Mother Cauvery’s Trail – Sacred Music Festival Day 2

to read about day 1 of the festival and our trip, click here

Elections rule our lands

Elections rule our lands

To the strains of a poignant MuteMath we traversed through green lush by means of a dented state highway that connects Thanjavur to Kumbakonam. Our destination was Darasuram, a small village in the Thanjavur district a few kilometers before Kumbakonam. Here we visited the Shiva temple (local name – Airavatesvara, which is another name for Shiva). Built in the 12th century by one of the Chola Kings – Rajaraja Chola the second, the temple is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Carved pillars at the temple pavilion.

Carved pillars at the temple pavilion.

This was a real gem in terms of art and architecture as it had some of the most exquisite and well preserved stone carvings we’d ever seen. One of them being the horse-drawn chariot in the main mandapa, which has been carved to some truly amazing detail.

Darasuram cieling

One of the carved and painted ceilings.

We bewilderingly walked through the different parts of the temple, every inch of which was carved with ancient stories about Hindu mythology and/or life in the times of the Chola dynasty. The expansive scale and extravagant architectural style of these temples show that these ostentatious rulers truly wanted to leave their mark in history.

An example of carvings at the temple

An example of carvings at the temple

Amongst the members of our entourage was VR Devika, who had mentioned that she would be talking about some of the carved depictions at this temple so we followed her around with the hope of gathering some such info. She turned out to be a storehouse of knowledge of all things South Indian and the seemingly still and nondescript carvings of Lord Siva came alive with the vibrant details of her parables. Here’s one where she comes upon an important carving (in granite) of Shiva as Lingodbhava (shown below):

Lingodhbhava

Lingodhbhava

There were many more interesting and magical stories plucked out of Hindu mythology and amidst all the enlightenment, the concept of ‘ganaas’ stood out as a short and sweet anecdote.’Ganaas’ are the little creatures who were part of Shivas clan and are always spotted in depictions relating to Shiva and we saw several of them at the Airavatesvara temple. We asked Devika who or what they were to which she casually answered, with a smile :

“ganaas are the unexplained phenomenon.
Like a sudden cool breeze on a hot day.”

Ganaas

Ganaas

We spilt from the rest of the group (who were lured by some silk weavers in the temple complex) to head back to Thanjavur to get a good meal and some rest before the evening’s performances began. Sri Sivas Hotel near the Thanjavur state bus stand served us a nice and satisfying South Indian meal on a plantain leaf that was complete with butter milk (‘more‘) and vathal kozhumbu (A:7 M:5.5)

Come evening, we were back on the road to Thiruvaiyaru and the music. The evening’s program was an interesting mix and was being held at a new venue. We didn’t know what to expect until we were crossing the bridge over the Cauvery and saw it in the distance. It was now that we realized that beautiful venues were going to be the signature of this festival.

The river Cauvery is one of the lifelines of Tamil Nadu as far as the water supply is concerned. Between the lack of rains in the last monsoon and the water dispute with Karnataka, the river has been rendered dry and lifeless at Thiruvaiyaru. It was at one of the ghats here where the stage was setup for the evening’s concert. We entered the doors of the Pushya Mahal, which had been set up and tastefully lit in true festival spirit. The stage and the mahal behind it looked brilliant in hues of pink and blue from the crowd perspective (which was in the river bed), but what looked even more stunning were the heritage buildings, which were an ancient housing complex for the Queen’s ‘ladies in waiting‘, converted into a girls’ hostel which had been intelligently lit up to add a really special extension to the main stage. It felt great to stand within this awesome setting in the river bed while we watched the sun go out. Some bhajans were being rendered by the little girls who won the local bhajan competition held by the Prakriti Foundation the previous day.

View of the stage from the bed of the Cauvery - venue for Day 2.

View of the stage from the bed of the Cauvery – venue for Day 2.

The bhajans were followed by a Ganga Aarti program by three young Pandits who had been brought down from Varanasi to perform the aarti as a prayer for a fully fledged monsoon and a flowing Cauvery in the coming year. This ritual was unfortunately set to a recording of some chants and devotional songs rather than live music, which was a real dampener considering the nature of the setting and the feelings that it evoked inside us.

Fortunately, the best act was kept for the last. A capacity crowd (600 odd) gathered to watch one of the musical ambassadors of India close the show with his group ‘Saptaakshara.’ For those who do not know of him, Vikku Vinayakram is not just a leading percussionist. He is a ghatam exponent who has brought the instrument into the limelight and given it a voice over the past few decades.

Vikku Vinaykram with Sukanya Ramgopal.

Vikku Vinaykram with Sukanya Ramgopal.

However, with this group he showed how artistes should never let their accolades take over their art by stitching together a beautiful ensemble of instruments that genuinely defined the school of Carnatic percussion through a set of pleasing melodic arrangements. The group featured Vikku Vinayakram [ghatam(s)] and his team of son Mahesh (carnatic vocal), student Sukanya Ramgopal (ghatam) ,grandson V Swaminathan (khanjira) and A.Ganesan (morsing). The set consisted of songs that employed the use of konokol (the format of speaking out the beats of a rhythmic pattern) to craft melodies and progressions embellished with some tasteful vocal improvisation. The percussion ensemble sailed through 90 minutes+ led by the flawless performance of the leader Vikku Vinayakram who took his immensely talented group through some really intricate and interesting changes that thoroughly enthralled the audience. Amidst the unique features of the group was the multiple ghatam setup of different tunings by Vikku Vinayakram that added a really sweet harmonic element to the song arrangements. Listen to a song from their performance that opens with the vedic chant – totakashtakam, which is a poem of 8 stanzas by Totakacharya in praise of his Guru Shri Adi Shankaracharya.

After the disappointing music showcase on day 1, this day ended on a great note with this refreshing performance and just when we were ready to go back, our gracious host Ranvir Shah (founder of the Prakriti Foundation) invited us to a post concert tete-a-tete that he had organized at the palace, where we caught up with our fellow festival cohorts and unwound with some good relaxed conversations about the lives that we hail from.
Not to forget the food that was an important aspect of this trip for us. Yet again, it didn’t fail to stir the innards of our souls with its mightily appealing simplicity. Be it the paniyarams served this night or the elay sapada (banana leaf meal) we were to be served the following day (read our next entry for details) the bliss experienced following every meal was consistent on this maiden voyage together.

Breakfast couldn’t come any sooner!

And off we go to Thanjavur – Sacred Music Festival Day 1

for those of you who have reached directly here, read our previous post to know where we’re headed and how.

After being delayed an hour by rush hour traffic on the way out of Bangalore City, we were cruising through the amazing NH7 after an average breakfast and coffee at a Kamat restaurant a little distance outside Hosur. The signature paddy fields of the south had started to appear and the silhouettes of the hills in the background added a beautiful flavor to the normally plain horizon.

As advised we took the road recommended via Karur. We got a bit lost on the way and ended up missing our turn off to Karur/Namakkal but realized our mistake in good time and spent just an extra 30 minutes to rejoin our original path.(It’s a bit of an all roads lead to Madurai/Kanyakumari kinda situation so it’s better to be closely locked on your map). After resuming our originally planned route, we ran smoothly past the very picturesque Karur, which was dotted with these cute small households amidst greenery and a massive cement plant at the helm of the town. It assumed a sense of peace in us. Post Karur the road ran a bit narrow and unruly till we finally entered Thiruchirapalli or Trichy, the home of the great Ranganathaswamy temple, which has the highest gopuram in the world. We stopped for lunch at the Batcha Biriyani Center as it was the only place serving food at that hour(it was 3:30 pm ). The meal was a bit cold but we still lapped it up as we were starving and this was our first meal in TN (A:6 M:4). With food in our stomachs, we cruised straight to Thanjavur after crossing the Kaveri twice (in an attempt to take the shortest route out of Trichy) and being given a super vivid and dramatic ‘Kathakali like‘ directional performance of our route by a roadside vendor. A south indian speciality indeed!

Abi’s Inn is one of the first ‘luxury’ hotels in Thanjavur and is a neat, clean and simple accommodation that suited our needs perfectly because we were going to be out and about attending the festival and exploring the region and its many sights. All rooms are equipped with the basic necessities such as air conditioners, a television set, western style toilets as well as solar powered hot water! The restaurant serves a splendid breakfast, the room service is decent, and to top it all it is quite reasonably priced (A:8.5 M:8). We did not have much time to rest as the first concert of the festival was to begin at 6pm in Thiruvaiyaru, which was only a distance of under 20 kilometers from Thanjavur. However, since we had no idea of the condition of the roads or the distance/direction, we got ready as fast as we could and headed out towards the venue. After several directions and re-directions we made it past the sunset to the first concert of the festival which was already more than half an hour in.

While being directed to the venue we were told to look out for the ‘pura koondu’ – literally translated as pigeon’s hole. This was a tall tower built as a rest place for weary birds. Immediately after crossing the Cauvery river bed into Thiruvaiyaru via a bridge we spotted this tower. Parking was sparse, but we managed it and entered the beautifully ruined Diwan Wada Palace. The entrance way was lit up quaintly with a number of  ‘velakkas’(oil lamps) and flowers. The stage was set up in the inner courtyard amidst some ancient corridors that were intricately highlighted by some great lighting. The centerpiece of the eye catching backdrop included a behemoth of a banyan tree and another lit up ‘pura koondu’  identical to the one at the entrance of the palace. The setting was very magical in every aspect except one – the music. The renditions on sitar by Deobrath and Shivnath Mishra(Thanjavur was being subjected to their first sitar concert ever!) were flaccid and devoid of any true feel or expression and hence any identity. However, the redeeming feature of the flat performance was the tabla accompaniment by Prashant Mishra.

The Mishras with the Poora Koondu as the backdrop

The Mishras with the Poora Koondu as the backdrop

We left the venue a bit bummed and drove back to Thanjavur. Here we joined an exciting group of our host Ranvir Shah’s invitees and friends for dinner. Some of us introduced ourselves to some others and a few others were aided in enthralling introductions by Ranvir himself. It came to our knowledge that we were in truly interesting company whose common unadulterated quest was to discover the art, architecture and culture of South India. While the itineraries of the following two days were plotted our minds were rejuvenated.

As we lay our heads down that night, we subconsciously prepared ourselves to open our minds to new ideologies, discoveries and the possibilities of enlightenment in the two days that were before us.

The Pura kundu brilliantly lit up in profile.

The Pura koondu brilliantly lit up in profile.

Spell #1: Sacred Music Festival, Thiruvaiyaru, Tamil Nadu, India

Image

Ingredients:
1. Map
2. Enthusiasm
3. A great playlist
Add (at your will):
4. Scenic explorations

We’re getting ready for our first spell – a trip to Thiruvaiyaru to check out the Sacred Music Festival organized by the Prakriti Foundation. This is not to be confused with the Thyagaraja Music Festival, which is held in January every year.

This is going to be a momentous trip for two reasons. Firstly, because we are both deeply steeped in music our visit to Thiruvarur, which is the birthplace of Thyagaraja is probably going to purport the greater cause of our lives. Secondly, driving through the paddy fields of Tamil Nadu was a regular feature of my childhood that I am excited to revisit after what seems like eons.

Not to mention we will of course be sussing out anything eye/ear/mind catching along the way.

Hard Facts:
This will be a 3-day festival from March 1st – 3rd, featuring the following:

> A special sitar duet Concert by Pandit Shivnath Mishra and
Deobrat Mishra (father and son) who were born into a
renowned family belonging to the Benares Gharana,
spanning seven generations.
> Sufi Concert by Qawwal Najmuddin Saifuddin & Brothers
(of Pakistan), who are the ambassadors of Sufism
> Saptaakshara concert by percussionist Vikku Vinayakram
> Vocal Concert by Sanjay Subramaniam

Each concert will take place in 3 stunning venues. But, more on that later.

Since we are going to be driving from Bangalore we did a little research on the best route to take. The parents made a trip recently and advised us against taking the State Highway post Namakkal. So we will be taking a diversion from Namakkal via Karur to then rejoin the highway at some point.

We’re looking forward to sharing this and many more experiential journeys that we have our eyes on. Here’s hoping that we can dive in and soak in the true spirit of what lies ahead!