Since the first edition of Svanubhava 3 years ago, it has for me been the festival that marks democracy in music – its a festival for students of music put together by students of music. No lobbying, no big producer or sabha secretary getting in your way. The brain child of T.M.Krishna and Bombay Jayashree, besides it’s innovative means of engaging music enthusiasts, what mostly sets it apart is how youth centric it is.
The ambience was picture perfect – a thatched roof auditorium with an olden style of construction, packed to the brim with artists, connoisseurs and students alike, in the serene atmosphere of the Kalakshetra school.
When I entered the auditorium I was reminded of the writing on the sword of Tom cruise in the movie, The Last Samurai – ‘one in whom the old ways have joined the new’. Because thats what this was. Here was a large gathering of students who were born to the sounds of Madonna, thoroughly enjoying themselves, mixing and interacting with phenomenal musicians for whom M.S.Subbulakshmi was the superstar.
The first concert of the festival was by Flautist N.Ramani accompanied by Mrudanga Vidwan T.K.Murthy, M.Chandrasekar on the violin and ably assisted by Ghatam Suresh. An appropriate start to the festival by veterans, it was a first class exhibition of performance, mutual respect and mastery over one’s art.
It was truly an inspirational start to a festival, watching such great artists in their element, enjoying the occasion, relishing the small exchanges between each other, appreciating each other’s genius ,all the while making complicated swara and tala patterns look ridiculously simple. There were standout renditions of Ragam Gowrimanohari in Khanda Japu and Varali in Mishra Jaapu, N.Ramani and M.Chandrasekar demonstrating just why they are artists of such regard.
In the inevitable Tani Avartanam (in Vilamba Kala Adi Taalam ), age was clearly no bar for Vidwan T.K.Murthy whose solo N.Ramani enjoyed so much that he requested him to play more and more.
The Highlight of the concert though was when a little boy stood up in the Q&A session that followed and asked Ghatam Suresh ‘Does the ghatam make the same noise no matter how and where you hit it’ – it had the audience and artists in raptures and demonstrated what truly makes Svanubhava a unique festival , where neither artists nor students need have any inhibitions.
Up next was a Yakshagana performance, in complete contrast to the staunch Carnatic classical concert that preceded it. Shivananda Hegde and his troupe of folk dance artists from Karnataka gave a splendid performance of the Ramayana in complete folk style. Descending from 3 generations of Yakshagana, Shivananda Hegde is a master choreographer, not just for Yakshagana but in modern theater forms as well.
The performance of Vaali Moksham in Yakshagana was simply magnificent. It was an exhibition of why India is such a culturally rich and diverse country. The elaborate costumes, beautifully color coordinated, intricate designs and attractive head and face painting had the young audience in rapture.
They were thoroughly amused by this folk form of theater, laughing at the mannerisms that each character brought with it, the biggest applause coming for Hanuman, Sugreeva and Raavana. Particularly Raavana’s first scene, followed by his carrying away of Sita and Sugreeva challenging Vaali to a fight and then subsequently seeking Rama’s help when he is beaten.
The artists themselves gave a splendid display of the richness of folk culture and tradition in India, with impromptu dialogue, albeit in Kannada, imaginative employment of props such as screens and leaves. The detailing of each character from eye movement, to the manner of walking, dancing and exit from stage was wonderfully choreographed in a very puppet like style, faithful to Yakshagana tradition.
The orchestra was an integral part of the performance, with a singer, Chenda and Mridangam accentuating each moment, movement and emotion with absolute precision.
ODHUVARS – THEVARAM (SHAIVITE HYMNS)
Sri Kudandai Lakshmanan
Sri Dharmapuram Nyanaprakasam
Anchored by Sri M. Vaithyalingam
Thevaaram is a collection of songs sung by three different saints in praise of Lord Shiva. Thevaaram is a part of twelve books that are known as Panniru Thirumuraigal (literally, 12 holy books, in Tamil). Of 12 books, Thevaaram collection is the first seven books. The first three books were sung by Saint Thirugnana Sambandhar, the next three books were sung by Saint Thirunavkkukarasar and the last book has been sung by Saint Sundarar.
Anchored by Sri.M.Vaithyalingam and sung by Sri Kudandai Lakshmanan and Shri Dharmapuram Nyanaprakasam, they held the audience with historical context. The explanations were pleasantly reminiscent of a grand father recounting tales to his grandchildren while relaxing in his armchair in an age-old agraharam.
The recital was marked by beautiful renditions of Thiru Gnana Sambandars Thirumarai, The Gopucha Yati of Chiraiyaaram Madakilye, Manickavasagar’s Thiruvasagam and many others, followed or interspersed with detailed explanations of their religious and historical context and meaning.
This was all flawlessly enunciated by Sri Vaithyalingam, who elaborated on various aspects such as the association of Deekshithars and Thevaarams, the Nayannars, Thevaaram renditions from the time of Raja Raja Chozha to the present day.
The last item for the day was the Qawwali of the Warsi brothers and for the first time I was angry with the people of Chennai – because in the ten minutes between concerts, half the audience had disappeared. What is it with people not wanting to give any form of music north of Karnataka a chance? But in any case, there was still a decent number in the audience and luckily, they were all ardent Qawwali enthusiasts.
Yes, the middle of the afternoon was an odd time for a Qawwali concert , but the energy was electric and the Warsi brothers rose magnificently to the occasion . They opened with the classic Man Kunto Maula and moved onto a Kabir Panthi – ‘Har Ko Har Main Dekha’, a beautiful message in todays times – “Hindu, Muslim or Sikh, all become one in my eyes’.
This was followed by a tribute to Amir Khusro before the Qawwali immortalized by Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan – Chaap Tilak Sab, and that’s just the thing. Listening to a lot of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khans’s Qawwalis has set my standards very high and I personally felt that although the Warsi brothers had phenomenal energy and a great grasp of qawwal gayaki, the raag and sur element was found lacking many a time. The accompanists were quite ordinary and could not quite match up to the energy of the main artists, but the worst problem of all was that the microphones were jarring throughout the concert, which at some level disturbed my experience of the concert.
Ultimately though it all came together in the ever popular Dum-a-Dum Mast Qalandar, where the enthusiastic audience really got into the mood pushing the energy of the performance to a whole new league.
It was the perfect finale to a day of great artistic diversity at Svanubhava, with a fitting standing ovation to cap off the day.
There are still 2 days of the festival to go in Chennai with artists of the caliber of Venkatesh Kumar, T.N.Krishnan, Guruvayur Dorai, The Dhananjayans and the Malladi Brothers still to perform apart from Villupaatu, a discussion on women in Indian cinema with actress Kushboo and a documentary screening on Ustad Asad Ali Khan.
Simply put, if you are a music lover, connoisseur, student, artist, dancer, film maker, film buff, a feminist or simply someone who likes to ask questions and engage in debate (and that just about sums up most of Chennai)- you ought to be at Svanubhava!
MT Aditya Srinivasan is a household name in Indian classical circles in namma Chennai. If you see a frazzled fellow in a crisp kurta, with a perennial cold, running helter skelter in concert venues and greeting & nodding at every Tomojit, Dhik & Hari, yeeeeah he’s the guy. A professional Tabla player and an ardent follower of Hindustani & Carnatic music, when not listening to 4 hour Tabla concerts on his laptop, he doesn’t mind some Dreamtheater.