Thursday, 31 January 2008


We just had to stop at Thiruvarur too, the birthplace of the Mumoorthys - Sri Thyagaraja, Muthuswami Dikshithar and Syama Sastri - of Carnatic Music. Thiruvarur is about 40 km away from Thanjavur.

Everyone knows about the Thiruvarur Chariot (theyru). It is said to move so slowly that it has become a simile in Thamizh – as slow as the Thiruvarur Theru. It is used so unconsciously that very often one forgets that there is a temple attached to it!

And what a temple!
I had no idea of the vastness of this temple and its grandeur. With a lot of renovation work going on, parts of the temple are a bit cluttered, but we could not fail to be impressed by the majesty of the temple. The Lord at this temple is Sri Thyagaraja Swami. Ah, that then was the explanation for the composer saint to be named so, we realised.
He is also called Vanmeekinathan, because he was found under an anthill. (Remember why Valmiki is called so?). Apart from the Goddess Nilothphaladevi, there is a separate sannidhi for Goddess Kamalambal. She is the inspiration for the navavarnas composed by Muthuswamy Dikshithar.

The whole courtyard of the temple is dotted with little shrines, each one housing a shivalingam. Stories abound about these lingams, and I was told that altogether there are 108 lingams at this temple, including the ones worshipped by Shaneeswarar and Nalan. Another interesting facet pointed out was the idols of the navagrahas were all standing in a straight line worshipping Sri Thyagarjar. Usually they stand facing different directions.

Behind the temple is a huge tank filled with water almost to the brim –this is called Kamalalayam. To me it seemed much larger than our Mylapore tank.

This temple has a website:

When we went looking for the house that Sri Thyagaraja was born in, we had to ask directions several times.

In each instance the answer was the same at first – they invariably pointed to the temple. It then struck me that to them first in importance was Thyagaraja Swami. The musician saint came only a distant second.
This little house has been well maintained with a caretaker in charge. A board outside clearly indicates that this where Sri Thyagaraja was born. Unfortunately for us there was no power inside the house, and we could only see in darkness the little image of the composer (see picture) and the pooja pictures in the room. The lady there graciously gave us thamboolam and fruits before we left.

I could not but dwell on the hospitality of the smaller towns.


To go to Thiruvaiyaru during the aradhana was a boon. We went round the small town looking for the street where he lived. We were directed to a house, and horror of horrors, we found that reconstruction was going on - barely finished floors and walls, and open stairs. At the centre of what might have been a hall was the saint’s picture with a lamp burning.

The old house had been knocked down totally in the name of restoration and renovation, and the on-going construction looked like any other modern average house, with staircases leading upstairs.

Swallowing our disappointment and rage, we looked for someone to explain the atrocity.A gentleman of the neighbourhoood explained that the organisation which was maintaining the house felt that it needed to be restored. And had gone ahead and demolished it. An avid music lover had protested and taken the matter to court, and a stay order was given to halt construction.

But that too seems pointless – what is the use of a half-built house to show that this was where Thyagaraja Swami lived? The neigbour said that the place was still sacred, for that was where Rama had come to Thyagaraja.
The people who lived next door told us that the house they lived in was Sri Thyagaraja’s brother’s house.

The house had been partitioned because of the brother’s inability to live with a person who he considered was wasting his time in prayer and music. We found that the house was maintained beautifully, with tiled floors and painted walls, but with the old architecture intact. There were short and solid pillars supporting arches. A wall running the length of the house was pointed out as the wall that had been built as partition of the two houses. Picture shows us in front of Sri Thyagaraja's brother's house.

The street was celebrating the aradhana in its own way with prayers and homams, conducted by the families of the direct disciples of Sri Thyagaraja. Though we were total strangers, they invited us to eat lunch with the other neighbours at a wedding hall in the street.

We did, and found to our pleasure and surprise that there were friends and several aquaintances among the organisers. The lunch was just right – not too sumptuous, and not meagre, either.

Doctor JB is the ultimate music lover. His interest is matched only by his knowledge. He and Bhama attend many concerts and also listen to music avidly at home. Many musicians are known to them, and I was impressed to see how many of them came up to them and greeted them at the festival.


N. Ramani,(getting on the stage in photo) Lalgudi Krishnan and his sister Viji, and Mandolin Srinivas all performing on stage one after another, for 20 minutes each. Where else could this happen but at the four day Thiruvaiyaru Sri Thyagaraja aradhana festival?

A festival for music, where artistes leave egos and arrogance outside with their footwear, and offer their music in homage to Sri Thyagaraja Swami, the composer-poet who composed so many songs. It is this devotion that makes this festival so unique. The festival marks the death anniversary of the great composer, and is celebrated at the place where he lived and died. This year is the 161st anniversary.
For years I have wanted to be present at the Aradhana festival especially during the singing of the ‘Pancharatna Kriti’s on the last day. Talented musicians, both the popular and the unknown, converge to this place specially to sing the five gems.
Hearing the ‘Pancharatna kriti’s over the years, first over AIR and then on television, had only increased this desire. However, it had never been put into action.

And even now, when we planned a trip to Thanjavur, Thiruvaiyaru was not on our itinerary originally. But serendipity stepped in. We had postponed our trip, the new dates coincided with the fetival, our friends Dr. JB and Bhama, with whom we made the trip, were given VIP passes to the festival, and that made the decision for us.

The auditorium where the festival was held was really an open pandal on the banks of the Kaveri. And though it was on the river bank, and though it was January, there were no cool breezes - makeshift walls of the pandal saw to that. But the atmosphere was charged with music. Listeners sat on the sand-filled ground, ears and minds focussed on the music. On the two evenings that we went, the hall was filled to overflowing. People sat close together, often squeezing themselves together, to make room for one more entrant. Nobody pushed anyone away - except the volunteer guards at the entrances. The audience was a motley group – young and old, rich and poor, residents and visitors. The only pre-requisite was a love of music.

A five year old boy who sat next to me, sat through for more than three hours without moving from his spot, and not a whimper or whisper from him. His aunt fed him some food midway, and he ate it quietly. He told me was in the first standard in a school there, and was learning to play the mridangam, but that he liked the thavil very much too. I turned around to see who he was with, and was surprised to see my husband’s cousin there. And the child was her sister’s grandson!

All the artistes were allotted 10 to 20 minute slots, irrespective of their standing in the music world, and the concerts went on from the morning to midnight - the only concession made to popularity being that lesser known artistes sang at less convenient(read peak) hours. To optimize the time available, two similar stages, of equally small proportions, have been erected side by side, facing the samadhi. While the musicians sang/played on one, the next artiste scheduled got ready, and settled down with accompanists and instruments on the other stage. So the concerts went on without any break, except for the introductory announcement.

An amusing sidelight here – when Mandolin Srinivas finished his allotted 20 minutes, he got ready to leave, but one of the organisers standing there motioned to him to continue, and so he played one more song. The artiste waiting on the adjacent stage remained expressionless.

The pandal extended from the spot where the Samadhi of the great musician, now considered a saint, across to another samadhi, that of Bangalore Nagarathnammal, his devotee. There is an image of her here, facing the Samadhi of the musician she considered god. It was she who was instrumental in restoring and maintaining his samadhi. The samadhi now has an image of the composer, and it is worshipped with the same rituals as an image at a temple. The practice of singing at his samadhi on the anniversary of his death started then (1908) and has now evolved into this festival.*

A lot of booths were set up by insurance and banking groups, artifacts and handicrafts shops, and coffee and tea companies, commercialising the festival to a great extent. But organisations do have to make money to run a festival of this nature, I suppose.

And it was very useful to us on the final day when the ‘pancharatna kriti’s were being sung – not even our VIP passes could get us inside, where ardent listeners had taken up places from as early as 5 am. We sat in the LIC booth on comfortable chairs and listened to the music on loudspeakers.

In fact, loudspeakers were set up all over town, and even as one entered it, the strains of Thyagaraja’s compositions welcomed visitors on all four days.
Some organizations had printed the pancharatna kritis in the form of booklets and were giving them away.

Thiruv Ayy (five) aaru (river) is named for the five rivers that run beside it – Kaveri, Kudamurutti, Vennaaru, Vettaru and Vellaiyaru; we crossed the five rivers while driving from Thanjavur. The town, apparently comes alive only at this time of the year. Even the samadhi remains deserted, as people carry on with their daily lives.

But the music, like the Kaveri, flows on quietly.

*Details can be had at this and many other sites.

Wednesday, 16 January 2008


“Tamil Nadu Chief Minister M Karunanidhi today said the harvest festival Pongal, which falls on the first day of Tamil month 'Thai', would be soon made the official Tamil New Year Day.” This was the interesting bit of a news item in The Hindu last week. He said about 500 Tamil scholars had deliberated and arrived at the decision to change the Tamil New Year from the first day of 'Chithirai' month to the first day of 'Thai'.

Now after all these hundreds of years, someone has realised that it is appropriate to start the New Year on the first day of thai maasam. Is there any benefit? If so, to whom? Who cares! What does it matter if all these years the month of Chithirai, starting mid April, has been the first month in the Thamizh calendar! Is accuracy in marking years so important? Isn’t it more important to pamper and massage the ego of the Thamizh masses who can get hysterical in their passion for Thamizh and Thamizh culture? They have recently managed to get the Supreme Court to change its stand on abolishing the jallikkattu, the traditional and cruel bull fight, which can harm both the bull and the man who fights to tame it.

And how do we go about changing the year? Do we lop off the first three months of the next year? Or merely add them to the existing year so there are 15 months this year?

And when the next Government takes over, it may choose to declare the month of Deepavali as the first month of the year, since that is celebrated in a grander manner.

Personally I feel that celebrating Pongal, which is fundamentally a thanksgiving harvest festival, is totally irrelevant in an urban context. Nobody owns a cent of agricultural land, or has even seen a cow – let alone own one. Children in cities think milk comes out of packets, not having seen any cows. Sure, it is significant to the agriculturist, and so let it remain just that, a harvest festival. And not be converted to New Year.

Tuesday, 8 January 2008


A friend's post triggered off these random thoughts. For tea is not really my cup of tea.
A good cup of coffee is what I relish. But tea is what many swear by. It is the undisputed pick-me-up of the multitude.

Until my sister married the then Assistant Manager (he is the Manager now) of a Tea Garden, as the estate is called, I did not really know much about tea except that it is chai in Hindi, theyilai in Thamizh and chaya in Malayalam.
Malayalis are an enterprising and ubiquitous lot with their little chaya kadas (teashops) sprouting everywhere. Stories of how Neil Armstrong found a Malayali and his chaya kada as soon as he landed on the moon abounded in the late 1960s.
My sister now tells me that some tea is sold for 10,000s of Rupees a kg!

Making tea is a fine art. The teashop-wallahs follow their own method of keeping water and milk (with sugar) boiling in separate kettles, and adding tea leaves to it, I am told. No sugar free tea for diabetics here.

When my children were very young, I used to make tea for my college going nieces who lived next door, following their recipe. Add the required amount of milk, tea and sugar to the water and boil it all together. Strain it and drink. It was not too bad, I felt as a a non-tea drinker. And if you added some grated ginger and cardamom to it, why, it was quite palatable.

Last summer when I was in New York I found that the coffee shops in places like Barnes and Noble had on offer ‘chai’ and discovered that it was quite a hot favourite there – the chai has some spices to pep it up, and tastes suspiciously like the tea I used to make.

In England, the promptest solution to any disaster is the cup of tea. Or ‘a cuppa’.
The accepted recipe is to add a spoon of tea per person, plus one for the pot, to the tea pot, and add the boiling water. It is allowed to brew and then strained into cups. Unfortunately I found that the brewing period cools the tea. Adding cold milk to the strained tea, only speeds this drop in temperature, and the resultant pallid and lukewarm beverage can barely warm you. But there you are, to each his own. Still, they always have a marvellous collection of muffins, tarts and cup cakes to go with the tea, which then becomes a feast.

The high tea is a very British concept – it is a meal in itself served late in the afternoon or early in the evening, where tea is also served – maybe incidentally?

When my then to-be-brother-in-law was visiting, I offered to make him tea, and went about it in the way I normally did it. He, to put it mildly, was horrified, and considered it a sacrilege that tea leaves should actually be boiled. He then went on to show us the correct way tea should be made.
Place the tea leaves on the tea-strainer, and pour boiling water over it, and collect the tea. To this one should add milk or sugar to taste, he said.

The finest tea is to be found in the manager’s house, certainly.