Second Edition of Sacred Music Fest


By Vincent D' Souza

When you are woken up at 3.30 a.m. inside a sleeper bus that does not want to stop frequently and asked to alight at your destination, you swim in a daze..

Thanjavur was my destination, having boarded the Rathi Meena coach just yards from Santhi Sweets in the heart of Tirunelveli where thousands of people snatch away bags of gooey halwa that is now a world famous brand.

Thanjavur is familiar territory to me but when you are still in a fuzzy state of mind bang in the middle of the main road that halves this town you have to take a deep breath and survey the place till you find your bearings.

Thankfully, my hotel was a stone's throw away and the square was brightly lit. There was time to enjoy a more comfortable second sleep on a quiet Sunday.

I was in Thanjavur for the second edition of the Sacred Music Festival, an idea businessperson and arts promoter Ranvir Shah of Chennai has floated. Ranvir's Prakriti Foundation promotes dozens of events in the metro and outside. But this region of Thanjavur is special to him.

Ranvir has a special relationship with the Sri Thyagarajaswamy Temple in Thiruvarur. He is perhaps one of its hardcore devotees and despite hiccups, done a lot for the temple and for the appreciation of its heritage. A maverick of a kind, Ranvir has also visions of improving the cultural landscape of the area around Thanjavur and hence, floated the idea of the Sacred Music Fest in Thiruvaiyaru, more known for the aradhana held to mark the samadhi of saint Thyagaraja, the composer.

I had been here for the first edition of this Fest and since the weekend provided me another opportunity, travelled up from the dry patches of Tirunelveli to revisit the event.

Thumris by the Cauvery

This year's Fest had a different touch to it. Vidya Rao was billed for the first evening concert on February 26 at what is called the Husoor Palace. Lying on the banks of a tributary of the Cauvery river which was bathed in mist early in the morning but gave away to a sorry sight of a dry river bed, this mahal is said to have been the summer palace of a Maratha ruler. A date has not been placed on its history but it has been in a run down state for many years till it was given a new lease of life recently.

Sacred Music FestVidya Rao is known for her sensitive rendering of the thumri-dadre style and is said to have studied deep a range of classical traditions and folk music too. Widely travelled, this was a new stage for Vidya and all those who attended this concert told me that it was a great experience.

Evening Two was at a different venue. The Pushya Mahal ghat, which has also been renovated and well maintained though it draws a huge stream of people at different times of the year is also a unique setting, and the special lighting and props created a unique ambience to this space.

Jugalbandhi in the Ghat

A jugalbandi by Pandit Krishna Ram Choudary (Shennai) & Pinnai Managar alongside Thanjavur's Dhakshinamurthi and K. M. Uthirapathi on the Nadaswaram took some time to seek a rhythm for the artistes had practised together only the previous day.

But as the evening wore on, guests seemed to have enjoyed the recital.

I was on time for the final concert, on a Sunday. Thanjavur was as stuffy as any other town, with the temperature hovering around 34 degrees. Ranvir's guests - writers, poets, journalists and the sort had gone off on a tour of Dharasuram that morning and the heat discouraged me of the idea of a walk around the Big Temple.

Local contact Muthukumar who is with the team that hosts the Brihanatyanjali dance fest inside this temple in March came by to share their plans for this edition of the fest - Thanjavur will come alive to celebrate the 1000th year of the Temple and to mark this occasion, local dance groups planned to present a few special items on local compositions.

Besides the Big Temple, I do not miss an opportunity to visit the Sacred Heart Cathedral which lies behind the railway station area. It is not a fantastic space but the sparse yet solid architecture makes it special. A quick visit, a hot cup of coffee and we were on our way to Thiruvaiyaru.

Besides INTACH, the Marabu Foundation run by Dr. Kausalya, scholar and arts promoter based here is a co-host of the Fest. Kausalya had invited us to visit her space, a restored house in the agraharam of Thillaisthanam, a village on the other side of Thiruvaiyaru.

Thereafter, we headed to the Sri Panchanatheeswarar Temple, the concert venue.

I had never been inside this temple on my aradhana tours. This evening as the Holi moon rose into the skies I stood and stared at the giant gopuram bathed in colour red. Red and yellow lights lit up the outer yard of this large space and a makeshift stage had been set up outside the shrine of Lord Muruga, dominated by dozens of stone pillars.

Old friend Victor Paulraj who works on light and sound design for many events in Chennai surprised me when he presented himself and said he had been here the past days working with local suppliers to create the magical effect Ranvir wanted.

Aruna Sairam's evening

The evening's concert was the big one - Aruna Sairam with Patri Satish Kumar on the mirdangam and Raghavendra Rao on the violin - and the yard was packed with rasikas.

As Aruna sailed into the concert I chose to explore this temple, lost in the darkness of its huge expanse. Yes, the campus did need money to light up the space. A notice board in a corner told us that a special fund had been created to pay for the electricity bills and donations were welcome.

Local people who are regulars here went about their rituals in quiet and a small group, happy to have done theirs insisted that we partake of the prasadam. The sannidhi was in a time of its own that Sunday evening and I had all the time to just stand and stare as Aruna's full-throated music sailed in.

Sitting on the fringe of the temple yard (Ranvir's team told us that they had broken their backs cleaning up the yard of paper cups, plastic, scrubs and junk) and gazing at the Murugan shrine that rose behind the artistes who sat in front of a multi-level stand filled with earthen lamps lit for this occasion, the setting was truly magical.

Aruna coursed through her favourite 'padam' and then dedicated two songs to the music students of the local college before offering a popular request and ending with a song on Lord Muruga.

It was a special evening. And when we travelled back to Thanjavur the chill was seeping in.

<< This report filed on March 2010 >>