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An artist's impression of Thyagaraja

Feature

Clueless in Tiruvaiyaru

This year's Thyagaraja aradhana disturbs with its cacophony, confusion, politics and commerce, not to speak of Kunnakudi Vaidyanathan's mysterious amnesia. A special report from AMBUJAM ANANTHARAMAN

Thyagaraja Aradhana
Tiruvaiyaru
14 January 2001

Thyagaraja aradhana, the annual homage at Tiruvaiyaru, marks the day the saint poet attained samadhi on 'bahula panchami' day in 1847. Tiruvaiyaru is a town 10 km from Thanjavur, famous for its painting style and veenas.

Cacophonous singing, highhandedness of the politically well-connected Sri Thyaga Brahma Mahotsava Sabha, rumours that artistes have to pay to get a slot, the rasikas' tangible anxiety over making it to the pandal -- all these combine to make the aradhana a disturbing experience.

With artistes willing to speak about their problems only off the record, what you read here is the account of a mediaperson who tried to get a glimpse into what is wrong at Tiruvaiyaru.

The glittering inaugural function, a coup as it were since it brought together leaders of the Tamil Manila Congress and a Bharatiya Janata Party minister, is over by the time I speak to the Mahotsava Sabha's secretary, Kunnakudi Vaidyanathan.

The beginning is not auspicious. When I identify myself and make the request for some organisational details and a pass, the first thing the violinist says is, "Nobody can write anything about the Tiruvaiyaru aradhana except what the sabha says. No artiste can talk about it".

When I leave that tack and ask for the pass, he says he will arrange one when I reach Tiruvaiyaru.

I rest content, only to be completely befuddled when he develops total amnesia when I reach Thanjavur and ask for the promised pass. He cannot recall having spoken to me. Those working with him say that no pass is being given to any mediaperson (does Doordarshan belong to some alien species then?). I am unable to get hold of a press pass.

I manage to get a VIP pass through other contacts and am thrilled to find myself in the press enclosure, where, let me assure you, there are some journalists besides the busy bees of the country's national TV channel. It is Makara Sankranthi day too, and greetings are exchanged all around.

Early and anxious

The first hour -- I have reached the venue before 6 a.m. for a programme scheduled to start more than two hours later -- passes in a haze induced by sleeplessness brought on by worry about getting in. During the second I venture out to look at the various stalls. I get the sneaking feeling that Saint Thyagaraja would not have approved of the display of gaudy pelf and power. If the stalls have to be there, why not at a venue somewhere outside the aradhana grounds?

By then it is 8 a.m. and there is a general buzz. An informed rasika tells me that as the Doordarshan telecast is to begin shortly the nadaswaram will start playing. True to the rasika's word, the nadaswaram and thavil artistes begin their renditions to the TV mandarins' signal, speeding through a variety of ragams and kritis including Rama Neepaithanaku, Balakanakamaya and Nadopasana. The decibel level is such that I quietly slip some cotton into my ears, hoping no one will notice.

The next buzz signals the arrival of the artistes who have been on unchavritti singing. Their glittering costumes make no concession to the practice they are supposed to be depicting -- that of the saint who preferred to beg for his needs rather than bow to the wishes of kings to earn a living.

The flute of harmony

Soon the group singing of the pancharatnas, the five gems of Thyagaraja, begin. The first, Jagadanandakaraka in raga Nattai, is a disaster, with the female singers finishing the kriti before the men are half way through it.

What is the purpose of having lead singers -- veteran vidwans Rajam Iyer and B V Raman in this instance -- if the pack is not willing to follow them? Half way through a cacophonous rendition of Dudukugala in raga Gowlai, the sweet notes of the flute suddenly sound loud and clear. N Ramani has decided to take the lead, and his playing is so insistent and clear that the dissonant voices come together. The audience listens with relief to some melody in Sadinchane (Arabhi), Kanakanaruchira (Varali) and Endaro mahanubhavulu (Sri). As the last pancharatna kriti comes to an end, the priests at the shrine offer arati to the idol of Thyagaraja and the crowd gets up en masse to get a darshan of the flame even if they cannot reach it. The artistes bar the nagaswarams and thavils disappear in a flash and the latter group then puts up a sterling and symphonic performance of Paramathmudu, which clearly puts them far ahead of the others where orchestrated rendition is concerned.

We all head for the shrine for darshan and prasad, taking a look at the river Cauvery on the way.

I speak to a couple of artistes who are still in the area, to find out what their feelings are.

Rajam Iyer: "This is my humble homage to Thyaga Brahma for the great food he has given us, and his great inspiration. His immortal kritis delineate ragas and depict devotion to Lord Rama. I have been coming here for 40 years, first with my guru Ariyakudi Ramanuja Iyengar and later by myself. The last few years I have been conducting the pancharathna singing here."

Mandolin U Srinivas: "I come to Tiruvaiyaru for darshan of Saint Thyagaraja whenever I visit Thanjavur for a concert. It is a spiritual place and very peaceful too. Music as well as bhakthi is present here. During the aradhana I come on one of the days. It is like a battery recharge for the rest of the year".

After a visit to the Lord Rama temple at Vaduvur in the afternoon -- I later wonder fancifully if it was Saint Thyagaraja who sent me there -- I return to Tiruvaiyaru in the evening to listen to some of the concerts. It is heartening to see a thousand-strong audience listening to very junior artistes. As the evening wears on, the stars come on, appearing like jacks in the boxes on one of the two platforms while the previous group is still performing in the other.

Musicians on the go!

With each concert scheduled for 20 minutes, it is more management than music, what with a couple of kritis, time for raga rendition, and a solo chance for the violinist and the other accompanists all having to be packed in. Some accomplish it gracefully, others glare at their accompanists or at the crowd as though they were responsible for these impossible demands! Anyway, there is this friendly soul from the organisers who is standing just beside the performing artiste, smiling away and vigorously putting "thalam". And marking time!

At the end of it all, I try to analyse how I am feeling. As someone who has visited Tiruvaiyaru when there wasn't a single soul, I instinctively know that the annual aradhana disturbs the natural serenity of the place. Yet, the aradhana is not totally discordant. No singing of any of Thyagaraja kritis can ever be that. What is upsetting is the way it is run, without sensitivity and feeling for the occasion. If the present organisers or anyone else can bring "shantham" back to the Aradhana, then one feels Saint Thyagaraja will rest in peace.

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External links

Visit Cleveland Thyagaraja Aradhana Committee

Visit St Thyagaraja Music Society, Buffalo

Visit S Prasad's page for some English translations of Thyagaraja songs

Read a description of the rituals at the aradhana

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