Memories unfold like a mélange of mellifluous notes. Somewhere in the backdrop is the sound of the Cauvery, a gurgling brook, whispering of a heritage that is lost in history, only to be revived again. A little girl lies on her mother’s lap, imbibing the lilting musical tones of the Trinity of Carnatic music — Tyagaraja, Muthuswami Dikshitar and Syama Sastry — all of whom composed many of their wonderful songs on the banks of the Cauvery.
The Cauvery was always a part of my summer vacations. The backyard of my grandmother’s house led straight onto the river. Long before I even imagined a career in music, my mother gave me my earliest memories, where the Cauvery, music and knowledge dovetailed into one. We went on a road trip along the banks of the river.
Since my father was an officer with the Railways, such journeys were a norm. Bhaskara Thondaimaan, a temple travelogue writer of those days, authored a series of seven books, titled Thiruvengadam Mudhal Kumari Varai , in which he documented every temple along the route. My mother packed my brother and myself into an old Ambassador and got in too with that book as the guide. As we travelled along, she narrated the stories and taught us the kritis associated with each temple. We would sing them at the shrines later. I vividly remember singing ‘Vazhi Maraithirukkudhe’ and ‘Satre Vilagi Irum Pillai’ by Gopalakrishna Bharati at the Tiruppungur Siva Temple.
This musical outing was preceded by the combined imprint of the Cauvery and the musical heritage its banks nurtured. My great grandfather on my mother’s side, Ramarathnam Iyer, took sanyasa when he turned sixty. Willing off his property to his children, he set aside a small amount with which he built a bhajana madam. This thriving cradle for musical exchanges became the centre of the annual Sita Kalyanam and Radha Kalyanam. Upon his death, he was buried beside the river. Till date, on every visit there, I sing at his Samadhi first. With time, I learned that almost every village in the Cauvery belt in Tamil Nadu had a bhajana madam with an almost similar story.
Thriving hub of culture
The roots of what we today know as kutcheri music lie in this thriving hub of culture. The bhajana madam was a beautiful, inclusive and non-judgmental place. You were not flogged because you made a mistake in your Sahaana by taking a wrong note. Instead, your art was welcomed and respected — and every artiste was welcome to sing freely, as much as they could learn from and listen to others around them. The region was a melting pot of influences — compositions of the Carnatic Trinity, the Tamizh Moovar of Muthuthandavar, Marimuthapillai and Arunachala Kavirayar, the dynastic influences of the Cholas, the Nayaks, the Vijayanagaram Empire or even the Maharashtrian influences.
Personally, the Cauvery is a delightful blend of two unique worlds — one represented by Tiruchi and the other by Tiruvarur. My mother, a disciple of Alathur Venkatesa Iyer, hailed from Tiruchi. Marriage took her to Bombay. Work took my father from Tiruvarur to Bombay. The venn diagrams of my parents’ lives was music. Even as these definitive influences moulded me, my guru, Brindamma, acted as the catalyst. T. Brinda, as she was known in official circles, was from Thanjavur, as the initial ‘T’ attests. Her lineage goes back to her grandmother, Dhanammal, and great great grandmother Pappammal, who was a court musician in Thanjavur. These women had a deep-rooted bond with the Thanjavur Court which continued till Brindamma’s great grandmother Kamakshi moved to Madras in the late 1800s.
From the recesses of my memory, emerge the image of Mayavaram and the temple of Dhundi Ganesa. The lilting strains of Muthuswami Dikshitar’s ‘Karikalabhamukham Dundi Ganesam Bhajare Re Chitta’ in Saveri, echo in my ears. It is amazing how this little temple on the banks of the Cauvery inspired a song of such grandeur, which in turn has remained an enduring tribute. Srirangam, the fount of all good things in my life, dances to the rhapsodic tunes of Dikshitar’s ‘Ranga Pura Vihara’ and Tyagaraja’s ‘O Ranga Sayee’ in my aural imagery.
The reverie is endless because the Cauvery is much more than a river for me. She stands for all that is music, the embodiment of an art I worship.