Saturday, 9 May 2020

Bhiksham Dehi- Unchavritti Tradition

Bhiksham Dehi- Unchavritti Tradition

Bhiksham Dehi! Bhiksham Dehi! The first act of an initiated Brahmin after the Upanayanam ceremony is to go to his own mother with a bowl and say, Bhiksham Dehi.
Saints of our country Bharatavarsh followed this Unchavritti tradition as part of their worship. By observing Unchavritti, those who did answer his call at the doorstep were also blessed. Those who give bhiksha do not do so out of pity, but consider it an honour. To give bhiksha is an act of good karma, a noble act. Bhiksha has a whole philosophy behind it and cannot be translated as begging. Begging is a tamasaic while Bhiksha is a satvik guna. It has a long been a spiritual and religious tradition in our country.
Buddha and his monks, Sadguru Tyagaraja, Shirdi Saibaba, Sridhara Ayyaval, and many more than I can name here followed this noble tradition.

Every morning after a bath and offering service to the gods, the seeker sets out on the streets. He sings the name of the deities and the village wakes up to melodious music. The women or men of the house come to the street and offer a bowl of rice or pulses into the earthen bowl held out by the saint. The offering could be grain or fruit or whatever is possible for the householder. When he  feels it is enough for his family for the day, he stops and returns home. His wife and children, if any, willingly follow the tradition.

Unchavritti tradition is followed by saints who have renounced the world to dedicate themselves to the chanting of the deity’s name, be it Rama or Siva. This frugal lifestyle demands that one does not hoard food grains but live on what others offer him. It means he does not ever work for a living because work as employee or employer will tie him down to the bonds of material life. It relieves him of the tensions of having to hoard money, protect that wealth and then accumulate worldly material comforts. This in turn prevents him from involving in criminal acts like cheating others in the business. The saint’s mind is filled only with good thoughts, blessings and prayers for all, and total dedication to the supreme. Unchavritti disciplines the mind and destroys ego.

Sadguru Tyagaraja (4th May 1767 -6th January 1847) was initiated into Rama Mantra by his Guru Ramakrishnananda. Even as a child he was drawn into singing and composing kritis in praise of Sri Rama. His compositions became very popular and many disciples sat at his feet to learn and propagate these compositions. The news reached the Thanjavur Maratha king’s court who commanded him to attend his court. Tyagaraja not so humbly refused, asking,” What gives happiness? Wealth -Nidhi or Sri Rama’s shrine- sannidhi?” His own brother could not understand this madness of spurning wealth that came to their doorstep and threw the idol of Rama into the Kaveri.
Sadguru Tyagaraja faced great sorrows, trials and tribulation caused by jealous contemporaries and even his own family. His fame and honour grew irrespective of abuses hurled at him. Tyagaraja’s contribution to our music, religion and philosophy is immense and cannot be stained by lesser mortals. They do so because of arrogance and ignorance. May Sri Rama bless their souls.

Saturday, 22 February 2020

Kalakshetra Shri M. R. Krishnamurthy

In 1966, I joined Kalakshetra after completing a gruelling five-year course under Smt. Uma Devi, an alumna of Kalakshetra. After my arangetram, my teacher insisted that I join Kalakshetra for further training.  Training under her, learning the time-honoured items like the taxing Varnam and Thillana was so perfect that I could perform with my cousin without a rehearsal. When I joined, my initial few months was spent in polishing the posture and the adavus. I became aware of the finer points of eye movements, nuances and delicate flourishes of the wrist and shoulder, and the all important araimandi. I would get back to the ‘mirror’ cottage every afternoon and practice my adavus every day, without rest after lunch break. One afternoon, Kittu Anna as he was fondly addressed, came in wielding his thattukazhi threateningly, or so I thought. From that day for several months he took my class, one to one, encouraging me, explaining the importance of practicing three speeds and so on. His favourite word was ‘inhibition’. He immediately understood that I was timid and anxious to make the grade. He would repeat emphatically, do not have any inhibitions, be bold, you are working so hard, all will end well. I owe so much to Kittu Anna for his kindness, encouragement and the time he gave me.
Professor M. R. Krishnamurthy joined Kalakshetra when he was sixteen years of age with a three-year Government Scholarship under his arm.  Blessed with an impressive personality, he dedicated himself to dance and was trained under Rukmini Devi. He was fortunate to get his foundation for Bharata Natyam, under great teachers like Sarada Hoffman, Smt. Vasantha Vedam, Smt. Jayalakshmi, Pushpa Shankar and Mylapore Gowri Ammal. He learnt Kathakali under the legendary Chandu Panikker Asan. Bhagavata mela Guru Balu Bhagavatar was resident in the campus and trained students like Krishnamurthy, Janardanan, Dhananjayan and Shankar Hombal.
He played major roles in the famous Kalakshetra dance-dramas. As Jatayu, Vibheeshana, and Sugriva in the Ramayana series, Brahmana in Rukmini Kalyanam and Shakuntala are some that come to mind immediately.
Born in 1936, his dance career continued to bloom after he left the institution to establish his own in Bengaluru. ‘Kalakshithi’ is his homage to his Guru Rukmini Devi. He dedicatedly follows all the tenets and values he had imbibed at Kalakshetra. He never wavered from the Kalakshetra Bani and continued to uphold the strict adherence to the technical perfection ingrained in him for decades. He demands the same discipline and perfection from his students. His sister Rukma Narain is the pillar of support for his career and is the backbone of Kalakshithi. The school campus is artistically designed by her and has a beautiful theatre space designed by her. The classy stamp of beauty and refined taste in the d├ęcor is evident everywhere.

The school recently celebrated 25 years and a few contemporary artistes and colleagues were honoured on this occasion.
He has presented his students in various platforms. His choreographic presentations in classic themes like Pancha Kanya, Rasa Vilasa, Gokula Nirgamana, and Akka Mahadevi.
He has been honoured with prestigious awards: Chandana Puraskara (2014), Attendance Rukmini Devi Award (2012), Natya Tapasvi (2001, Karnataka Kalashri(1998)

I met Kittu Anna this year (February 2018) to gift my book Bhagavata Mela My Tryst with Tradition. It was an emotional and nostalgic meeting. My heart was overflowing with gratitude to have trained under such a wonderful teacher.

Bhagavata Mela in Kalakshetra

 This article is a homage to our dear Peria Sarada teacher. The later generations of students were not fortunate to know her, or the many names mentioned here, but they should remember that they formed the backbone of Kalakshetra and its famous dance -dramas.  
The connection between Kalakshetra and Bhagavata Mela is brought to light by S. Sarada Teacher, in her book, ‘Kalakshetra-Rukmini Devi’ (1985)

S. Sarada Teacher or Peria Sarada as she was known was the backbone of Kalakshetra dance-dramas all her active life. Fascinated by Rukmini Devi’s beauty, talent, and vision from the first day she witnessed her historic public performance in 1935, she felt drawn towards those ideals. In her book ‘Kalakshetra-Rukmini Devi’ published in 1985, Sarada teacher gives us a fairly detailed account of the genesis of the dance-dramas from bud to bloom. This is a valuable book as it gives us a ring-side view to the work development of the dance-dramas. Peria Sarada was so dear to all of us and so accessible. She never wore her erudition, seniority, and importance like a chip on her shoulder. She remained modest and unassuming all her life.
I was a frequent visitor to Chennai for the December season for in the 80’s. On every visit I would make it a point to meet G. Sundari teacher and Sarada teacher at the Theosophical Society, Adyar. In 1985, she presented this book to me, with her own signature, making it an invaluable possession.

She graciously agreed to come for my performance of ‘Sumathi Tyagaraja’ at the Rasika Ranjani Sabha at Mylapore and presided as Chairperson in the panel over my Bhagavata Mela lec-dem and presentation at the Krishna Gana Sabha NatyaKala Conference and the Bhagavata Mela  performance at Sri Kabaliswar temple in 1994. Others on the panel were Sri.V.P. Dhananjayan (Convenor of the Conference) and Dr. Arudra.

In this book, Sarada teacher has explained how Bhagavata Mela came to Kalakshetra.
In those days when Bhagavata mela was unknown and buried in the deep interiors of Thanjavur, scholars like Mohan Khokar, Dr. V. Raghavan and E. Krishna Iyer wrote about it in newspapers. Sarada came across an article by Mohan Khokar which mentioned the dancer-musician Natesa Iyer, who was known for his attempts to revive Bhagavata Mela. She knew both his daughters, Kunjamma and Kalyani who were childhood friends. She got in touch with the latter and broached the subject of lending the manuscripts of a few natakams. Kalyani Ammal gave Kalakshetra Natesa Iyer’s notebooks which had Prahlada Charitram, Usha Parinayam and Markandeya Charitram. As these were Grantha script, Venkatrama Sastri, the Telugu Pandit of the Adyar Library wrote them down in Sanskrit for use at Kalakshetra. Kalyani ammal then taught the Kalakshetra musicians the songs of Prahlada Charitram and Usha Parinayanam.

E.Krishna Iyer, a dancer and revivalist himself, was instrumental in introducing Rukmini Devi to Sadir and Bhagavata Mela. He suggested that Balu Bhagavatar of Melattur be invited to stay at Kalakshetra and help with the production. He came with his sister, who was his caretaker, and resided on the campus for several months.

Bhagavathar explained that Prahlada Charitram was a sacred natakam and many are rituals associated with it. It was to be performed in a purified environment by hereditary Bhagavatars. The Narasimha mask was worshipped in the temple and cannot be taken out. So, Usha Parinayam was selected.
Balu Bhagavatar and Kalyani Ammal taught them many theermanams from these natakams. “Balu Bhagavatar also taught the traditional method of using the movements, dance-patterns, characterisation”

Pandit Venkatachala Sastri, and Vidwan Thuraiyur Rajagopala Sarma helped in editing of the natakams. In 1970, all these stalwarts were an unforgettable part of our lives.
While composing of Usha Parinayam had begun, Rukmini Devi wanted to compose a short one hour drama and selected Rukmangada  Charitram. The Melattur Guru and Kalyani Ammal “were happy to see this Kalakshetra production, because it brought out the excellences of this type of dance-dramas.”
S.Sarada explains, “ Though Rukmini Devi followed the Bhagavatamela tradition basically in style and pattern when presenting Usha Parinayam…she completely modified the stage presentation., the scenes and the movements and positions of the various characters.”
In 1964, Rukmini Kalyanam was composed and presented. Kalyani Ammal gave the manuscripts and taught the songs. In 1966 when I joined Kalakshetra, the production was on in full speed. Although a fresh student, I was selected for the group dance of the Krishna Sabdam. I distinctly remember Balu Bhagavatar sitting outside the then Kathakali Cottage (opposite the Banyan tree) or watching us during class.
In 1971, the government sponsored the production of Dhruva Charitram to be produced in consultation with Balu Bhagavatar. At this time, Harishchandra was also selected but was found to be too long and as Rukmini Devi reacted by saying ‘it is too distressing to see the burning ghat scene, and the terrible suffering of the king and his wife.’ Dhruva Charitram was performed using the traditional aspects of Bhagavata Mela natakams like Konangi, Ganesha Patra Pravesham and Patra Pravesham of the major characters. Sarada Hoffman (Chinna Sarada) assisted Bhagavatar in the dance compositions.
For more information on Bhagavata Mela, its history, natakams and much more do read my book ‘Bhagavata Mela, My Tryst with Tradition’ published in January this year.


This is an excerpt from my book ‘Bhagavata Mela My Tryst with Tradition’ which was published in 2018. This excerpt gives details of my decade long work with Melattur Bhagavata Mela Natya Vidya Sangam.


My first exposure to an authentic Bhagavata Mela performance was in Mumbai in December 1992. The high standard of pure classical music and sparkling artistic talent shone through their obvious discomfort on the sterile environs of a modern stage. The actors appeared like an anachronism, archaic characters from ancient times standing bewildered in an alien environment. The vast theatre with more than a thousand seats was empty but for ten enthusiasts.
As a regular freelance writer on arts for The Times of India and The Hindu, I approached the artistes for an interview. I took a few photographs inside the green room. They were a little unnerved by their experience of performing in Mumbai. They asked me to meet them again the next day at the guest house they were staying.
It was here that they poured their heart out about the problems they face every year. They asked me to attend the festival the following year to witness Prahlada Charitram. They discussed their problems of keeping the tradition going and requested help and guidance.
I was nonchalant and knew that going to Melattur during summer holidays was quite impossible. I wrote a piece for The Times of India and forgot about the invitation.
Three months later, on 12 March 1993, S. Gopalakrishnan, the secretary of Natya Vidya Sangam, and Srinivasan, R. Mahalingam’s father-in-law, visited Mumbai again (amid the riots) to persuade me to attend the Melattur festival that year and take over as honorary chairperson. I was hesitant and unsure of the extent of involvement my commitment would entail. Among those present at home was the legendary violinist Shri T.N. Krishnan who persuaded me to accept the request. He promised to help me in any way he could. He later kept his word.
May 1993
Travelling with me to Melattur in May 1993 were my parents and Smt. Shanta Gokhale, the eminent theatre personality, author, and historian.
The play Prahlada Charitram was truly a splendid presentation and I was mesmerised by the young dancer Nagarajan who played Leelavathi and R. Mahalingam (Mali) who donned the fearsome crown of Hiranyakashipu. The Manifestation of Narasimha avatar was a spine-tingling experience.
The next evening there was no performance as it was rest day at Melattur. I went with a group to Saliyamangalam, another village where Bhagavata Mela was conducted regularly, to watch Prahlada Charitram. There was a fascinating difference in the music, dialogues, and presentation.
Bhagavata Mela’s scripts had been safeguarded from the general public so far. There was no awareness of the greatness of this special genre of literature and style of music. Dr V. Raghavan of the Music Academy (Chennai) had earlier published the script of Prahlada Charitram with music notation after extensive research and study of various versions.
The Natya Vidya Sangam revived and staged a new natakam the following day. Mali’s son Vinod had his debut as Seetha in Seetharama Kalyanam.
For the first time, the Sangam’s pandits, N. Viswanathan and Thanjavur N. Srinivasan, collaborated with Sarasvati Mahal Library to publish Melattur Venkatrama Sastri’s Seetharama Kalyanam. The manuscript only indicates the ragas and talas for the darus and credit for reconstructing the music goes to L. Venkatesa Iyengar. The script is printed in Devanagari, followed by transcription in Tamil. Explanatory notes for each scene are provided in Tamil. This book was released at the festival.
The Sangam decided to announce my name as the chairperson and I was given a formal welcome in a speech by B. Herambanathan. Arulthiru Sayimatha Siva Dr Brinda Devi was the chief guest. R. Mahalingam and his father K. Ramalinga Iyer were on the stage. Thus began a tumultuous decade of activity punctuated with my annual visits to Melattur and the Sangam’s visits to Mumbai.
I returned home to Mumbai with a heart full of possibilities and a head full of ideas. The first interview was with Melattur Ganesa Bhagavatar, a prominent personality in Mumbai. At his home we spoke at length about the history of the tradition and the people behind its revival. Here I met G. Krishnamurthy Sarma, musician and Sanskrit scholar, who had assisted Balu Bhagavatar in his heyday as a singer and conductor. As a youngster, Ganesa Bhagavatar said he had played the role of Bhoomi Devi.
The appealing music, sincerity of the artists, and the charm of the technique compelled me to accept this challenge in October 1993. I had no experience of working with an organisation. The distance was a concern. But here was a precious living art tradition which was obviously dying. The emphasis is on the devotional aspect, but how can we allow a potentially rich art to become defunct through neglect?
My priority therefore was to initiate serious research in the history of Bhagavata Mela. The team had erudite scholars like Pandit N. Viswanathan of the Thanjavur Maharaja Serfoji Sarasvati Mahal Library. He is the author of several publications which include translations of Tamil, Telugu, and Marathi lyrics. He has published a compilation of “Five Marathi Natakams” which includes the Marathi natakam Sakuntala by Ekoji II. He initiated the idea that we should perform a Marathi natakam. Sanskrit Pandit Thanjavur Shri N. Srinivasan has been enthusiastically involved in historical research and scrutiny of manuscripts. A popular Harikatha artiste, he is also the lead singer on the stage. The second priority was to create awareness among the connoisseurs and dance scholars about this dance tradition. I spoke to many scholars and patrons and asked them for guidance.
I consulted legendary musicians like Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer, M.S. Subbulakshmi, D.K. Pattammal, Shri T.N. Krishnan, Shri G. Venu (Kudiyattam), T.S. Parthasarathy, and Smt. Shanta and Shri V.P. Dhananjayan, my gurus at Kalakshetra.
The Central Sangeet Natak Akademi responded to my petition and doubled the annual allowance from that year not only for the Melattur sangams but for all the villages. They had no funds to continue the tradition of celebrating a ten-day festival. In 1994, I recommended that we prune this to three days, to the great relief of the artistes and their families. I also encouraged them to revive one forgotten play every year.
I was associated with the artistes of one group in Melattur called Natya Vidya Sangam. The other group in the same village, Natya Nataka Sangam was run by Shri. S. Natarajan. It was my privilege that I could meet Natarajan’s father G. Swaminathan, the legendary actor and doyen of Bhagavata Mela. Though he was frail due to age-related issues, I was accorded a warm welcome in his home. I attended the Prahlada Charitram natakam performed by Shri Natarajan’s group. I was impressed with the performance of the two brothers Natarajan and Kumar as Leelavathi and Hiranyakashipu respectively. The music was excellent and the sincerity and devotion of this group was palpable. They perform on a stage in front of the temple entrance and the audience sit on the road leading to it.
When both groups perform Prahlada Charitam on the same night, the same Narasimha mask has to be used for the last scene. In such a situation, one group begins two hours earlier and hands over the mask at the temple in time for the next group. If Shri Natarajan, who lived and worked abroad, was unable to perform on the Narasimha Jayanti Day, his group’s festival would be held at the earliest suitable date.
January 1994
I was formally appointed as chairperson in October 1993 and the first five-day festival in Mumbai was organized in January 1994. Within those two months I persuaded four organisations to sponsor the performances — Kala Rasika Sangam (Sion), Gana Kala Vidya Nilayam (Goregaon), Andhra Mahasabha (Dadar), and N.C.P.A. (Nariman Point). An invitation to city dancers and the print media brought in much publicity.
One of the most beautiful events was a traditional welcome to the Bhagavatars by T. K. Mahalingam Pillai and Kalasadan Mani, respected Bharata Natyam gurus of Mumbai. They felt that, as the artistes of this tradition were coming here for the first time, they must express their respect and admiration for them. The artistes were greeted with nadaswaram (temple pipe instruments) players and traditional poorna-kumbham (tray with coconuts, fruits, and betel leaves). The committee of Kala Rasika Sangam presented the Melattur artistes with a purse and a citation. A travelling suitcase for every member of the troupe was sponsored by a well-wisher. Hundreds of the city’s dancers were present to welcome the torch-bearers of this ancient tradition. Ganesa Bhagavatar offered all guests the customary panagam (spiced jaggery drink), the traditional Lakshmi Narasimhaswami prasad (offering) from the Bhajana Samaj Sri Rama temple. The visiting artistes were enthusiastic and cooperated whole-heartedly. They performed an excerpt from a natakam for the audience.
I must confess that it was not roses all the way, for thorns were scattered by prickly local bandicoots with vested interests and other “traditionalists” to stall this first Bhagavata Mela festival in Mumbai. The first blow came from the main conductor of the troupe who refused to join at the last minute, so a substitute was urgently summoned. The dancers rehearsed with him during the train journey. In Mumbai, some staged a door-to-door campaign and threatened those who supported the festival with ostracism from religious functions.
I realised then that my mission must be significant and important enough to provoke such a reaction. It is to the credit of Guru Kalasadan Mani and the Melattur Sangam that they stood staunchly by me and my efforts. I was determined to continue my work regardless.
There were two full-house performances at the Gana Kala Vidya Nilayam at Goregaon, and the audience was spellbound by the Sangam’s performances. The other two performances in Andhra Mahasabha at Dadar and N.C.P.A. at Nariman Point were also well-received.
I must express my immense gratitude to my husband Ramnath Raman who supported my involvement with the Sangam. He designed and printed flyers, posters and playlists, and arranged the transport to all corners of the city every time the troupe visited.
April 1994
Sruti, a magazine for the arts requested me to write a cover story about the tradition for their April 1994 issue to time with the annual Narasimha Jayanti festival. This was an honour for the Natya Vidya Sangam which had been languishing without popular support or appreciation. At that time, the magazine was considered a dignified supporter of artistes and encouraged research-oriented articles from scholars. In the feature, I covered many aspects of Bhagavata Mela and included a report on the Saliyamangalam tradition as well. The front cover featured the Narasimha mask.
May 1994
This special issue of Sruti drummed up great interest and a record-breaking one thousand strong audience attended the festival at Melattur that year. Shri V.P. Dhanajayan and Smt. Shanta Dhananjayan inaugurated the festival. Journalists from Mumbai, Hyderabad, Delhi, and Chennai like R.G. Krishna of the Illustrated Weekly of India, R. Sethuraman of Sruti, and V.A.K. Ranga Rao, eminent dance critic and scholar, witnessed the natakams.
December 1994
In 1994, the next three-day Bhagavata Mela festival was held in Chennai. The pandits, N. Viswanathan and N. Srinivasan, and some other artistes came with me to personally invite eminent personalities.
For the first time ever, Bhagavata Mela performed Parvathi Kalyanam inside the precincts of Sri Kapaliswara temple in Chennai during the peak “music season” in December. This was possible with the kind courtesy of Shri Nalli Kuppuswami Chetti. More than three thousand people turned up in the audience. The chief guests were D.K. Pattammal and Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer. It was attended by scholars, dancers, and musicians, my Guru S. (Peria) Sarada, Dr Arudra, T.S. Parthasarathy, A.S. Raman (former editor, Illustrated Weekly of India, who promoted the arts through this magazine), Smt. Vani Jairam, Nirmala Ramachandran, Malavika Sarukkai, U.S. Rao and his wife Chandrabhaga, to name a few. A souvenir was released by Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer and T.S. Parthasarathy received the first copy. A local television channel gave full coverage to the event.
The next day I was invited to give a presentation at the prestigious Natya Kala Conference at Krishna Gana Sabha. Shri V.P. Dhananjayan was the convenor that year. He invited me to present the Bhagavata Mela artistes as the subject of an illustrative lecture-demonstration “Then and Now”. I spoke about the changes in the costume, make-up, and presentation of Bhagavata Mela in the last century. The lecture ended with a dance demonstration by the artistes. After a panel discussion with Dr Arudra, my gurus S. Sarada, and Shri Dhananjayan, there was an interactive session with the jury, critics, and journalists in the audience.
On the third day, T.S. Parthasarathy, secretary for the Music Academy, had invited me to present a demonstration about “Dance Music in Bhagavata Mela” at the prestigious annual Experts Committee Conference. I requested Shri R. Mahalingam (Mali) to take the opportunity. He used the music of Usha Parinayam, Harishchandra, and Prahlada Charitram to augment his lecture with a demonstration by Bhagavata Mela dancers.
May 1995
The next script to be published was Markandeya in May 1995. The publication of the Natya Vidya Sangam was sponsored by my husband R. Raman. In the Foreword to this book I have mentioned the unique versatility of this tradition which “encompasses music, dance and theatre. The structure of the play includes a rich variety of poetic devices which ensures its status as outstanding literature.” The play was staged for the first time at the annual festival.
October 1995
 In October of the same year, the Sangam was back again in Mumbai in full strength. They participated in the Kuchipudi Conference organised by Kuchipudi Kala Kendra. At another venue, I presented a lecture-demonstration on “Patrapravesha in Bhagavata Mela”, with a demonstration by the Sangam artistes.
The breathless pace of activity of the preceding year left us all exhilarated and determined to continue the lucky phase. There was no stopping the juggernaut which had started to roll.
May 1996
The annual festival at Melattur was a great success with the revival and staging of Krishna Leela Jananam.
After the festival, a group of us went to Madurai and organised publicity for the event through Dinamalar, the daily newspaper of Madurai which had issued a supplement for the 1994 festival.
January 1997
It was my husband’s suggestion that the Sangam should perform in Thiruvaiyaru during the 150th Aradhana of Saint Tyagaraja in January 1997. It would be a tribute to Tyagaraja, who belonged to the Bhagavata Mela tradition.
For the first time ever, the temple authorities of the Panchanadiswara temple gave permission for performances inside the vast precincts for two nights during the Aradhana week. The Sangam selected the plays Harishchandra and Rukmini Kalyanam, to be staged in Thiruvaiyaru, both noted for its excellent musical values.
My entire family including my husband, children, parents, and sister went on this week-long pilgrimage to Thiruvaiyaru. Thanjavur was the base camp. We were also celebrating our 25th wedding anniversary.
We visited my father’s home in Thirumangalakudi, my mother’s birthplace Tiruchirappalli besides Thiruvarur, Thiruvidaimarudur, Mannargudi, Kumbhakonam, and Melattur. We rented a house near the Panchanadiswara temple which could accommodate us, the artistes, and other guests. The popular Tamil weekly magazine Kumudam had sent a senior journalist to interview us. Dinamalar brought out a supplement on the Aradhana and Bhagavata Mela. Other magazines wrote extensively on this unique event which almost overshadowed the Aradhana concerts. There was talk that the Aradhana organisers might prevent our shows from taking place. Five thousand people thronged the spacious temple on both days as the Sangam performed the plays in full length. Umayalapuram Sivaraman, the mridangam maestro was the chief guest on the first day.
May 1997
I missed the annual festival in May 1997 as my father-in-law had passed away and I had to refrain from temple visits for a year. In December, a personal tragedy changed my family’s future. I pulled myself together and brushed it aside to conduct the arangetram of my student in January 1998.
May 1998
I was not sure whether I would be able to attend the Narasimha Jayanti Festival that year, but at the earnest request of the members of the Sangam I decided to attend the festival.
It was at this meeting, in 1998, that we renewed the discussion about the possibility of making the Marathi natakam. I was not confident about the organisation of such a big project, as at that time I had no infrastructural support or funds to pull this off.
I could not visit Melattur in 1999 and 2000. I was working full time at N.C.P.A., the prestigious art institution, and later at a software company related to the arts. Many domestic issues like relocating to a new house, my dance performance, renewing cultural activities, and being at home for my children became priority. Of course, I had already begun work and planning for 2002.
May 2000
In 2000, a tragic event left us all devastated. A fire broke out on the stage of the Natya Vidya Sangam just before the performance of Prahlada Charitram. They called at midnight to inform me. Electrical equipment, costumes, props, and much else was burnt to ashes. Fortunately, no one was hurt. They wanted to know what should be done. I had no idea. Stopping or leaving the festival incomplete is considered sacrilege, so the festival was postponed to the next month.
I was quite shaken and petrified of the religious implications and superstitions that abound such traditions. I had a purifying bath and recited the slokas of Vishnu Sahasranamam (Thousand Names of Vishnu) and Lakshmi Narasimha stotrams till dawn. In the past, the Sangam faced many incidents when attempts were made by local vandals to sabotage the festival. Once, snakes were left loose as the play began, scattering the audience. On another occasion, I personally cleared the stage of glass pieces from a broken tube light on the stage. This was during Prahlada Charitram and Mahalingam, the actor playing Hiranyakashipu, had a large piece embedded in his heel. We removed the glass piece, bandaged the heel, and he continued to perform despite the pain.
January 2001
In January 2001, I attended a two-month residential workshop at Natanakairali, the Kudiyattam centre (Irinjnalakuda) run by G. Venu. It was an international effort and artists from Japan, China, and Sweden participated. I conducted the workshops on Bharata Natyam.
I returned refreshed and more determined to make the Sakuntala natakam a success.
In September, I went to Central Sangeet Natak Akademi, New Delhi to garner support for the festival. It took a year of hard work and constant communication with the Sangam to compose the music, train the actors, design costumes, finalise the venues, and collect funds for the next Mumbai festival in January 2002.
Our destiny is written in the ancient books, our karma designs our life, and the journey is full of omens and signs, whispers and nudges, incidents and coincidences. I look back at my tryst with tradition and the string of coincidences that led to my spending ten years in the service of the art. It was now clear why I was ordained, by the grace of the Universe, to become a small part of the history of twenty-first-century Bhagavata Mela.

Bhagavatamela My Tryst with Tradition’ published by Indus Source Books, Mumbai (2018)
ISBN978-93-85509-08-7 [Includes Digital Resources]

Monday, 21 October 2019

Rare Ruins of Maratha Kings

Ancient temples in Bharat, in the southern regions of magnificent country, are evidence of the high levels of artistry, spirituality and science which mark or history. The spirituality and religious fervour of the Hindu kings that ruled was the reason why we have these gopurams, sculptures, carvings with thousand pillared halls. These structures stand today and inspires us as it did our saints and poets who sang their praises.
On a two-day historical tour to Thanjavur, Mannargudi and Mahadevapattinam with Mystic Palmyra, conducted by historian Pradeep Chakravarthy, I was filled with gratitude and wonder. Gratitude that I could see a thousand-year-old Brihadeeswara temple today and wonder at the passion and devotion behind the vision. As a schoolgirl, skipping behind my father, then as a Bharata Natyam dancer, later as a patron of Bhagavata mela, and now as an author of a book on Thanjavur, I have made over twenty trips here and every time, this temple never fails to impresses me with a different perspective. In this blog I will share information some of which I had only read about and never seen, and some I was not aware.

According to my calendar, Raja Raja Cholan’s birth anniversary falls on October 20. (947- 1014 CE) So many legends surround this temple. The Nayaks and the Marathas enhanced the structure and today we see a temple complex with generous contributions from all of them. The front gopuram is built by the Marathas, as is the temple for Vinayaka. A Vinayaka idol consecrated by Raja Raja is seen in a small shrine behind the temple.
It was thrilling to be in the temple that day as it was Pradosham. We were allowed into the garbha graham for darshanam, thrilled to be within two feet of the Siva Lingam during archana. Unforgettable moments.

Thanjavur Palace , Durbar Hall, art Museum and the Library were mandatory visits.

The evening procession of the Utsava murti around the temple was accompanied by drums. We stayed back till 8.30 that night for Palli Arai Sevai. This is the last rite of the day when Siva enters the bedchamber of Devi. After Devi’s aarathi is done, She is taken inside the bedchamber in a palanquin and the doors close instantly. It is all over in minutes but what a beautiful experience.
Mannargudi Rajagopalaswami temple is vast. Again, we had excellent darshanam. An extra bonus was to be able to hold the golden infant Krishna for a second and pray for a fulfilment of a desire. The priest joked that as in real life, you gift a small amount when you visit a new-born, here too, that we must gift the infant some currency, which we all gladly did.

A many pillared hall inside the temple.

A Tulsi Brindavan inside had carvings and stood on a tortoise pedestal. Elephant heads were seen around the lower level. 

Mahadevapattinam was an eye opener. We visited Raja Gori, the memorial shrines of Maratha Kings. They are cremated here, and a shrine is built in that location. 

A Siva Lingam is installed for kings and a Devi idol is built for the queens. There were a few dilapidated shrines scattered around the place.
My heart bled to see the state of these shrines which were not only important for history, but also a tribute to the lion-hearted Marathas. We do not know whom the shrines belonged. Pradeep pointed out the specially manufactured bricks which were thinner than the conventional one. The structures were made of brick, stucco and lime. Tourists are not aware of this place and therefore there is no maintenance.

The last Maratha King Shivaji II (1855) had a better shrine.

The fort and Varaha temple built by Tulaja I who wrote the yakshaganam Sivakama Sundari Parinaya Natakam is situated here. No one visits here anymore. Many structures were gone and in its place is a coconut orchard. 

Tulaja's temple for Sri Varaha.

The Maratha Rajas were devoted to both Siva and Vishnu. They worshipped both and that is how Tulaja built the Varaha temple. It is very small, and the idol is also about three feet only. It is in ruins now, though a priest was at the shrine and performed aarathi. The walls of the fort still exist.

A slab of stone with carvings on one side and an inscription on the other continues to be part of the daily worship.

We proceeded to Orathanadu where one of the many chathrams built by the Marathas still exist. I have read about the chathrams, written about them but I never in my wildest dream imagined I would actually be able to visit the Muktambal Chathram.

These Chathrams are rest houses for pilgrims and doubles as a school and medical facility when required. Food was served to the tired pilgrims who would then proceed on their journey when they wanted to. Serfoji built this Chathram for his queen in the form of a chariot. 

It has beautiful carvings on the walls, and we can see the wheels (though half submerged in the ground), the elephants and the charioteers. It is in a state of sheer neglect. Why can the authorities not clean the premises and clear the bushes around it?

One trip some of us missed (because of traffic regulations) was the visit to the largest iron canon in the world, which has not rusted or deteriorated after centuries.  

It was a trip well worth it for me as it is relevant to my current interest in the history of Maratha Kings. Efficiently organised by Priya Thiagarajan, and with a bus full of friendly, knowledgeable and enthusiastic guests, a tour with Pradeep is a must for all those who seriously want to learn about our heritage.
Photos by the author.
#MysticPalmyra, #PradeepCharavarthy, #PriyaThiagarajan, #ThanjavurACulturalHistory

Tuesday, 13 August 2019

Book Review One Foot on the Ground -A Life told Through the Body by Shanta Gokhale

Shanta Gokhale wrote the Foreword for my book Bhagavata Mela My Tryst with Tradition

Today is Shanta Gokhale’s 80th birthday (August 14, 1939). She is a major figure in my life and even though seriously occupied with her work, is always open and welcoming when I approach her. I met her first when I had begun writing for the Arts page of Times of India, The Hindu (Chennai) and Sruti (Arts magazine). When I pointed out that Carnatic musicians never got their due in national publications, she encouraged me to write major features on important artistes. The Times had generously allocated space for arts in sister publications ‘The Independent’ and ‘The Metropolitan on Saturday’. I was secretly very proud of the fact that she never felt the need to edit or correct my typed sheets of articles. My husband, children and I became close enough to spend evenings chatting endlessly about music and dance at her home. She held many chamber concerts at her home by eminent musicians. It was potluck on many nights. I learned a lot about music and musicians during those sessions. When I became involved with Bhagavata Mela in 1993, I told her that I am planning a trip to Melattur in Thanjavur to watch Bhagavata Mela. She immediately jumped and said she would like to come along. She told me later that Bhagavata Mela was the origin of Marathi theatre through Thanjavur Maratha kings.

My parents joined us, and we had a lovely trip. We went to Thanjavur to see the Big Temple and visited the Saraswati Mahal library. I listened amazed as she spoke to the Marathi scholars there who replied in their Thanjavur Marathi lingo. We also visited Tiruchirapalli, Srirangam, and Tiruvaiyaru. She never wasted a moment and kept writing copious notes. In the summer of 1986, she spent some time at our holiday home in Kodaikanal. She, a non-believer, accompanied me to the Meenakshi temple, bought a few cotton Sungadi saris and thoroughly enjoyed her stay.

There was a certain grace in her demeanour which I have rarely seen in other women. Her cotton saris sat well on her. Her smile came from the heart and flashed through her eyes. That smile was the only ornament she wore.

Throughout my ten- year journey with Bhagavata mela, I would update her on my work. She attended some performances whenever I invited them to Mumbai. She was very happy to hear about the Marathi Bhagavata Mela and attended all the three performances in 2002. She graciously wrote a Foreword for my book Bhagavata Mela My Tryst with Tradition(2018) and video-taped a talk on Bhagavata Mela. 

Her autobiography was a pleasant eye-opener for me. Although I have known her for so many decades (from 1980) she is a private person who never spoke about herself.  I am so happy that she was recognised for her work by the Central Sangeet Natak Akademi in 2018. I have the deepest love and respect for her and am ever so grateful for her beautiful presence in my life.

 Book Review

One Foot on the Ground -A Life told Through the Body by Shanta Gokhale

Shanta Gokhale is an author, translator, and columnist. The list of her works and accomplishments is impressive and amazing. Her magnum opus ‘Playwright at the Centre’ is an exhaustive history of Marathi Theatre from 1983 to the present. Despite her intimate connections with the world of music and maestros, theatre and thespians, dance and divas, literature and literati, cinema and glitterati, she herself remains modestly low profile and private. Over and above all this, everyone who has met her will tell you she is gracious, vivacious and accessible to all.

Therefore, a bare-all autobiography comes as a surprise. And what an unusual theme, of telling a story through experiences with her body, meaning the story of how her body parts lent themselves to shape the path of her life.

The book begins at birth and goes on about minor health drawbacks till her fearful battle with the big C. The very unusual setting makes this a very personal history. Personal it remains as she carefully trips around revealing details about her high-profile children actor Renuka and writer Girish Shahane and his wife, film editor Jabeen. She does not spare the others who had hurt her, though.

One does not know whether to smile at the humour that is the highlight of the book, for it cloaks the agony and distress of several crises of her life. One could discern that the wings of her intellectual and creative achievements would have soared higher but were definitely restricted by some events on one hand and by her relationships on the other.

She brings on the humour with her inimitable style and at the most unexpected moments. Sample this:

“At Bristol, Mary Barwell once asked me if I was pink inside.  I mean where your clothes cover you.” ‘No’, I answered kindly. ‘I am evenly dark inside and out. I can live in the Arctic all my life and still be this colour’.”

“The blood test first. ‘You will need a finer needle. My veins are difficult to get at.’ I sigh and wait for the inevitable. ‘Dhundo dhundo re sajna dhundo’ begins in my head.”

“Mr. Dey did not easily display emotion. What he displayed was the origin of all emotions, the sthayi bhava of the rasa theory, an inscrutable arrangement of facial muscles that distantly suggested the presence of all the nine rasas but never allowed them to show themselves.”

There are many gems like these scattered among the chapters. This book is a must read as a model of an ideal approach the painful happenings in life. To go through physical pain is bad enough but what of the attacks on the mind and heart?

One missed reading about her impressions of cinema and the skill of writing scripts for documentaries. May be volume 2 will record anecdotes about her interaction and experiences with celebrities will come out soon. The cover photograph is stunning. A few photographs on the back cover makes you want more. Parents, childhood, kids, friends, sister and student life in Bristol. All of that. Don’t let the ink dry in your pen, Shanta.

One Foot on the Ground A Life Told Through the Body by Shanta Gokhale Published by Speaking Tiger 2019