Niranjana is the only student in her batch at the fine arts department of Jaffna University who is currently training to play the violin.
“How do we oscillate the note ga in the ragam Mohanam without showing the ma ? Isn’t it wrong if the ma is heard?” — When the petite young woman stood up and raised the rather technical question to the artists at a workshop held at the packed Veerasingam Hall in Jaffna town, it took more than one artist’s response to convince her that such as oscillation would not amount to a grammatical error.
The artists were here for ‘Svanubhava’— an event that vocalist T.M. Krishna has been organising annually in a few cities across India with a team of young volunteers — which concluded here on Friday. Members of the audience were predominantly students and teachers from the Ramanathan Academy of Fine Arts, Jaffna University.
The girls had neatly pleated and pinned their saris, very much like their Kalakshetra counterparts in Chennai. “We were a bit clumsy during our first year but now with practice we can wear the sari well,” said Chidambaranathar Neethimathi, who learns vocal music.
This is the second year that Mr. Krishna has brought the event — put together with support from the Consulate General of India in Jaffna, officers of the Northern Province and the India Sri Lanka Foundation — to the northern province of Sri Lanka, which is soon headed for its first ever council elections after the ethnic strife ended in May 2009.
The event coincides with the month-long annual festival of the Nallur Kandaswamy Temple, which has drawn several thousand Tamils from neighbouring districts such as Kilinochchi and Mullaitivu. A significant diaspora population also descends every year, said locals.
‘Svanubhava’ is timed around that to capitalise on the crowd, and also because traditionally, art festivals were held around temple festivals. “There is a sense of community,” Mr. Krishna said.
Locally rechristened ‘Divine Ecstasy,’ the second Jaffna edition of the event, featured Bharatanatyam exponent Leela Samson, vocalist Sudha Ragunathan and Thavil exponent Haridwaramangalam A.K. Palanivel. They held workshops and performed for the Jaffna audience that has for long maintained intimate cultural ties with south India.
On the opening day, Leela Samson touched upon some broad ideas such as “why dance?” and the senior practitioner demonstrated how involvement and passion can bring life to a gesture or a dance sequence. She said that at times, the over-emphasis on technicality could prevent artists and students from reflecting on the emotional content of art. Prescribing a “judicious mix of intellect and bhakti,” she told students: “Art is not about flaunting your skills alone. It is about creating an intangible feeling between you [audience] and me [artist]. It is about establishing that connect.”
“Passion,” “proportion” and “practice” were some of the words you kept hearing often in all the workshops. On Thursday, Ms. Sudha Ragunathan’s morning session, where she instantly hit it off with her young audience, covered a gamut of themes — right from body language of musicians to artists opting for ‘semi-classical’ pieces in concerts to voice culture and preservation to employing brigas or fast phrases.
She got her colleagues B. Raghavendra Rao (violin), Patri Satish Kumar (mridangam), B.S. Purushotham (kanjira) and S. Karthik (ghatam) to pitch in with facts about their respective instruments, their main characteristics and techniques in playing them.
“My guru MLV has performed in Colombo and Jaffna several times and has told me how people here love music. Today I can see what she meant,” Ms. Sudha Ragunathan said, wrapping up her session. At her evening concert held at a park in Sangiliyan Thoppu, where the seats got filled well ahead of the show, many were seen standing and listening to her performance all through the concert that went on for over two hours.
The nearly three decade long-war virtually tore the Northern Province apart and its cultural links to the outside world were cut. Mr. Palanivel remembers a time when he frequently visited Jaffna to hold classes. “I would come here regularly, as I have many students here. They have immense love for our music,” he said, even as students in huddled around him for what seemed like rewind chats. This was soon after his performance, in which he demonstrated how a simple rhythmic cycle of 5 or 8 beats could be packed with numerous patterns that are at times majestic, and at times subtle. The applause that followed matched the fireworks he produced with his Thavil.
Coming back here is special, said Mr. Palanivel. “It is different in many ways.”
Four years after the war ended, people are now gradually trying to piece their lives together, battling post-war challenges such as loss of family members, livelihoods, land and in some cases, hope. There is visible change — the ongoing infrastructure development work tends to be impressive, particularly to an occasional visitor.
Though the infrastructure overhaul is unmistakable in many parts of Jaffna, long-time residents have a different perspective to the development work. “New roads alone can’t restore normalcy,” said a student who did not wish to be named. “Once you go to the interiors, you will realise that the story is not the same everywhere,” she said. Normal life, she said, had taken a severe beating over the years.
Pursuing the arts in Jaffna, for instance, is not easy even today. “You don’t get opportunities to listen to senior artistes very often. You don’t get all that many opportunities to perform. Even if you get a chance, not many come and listen. I think it is the context that makes it difficult,” said Chidambaranadar Neethimathi, who is currently in the final year of her bachelor’s degree in arts. "I want to do my masters in India, that is my dream" she said, smiling brightly.
In such circumstances, an opportunity to interact with senior artistes -- whom they have mostly seen only on album covers until now -- could mean a lot to students like her. “We dream of performing like them some day. I want to train myself well and then teach children here,” said Neethimathi.
A dream like hers, for T.M. Krishna, is incentive enough to bring another set of musicians next year. “Jaffna has a very rich tradition in the arts. We are not claiming to bring the arts to Jaffna, but we are here only to motivate students to take up arts more seriously. It is a process of sharing through discussion and dialogue,” he said.
In his brief performance on the final day of the three-day event, Krishna sang flashes of one ragam after another and prompted the audience to identify the ragam just as he was singing. Voices from the audience popped up spontaneously - “Bilahari”, “Bhairavi” “Saama” “Vasantha” “Kannada” “Salaka Bhairavi” they said excitedly, as if they had identified dear friends.
An equally excited Krishna said: “You all are amazingly quick. Better than our Chennai audience.”