A post on the Akhandam at Ettayapuram, superbly organized by the Sri Purandaradasa Baktha Samajam, Chennai
A fact about the Carnatic Music Trinity that is well-known and accepted:
Tyagaraja – drAksharasam
Syama Sastri – kadali phalam
Muthuswami Dikshitar – nArikelam!
Tyagaraja’s kritis are meant to be grapes – just plucked off from the tree / bunch and popped into the mouth, and the sweetness of the fruit enjoyed thereupon.
While this may be an over-trivialization of Tyagaraja’s entire corpus (this metaphor certainly cannot be applied to Tyagaraja’s grand compositions like O Rangasaayi, Evarimaata, Emineramu or Etavunara and many others), by and large it is an accepted opinion by musicians and rasikas alike.
Syama Sastri’s compositions, while they perhaps don’t easily lend themselves quite as draksharasam, metaphorically involve a little more labour akin to peeling the banana in order to consume and enjoy the fruit.
Muthuswami Dikshitar, well, the comparison to the labour involved in the process of getting ready a coconut for consumption, is definitely not an exaggeration at all in my opinion! Right from climbing the coconut tree, which by itself involves a great level of expertise available to the select breed of coconut tree climbers (a vanishing breed now like many other traditional tradesmen), throwing the coconut down to the ground, collecting it, removing the husk with a vAL (scimitar), and then the actual breaking open of the coconut and then the process of scraping / cutting / grating to get it ready for consumption.
And the analogy of learning, practicing, polishing and finally presenting a Dikshitar composition, being equivalent to getting ready a coconut for consumption is not far-fetched at all. A far cry from popping a grape into the mouth or just peeling the skin off a banana!
Consequently, festivals and Akhandams dedicated solely to Muthuswami Dikshitar are rather rare, especially in the era we are currently in.
Hence when S.Chandran, the president of Sri Purandaradasar Bhakta Samajam (SPBS) reached out to me to ask if I would be willing to participate in the day-long Dikshitar Akhandam at the shrine in Ettayapuram, I had no second thoughts about accepting. It was a long time since I had participated in such an endeavor, the last being the trip to Bhadrachalam a few years ago.
“Yes Chandran sir,’’ I replied with enthusiasm, ‘’I’m definitely in this time.’’
A convenient WhatsApp group titled SPBS Ettayapuram Trip was created by Chandran which set the ball rolling. After posting a brief voice-message of welcome, Chandran next requested each of the vocalists to send in their choice of Muthuswami Dikshitar kritis.
The participants were requested to send in a list of ten compositions that they would prefer to sing. Chandran was very particular that there should be no repetitions. Bhavadhaarini was the first to respond and soon the rest of the participants responded in quick succession.
For me, going through everyone’s list and compiling my own was an enormously interesting exercise. Projects such as these are the opportunities for artists to showcase the not-so-popular or not-so-well-known compositions of Dikshitar. Hence all the participants without exception enthusiastically included some rare compositions in their lists. No one sang Vatapi ganapatim bhajeham or Mahaganapatim (Nata)!
The akhandam was formally inaugurated by the traditional lighting of the Kutthuvilakku. The chief guest for the day D.Ramprasad, a prominent chartered accountant and an ardent rasika who came all the way from Bangalore, made an emotionally stirring speech about the greatness of Dikshitar and how blessed all of us are to either render or at least listen to his creations.
SPBS office bearer Kumbakonam Ramakrishnan then honoured Radhika Raman, the Tirunelveli-based managing trustee of the shrine, with a shawl. In her speech Ms. Raman briefly spoke about the history of the shrine, how it was languishing in limbo due to neglect a few decades ago, how a central government official took it upon himself to bring about its resurrection and how it came to be, as it exists today, and the people responsible for the day-to-day maintenance and upkeep. It was extremely heartening to know the high commitment levels of these well-wishers.
After that came the concerts – rendering of the kritis sans any manodharmam. I enjoyed every one of them without exception and it was a delight to listen to relatively rare kritis that were sung with passion and dedication by all the vocalists. Some of the highlights for me (in no particular order) were:
gajAmbA nAyakO rakSatu – Senjuruti – mishra cApu – (Bhavadhaarini)
navaratnamAlinIM natajanapAlinIM – gamakakriya (Poorvikalyani) – khaNDa EkaM (Mumbai Shilpa)
kaumArI gaurivELAvaLi – gaurIvELAvaLi (Gaurimanohari) – Adi (Namagiri Ramesh)
praNatArTiharAya namastE vara – sAmantAm – Adi (B.Umashankar)
shRHNgAra rasamaHnjarIM – rasamaHnjari – rUpakaM (Santosh Subramanian)
shrI rAmacandrO rakSatu mAM – Sriranjani – mishra cApu (Calcutta Shankar)
tyAgarAjEna samrakSitOhaM – sALaga bhairavi – Adi (Serugudi Sisters)
Kamalamba Navavaranam in Shankarabharanam (Madurai Rajaram)
One thing caught my attention when Santosh Subramanian was singing the rare kriti in Rasamanjari. In this kriti, Dikshitar states in the anupallavi: aHNgArakAdi grahadOSa nivAraNakarIm!
Therefore, like Tyagaraja in Grahabalamemi (Revagupti), Dikshitar in his own subtle way makes his point by emphasizing that Devi is Supreme and all the graha doshas can definitely be rooted out by Her Grace! It was an Aha moment!
Apt accompaniment was provided by S.Raghuraman (who also doubled up as the Akhandam’s photographer), S.Chandran and M.Anandhula on the violin. On the mridangam were Kumbakonam Ramakrishnan, Neyveli K.V.Ramkumar, Umayalapuram Kalyanaraman, H.Harikrishnan and Manikudi Chandrasekhar. Nanganallur Swaminathan enriched with his ghatam.
The day’s proceedings were wound up with SPBS honouring each of the participants with a shawl and memento. Thanks to S.Chandran’s efforts and meticulous follow-up, AIR Tirunelveli sent a team to record the akhandam. The team also recorded thoughts from some of the artists on the Akhandam per se and about the greatness of Muthuswami Dikshitar in general.
‘’What time is your train to Kovilpatti and how will you go from Kovilpatti to Ettayapuram?’’ asked my wife.
‘’Well, we’re all booked to travel by the Ananthapuri Express, which leaves Chennai Egmore at 19:50 Hours. From Kovilpatti, SPBS has made arrangements for us to be picked up from the station and to take us to Ettayapuram.’’
‘’That means you’ll have to leave for the station at least by 18:30 Hours.’’
‘’Yes,’’ I agreed.
‘’What dinner shall I pack?’’
And with a great sense of relief I told my wife not to bother. I said that the office bearers of SPBS have made arrangements for dinner to be served to all the participants after the train departs from Egmore.
Food arrangements were done carefully, starting from the dinner served in the Ananthapuri Express after it departed from Egmore. This continued with coffee served in the train the following morning before we reached Kovilpatti; and the rest of the day’s breakfast, lunch, evening snacks and that night’s dinner. The last was thoughtfully served at Kovilpatti station itself before we boarded the Kollam – Chennai Ananthapuri Express for our return.
As we left Chennai, in addition to serving dinner to the participants, Kumbakonam Ramakrishnan went a step ahead and also handed out tempting morris bananas to all of us. Similarly, the next day he continued this with personally serving potato chips at lunch to us during the akhandam. Incidentally, the lunch consisted of extremely delectable puliyodarai, sambar saadam, potato vegetable, appalam, curd rice, pickles and jangiri. Evening snacks consisted of hot and fresh bhajjis and kaara sevai, the latter thoughtfully brought by B.Umashankar.
As I have said in my blog posts before, participating in Akhandams is a completely different experience, quite distinct from travelling for concerts. The experience is unique and the interactions and the camaraderie are at a different level. This particular Muthuswami Dikshitar Akhandam underscored this powerfully. Perhaps most importantly, was the sheer joy all of us experienced in performing as teams, Dikshitar’s lesser-known masterpieces at his shrine.
Yes, Muthuswami Dikshitar was there surely throughout the day amidst us.
shrInAthAdi guruguhO jayati jayati!