Vocalist Madhuvanthi Badri shares her experience at this year's tribute festival
Ten kilometers from Thanjavur, through the green pastures and tall banyan trees, we reach Thirupoondhuruthi, where the 271st Narayana Thirtha Aradhana is to take place.
One of the holy ‘Padal Petra Sthalams’ (where Shiva as Pasupathinatheshwar has been praised and sung by Gnanasambandar, Appar, Sundarar and Manickavasagar), Thirupoonduruthi is also one of the important holy shrines that is part of the annual Sapthasthana festival.
A mile or two from Kandiyur, this is the land where Narayana Tirtha, the 18th century saint and author of “Krishna Leela Tharangini”, the longest drama in Sanskrit, attained Jeeva Samadhi.
A few yards before the samadhi, we are welcomed by a big arch erected in 1970 by Gade Rao Saheb, one of the many royal, rural caretakers appointed by the Tanjore palace to take care of the village administration. His descendents still proudly continue to live in Thirupoonduruthi and take a lot of pride in conducting the annual festivities.
It is believed that Narayana Tirtha himself choreographed the entire work and staged it with the local villagers. Apart from the locals, the sight of people thronging the samadhi and taking part in the Aradhana with so much devotion, from all walks of religion and faith, is overwhelming.
The man behind the Aradhana today is Thirupoonthuruthi V. Venkatesan, a musician and retired railway employee who has been carrying on the tradition with deep faith and devotion for the last 53 years under the Narayana Tirtha Swamigal Trust.
Venkatesan's father was Thirupoonthuruthi Viswanatha Bhagavathar, a Harikatha exponent, who wanted his son to carry on the tradition of conducting the Aradhana after his time. His wife and two daughters, Neela and Lakshmi are strong pillars of support who meticulously execute all his plans with perfection.
With a missionary zeal, Venkatesan has all participating musicians sing only Tharangams from the Krishna Leela Tharangini as opposed to some 50 years ago, when musicians sang compositions of various other composers and included only one or two Tharangams in the end. Such is Venkatesan's hand picking of artistes that we saw even a small girl give full justice in paying homage to the great soul.
Rasikas and artistes are warmly welcomed here. The decade-old dhyana mandapam built by the Narayana Thirta Swamigal Trust is our 'home'. What touched me in the fact that in the mandapam was that the rooms are named after saints and musicians. “Keys to the Muthuswami Dikshitar rooms for them please!” we hear Lakshmi instruct her sister Neela.
The celebrations this year included Veda Parayanam, a customary Unchavarthi led by Thillaisthanam Panchapakesa Bhagavathar and Aradhana besides a three-day singing of Tharangams, Namasankeertanam and Harikatha by young and leading musicians.
Though Narayana Tirtha spent most of his life in Varahur and Thirupoonthuruthi (Tamil Nadu), he belonged to Andhra desa. The traditional sampradaya singing of tharangams in Andhra is vastly different from the Kriti-like rendition of Tamil Nadu.
'Gorakavi' Sri Sampathkumar gave us a nice experience of this tradition bringing together the musical, literary, rhythmic and prosodical aspects which in turn gave us the experience of the underlying dance elements of the Tharangams. Tharangams in simple Sanksrit and mellifluous raga filled the air and also brought down rare showers of rain as summer broke.
In a sincere attempt to pass on the treasures in Krishna Leela Tharangini to the next generation, the Trust also runs a “Tharanga Vidya Shala” in Thanjavur, where senior musician Mythili Kannan trains youngsters in Tharanga ganam.
My nonagenarian grandmother tells me that more than a century ago, her mother-in-law as a young girl used to visit Thirupoonthuruthi for the Narayana Tirtha Aradhana and pay her tributes apart from offering whatever they could in kind (could be rice, veggies and fruits).
She tells me how they used to walk across two river beds (Cauvery and Kudamurutti rivers) to reach the samadhi for the Aradhana. The Aradhana she knew had Harikatha performances, Vikatam concerts, sampradaya bhajan and singing of Tarangams all day besides the religious proceedings that used to be carried on simultaneously.
I took her along with me to watch me sing this year and there she was reminiscing her memories. Just as I entered the gurusamy madham (the samadhi complex is called so by the locals), my grandmother looks at the waterless, grass-laden pond next to it and smiles. When I prodded her to tell me more she says it once used to be a pond that bloomed with hundreds of lotuses.
She only wishes that the generations to come get to witness the glory of Narayana Tirtha as she did.