Kurinji – Floods, Arts and Madras

On 11th December, 2015, exactly 10 days after the massive floods that ravaged through Chennai city, I hopped into a bus to Reteri from High Court. I plugged the earphones into my ears and skipped through one song after another, for no song could appease my mood. The bus bobbed up and down through the broken, may-cave-in-any-moment-now and at times non-existent streets skirted by heaps and piles of rotting rubbish.  Rubbish – an otherwise small, smelly word – encompassed unusable clothes, furniture, home appliances, musical instruments, books, hard earned money, well-loved memories and more, that day.

As the bus plied through ankle-length pitch-black, tarry thick sewage water on its way to Perambur, my music player played “Pirappokkum ella uyirkkum, yadhum oore yavarum kelir,” (meaning: “I am a global citizen and the humanity is my fraternity” is the norm of life applicable to all living beings), an anthem celebrating the glorious traditions of Tamil culture. I choked. I choked every time the song soared into “Semmozhiyana Thamizh mozhiyam.” (Music by A.R.Rahman) A disaster like the December 2015 floods can suck the very spirit of a city. However, the truth that the collective hearts, particularly the non-state ones, of Chennai beat as one, barring a few arrhythmic moments, cannot be sidestepped no matter what the so-called intelligentsia believe. The scale and gravity of the good work done by the volunteers and benefactors notwithstanding, the fact remains that Chennai is limping badly, nursing her suppurated open wounds.

With this background, it didn’t seem silly when some suggested that the annual music and dance festival season held in the month of December and the book fair organized in the month of January be cancelled, or postponed at the least. That people are not in the mood to receive an art or any other form of celebration was the logic behind it, the soundness of which one cannot let slide. It is a different matter that none raised their voice against the release of big ticket movies or the operation of multinational companies in five star hotels. It is pertinent to note that, perhaps for the first time, even the upper middle class community of South and Central Chennai came face to face with the troubles of bare survival, which has been more of a norm than exception to the North Madrasis and poverty-line community. Well, who knew that disaster can be classified into mainstream and marginalized? Leaving the common denominator of economics behind, one wonders why there is so much repugnancy against arts and literature (and not sports, mind you!) in the city citing the floods as a cause, particularly from the artists and connoisseurs. Is it only because the arts in question, Carnatic music and Bharatnatyam, are viewed as a stronghold of a particular elitist community, both supply and demand-wise?

Or, is the question even deeper? What is the purpose or utility of an art form? Is it possible to appreciate art, even as a rasika – connoisseur, while being mentally depressed? Personally, I couldn’t concentrate on a book or a song or a person. I tried breaking the streak by meeting people and watching movies – it didn’t help. Almost on a whim, I decided to attend a Carnatic music concert or kutcheri, as it is called. By the time I reached Sri Parthasarathy Swamy Sabha (concert held at Vidhya Bharathi, Mylapore) on 30th December 2015, calls of “house-full” and “no tickets” greeted me. Thankfully, a few more stubborn music enthusiasts like me thought they could get in at the last minute. Our collective stare-power and money-power earned us seats and we entered the sweaty, noisy, jam packed hall to listen to the newest Sangeetha Kalanidhi, Sanjay Subrahmanyan, sing, who was set to give his final concert for the year and season.

It all started with Muthuswamy Dikshitar’s “Siddhi Vinayakam.” If the sustained notes of Ragam Shanmukhapriya was any indication to the rest of the evening, I wasn’t disappointed. With a sprightly “Vande Mataram Enbom” (Mahakavi Bharathi) in Ragam Kedharam, the master entered into Ragam Dhanyasi.  It was the most soulful music I had heard in a long time and I felt hot tears streaming down my cheeks despite my best effort at self-control. This, Sanjay managed to achieve, not by invoking Gods, but by sheer, pure melodic phrases. What is of particular interest is how Sanjay’s concert was not pretentiously labelled as a “prayer concert” or “healing concert,” whatever that means. I mean, it is the easiest thing to do in a Carnatic concert with most of the lyrics begging the Gods and Goddesses for at least one of the three things:  palimpa or brova/rakshamam,  or abayam which simply mean “protect,” “save” and “take refuge” respectively. The musician in such concerts can dwell on the SOS aspect of lyrics and create a mood of pathos. But that is, for lack of better words, disaster porn. An artist, even though a social animal going through the roller coaster of life, perhaps has a higher call to attend, that of creating art. He or she may have a little different, sometimes deviant perspective of life, which can be literally life-changing to those who perceive it. It is in this aspect that I find Sanjay’s contribution towards the society top notch. Instead of giving a solemn speech, he simply gave his listeners an option to enter a whole new world, an alternate reality. In this world, he would revel in his art and have us hypnotized too.

As the powerful Dhanyasi culminated in a gripping “Meenalochani brova” by Shyama Sastri, we heard the raspy “Velum Mayilum” in Ragam Sucharitra otherwise referred to as Santana Manjari. Then followed the piece-de-resistance of the evening, the grand alapana in Ragam Kambodhi, where Sanjay had effortlessly included the audience, switching from akaram to okaram, slyly indicating to the eager birds that the song in line is indeed, “O Rangasayee.” It is amazing what artists can do with a receptive audience backing them. The violinist, S.Varadharajan is the instrumental equivalent of Sanjay’s voice, quivering like a deliriousNadhaswaram at the drop of a note. Undeterred by a section of the audience confusing the thani (percussion solo) with smoke break, Neyveli B.Venkatesh on Mridangam and Perukkavu Sudhir, on Ghatam went on rhythmically. With a quick reeling kriti in Ragam Kalyani (“Paarengum paarthalum” by Ganam Krishna Iyer), the most awaited part of the concert, the Ragam Tanam Pallavi session started. Ragam Mayamalavagowla, as Holmes would say, is elementary, given that the basics of Carnatic music is begun in this scale. I spent the next few minutes trying to figure out the nuances that were cheekily hidden, quite like cashew nuts in kheer, within the recital. First up, a nod to the popular culture, acknowledging the film music genius Ilayaraja by hinting at “Poongathave thaazh thiravai” in alapana and the inimitable melody kings of Tamil film music M.S.Viswanathan and Ramamoorthy by touching the classic “Kallellam manikkak kallaguma” in Tanam. Then came the turn of the informed listeners, Rag Ahir Bhairav was caressed, demonstrating the grihabedam technique with alacrity and swiftly shifted to a breezy ride with Ragam Sahana. Not to leave the Hindustani aficionados in lurch, Rag Durga was invited to the party and how! Maybe there is a reason why certain arts have emerged, evolved and therefore labelled as classical art forms, even though their genesis can always be traced to a raw and unflinching folk-art. To me, the alapana was classical and the fast-paced swaras, pure unabashed folk.

Then came the lovely Kaapi in the form of “Nama Sudha Rasa” by Swathi Thirunaal. I couldn’t help relating the lyric of Nama Sudha with “Pibare Ram rasam” by Sadhasiva Brammendra. Maybe a point where Swathi Thirunaal scores over Sadhasiva Brammendra is in the adjective used for rasam. To Sadhasiva Brammendra, it is only rasam – meaning essence, but to Swathi Thirunaal, it is sudha rasam – meaning nectar. (rasa v. sara!) Sanjay moved on to his favourite and my personal favourite poet, Mahakavi. I don’t know if this is the first time he is singing this particular song, but I have often wondered why musicians don’t pick a song which says “Enthan pattu thiraththale ivvaiyaththai paaliththida vendum” (I wish to rule this world with my lyrical/musical prowess!) The song itself is structured like a prayer by Bharathi, where he asks for seemingly materialistic things – a palace with ornate pillars surrounded by coconut trees with their pinnate leaves, a pearl-like streak of ray from the moon, the sound of a nightingale, the southern breeze, a loving woman, some poetry, and then, pause for a moment, the world. Ok, so that is what an artist wants – reigning the world with his art, or simply recognition for his creativity. What kind of recognition, one may ask. If Bharathi witnesses the audience of a Sanjay concert dancing and cooing along with him, he could get jealous, for this is the kind of recognition and response he deserved and would have thoroughly enjoyed.

When Sanjay expressed his wish through Bharathi, the audience clapped spontaneously. Perhaps this is the only song in the entire concert where the crowd held on to the lyrics more than the RagamsHamsadhwaniHarikambodhi and Sindhubhairavi. The kutcheri ended on a solemn note with “Engum niraindirukkum en deivam” in Ragam Kurinji by Papanasam Sivan, invoking the omnipresent and omniscient Lord Siva as Lord Kapaleeswara, who has a singularly special place in the hearts of Chennai-ites. Kurinji, a flower symbolizing rarity and uniqueness is also a metaphor for abiding by established traditions, blooming only once in twelve years. Sanjay Subrahmanyan has been a Kurinji to the Carnatic music arena capturing the imagination of anyone who cares to imagine, age no bar. But this year, affectionately called the “Kalanidhi year,” he went a step ahead – he invited and embraced the audience with his swaying notes. Incidentally, that has been the story of Chennai this December, an act of love from rank strangers, who in the eyes of the beneficiaries are manifestations of the Almighty him/herself. Why do we need arts, anyone? Again?

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