Blog post by Dhruv Gangadharan Arvind
The months of December and January have always been most anxiously awaited and happily received by the people of Chennai – clime and time are seemingly optimized while wining and dining are pleasurably relished. Within these 61 days of the Gregorian calendar, is a 30-day period, marked by the Tamil month ofMargazhi, when the city is livened by arts and culture, establishing a resonance in the air. This uncanny vibration results in the genesis of an element that enlightens the soul, tranquillises the mind, transfixes the heart and renders the body buoyant.
Discovering the element
It’s been 45 days since the storm – a storm that devastated the coast of Tamil Nadu. The introductory lines of this stormy song were a traumatic experience for the people, leaving them comatose in the coda. An ordeal that seemed to possess longevity, on hindsight, lasted only a few days. But it wasn’t the eye of the storm that was baleful – it was the vision of a city that had been blinded for the days to come. Solidarity had helped the city of Chennai and the town of Cuddalore recoup through primary relief and subsequent rehabilitation. Rather than a dolorous December spent by platitudes on flood and loss, the spirit of Chennai was to be celebrated. What better way to uplift spirit than by welcoming the enchanting month of Margazhi?
Introspection during this month in specific results in the acknowledgement of an eccentricity that is characterised by a purity in earth, a sanctity in space and an overall divinity in dimension that attributes a proximity to the Creator. Therein lies the realisation of an omnipresence, an omnipotence and an omniscience that cleaves way for the discovery of the aforementioned element.
Defining the element
The confinement of matter within a given space leads to the generation of an entity in accordance with the laws of science, thereby conferring it with physical and chemical properties, appropriated in a scale of time. This standardisation of entities may be extended to define the mystique element. It shall have two principal attributes – musicality and spirituality. Sentiment and thought may generate a partiality towards one of these attributes – should the element be musically spiritual or spiritually musical? The ascertainment shall be left to the reader and the attributes of the element will be left equipoised and unconfined.
Technically, the art is rich and is often incomprehensible, much to the chagrin of the layperson
Musically, the period in focus witnesses pageantry in the arts, signified by the Carnatic genre. The repertoire is extensive and is mostly spiritual in its approach, with compositions in praise of the almighty and sung in specific tunes or raagas, set in a time scale with taalas. These raagas and taalas are intricately designed, mathematically framed and assigned to hymns, producing a song that transports both, the singer and the listener to an indefinite space and time. The penetrability of the music is holistically experienced and not plainly heard – the front and rear of the palm are in sync with the beat by rhythmically patting the lap and appreciation comes naturally by swaying the head in tune. Technically, the art is rich and is often incomprehensible, much to the chagrin of the layperson. My understanding of manodharma,viruttams and alapanams is rudimentary and I confess my lack of proficiency in the knowledge of javalis, geetams and padams. A novice like me is solely driven by energy from the element that invigorates the self. Additionally, my love for the art form is idolatrous, being influenced and inspired by aficionados.
The concept of spirituality during the period under analysis results from hagiographic interpretations that tend to the Srivaishnavaschool of thought in South India. Historically, Andal, the only female among the 12 Azhwars or saints of the Srivaishnava lineage, who is the direct daughter of Periazhwar or Vishnucittan holds court duringMargazhi for her famous composition of 30 paasurams adoring the Lord. Andal of Putuvai (Srivilliputtur) falls in love with LordRangamannar of Srirangam and yearns for a place in his heart. She is noted for her audacity in donning garlands meant for the Lord, leading her to be hailed as Soodikuduttaval – the one who gave what she wore, envisioning herself as the Lord’s bride. The Tiruppavai(The Sacred Vow) describes the young girl’s entry into the heart of the Lord with lucidity. The flip side of the coin however, is kept inconspicuous to the larger sections of society, primarily due to its eroticism and violence. Herein, we imagine our Andal, who has come of age, vociferously describing herself, her Lord, and her yearning for an intimacy with the Lord in the Naciyar Tirumozhi (The Woman’s Sacred Words). Through differing ideologies, Andal is revered both, as a saint (as an Azhwar) and as a Goddess (as Bhu Devi, the consort of Lord Vishnu). Deviating from a religious perspective and focusing on literary flamboyance, Andal is seen as one of the finest poets of her time – the perusal of Tiruppavai andNaciyar Tirumozhi reveals her prowess in poetry. The holistic content and design of her poems creates several possibilities during interpretation – it is a case of still waters running deep as conclusive meanings can never be reached while performing a Svapadesham – explorations of the inner meanings of these poems have been attempted many times and new interpretations have added colour to the existing repertoire of understandings. In fact, it is the poet in Andal that apotheosises her works in the Nalayira Divya Prabandam(Divine Collection of Four Thousand) – the collection of hymns by the Srivaishnava saints that glorify the Lord.
Experiencing the element
An entity can be represented and thence interpreted in a multitude of fashions, aligned with interests and imaginations. Therefore I shall present to you my representation and interpretation ofMargazhi, immersing myself alongside the mysterious element, in the city of Madras, that is Chennai. The purview of a phenomenon called the ‘Music Season’ finds utterance within the magical month of Margazhi. It is the time when coolth descends on the city and warmth is radiated from the people. The community of Tamil Brahmins or TamBrahms glorify this period and make themselves ubiquitous.
The temple bells ring exceptionally early in the morning and awaken the senses with mellow chants of the Tiruppavai that fill every void and penetrate every space. Wafts of incense fill the air, supplemented by fragrance from flowers blessed to adorn the Lord. At daybreak, first tinges of sunrays tingle the skin and equip the body for the new day. The Madras Music Academy is the holiest ground for Carnatic music – it has been blessed by voices of stalwarts in the field, still causing the atmosphere within to be charged. The first concert for the day starts at 9:00 am and showcases the brilliance of senior artistes, recipients of the prestigious Sangita Kalanidhi award that is instituted and conferred by the Music Academy.
Clearly, we TamBrahms are loud and vocal about staying ahead of the Times
The morning concerts bear witness to the cliché TamBrahm – there is an overdose of filter kaapi at the canteen and mamas don theveshti as they are seated leg over leg reading The Hindu. Clearly, we TamBrahms are loud and vocal about staying ahead of the Times. I take in the surroundings and close my eyes to appreciate the quality of music that resonates from the world-class sound system at this esteemed auditorium. Soon, when it is time for lunch, the platter makes one’s stomach rumble with hunger – a traditional meal is served on the banana leaf, making the elai saapadu highly appealing to the senses. The food and service catered are highly worth and one cannot but relish the treatment for gustatory satisfaction. After savouring the meal, however obnoxious it may seem, a loud burp still symbolises the quality of the food and the degree of enjoyment – the climax that is reached after devouring the meal. The period post-lunch is when snores drown the rendition of raagas. There is nothing wrong in falling into deep slumber after the salubrious meal – seated in comfortable chairs with soothing music while food is being digested is experientially therapeutic. As for snoring, I shall refrain from comments. For some families fromSowcarpet who know nothing about music and believe in tawdry dressing, the food is the main attraction and throng the canteens at lunch time to deprive rasikas of sumptuous meals. Ingenious Iyersand intuitive Iyengars however are quick to get their share – lunch is standardised at 11:00 am in order to appreciate the food with “besh besh!” rather than “wah! Kya baat hai!”
Evenings at the Academy are at their ostentatious best, with mamis draped in the finest of Kanjivaram silk and decked with diamonds and gold through kaasu-malais and jimikkis. The occasional man clad in jeans and sports shoes reveals his identity as NRI and I catch him conversing with his parents in orthodox TamBrahm Tamil and with his children using a thick American accent, leading me to ask with faux naïf articulation, “are you from Detroit?” He replies with a proud smile, “no no, San Jose!”
I regard ‘My Margazhi’ as a purgatory experience. It was a setting that felt most welcoming. My conversations with erudite ladies and gentlemen who appreciated the arts and literature convinced me that I was not an anachronistic, social misfit. My days started early, basking in the beauty of our Andal and Her Tiruppavai through discourses on the television channels. I used my time to gain a deep understanding of these glorious poems and by learning about masters in the Carnatic circle. Supplementing the season’s beauty were the illustrations by a reputed cartoonist, who portrayed the pulchritude of each paasuram from the Tiruppavai. It was a time to experiment the various canteens at the different sabhas across the city, tasting the various types of dosas and getting caffeine doses from different coffee machines, catered by giants in the food business, from ‘Mint’ Padmanabhan and ‘Mount’ Mani to Gnanambika and Sri Krishna.
I travelled as far as my eyes took me – I was lucky to find pretty maidens traditionally attired in cotton, decked with flowers and a prominent pottu on the forehead. To my cognisance, many of these young ladies happened to be dancers, evidenced from their body language – dainty gestures and genteel postures coupled with countenance and playful, yet stern eyes. According to me, theBharatanatyam dancers are a class of graceful ladies with expressions par excellence and the ability to charm not only an average man like me but also the Lord himself. The concept of depicting paasurams from the Tiruppavai is hence collaborative, where Andal’s love for the Lord is dealt with artistic finesse, propelled by intrinsic spirituality in the dancer. The Tiruppavaiwholly centres on this – the entry of the self into the heart of the Lord, and conversely, the entry of the Lord himself into the heart of the self. The other example of this amalgamation is the rendition of the paasurams in specific raagas, set to tune by Ariyakudi Ramanuja Iyengar in the early 20th century.
The interaction between devotion or bhakti and technicality in the southern music has always strived to meet equilibrium. The wordbhakti immediately conjures the image of MS Subbulakshmi, an exponent who has been unmatched in the field. It was through simple bhakti that she delivered each time unfailingly reaching the apogee. Modern times have seen a slight deviation from bhakti inCarnatic music, and focus on the technicality in the art, nuancing the finer details and appealing to connoisseurs in the art. I shall refrain from names in this discourse. But while one school prefers a continuum in technicality, another school wishes to include a marketability of this product, with the hope and aspiration of retaining audiences. This modern approach to Carnatic music is well founded, but shall be looked at as being slightly left-of-centre from a conservatist’s point of view. My perspective is completely based on the element of Margazhi as the driving force, which is, I reiterate, both spiritual and musical.
Purging the promiscuous
They label me as an old person who is unfitting for the present generation, lambasting and ridiculing my presence at the concerts.
My journey through the season has gobsmacked many from seniors to counterparts. My elders find joy in the fact that a young boy in his twenties shows a predilection for Carnatic music, unabatedly frequenting the sabhas on a daily basis. My comrades on the other hand, criticise me for being inclined towards these divine arts. They label me as an old person who is unfitting for the present generation, lambasting and ridiculing my presence at the concerts. When things seemed harsh, I was met with denigration due to my interest in bharatanatyam, flagging me with effeminacy.
Opinionated people have preposterous views. The lack of reverence for our arts and our culture proves the shallowness and baselessness of comments and claims, leading to a wholehearted rejection of acceptance. The vulgar imitation of Western promiscuity without an extensive replication of ideas and customs itself reveals the undersized scope of their criticism. While Carnatic music may seem slow paced, the divinity ascribed to it appeals to the inner self. The technicality involved in this genre is far superior to the lacklustre beats of the Electronic Disc Music or EDM that the youth of today value – the sophistication in a Carnatic concert is replete with culture and aesthetics. The corruption and disregard for our own product is hence tantamount to betrayal of cultural interest. If our people don’t take pride in our lineage, who will? The least that can be expected will be the appreciation of a few who continue to take the arts forward at a time when Westerners derive inspiration from this great genre. A collective respect and regard for the arts must counter the calumnies, or the treatment shall be similar to the Yoga story – do we need a Saffronist outfit to highlight the greatness of our culture?
Aa Nam Ta
The end of Margazhi coincides with the birth of Thai and the celebration of Pongal and The Hindu’s Lit For Life, an annual literary festival held in Chennai. The element was clearly felt despite the start of the new month. An insightful session on the transliteration and translation of the Tirukkural revealed the presence of the third section of this collection of couplets that possesses a sexual predilection. Drawing comparisons, it is seen that these verses, like the Naciyar Tirumozhi, do not reflect vulgarity, but sensuality and have resisted fascism without being censured. The transcendentalAndal, a favourite in literary circles, was eulogised by artistes for reasons earlier explained. Studies throw light on a periodicity in Indian mystics – while Andal and Meera represented the Srivaishnavathought, Akka Mahadevi and Karaikalammaiyar represented theVeerashaiva thought, known for their unique ways, without diatribes against the otherwise disposed which, ipso facto makes gargantuan yet uncomplicated revelations on tolerance.
Plain knowledge about our past richness relays gratification of the highest order. Music and dance have a commonality in the concept of learning – the centrality of the Guru or teacher and the lineage that is woven around it, constituting a system referred to as theGuru-Sishya Parambara. Today, this concept has been disparaged and is evidenced by the decrepit relations between the teacher and the student. It is not limited to the arts – it is of prime importance and relevance in spheres of education, management, family, government and society. However, this concept has the qualities of being perpetual.
Perpetuity and proximity are qualities of the Margazhi element, constantly exciting the individual, uniting people and providing space for the churning of ideas. It makes one hopeful for its everlasting presence and expectant of undying intensity. I learn from a musicologist that the sounds Aa, Nam and Ta unite to explain this continuance – Ananta or The Never-ending.
- Archana Venkatesan, The Secret Garland, Oxford University Press (2010)
- Sriram Venkatakrishnan, Carnatic Summer: Lives of Twenty Great Exponents, EastWest Books (Madras) Pvt. Ltd. (2004)
- T. M. Krishna, A Southern Music: The Karnatik Story, Harpercollins (2013)
- Sanjay Subrahmanyan, Sing My Song, The Hindu Lit For Life 2016 (Excerpts)
- Gopalkrishna Gandhi, The Kural, The Hindu Lit For Life 2016 (Excerpts)
- Anita Ratnam, Poetry of Andal and Akka Mahadevi: ‘Crazy’ words that swept away taboos, The Hindu Lit For Life 2016 (Excerpts)