’s Samadhi during his Jayanthi. Veenai Govindan, Viswanathan and Narayana Iyer were the book keepers. Sri Thiagaraja Sangeetha Vidwath Samajam, founded in 1929, has been conducting the akhandam every year. Therezhundur Srinivasachariar organised akhandam to coincide with Hanumath Jayanthi at the Rama Anjaneya temple on GST Road near Tambaram sanatorium, Chennai. Violin vidwan Chittor Appanna Bhagavatar’s location was West Mambalam and he later shifted to K.K. Nagar, Chennai.
Akhanda Ganam begins with the chanting of Vedas on a Saturday morning, say around 7 a.m. A lamp is lit to indicate the commencement and it is kept lit till the singing is completed with Mangal Arati after the rendition of the Pancharatna kritis.
There was a time when both the audience and fellow musicians would eagerly await the turn of S. Rajam, who would churn out one rare kriti after another. T.K. Govinda Rao, who would ascend the stage with a huge entourage of disciples, would make it interesting with the gusty singing of Haridasulu. Kolkata K.S. Krishnamurthy had a breathtaking repertoire and was ably assisted by the Mayavaram sisters — Uma and Geetha. My moment would come after 3 a.m., when my guru would take the stage. We would play till 4.30, when Duraiswamy Iyengar’s resonant voice would take over.
P.S. Narayanswamy, Karaikudi R. Mani and a group of vidwans would travel to Tiruvaiyaru to conduct the akhandam for 24 hours ahead of Maha Sivaratri. Veterans V. Sethuramiah and R.K. Venkatrama Sastry were part of this group. PSN continues this practice with lot of young musicians joining.
Akhandams are happy times for mridangam vidwans. Poongulam Subramaniam, who grew up listening to Namasankirtanam feels that akhandam brings about camaraderie among performers. “It is great way to learn,” he says. Thrown into the ring, the mridangam players face the challenge of keeping pace with veterans. “Time is not a constraint and we can try new patterns,” he adds.
The akhandam culture, however, is on the wane these days. C.A. Rajashekar, son of Chittor Appanna Bhagavatar, is continuing the tradition and is upbeat about it. He has a bunch of volunteers, who keep track of the songs and also arrange for snacks. “Inspired by us, many organisations both within the State and outside are seeking our guidance in the conduct of the saint’s akhandam,” he says. “Normally 250-260 kritis are sung over the 24 hours. Going by the response of participants, we are planning to conduct akhandam twice a year.”
Those who have attended or participated in akhandam know its emotional value. For most, it is a divine experience. Involvement of donors would go a long way in keeping this tradition alive, for money is needed to meet basic expenses.