Chennai: City of festivals 
- Lalitha Venkat 

November 28, 2008 
In Chennai, one does not need to wait till December to have a feast of cultural programs. The round of festivities start from October itself during Navaratri time, with Navaratri music and dance concerts being staged in auditoriums and temples, and the display of artistic kolus in homes as well as in many temples. There are also kolu contests and prizes given for the best displays by some local media and organizations.  

The kolu display arranged by the Mylapore Trio of Sri Sumukhi Rajasekaran Foundation in 5 rooms of their apartment (only the kitchen escaped!), had the 64 arts as its central theme. Apart from toys that they have inherited from their family, many who cannot take care of their antique toys donate them to the Trio, knowing they will be well taken care of. Amarnath, Surendranath and Aparna, took care to explain everything to the visitors. Apart from the 64 arts and the main display, they also had two sections set aside for Vaishnavite and Saivite themes, for dance, for music, a patriotic theme, Palani Hills, Thiruvannamalai hills, Srirangam theme, Brahmotsavam, Marapachi and other old wooden dolls, heritage monuments of Mahabalipuram, their alma mater Kalakshetra (with the beautiful model of the koothambalam being constructed out of ice cream sticks!) and the netherworld to Vaikuntam. When they sang a song with hand movements explaining a particular story taking place in heaven, the dolls became the characters. It takes them the better part of 2 to 3 months to come up with a theme and the challenge lies in visualizing them with the dolls at their disposal. It is interesting to think that these very same dolls would become different characters next year! Since the display is open to anyone who is interested, those who missed it this year could check it out next year. 

The time slot for Bharat Sangeet Utsav organized by Carnatica and Sri Parthasarathy Swami Sabha is ideally set in the first 10 days of November when people can enjoy the music of stalwarts and upcoming artistes in peace, without the hurry burry and concert hopping of the rushed December season. About 3 concerts take place everyday at the spacious Narada Gana Sabha auditorium, and the most heartening thing about the festival is the relaxed, friendly atmosphere, sticking to the time slot and no needless speeches and fuss. Best of all, the concerts are absolutely free and attract full house. Some Carnatic music concerts I could attend were of P Unnikrishnan, Nithyasri Mahadevan, Neyveli Santhanagopalan, S Sowmya, Sudha Raghunathan and T V Sankaranarayanan. Ashwini Bhide Deshpande presented Marathi abhangs with an enlightening intro to every piece and Pt Sanjeev Abhyankar's Hindustani vocal concert included a number in raag Malkhauns and Shuddha Kalyani. Both the artistes are regularly featured in the utsav. Perhaps next year we could get to see different Hindustani musicians, as they are rarely featured in Chennai. The violin jugalbandhi of Prof. T N Krishnan and his sister N Rajam was enthralling, with the former playing the Carnatic style and the latter the Hindustani style.  

As usual, the sangita upanyasam by all time favorite Visaka Hari, a regular utsav artiste, was a huge success. This year's theme was on Narayana Theertha. The earlier years, she has presented on Bhakta Ramdas and Purandaradasa. As she described the baby Krishna as Narayana Theertha envisioned him, with chubby cheeks, plump little body, anklets tinkling as he crawled, giving that innocent look with big, round eyes, the audience sighed in ecstasy, as if they could see baby Krishna themselves!  "Don't look at him like that. You will put the evil eye on him." Answers the gopika, "He's the one who's giving me that funny look with those big, round eyes," and the audience laughed indulgently. With her easy to understand descriptions followed by relevant songs, Visaka is able to reach out to her adoring audience easily.  Another regular, OS Arun presented very inspired Carnatic bhajans accompanied by Embar S Kannan on violin, K V Prasad on mridangam and Kiran Kumar on tabla. His final number on Vittala had the audience clapping and singing along without any prompting.  

Subhasree Thanikachalam presented young classical musicians and playback singers in the age group of 18 to 22, in Isayin Varnajalam, a 2 hour program on the morning of November 9. A very young Subashini sang "Giridhara Gopala" in Mohana ragam, made immortal by MS Subbulakshmi in 'Meera.' Another very young singer Srinidhi sang "Unnazhagai Kanniyargal" in Hamsadwani ragam, from the film 'Uthama Puthiran' composed by G Ramanathan. Since the Kurukshetra war took place in north India, composer MS Viswanathan used mainly Hindustani ragas in 'Karnan' and Pradeep's rendition of "Ullathil Nalla Ullam" with incredible lyrics by poet Kannadasan, was very moving. "Iravum Nilavum," another song from 'Karnan' in Shuddha Sarangi was sung by Harish Kumar and Saindavi. "Kathiruppaan Kamalakannan" in ragamalika, composed by G Ramanathan, sung by playback singer Vinaya showed that she has more talent than seen from her popular film songs. The young Srinidhi and Suhasini sang the duet "Androru naal idhey nilavil" composed by MS Viswanathan in Desh. Impressed by their rendition of this song, actor/director Suhasini Mani Ratnam took the girls for a program she had arranged in Singapore just to sing this number to a 3000 strong audience. One of the most remarkable singers of yesteryears was MK Thyagaraja Bhagavatar, whose voice range was phenomenal. When Subhasree asked Pradeep to learn "Vadaname Chandra bimbamo" in Sindhu Bhairavi, he was actually reluctant to since "MKT laments in 5 1/2 kattai..!" Needless to say, he received thunderous applause.  

Subhasree went on next to introduce usage of gana ragams in film songs. Bharat Sundar, who has started giving Carnatic vocal stage concerts, presented the TM Soundarajan hit "Madhavi pon mayilaai" in Karaharapriya. Saindhavi sang P Susheela's "Maraindhirundhu paartha marumam enna" in Shanmugapriya, composed by K S Mahadevan, Vinaya sang "Aadal Kaaneero" of ML Vasanthakumari, Pradeep and Saindhavi sang M Balamuralikrishna's "Thangaratham vandhadhu veedhiyile" in Abhogi, from the film 'Kalai Kovil.' How one can have fun with music without leaving out the classical flavour was shown through a song composed by Adinarayan Rao in Hindolam and comedy in song came forth in "Neeye unakku endrum migaraanavan" where the singers and actors have to both bring out the comedy element. The lilting song "Manjal veyil maalayile" sung originally by CS Jayaraman and ML Vasanthakumari, was rendered by Bharath and Vinaya and the program ended with Pradeep and Saindhavi singing "Aadaadha manamum undoh" composed by the famous duo MS Viswanathan - Ramamurthy.  

Subhasree made the program interesting with some quiz questions for the audience, rewarded with CDs for the right answer, little snippets of information and the program was interspersed with demonstrations of the relevant ragas on the chitraveena by Chitraveena Ganesh. She stressed on the importance of choosing the right singers for the right songs that brings out the immense potential of these young singers. Such programs are interesting and informative and we also come to know of the many talented youngsters in our city. A thoroughly enjoyable morning!  

No sooner than the Carnatica fest is over, than The Hindu Friday Review November Fest concerts start at the Music Academy after a 2 to 3 day gap. This year is the fourth edition and their aim is to hold the festival before the actual season starts since they feature different genres of music and their fest thus has a unique identity from other festivals. The first day of November 14 featured the "queen of thumri," veteran Hindustani vocalist, 79 year old Girija Devi, for whom "singing is prayer." She is a recipient of Padma Bhushan and a documentary titled 'Girija' records her life in music. Special guest Vyjayanthimala Bali presented her with a shawl. Her 2 hour recital of khyal and thumri, included a song that she said would make "her younger sister" Vyjayanthimala dance!  

It took some time for her to settle down because the lights beaming down throwing patterns like swirls and stars on the stage was a bit distracting! Like disco lights!  

She was accompanied by Sunanda Sharma on vocal support, Kapil Sharma on harmonium, Kamaal Sabri on sarangi and Sanjay Adhikari on tabla. Girija Devi performed in Chennai after 15 years! It was a relief to note that the balcony seats of Music Academy have been renovated with lot of leg room between rows, so we don't have to sit cramped for a tortuous 2 hours and totter up on stiff legs!  

Girija Devi
Shuba Mudgal
Sriram Parasuram
(Pics courtesy: The Hindu Friday Review Nov Fest brochure)

"Kahe Kabira' based on the songs of 15th century mystic saint poet Kabir, was a jugalbandhi of folk and classical by Prahlad Singh Tipaniya and Sriram Parasuram. The evening started with a song in praise of the guru. "Fearlessly from the rooftop, I shall sing the glory of the formless one" was elaborated in "Nirbhai nirgun" by Sriram. "Hum pardes panchi baba" - I'm not a bird of this land - by Tipaniya was soulful. The songs were generally about the greatness of the true lord as in "sacha sahib ek tu" set in rag Madhukauns and the yearning of the soul to go to a land where there is undifferentiated bliss.  It was an evening steeped in philosophy and the brief explanations given by Sriram and Tipaniya helped understand the meaning better. It was a balanced, yet relaxed performance. The evening had its touch of humour too with Tipaniya saying he had no knowledge of any raagas like Sriram, but was only singing what has been handed down generations orally.  Being a govt employee, he was not given permission to travel to Chennai for the performance and an sos call had The Hindu intervene and help him out! Tipaniya gifted Sriram a turban, like he and his fellow accompanists from Malwa were wearing.  

The final day saw a performance by Shuba Mudgal and her musical ensemble Koshish, meaning 'attempt,' an attempt to try out new things and create a dialogue between musicians of different genre. The first half featured songs sung to poems by Gulzar, Faiz Ahmed Faiz, Sahir Ludhiyanvi and so on, with the singer giving brief introductions to the lyrics. The music is by tabla player Aneesh Pradhan, also husband of Shuba. A brief intermission was followed by indi-pop fast numbers like "Saawariya," "Dholna," "Dere dere" and "Sikho na" and she finished the evening with her popular rain song "Ab ke saawan."  Though melodious, the first half was somewhat slow and by the time the audience adjusted to the tempo of the 'rocking' second half (pre-recorded music was used "since all musicians could not be present," making the musicians present on stage a bit superfluous), the show was over!