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Aaradhana across the seas

It is an annual pilgrimage for the south Indians who flock to Cleveland to celebrate Tyagaraja aradhana. SUJATHA VIJAYARAGHAVAN writes...


Paying homage in harmony.

THE MYLAPORE women were there in shimmering Kancheepuram silks, woven with the traditional veldaris, kottadis and bavanjis. So were their husbands, some in colourful silk jibbahs, others nattily attired in full suit. Hordes of children in pattu pavadai and kurta pyjamas pranced around, babies bawled, idlis and coffee were consumed on the corridors and Tamil was heard in all dialects. There was music in the air with teasing flurries of snow. For the biggest annual Carnatic music event of North America was happening.

Gopal arrived, driving all the way down from Kingston in Canada, V. K. Viswanathan flew in from Los Alamos, New Mexico, Chellappa travelled a thousand miles and more and whole families had flown from the west and east coast, way up north and deep down south. It is an annual pilgrimage for most of the south Indians who flock to Cleveland for the occasion, where familiar sights and sounds of the famous December music festival of Madras alias Chennai are recreated off shore, nevertheless with a difference. A small town with a sprinkling of South Asian population, the latest figures put at a bare 1,145, Cleveland has bagged the honour of hosting the largest Carnatic music event against cities like New York, Chicago or San Francisco whose south Indian population alone runs into several thousands.

With understandable pride, the Aradhana committee of Cleveland conducted this year its silver jubilee and made the event memorable by organising 32 concerts, five lec-dems, a Bharatanatyam recital, music competitions and sessions of individual and group singing by young and old from the audience, all packed in ten eventful days and nights. The homage commenced in the morning on March 30 at the spacious Waetjen concerthall of the Cleveland State University with bhajan singing by groups of children. The children displayed a remarkably high quality of training , with perfect melody and pronunciation for the most part with occasional ``pazhabzhamha zhoopam" and ``zhama zhamazhamakrishna."

The bhajans were followed by Pancharatnam singing led by the local group of women. Musicians from India joined the group in the musical homage. The festival was initially designed to showcase local talents and whoever came was offered a slot to sing a song. Says Gopi Sundaram ``Over the years the emphasis seems to have shifted from individual singing to professional singing." Individual singing still goes on and has a slot on the inauguaral day when new talents are discovered. This year a six year old girl this year gave a spell binding version of ``Evaramadugudura," which became the talk of the day.

The evening concert by 87-year old Mukta was a presentation of vintage Dhanammal. Seated ramrod straight, the veteran was in full throttle from the beginning and gave a spirited performance for over two and a half hours , rendering in all some seventeen songs and half a dozen ragaalapanas , each glittering like a priceless gem . She was awarded the title Sangeetha Rathnakara. Vyjayanthimala Bali was awarded the title of Nrithya Rathnakara and Ramani received the title of Seva Rathna. M. V. Raman of New Delhi received the title of Kala Seva Mani and Sujatha Vijayaragavan of Chennai received the title of Nrithya Seva Mani .

The function was followed by a concert of 25 flutes by Ramani and his pupils from India and the U.S. Age cannot wither her and Vyjayanthimala Bali was a picture of peerless beauty and grace when she presented on the succeeding evening a memorable Bharatanatyam concert marked by perfect lines, poise, and purity of tradition. The performers who were a good mixture of desis and non-resident Indians, both professional and amateurs, proved that the music remained pristine in its classicism regardless of differences in domicile. Every concert included a ragam-tanam-pallavi, complete with the trikalam exercise. Some concerts lasted beyond three hours, while not a member of the audience stirred. It was heartening to observe that hardly anybody walked out during Tani Avarthanams. There was a preponderance of the heavy classical variety in the concert fare offered throughout, with emphasis on raga alapana, niraval and sonorous rendering of kritis. The temptation to indulge in lengthy and tumultuous swaraprastharas was apparent among the younger musicians. Instrumentalists T. V. Gopalakrishnan, Srimushnam Raja Rao, Ravikiran and Ranjani-Gayatri, Geetha Bennet and Sriramkumar took centre stage as vocalists in this festival and proved that they could excel in either role. For the first time lecture demonstrations were held with active audience participation, questions fielded from all corners. Sanjay Subramaniam, Ravikiran, Tiruchi Sankaran , Geetha Bennet and the team of musicians co-ordinated by Vasundara Rajagopal addressed their talks more to the learner and the lay listener than to academicians . The overwhelming presence of children and youth was one of the most striking features of the ten day festival. Vivid images stay in the mind's eye as mini marvels. A child is bent over his colours and picture book spread on the floor while the musician unleashes a barrage of swaraprasthara. Six year old Sriya Srinivasan records her favourite songs on her personal walkman. Ten year old Pallavi, who sings ``Maaravairi" in Nasika Bhushani with her younger brother gushes, ``It is fun to come to this festival." Twelve year old Mathura Sritharan gives a flawless rendering of the Pancharatnams. And ducks amble across a sloping green lawn, beyond the glass window behind Madurai Sundar rendering ``Nivada negana."

A cluster of kadukkan sporting teenage boys in jeans are perched at the edge of their seats, keeping time for Tiruchi Sankaran's thani avarthanam.

Kartik Venkataraman who has an exam to take that night is not only in charge of the mike all day long but also squats down now and then, Kanjira in hand, to accompany the vocalist of the hour. A bevy of charming young girls unconsciously hum ``Buvini dasudane" while they ladle out milagu rasam and poricha koottu on styrofoam plates. An American family from Chicago accompanying their daughter Mona who is a student of Carnatic music and Bharatanatyam, quietly soak up the music all day long.

Community affair

The aradhana that started 25 years ago as a small affair in a church basement, attended by less than 70 people, has swelled today into a mammoth community celebration of music. ``It was Ramnad Raghavan, the mridanga vidwan, who first suggested to us that our Friday bhajan group should sing thePancharatnam and perform Tyagaraja Aradhana," says Gomathi Sundaram. He made the effort to teach the kritis to the few families who formed the group. Eventually concerts by local and later by musicians from India were added. Professor Temple Tuttle of the State University of Cleveland was instrumental in procuring the support of the university. ``We started music competitions for children with the specific purpose of creating an interest in Carnatic music among youth and the move has paid off," says Gomathi Balu. Three families living in three continents form the core group of the Aradhana committee. Gomathi and V. V. Sundaram in Madras, Gomathi and Balu of Cleveland and Toronto Venkataraman aided by a loyal team of relatives, friends and family members organise and run the show. Somasundaram and Prakash, who were once students at Cleveland university, take time off, year after year from their present jobs and travel hundreds of miles with their families to come and lend a had to the aradhana fraternity. Young men are always at hand to lug heavy mridangams to and fro the dais, chauffeur the musicians from airport to hotel and concert halls, lend a helping hand at the food stalls and generally make themselves available for all kinds of chores. There is bonhomie that is heart warming.

The staggering workload of providing South Indian food, not only to the musicians but to the entire audience is the responsibility of the two Gomathis, who are part of the organising team. Until last year they had prepared and served all the meals themselves with occasional help from some of their friends. Wholesome, tasty and homely food sans masala has everybody going in for several helpings. To the musicians from India , the experience is a welcome breath of fresh air. Clad in heavy western clothes, snacking on French fries and pizzas, they attend all the concerts and at the end of the day gather around in their hotel rooms regaling each other with their experiences.

The presence of 20-odd musicians in the front rows enthuses every performer to excel himself. ``Can we ever get an audience like this in Madras?" asks T. M. Krishna. ``We have here a golden opportunity to learn so much from the seniors like Thiruvengadu Jayaraman who are happy to share their knowledge with us," he says.

Over the years the musicians have become part of the Cleveland family. A pall of gloom descended on the festival this year when the news of K. V. Narayanaswamy's passing away reached. Gomathi Sundaram spoke of the day when KVN declared that he and his wife Padma would prepare the prasadam for the aradhana . The couple were up at dawn to prepare rava kesari as their offering. Come Easter weekend, Tyagaraja leaves the banks of the Cauvery to visit the shores of Erie. Why not? It would certainly gladden the heart of the Nada Yogi to be present where Shobhillu saptaswaras are cherished by one and all.

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