Sunday, 18 November 2018

Murals at Gangaikonda Cholapuram

In the issue of Dinamani (Tiruchy Edition) of Sunday October 7, 2018 was an article which posed the question ‘Will Temple Murals be Protected?’  During our road trip to Thanjavur, Thiruvarur and Thiruvaiyaru at the same time, we had desperately wanted to visit Gangaikonda Cholapuram. But our visit   had to be cancelled because of our tight time schedule. This paper’s headlines are deeply worrying.  Our magnificent temples have a hoary history, beautiful sculptures, thrilling stories about our saints, poets, ancestors and their wealth of knowledge.
I would like to share this information filed by a staff reporter of this publication.
“Raja Raja Chozhan’s name became immortal as a powerful, benign king. He built the Thanjavur temple and hosted hundreds of dancers and musicians during his reign. Rajendra Chozhan (1019) his son, conquered Orissa (Kalinga) and built a new capital at Gangaikonda Cholapuram (1023) to commemorate this victory. The temple is a replica of the Thanjavur Brihadeeswara temple.
The paintings on the wall of this temple, commissioned by the later Nayak regime, are deteriorating every day. The octagonal vimana, the large Nandi at the eastern entrance, enormous main deity, magnificent dwarapalakas and a set of Navagraha deities on a lotus carved from a single rock are the significant highlights here.
The single rock Sivalingam here is placed on an elevation of 13.5 feet. The gigantic form of goddess Periyanayaki is a fitting tribute to her name.
This temple has been declared as World Heritage by UNESCO. The temple and its murals are an attraction for tourists from all over the world.
The murals on the walls of the temple, dating back to Nayak kings, are disappearing. Some are completely erased. It is therefore imperative that the Archaeology Survey of India (ASI) should take immediate steps to begin preservation work here.”

                               Close up of the painting-Photo courtesy:Dinamani (Tamil)

This neglect and resultant deterioration of our historical and sacred monuments is a common occurrence throughout our country. We think nothing about carving our name and initials on these walls. The Thanjavur palace museum is a sad example of this despicable habit.

We as citizens of this vast country must learn about our ancient history, the wealth of spiritual teachings, scriptures and literature that date back to centuries. Our civilisation is the oldest in the world. Be proud to be an Indian. Let us revive the glory of our traditions. The world looks upon our Vedic literature, yoga and classical arts with respect and wonder. Let us become warriors of tradition, try to prevent misuse and protect our monuments from vandalism.

Saturday, 27 October 2018

Thanjavur Thiruvarur & Thiruvaiyaru 2018


This historic city with national treasures like the Brihadeeswara Temple, Thanjavur Palace and the Saraswati Mahal Library looks less cared for than what I remember from my visits earlier. A feeling of pride, awe and amazement would overcome me as I stepped inside.

Visitors pay a small sum of Rs. fifty to enter the premises. The staff sitting at the entrance have neither interest nor knowledge about the importance of the artefacts. These centuries-old structures need maintenance and regular repair. A person was whizzing around the corridor inside on his motor-bike, the vibrations of which may cause cracks on the walls of the palace.

Two magnificent life-sized Tanjore Dancing Dolls, and the statues of Manu needhi Chozhan (cow, calf, prince, king and chariot) are broken and dust covered.


Dwarapalaka idol
This beautiful idol of a Nandi and Dwarapalaka is placed in the ‘lawns’ of the Durbar Hall. Crows use them as their perch. They must be cleaned periodically.
The Darbar Hall in all its dilapidated glory is impressive despite the vanishing and discoloured murals. It is painful to see the graffiti scrawled on the ancient pillars. There is no security staff guarding the statues and bronzes displayed near the Durbar Hall.

                                          In front of the Durbar Hall

                                                 The Nandi    
Many Indian and foreign tourists visit the palace every day. The restrooms which charge two rupees have poor drainage, are wet and dirty.

                                       The temple in the centre of the Kamala layam temple tank


Thiruvarur’s magnificent temple and the perennial waters of the Kamalayam tank are a breath-taking sight. Commercial development has transformed this small town into one bustling with activity.

There are several references about this temple in my book Bhagavata Mela My Tryst with Tradition. The Trinity of Carnatic music, Tyagaraja, Muthuswami Dikshitar and Syama Sastri were born in this town. The temple and the deity Tyagesa inspired many composers to sing of its beauty and divinity.

                                           The Eastern Gate of the Tyagesa temple


This city is famous for the Panchanadiswara temple and the samadhi of the saint poet Tyagaraja. The Kaveri flows in regal splendour and was in full force when we visited.

                                                     Some paintings of the composer on the walls. 

This place has a special nostalgic note for me. In January 1997, our family sponsored two Bhagavata Mela natakams by the Natya Vidya Sangam to be performed here inside the holy precincts of the Panchanadiswara temple. This was the first time such permission was given. Five thousand devotees gathered each day. The occasion was the 150th Aradhana of Tyagaraja, whose family belonged to the tradition. Tyagaraja himself wrote two Bhagavata Mela natakams.

                                                                     At the Samadhi

The shrine at the samadhi is now glitters with gold leaf covering in contrast to the bare one in 1989 when I first visited this place. I had visited both the temple cities and Tirupati to pay homage to the great composer before my debut of “Sumathi Tyagaraja”, an Ekaharya presentation based on his kritis.

                                                            Detail from the Gopuram

Monday, 15 October 2018


The first week of October had some wonderful moments when I re-visited Thanjavur, Thiruvaiyaru and Thiruvarur temples with my family. For my daughter Ruupa and son-in-law Bhuvnesh it was a rewarding experience as they had read in great detail about these temples when they edited my book Bhagavata Mela My Tryst with Tradition. Ranjan and Ruupa have accompanied me to Melattur as  children many times. She was the Convenor of the 2002 Festival in Mumbai. Bhuvnesh was appreciated for his performance as Sutradhar and adorns the book-cover. 

In my book, I have included stories surrounding these temples, the rulers, saints, poets and dancers. The temples with their awesome dimensions and centuries of history are humbling that I feel to set foot on this sacred land is a blessing.

It was a nostalgic drive from Thanjavur through the Melattur ‘village’ that morning. I was last there on my annual visit in 1998. At that time, I did not know that it would be my last visit. After a meeting with the artistes and musicians, we planned to start work on the Marathi Natakam ‘Sakuntala’. It was slated to be a four-day festival and I was busy organising funds, designing costumes, and publicity efforts. There was music to be composed, actors to be trained and a hundred other tasks. You can read in great detail about all that in my book.
When I re-visited Melattur incognito last week, I had only a vague memory of the village.
Two things that struck me was that the distance seemed so much longer, and the roads were not mud but perfectly tarred roads. On either side were green fields. Kaveri’s tributaries and creeks appeared every few miles, refreshing the eye and mind. It was Guru Peyarchi on October 4th   and the Thittai temple, which is on the route, was bustling with crowds. A hundred cars lined the roads. There was heavy security as many prominent persons were expected to attend the special pujas.
I did not have a clue as to the directions, everything is so different. Melattur is no longer a small three-street hamlet but a town with new buildings, shops, garishly renovated heritage homes and many locked doors. Some houses are in ramshackle condition, but late Balu Bhagavatar ’s house next to the temple has been renovated.
I could not locate the open grounds where the annual festival used to be held. I had heard last year
 that a permanent stage has been built now in place of the temporary wooden stage that were put up in the nineties.
 Although we were there much before the day closing time, there was a lock on the temple door. From the outside everything seemed same. The gurukul (priest) was persuaded to open the doors for us and he very kindly asked his relative to show us around.

Sri Varadaraja Perumal Temple, Melattur (2018)

A surprising sight awaited me inside. The small temple is now completely re-built. The outside prakarams which were open to the sky are enclosed resulting in a vast hall.  The processional vehicles like Garuda are lined up inside. 
There are separate shrines for Varadaraja Perumal, Sri Narasimhaswami, Vinayagar and Hanuman. The two granite Narasimha Swamy idols which were in garbha graham earlier, do not have a special shrine built for them.

                                                        Interior of the Melattur temple.

The Mask in a separate glass case outside (2018)

It was disappointing to note that the mask of Narasimhaswami which is used for the performance of ‘Prahlada Charitram’, is now enclosed in a new glass case and placed outside, deprived of its sacred space inside the sanctum sanctorum.
I wonder if the divine energy that the mask had been infused with for three centuries of worship in the sanctum sanctorum would have depleted by now.
It is definitely heartening to see the improvements and additions made to the temple and the village.  Bhagavata Mela is today a well-known art-form and the festival attracts visitors from all over the country and abroad. It speaks well of the united efforts of the natives of Melattur who must have contributed in cash and kind. The renovation will make a good impression on visitors.  

Friday, 12 October 2018

Trichy, Theatre & FGN

A nostalgic trip down South to the land of my ancestors has left me with a feeling of bliss. There is a great positive vibration in the prosperous city which has burgeoned into a commercial hub of this district. I feel blessed to be born to T.S. Swaminathan and Padma, parents who have lived the most amazing hundred years on this earth. My mother, aged 101 years, is the last surviving child of FGN, F.G. Natesa Iyer. He was a patron of musicians and father of Modern Tamil Theatre. Here is an excerpt from my book Bhagavata Mela My Tryst with Tradition.

                                            The Malaikottai or Rockfort Vinayagar Temple

                                                  The front facade of Rasika Ranjana Sabha

“My maternal grandfather F. G. Natesa Iyer (1880-1963) was a colossus in the field of theatre and a patron of music. A Shakespearean actor famed for his roles as Othello, Hamlet and King Lear, he later opened his own company and staged historical and mythological dramas. He would sing popular classical music compositions as his entry song or when suitable in the story. He held posts like elected Mayor of the city, District Traffic Superintendent of Railways, and leader of the Indian National Congress of this region. Many musicians, actors and artistes received encouragement from him and even after they achieved fame and name, they held our family in great affection. His achievements in theatre earned him the title Father of Modern Tamil Theatre.”

                                                         The Foundation Stone

                                 My Grandmother Rajeswari Mataji and Grandfather's Photographs

                                                The Auditorium is named FGN after its Founder

“They would be welcomed at our home for meals and would happily recount many incidents when FGN played an important role in their lives. Bharat Ratna M. S. Subbulakshmi, acted in many films, and had her debut in the film Seva Sadan opposite FGN.  She told us of the time when FGN had to slap her in a scene. After much hesitation, he agreed to enact the scene. Her young daughter Radha who was present began to cry inconsolably. Palghat Mani Iyer told us of the concert where he, as a young boy, was accompanying a musical giant on mridangam. The musician sang a complicated Pallavi and kept his hand under his angavastram (upper cloth) so that Iyer could not follow the Tala. FGN stood up in the midst of the concert and reprimanded the musician. “The boy can accompany you only if you let him see your hand,” he said sternly. FGN’s grandfather was Tyagaraja Sastri, a composer of merit and a contemporary of the famous saint-poet of the same name.” 

                                              Oil Paintings of FGN in Drama roles

                                           More photos and paintings adorn the walls.

A pioneer of theatre in the South, FGN made his debut in theatre as Goddess Saraswati in a play. His play, ‘Gyanasundari’ achieved great popularity. He had a powerful personality and a tall athletic body, and excelled in roles like Manohara, Raja Harishchandra, and Shakespeare’s Hamlet and Othello. Music was an essential aspect in the dramas of those days and FGN was an expert singer. He was also adept in the rare musical instrument called the Swarbat. FGN was an orator in English and Tamil. As journalist and art critic he contributed under his pen name ‘Hamsa’.
A patron of theatre and music, he established the first formal sabha, ‘Rasika Ranjana Sabha’ in Tiruchirapalli.”

(It was this Sabha that we visited last week (October 2018). The auditorium is named after FGN.) 

Sunday, 22 July 2018

Bhagavata Mela at Kalakshetra

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)

(Photo Courtesy Acharya M.R. Krishnamurthy Bengaluru) This rare photo is precious as it shows our senior dancers with Balu Bhagavatar. Standing L-R Dhananjayan, Hombal, Krishnamurthy, Dia (Cambodia) Kneeling- Balagopal and ? Seated on the ground Janardanan.

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.

Natyakala conference 1994 with Dr. Arudra, Sarada teacher, Me and Dhananjayan .Panel discussion after my lec-dem with Bhagavata Mela Artistes.

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

G. Sundari, Sarada Teacher and Kamala Rani attend my performance of 'Sumathi Tyagaraja' in 1990 at Mylapore Rasika Ranjani Sabha.

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.

Friday, 13 July 2018

Book Review in Samudhra , Magazine dedicated to Arts

Here is a review of my book Bhagavata Mela My Tryst with Tradition which was published in Samudhra a magazine dedicated to Music, Dance, Drama and Art Cinema. The review is written by the erudite  Dr. Smt. Radha Bhaskar a musician, musicologist and convenor of many events in Chennai. Shri Mudra Bhaskar is a multi faceted personality both Mridangam artiste and Master printer. Thank you so much Samudhra.

Sunday, 8 July 2018

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.