The Best of Times & The Worst of Times… Notes from Tiruvaiyaru

Freshly returned from Tiruvaiyaru after the 158th Aradhana of Carnatic Music’s most beloved saint-composer, one’s mind is a mélange of emotions – some good and some not-so-good but on the whole tending towards the positive. It is quite a toss-up regarding what one remembers most from one’s maiden visit to the cradle of our music. The divine Asaveri on the Nadaswaram on Aradhana morning competes with the shockingly rude behaviour of a “security” officer towards two hapless mridangists scrounging for a few precious inches of space. The heartening memory of large crowds even at 10 pm, listening to the sequence of 20-minute concerts competes with the mediocre performance of some “leading” artistes who needed to refer to a free Dinamalar pamphlet for the Pancharatna lyrics. The lingering taste of sinfully fresh tender coconut competes with the bone-jarring ride one had to endure on non-existent roads. The rare but soothing sight of a Cauvery in full flow competes with the crass display of gold bracelets and layers of make-up at the Pancharatna rendition…Leaving Chennai on the eve of the Aradhana, one’s fond hopes of a smooth ride down to Thanjavur were quickly dispelled by the utterly pathetic state of the roads beyond Cuddalore. The 30 kmph crawl meant we reached Kumbhakonam way past midnight – all decent eateries closed, we found a roadside joint beside the Sarangapani temple serving steaming idlis even at that ungodly hour. I must admit that I wouldn’t have dared to step into that place during daylight hours when the hygiene, or lack of it, would be more evident! Hunger and exhaustion makes you do strange things to yourself. Another hour of roads that were marginally better and we were in Thanjavur, dragging our weary frames into a government-run guest house where the manager’s “all rooms booked, saar” was overcome through the good offices of a friend. Ah, the power of connections!

Knowing fully well that the mad scramble for space in the Pancharatna enclosure for the 9 am rendition would begin a good three hours early, Shashikiran woke us all up at 5.30 am after barely four hours of fitful slumber. What the hell, groggy me wondered… boarding practice already for the new A380 superjumbo? He made us rush through the morning ablutions and herded us back into the trusty Carnatica jalopy for the 30-minute drive to Tiruvaiyaru. The hurry meant that our grouchiness was further aggravated by the denial of the morning elixir – freshly brewed Tanjore filter kaappi – which was beckoning us en route at Venkata Lodge. Coffee unfortunately is not fit to be “paaarselled”, unlike the hot pongal, idlis and chutney that we picked up there.

My sagging spirits were however revived, once we reached the bridge spanning the Cauvery. Having seen the dry river bed umpteen times and heard tales of misery arising from drought, the sight of Mother Cauvery in full prosperous flow amidst the delicate green swathes of paddy was indeed heartwarming. The faint strains of Nadaswaram music wafting in the breeze and the fresh rays of the rising sun helped enhance the charming serenity of the moment. Tiruvaiyaru and the area adjoining the samadhi was however the very antithesis of serenity. Madding crowds, honking vehicles, pedestrians and cattle jostling for five feet of road space and a palanquin procession bearing the Tyagaraja utsava mUrtti… throw in our angavastram-clad friends Manoj Siva & Shriramkumar with truckloads of vibhuti on their foreheads scampering towards the samadhi clutching their precious instruments and you get a picture of utter frenzy!

We stepped into the already jam-packed samadhi enclosure and somehow squeezed ourselves into place, betwixt a clutch of stately vidwans and colorful vidushis. The next two hours before the start of the group singing crept along as a singularly educative experience in the very Indian art of ‘adjustment’. Pushes literally came to shoves, elbows nudged solar plexuses and fine Cauvery sand crept into the folds of one’s veshti, as hordes of squatting un-gentle gents and un-genteel ladies ‘adjusted’ to accommodate the relentless inflow of newcomers into the few square feet of real estate before the black statue of the bard, segregated into tiny cattle pens by yards of nylon rope. True to form, the politicos and the paparazzi barged in precisely ten seconds before the start, upsetting and uprooting the carefully adjusted seating plans of us lesser mortals. Mridangists to the right and mridangists to the left, I ended up with Karukurichi Mohanram’s toppi resting on my right knee and another gent’s valantalai on my left knee. Pride of place in the middle went to a pouch containing Mohanram’s sruti-adjustment tools! The music started with the flautists led by Ramani Sir, rendering “Chetulara”, which ultimately ended up being the only coherent and serene presentation of the morning.

The actual pancharatna rendition got off to a bit of a wobbly start, with the women taking the lead. It took an uncertain few seconds for the men’s voice to be heard and even then the imbalance in pitch was too high for comfort. Probably the clustering of microphones around a few prominent artistes, not necessarily the most proficient in pancharatna rendition, on each side also contributed to the overall lack of listening pleasure. There were a few isolated figures among the sea of faces, singing their hearts out, with their devotion and dedication self-evident. This includes a female artiste with a film background on whom the TV cameras tended to linger more often! It was interesting to see the ripple of plastic smiles and flashing diamonds moving like a Mexican Wave behind the swiveling TV cameras! Hardly forty minutes later, the hype ‘n hoopla was done with and there was another mad scramble – god knows why – to vacate the arena. Tyagaraja was the last person on everybody’s mind during the next five to ten minutes of total chaos and mini stampedes. Musicians cursed, safari-clad securitywallahs yelled choice expletives and our friend Manimaran got pushed around by an overenthusiastic ‘rasika’ shoving his way to get near a popular lady musician.

When the dust settled and the crowds cleared, poor Rajam Iyer was still seated in the sand, his octogenarian frame unable to get up without assistance and looking quite befuddled by all the commotion around him. Helped to his feet, he was quite gracious and blessed us, insisting that youngsters come every year to the Aradhana and sing with sincerity and good pathantaram. We decided to head back to Thanjavur and get some rest before embarking on a temple tour in the afternoon. The parceled idlis and pongal having grown quite cold by now, we washed them down with some divine tender coconut juice from a bicycle vendor on the road back to Thanjavur. A few hours of sleep and a hearty Thanjavur lunch later, we set out for the temple of Bangaru Kamakshi, Shyama Shastri’s ishta devata .

The temple of Bangaru Kamakshi

Being not quite the busiest hour of the evening yet, the place was eerily calm. Shashikiran, as is his wont in such sannidhis, began to quietly sing “Devi Brova”, Shyama Shastri’s masterpiece in Chintamani. The priest finished the pooja, emerged from the darkened sanctum and dispensed the customary kumkumam and flowers and asked Shashi to sing something more. Out came “Palinchu Kamakshi” and once again I was left marveling how a divine presence gives an added lustre to the lyrics that one has heard umpteen times in concerts. Listening to the music with eyes closed, one could almost visualize Shyama Shastri sitting cross-legged at the same sannidhi, pouring his heart out to the Divine Mother. The priest later accompanied us around the temple as we took in the atmosphere and narrated some anecdotes from his memories. It was already past five in the afternoon and we had the Big Temple on our agenda before heading back to Tiruvaiyaru for the night concerts. The time constraint meant that we had to shelve the priest’s suggestion to visit Shyama Shastri’s house in the agraharam.

Shyama Shastri’s lyrics on the walls of the Kamakshi temple

For the first-time visitor, the Brihadeeshwarar Temple or Periya Kovil is indeed an imposing sight. The soft evening sunlight cast a lovely soft-focus halo to the massive vimanam. Skirting the hordes of insistent knick-knack vendors and a slooooow-moving gaggle of French tourists, we made our way past the enormous Nandi and into the inner sanctum. Time once again for some music, as Shashi & Ganesh sang a couple of Dikshitar masterpieces on Lord Shiva. As they wound down and we started to leave, a rather stout-looking dark young man at the rear of the throng of devotees started a sequence of Tevarams, in a rich tone and a typically traditional Odhuvar style. It was one of those purely thrilling moments that come one’s way occasionally. We later made the young man’s acquaintance and were pleasantly surprised to know that he was a disciple of the late KVN and currently pursuing a music degree at Madras University. Moving on, we climbed the narrow ladder on the southern face of the gopuram that runs upto the Dakshinamurthy sannidhi. A fine ‘Dakshinamurthe’ in Shankarabharanam from Ganesh and we were moving again, taking in the 108 shivalingams along the periphery of the temple.

Temple visits done with, it was time to head back to the hotel, freshen up and set out once again to Tiruvaiyaru. Shashi & Ganesh were slotted to sing at 8.15 pm, but we got there well ahead of time and sure enough, the concerts were running much behind schedule, thus giving us enough time for a quick visit to Tirumanjana Veedhi, where Tyagaraja’s house is located. You would easily miss the house in the blink of an eye, among several similar nondescript ones in that row, if not for the perfunctory toranams and extra fluorescent lamp on the occasion of the Aradhana. If you expected a serene classical atmosphere at the bard’s house, you would be sorely disappointed, for the Kalyana Mandapam next door was packed to capacity and the music blaring from the loudspeakers was the choicest dappanguthu from Kollywood. Tyagaraja’s soul has probably reconciled to the changing times, leaving us lesser beings to do the breast-beating about the decline in popular tastes…

The house itself is rather dilapidated and the man in charge was clearly in a hurry to lock up for the night, Aradhana or no Aradhana! We stretched his patience a bit, with the musicians in our group singing several kritis at a leisurely pace and Yours Truly lingering quite a while on the faded photographs and other memorabilia in the house. I was keen to visit the temple of Dharmasamvarddhani, but the late hour and the impending concert put paid to my hopes. Returning to the samadhi, it was good to see the large crowds listening keenly to the sequence of 20-minute concerts proceeding with clinical precision on the dual stage. As one set of performers concluded their act, the next was already tuned up and set to go on the adjoining stage. It was almost like watching a limited-overs cricket match and I was wondering when this condensed kutcheri culture would come to Chennai, where the concert durations are already in exponential decay during the season!

Shashikiran & Ganesh performing at the Aradhana

The short duration and the heavy demand for ‘slots’ means no alapanas, neravals and swarams. Sit down, reel off two or three kritis in quick succession and get the hell out… that’s the norm. It’s almost like an assembly line for the bard’s compositions and you do get an overdose of some popular pieces. But dedication, merit and class will shine through, no matter what. And it’s the sheer spirit of the occasion that is of supreme importance, amply reflected in the enthusiasm of the crowds even late at night, lapping up the evergreen compositions. We remained at the venue quite a while, taking in some good and some mediocre music, browsing around the makeshift stalls that hawked everything from tavil straps to timeshare holidays, running into several acquaintances, drinking watery tea and peeping into King Kunnakudi’s quarters where he was presiding over a mini-durbar. Heading back to Thanjavur late at night and onto Chennai early next morning, one’s mind was a mixed bag of the emotions noted at the beginning of these reminiscences.

Would I go back to Tiruvaiyaru? Maybe not for another Aradhana, but surely yes, at a quieter time… to take in the several sights and sites left unseen in this first outing. The Cauvery may not be as full, the paddy not as green and the tender coconut not as fresh as this first time, but the spirit of the saint will linger and beckon both musician and music-lover. Long live Tyagaraja!

— Ramanathan N. Iyer

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  • B Radhika Ravi

    Dear Mr. Ramanathan iyer,

    I am so happy to see your article, particularly the photographs of sri Thyagaraja’s house!

    My husband and I visited the saint’s house in august 2003. It was a beautiful experience. We had reached at 3pm, the house was locked. A very enthusiastic neighbour lady called for saint Thyagaraja’s brother’s( Japesan) great grand daughter living nearby who opened the house for us. We stood mesmerised, it was such an emotional moment. I sat down in front of the idol of the saint and sang ‘Nanu Kanna Thalli, naa bhagyama’.

    Kindly post some more pictures of the house. Also you mentioned there was a puja room. All we saw was a large central room withpillars on one side. The roof was leaking with rain water. So, the idol of the saint was placed in the centre of the room which was dry. Unfortunately for us our camera stopped functioning, so could  not take any photos.

    I will be grateful if you could please reply to this post explaining the orientation of the saint’s house.



  • LondonRasika

    Sadly the house described is no longer standing for younger musicians like myself to see, as it has been ‘converted’ into a memorial instead of being restored. Visited Tiruvaiyaru two years ago I was very saddened to find that the house where Tyagaraja was born, as well as the house where Syama Sastri was born have all been demolished and memorials built on their site! If only the Indian government had protected these priceless buildings, but alas they are now lost forever. I recommend rasikas visit Walajapet near Chennai to see the house of Tyagaraja’s disciple, where the saint stayed – before it too is ‘converted’!