My trip to Bhadrachalam this year to perform a full-length concert for 382nd Jayanti Celebrations of Bhadrachala Ramadas conducted by the temple Devasthanam, was very different from last year in so many ways. Last year involved the meeting of so many star Carnatic musicians, singing kritis together in the sanctum sanctorum and the rest. This year none of that happened, yet this year’s trip I felt warranted a separate blog entry for many reasons. This entry may not carry a great deal of details about music per se but I have endeavoured to describe my entire journey in other ways, and my thoughts and impressions.
I will begin, unfortunately with a rant – an Indian Railways rant.
The journey to Bhadrachalam this time involved travelling upto Vijayawada by train and from there by bus upto the temple town on the banks of the Godavari.
I took the MAS-KYQ Premium Express (this is the Chennai Kamakhya Premium Express for those not familiar with station codes) from Chennai to Vijayawada. The rake consisted of LHB coaches that were gleaming. However the good part ended there. The train for some reason left 30 minutes behind schedule at 1750 hours from MAS. The steward came and dutifully took the order for dinner (“Veg or non-veg, sir?”). After that there was no sign of him once he had distributed the water bottles. Wishing desperately that I hadn’t forgotten to bring the potato chips bought that afternoon from good old Chennai Chips in C.P.Ramaswamy Road, I rather morosely ate two guavas that I was smart enough to bring. However these just served to accentuate my appetite – why does one always feel so hungry while travelling by train?
Finally it was after 8:00 PM when, hurrah, the steward actually began distributing the plates containing food. To my astonishment, I discovered that the plate consisted of a packet of mixture, a sweet (courtesy Ganga Sweets) and a Frooti tetra pack along with another item which I’ve forgotten. Not bothering to question why snacks were being distributed at that time, I fell upon it and devoured them all as if I hadn’t eaten for days. Lukewarm water was provided into which I dutifully dipped my tea bag and drank ‘black tea’ for whatever it was worth.
Dinner was eventually served around 9:30 PM and the oily pooris and the yellow fluid that could be called ‘daal’ and the rice packet left a lot to be desired. I compared this fare to what was served in the not-very-highly-regarded Chennai Mumbai Mail towards the end of December 2014 when I was travelling to Pune for a concert. I had been very impressed with the food served in the universally lowly regarded train which made me flatly decide that there was definitely NO comparison to the fare that was served in that with what I had to literally force myself to eat in the Premium Express. Incidentally, the Premium Express’ ticket cost included catering as well!!!
In the midst of this, there was yet another damper – the Premium Express was sidetracked (pun intended) at a station between Nellore and Ongole (I rather think it was Bitragunta but couldn’t be sure due to the darkness) and much to my dismay, I saw that the Chennai Jaipur Express was actually overtaking my train. Some Premium Express this was turning out to be.
However the biggest blow fell when I discovered the worst that can happen in a normal train journey by Indian Railways. Yes, there was no water in the toilets. Horror! Horror! Horror!
Travelling 3AC meant no reading lights. After that “wonderful” dinner and the nagging fact that there was no water in the loo, I thought I wouldn’t be able to sleep a wink (don’t ask me why lack of water should prevent me from falling asleep – it’s just one of those things you know). However I eventually did doze off and I awoke with a start after a couple of hours to see that train was slowly going over the Krishna River. I scrambled to get my bag from under the berth for as soon as the train exits the bridge over the river, the station appears quite suddenly. The train drew into Vijayawada at 12:40 AM, an hour behind schedule. Feeling distinctly thankful I wasn’t unfortunate enough to travel beyond Vijayawada in this sorry train, I gladly jumped out with my bags as the train ground to a halt at platform number 6.
This was the first time I had booked a railway retiring room and that too online. Rather sceptical of whether the online booking would be honoured or not I walked to the retiring room above platform number 1 with determination. The lady at the counter said dismissively to me, “No retiring room saar, only online booking”.
It was with a distinct feeling of “Oh yeah?” that I haughtily waved the online booking sheet (similar to the ticket) at her.
“The room is available?” I asked critically thinking that even though I had legitimately booked online, I couldn’t perhaps count on the sanctity of such a booking, particularly as it was the first time I had ever done this.
“Oh sir, of course it is available”, returned the counter-lady as if my question itself was unparliamentary. “Here are the keys to your room”.
My room, I realized was above Platform 6 and hence I trudged back there and opened the room with a certain amount of trepidation. However I needn’t have worried – the room was utilitarian (which I had expected) and was surprisingly well-kept and neat (which I honestly hadn’t expected) with an attached bath, the latter was also clean and dry.
Awaking the next morning before 7:00 AM, my ablutions completed, the cold water bath being decidedly refreshing, I proceeded to platform no 1 and surrendered my room. Choosing to travel by the environmental-friendly cycle rickshaw, I reached Vijayawada’s bus stand in about ten minutes (a very enjoyable ride in the bracing morning air) and boarded a bus for Bhadrachalam that was just moving off from bay number 45 I think it was.
After about an hour, the driver of the bus stopped at Mylavaram for breakfast and upon inspection, I didn’t care too much for the fare served at the small town bus stand’s canteen. Venturing out of the bus stand I bought some extremely delectable guavas and literally scampered back to the bus which I realized was about to start.
Throughout the five and a half hour bus journey through the hinterland of Andhra, that took me through towns like Ibrahimpatnam, Tiruvur, Kothagudem and Palvoncha, it was Agatha Christie’s Sparkling Cyanide that kept me extremely good company plus of course, wonderful weather.
As I had posted about my trip to Bhadrachalam last year, the best part of the journey was crossing the mighty Godavari. Though a good part of the river was dry, a substantial portion did have gushing water that sparkled in the sun as we crossed the river.
Reaching Sri Rama Nilayam at Bhadrachalam after a brief auto ride from the bus stand, I had typical Andhra (or should I say Telengana?) lunch comprising vankaya kuura, pappu and rasam, along with violinist Palaparti Nageswara Rao. A brief nap ensured the well-needed rest which was so necessary.
An enjoyable veena concert by vidwan K.S.Govindarajan preceded mine. My concert’s team was Palaparti Nageswara Rao on the violin, Parupalli S. Phalgun on the mridangam and M. Hari Babu on the ghatam. Beginning the concert with Dikshitar’s Mahaganapathim (Nata), I sang concert Tyagaraja staples like Shobhillu, Endaromahanubhavulu, Saamajavaragamana (request item!) and Nenarunchinaanu with the main being Mohanarama. I subsequently sang two kritis by Bhadrachala Ramadas – kritis that we had learnt from none other maestro M. Balamuralikrishna. Veteran Nageswara Rao garu and Hari Babu supported excellently and Phalgun on the mridangam was wonderful! I was teaming up with him for the first time and it didn’t seem like that at all – it was as if we had been regularly performing together for a long time! The tani was extremely scholarly and well-executed.
The organizer Shri Sthala Sai made arrangements for excellent darshan – its always a treat to see Rama at Bhadrachalam, that day being a ‘muthu alankaaram’! I was reminded of last year when we had rendered various kritis in the sanctum sanctorum along with the Malladi Brothers and Gayathri Venkataraghavan.
The drive to Khammam was extremely comfortable in the Mahindra Scorpio vehicle along with Shri Kothanda Rama garu, a Carnatic music aficionado and a Telugu and Sanskrit scholar to boot. After a brief midnight meeting with good friend Shri Somasekar at Khammam, I was dropped off at the station.
As I gathered my two bags, Somasekar said he would find out the exact arrival details of my train. “You said you have booked by the Bikaner – Chennai AC Express, right?”
I replied in the affirmative somewhat hesitantly, bracing myself for the news that the train was going to be indefinitely delayed due to fog up in the northern part of the country. The G.T.Express from Delhi for instance had not yet passed through and it was scheduled to arrive at Khammam only around 1:00 AM, running several hours late. However Somasekar returned almost immediately saying that my train was delayed by one hour and fifteen minutes.
“Let me see,” he said looking at his watch, “it’s currently 12:30 AM. Your train is scheduled only at 2:15 AM. Why don’t you come home with me and have something to eat?”
“That’s really very nice of you Somasekar garu,” I replied gratefully, “but you yourself have just returned from a hectic bus journey from Hyderabad with your wife. I really think you should go home and retire for the night.”
We argued about it for a few minutes and finally I was able to make Somasekar see my point albeit reluctantly. He left with his wife and I made my way to the waiting room. I settled down there to copy out some notations of kritis that I had managed to obtain in the late Bombay Ramachandran’s handwriting from senior musician Geetha Raja.
Since it was the middle of the night, it was pretty chilly in the waiting room and I decided that I should switch off the fan that was directly above my head. I realized immediately that that was a big mistake for the ubiquitous mosquitoes were just waiting to charge as the fan slowed to a stop. I ruefully then decided that the fan would have to be switched on whether I liked it or not. I did manage to complete the notations of Sudha Madhurya Bhashini (Vandana Dhaarini) and also rewrite a kriti that I had learnt from my mother Saraswathi Santhanam a few days ago. This kriti was Tyagaraja’s Needayache in the raga Yadukulakambhoji – a rather unusual very short 2-kalai kriti, but very charming nevertheless. My mother had learnt this from none other than the doyenne T. Brinda in the 1950s when the former had been a student of the Central College of Carnatic Music.
Finally, after the passing of several trains both ways and quite a few of them roaring past without stopping (it was evident that Khammam station in the middle of the night was pretty busy – a rail-fan’s delight) the Bikaner-Chennai Central AC Express was announced. It eventually rumbled into Khammam’s first platform headed by a WAG-7 just a little before 3:00 AM.
As the train halted, from where I was, I realized my coach A2, was almost at the tail end of the train – and naturally I was standing at the other end. I strode swiftly towards the other end and finally broke into a desperate run (due to the loudspeaker announcement “Bikaner-Chennai AC Exp, bayaluderutaku siddhangaa unnadi”) – slightly hampered by my rather big bag plus laptop bag as well. Since I seemed to be the lone ranger running down the platform in the darkness, it didn’t take long for the ticket checker (TTR) waiting further down outside one of the AC coaches to holler, “A2 is here! Hurry!” Obviously that was what I was doing anyway. I just barely jumped in when the train started. Seeing my berth was already occupied by someone else, the TTR allotted another one to me in the same coach. Which was just as well, since my original berth was right at the end of the coach and this usually means that you are constantly being disturbed (if you’re the type that gets disturbed) by people who want to go in and out of the coach. But how could the berth originally allotted to me get allotted to someone else?
As I prepared to retire for the night (or whatever was left of it since it was already well past 3:00 AM) in my comfortable and spacious upper berth, I noticed that the reading lights were situated directly above me and they were button-operated instead of the metal ‘flap’ kind of a thing embedded on the side. *AND* the lights were actually working and quite bright at that. Pleasantly surprised and gratified, I leaned across the upper berth and peered around and down in the available visibility and realized that the coach looked well-maintained even in the semi-darkness. With a sigh of relief, I drew the clean white sheet till my neck and closed my eyes.
I was awakened the next morning to the cries of “chaaaai” and “kofffeeee”, “breakfashhttt, naaashtaa….idli-vadaaaa……..bread-cutlATE…..” and words to that effect.
The fare for the Bikaner-Chennai AC Express does not include catering. After the definitely not-so-pleasant experience by the MAS-KYQ Premium Express, I had prepared myself rather for the worst since the Bikaner – Chennai AC Express also seemed to be another ‘special train’ and out of experience, one comes to understand that Indian Railways has this tendency to treat its Special Trains in its best proverbial step-motherly treatment.
Checking my watch it was 7:45 AM. The train had already been late at Khammam by more than two hours. I pessimistically decided that we were probably now running late by more than three hours. Unable to go back to sleep I decided to get down from my berth and brush my teeth.
As I ordered a plate of bread and cutlet and a plate of idli-vada I saw that my co-passengers were a distinguished looking elderly couple. The cutlet was delicious and I marveled how IR could come up with catering like this. The tea was very good as well – it was piping hot for one thing and it wasn’t coloured water as it usually is on trains.
In a short while I found myself deep in conversation with Mr. and Mrs. Gopi Krishna Kalla – my co-passengers. I was told they had boarded the train at Jaipur. We had a most interesting discussion on the state of Rajasthan, the customs of Marwaris, the attractions of Somnath…
“You simply *must* visit Somnath,” enjoined Mr. Kalla.
“But should we visit a place that has been ravaged so many times by invaders?” I asked him. “Unfortunately for me, Somnath has only very depressing connotations sir! All the fabulous wealth and the glory have been pillaged anyway. What is the point?” I ended getting a bit worked up for Somnath and Mahmud of Ghazni is a sore history point with me. So is a whole lot of other Indian history, but that’s beside the point!
“Oh no,” answered Mr. Kalla and his wife agreed. “Somnath has been rebuilt and resurrected and it is simply marvelous now. You must especially watch the son et lumière for which Amitabh Bachchan has given the voice over.”
I remembered the extremely engaging son et lumière that I had witnessed at the Red Fort in Delhi last year – clearly the Big B was one of the biggest reasons for its success.
From Somnath our discussions moved to Dwaraka and consequently to Meerabai and we discussed some of her bhajans, her origin, her clan.
“Meerabai basically hailed from a place called Medhta – it’s after Jaipur.”
“Oh yes,” I exclaimed. “Isn’t the railhead called Merta Road followed by a station called Degana?”
Mr. Kalla was amazed. “How do you know that? Have you been there?”
“Oh no,” I replied. “My knowledge is mainly thanks to my interest in Indian Railways and the annual ‘Trains at a Glance’”.
I could see that my answer didn’t quite convince Mr. Kalla. As there was a lull in the conversation, I glanced out and saw that we had stopped at Gudur.
“Why, its only 8:30 AM!” I exclaimed pleasantly surprised. “We should reach Chennai by 11:00 AM at best.”
“Oh, the Gudur-Chennai run is only two and a half hours is it?” Mr. Kalla asked.
“Actually it’s only two hours – a matter of 138 kilometers, to be precise. But trains *approaching* Chennai usually take two and a half hours since they slow down considerably after Gummidipoondi”.
As the train slowly dragged out of Gudur, I turned to Mrs. Kalla. “There’s something that I’ve always wondered with regards to Marwari women.”
“Yes?” she smiled.
“I see that despite the strata of the society (I mean income group) they happen to be from, all the married Marwari women wear ONLY sarees when they come out of their houses – and that too *these* days! It is really remarkable to be so wedded to tradition unquestioningly and uncomplainingly.”
Mrs. Kalla’s smiled broadened. “Yes, you’re right. You could probably attribute it to the joint-family system, which is still prevalent in the Marwari community, irrespective of where they are based.”
“Yes, but even in the joint-family system, how come the dress code of the saree is so steadfastly adhered to?”
“The position of the mother-in-law is unassailable you might say.”
“And yet the Marwari community, strictly speaking is not really a matriarchal society, is it?”
“You’re right,” agreed Mrs. Kalla, “but the role of the mother-in-law is all powerful!”
Amen to that!
The very pleasant overnight Khammam – Chennai Central journey ended when the efficient Bikaner-Chennai AC Express reached Chennai Central at 11:00 AM, one hour and five minutes behind schedule. Bidding goodbye to the extremely affable and interesting Mr and Mrs. Gopi Krishna, I quickly detrained and rapidly strode out of the station. As I crossed the road, I indulged in the usual and mandatory traffic-dodging exercise at the Central-General Hospital junction and flagged down a metered auto.
Three Cheers to the metered auto system in Chennai which seems to be working well at last! Auto drivers do ask for either Rs. 10 or Rs. 20 more but that’s infinitely better than them asking for an astronomical amount and the endless and downright painful haggling that used to ensue.
I have also heard rave reports of the OLA auto system – actually saw it being used by a friend, but I haven’t tried it myself yet.
With metered autos working well and with the metro work in full swing, times seem to be good for Chennai! And let me end this blog entry on that promising and positive note!