A tour diary by Mumbai based Carnatic vocalist and Bharatanatyam dancer Vasumathi Badrinathan, on her trip to Reunion, for the India Week and Tamil New Year celebrations recently.
It is calm everywhere. You don't ever expect to see crowds of people. You are lost in time, away from the madding rush, by the lull of the sea, white and black sandy beaches that beckon from all sides. Reunion island in the Indian Ocean is a paradise of sorts.
I started the tour with an early morning television interview and shoot. Jean-Regis, my good acquaintance, handling newscast on Television Reunion was there much before I did. Meticulous as he is, he had his questions ready and it all got over sooner than I expected. The very evening I had an hour-long lecture demonstration in French, for a select audience in an institute, on Carnatic music and Bharatanatyam. Despite my throbbing migraine I managed to put the show together and had many questions to handle at the end.
Reunion is one of France's overseas territories. The official language being French, my affinity and long contact with this language eased out my stay at the island. Communicating to a people in their own tongue is one of the finest ways of reaching out, as I've experience end number of times. Except that I had constant talking to do, apart from of course playing interpreter to my accompanying artistes, who despite the language barrier derived means of communicating -although their French often left us all, including them, in splits!
Tamil New Year Day started with a visit to the Muruga temple where I sang four songs to Ganesha, Shiva, Vishnu and Muruga during the ceremonies. The entire town seemed to have gathered there. Its interesting to see a mix of races, many of them pure blood Indians and many not; heartening to see the reach of Hinduism into a land so far away from home and the efforts to get back to these cultural roots. The Sastrigal at the temple was delighted to see us, and so was the stapathi who had come from Pondichery to work on the temple renovation. It gave them a great opportunity to speak Tamil, which otherwise, they spoke and heard very little on the island.
If there was anything I least expected to hear in this quiet country, it was the rising murmur that emanates when large crowds gather - the irrepressible buzz that surges even when there are only whispers. That was the situation when I entered the precincts where the large Tamil New Year celebrations, named Nalla Varousham, were scheduled to be held. I was told that there would be a large crowd, but I was awestruck when I ascended the stage. Though at the onset I paid attention to nothing save my performance, when I took the mike, despite the glaring light I saw the milling crowds. It just seemed to extend beyond what I could see. All around there were people, seated, standing, crouching. Around 2000 people, was a crowd I had never encountered before! And disciplined at that. The thunderous wave of applause after every explanation and every item is something I know I shall have to wait in a long time to feel once again. What I genuinely appreciated was the sense of perfection, attention to small details on the part of the organisers, who under the able stewardship of Benoit Cadeby, saw things through impeccably.
All through the trip, I found the 'Reunionnais', as one calls the locals in French, very warm, hospitable and friendly. Marika played the perfect hostess, always helpful, smiling, making sure the food was there on time, accompanying us to places. The many car trips to the different towns for performances gave me a glimpse of the beach-studded and mountainous landscape, the sky dotted with hang-gliding enthusiasts. A trip on a glass-bottomed boat showed us the awesome under water life of the coral reefs. A group of dolphins gracefully surging in and out of the waters, made my day!
Another kutcheri I had in the capital city of St Denis, took me by surprise too. An auditorium intended for a capacity of around 600, held easily more than 1500 people, all tightly packed within. People ceaselessly poured in. It's an exhilarating experience for an artiste to see such a crowd.
The performance at the Ashram run by the followers of Dayananda Saraswati, changed colour. The quietude and serenity of the place had a different feel to it. The audience seemed genuinely interested. There was Gianni the local Tavil vidwan who otherwise is a maths teacher by profession, his dancer wife Sarada, the Swami of the mutt who remained motionless in his cross legged pose, Dominique, the island's veteran Carnatic music teacher and music buff in charge of the sound system... The question answer session that followed my kutcheri had many curious questions on music ranging from the notion of raga in music, to the melakarta of raga Useni and Hindustani music.
The trip was a memorable one. I still almost hear the ocean in my room and the star-filled canopy of a wondrous sky overhead is fresh in my mind. I have left behind certain memories about me, the veracity of some of which, the Reunion people need to seriously verify - as someone there told me, they all thought (and I am sure they still do) that one of my parents is French and that my husband is one too (since I speak French fluently). One visit to India, to my hometown Mumbai, would banish all mystery on that front, surely !