Saturday, May 11, 2013


VEENAVAADHINI'S TIRUVARUR  TRIP By Aparna Shankar - Dec 26, 2012

 Imagine understanding the meaning of a song which is not in your language, then appreciating  why the composer said so. It is a heady feeling we students at Veenavaadhini ( a trust for music founded by Veena artistes Jeyaraaj and Jaysri  ( www.veenajj.com ) are getting more and more often, and loving it more and more. This heady feeling is caused by a combination of research and observation; reading and seeing; finding out and experiencing. This December, we decided to take it to a new dimension – living.
    By virtue of our Gurus belonging to the sishya parampara of the illustrious Carnatic music composer Muthuswami Dikshitar, we are privileged to be imbibing the tradition, and have taken it upon ourselves to retrace the steps of Dikshitar – not chronologically – but by rendering his kritis at the places in which he composed them. Tiruvotriyur, Tiruvallikeni, Kanchipuram, Tiruttani, Tirukazhukundram and the like have been covered by us at the Veenavaadhini group already. This time, we took the endeavour to a new level and headed to Tiruvarur; geographically many times further away from Chennai, but special to all musicians, music lovers and students because it was not only Dikshitar’s hometown but also that of other two of the Carnatic Music Trinity – Saint Thyagaraja and Syama Sastry.
    Our idea was to sing the Tyagaraja vibhakti kritis, Kamalamba Navavaranams and other individual kritis at the respective shrines. We also planned to visit other places near Tiruvarur where he had been. Each student learnt one vibhakti kriti; we all learnt Sri Nilotpalanayike; some of us keenly learnt songs assigned to others as well. Three weeks of intense preparation blended smoothly with the Chennai December Music Season. Music and smiles all round.
    Early 22nd December morning, we boarded the train to Tiruvarur. Banter, icebreaking, books and sleep were all part the travel. The younger of us revelled in a Carnatic antakshari. The train arriving an hour late did not dampen any spirits, not least because of the fabulous homemade lunch! After freshening up – for which – women being women, we took over an hour – and headed over to the houses of the Trinity. It was humbling to say the least. Tyagaraja’s house – only his birthplace, he moved to Tiruvaiyaru not long after – consisted of a single room and some structures added later. Dikshitar’s house had been converted into a mutt, with an idol and some beautiful reliefs and pictures. Syama Sastri’s house was an adorable little place with many unseen pictures and idols. We sang a song of each composer at their respective abodes, and also sang at Dikshitar’s house, Muthuswaminam Guruvaram, a composition of our Guru Smt Jaysri on Muthuswamy Dikshitar in the raga Hamsanandi.
    We then proceeded to the main temple. Time was in short supply, so we took a quick look at all the main shrines and sang about three songs (Vallabha nayakasya, Nagalingam, Tyagaraja Yogavaibhavam  and Kamalambam Bhajare), promising ourselves and the priests more on Monday.  We were lucky to witness the abhishekam of Maragathalingam and the evening puja (Ardha Jama Puja) where the Lord is taken in a palanquin to the musical sounds of 16 traditional temple instruments.
    The next day was a packed one. There were eight temples in and around Tiruvarur scheduled to be visited for the day. ‘Around’ here means several dozens of kilometres, by the way! We first headed to the Renukadevi temple in Vijayapuram. Renukadevi is the mother of Parashurama, the sixth avatar of Vishnu. The song in praise of her is Renukadevi in Kannadabangala. Interestingly, we had a rather distant view of her the first time. A few of us took our time to circle the shrine, by which time the priest arrived and opened a gate to give us a closer darshan.
    We drove over to Nagapattinam’s Kayarohaneswarar temple and sang Kayarohanesam in Devagandharam and Amba Neelayatakshi, on the eponymous goddess, in Nilambari. This is one of the saptavitankas. That is, the utsavar is an identical copy of the Tiruvarur Tyagarajaswami. It is known as Sundara vitanka. The temple was sprawling and grand.
    Next up was the adjacent Saundararaja Perumal temple, a Vishnu temple. Our guru sang Saundararaja in Brindavanasaranga, a kriti known to the priest, who joined in with his deep, rich voice. The deity was tall, majestic and liberally adorned – it is not for no reason Vishnu is known as Alankara-priya, the one who loves being adorned. His feet were under a platform, but visible to us as long as we bent down. The priest quoted Andal’s Tiruppavai, ‘Koodi irundu kulirndelor empavai’, urging us to sing a song all together, which we did.
We moved on to Sikkal, hometown of the legendary Sikkil Sisters and the current crowd-puller Sikkil Gurucharan. It was crowded and dark due to a power cut, which gave the place an old-worldly, mysterious charm. The famed Sikkal Singaravelar is the subject of Dikshitar’s ‘Shrngara shaktyayudhadhara’ in Ramamanohari. The Siva idol, so the story goes, is made of butter which refused to budge and is accordingly called Navaniteswarar. Its being stuck gave rise to the place’s name Sikkal. There was also a Vishnu temple attached.
Keezhvelur, where Dikshitar gave us ‘Akshayalingavibho’ in Sankarabharanam, the main piece – jewel in the necklace – of so many a concert! This place is also called Keevalur. The shrines were on a first floor, accessible by a flight of stairs. There is a story behind this. There was once a lingam in a forest. A spider realised its divinity and built a web over it to keep it clean. An elephant later visited it, and to do abhishekam for it, poured water on it, destroying the web. The peeved spider rebuilt it after the elephant left. The elephant destroyed it again. This cycle continued till the angry spider climbed into the elephant’s trunk and bit it, killing both. The spider was to be born again once due to his one sin, and was born as a king. Remembering his past life, he built the temple over stairs to prevent elephants from entering. This and more stories were related to us by a committed temple administrator who acted spontaneously as a fantastic guide. There were scores of shrines on the ground. This is also the place where the bankrupt Kubera is said to have prayed to recharge his powers.
We returned to Tiruvarur for lunch, after which we went to Kuzhikkarai. The Kuzhikkarai temple is built on private land. The builder of this temple, Vaidyalinga Mudaliar, desired Dikshitar to sing his praise. Dikshitar, never one to compose on a mere mortal, refused, but mentioned him in an epic 14-raga song, Sri Viswanatham. There were paintings on the roof such as the stages of existence – plants, animals, birds, fish and people. The other songs of this kshetra that we sang are Viswanathena in Saamanta and Annapurne Visalakshi in Saama.  
The penultimate stop for the day was Tirukannamangai, a Vishnu Temple where the gods came as bees to witness His wedding and stayed on (and are still there). The song here was Bhaktavatsalam in Vamsavati. The final visit of the day was to Pulivalam, another Vishnu temple. Dikshitar honoured the Lord with Venkatachalapate in Karnataka Kaapi.
Day 3 morning was all for the Tiruvarur temple. First, we stopped by the massive Kamalalayam tank to sing Sri Mahaganapatir Avatumam, in praise of Maatru Uraitha Vinayakar. Inside, our gurus sang the Kamalamba Navavaranams (a treat for the ears, indeed). Kamalamba is famously sitting in a special yogic posture impossible for humans. We walked over to the Nilotpalamba shrine and sang Sri Nilotpalanayike in Nariritigaulai. Finally, the beloved of the Nayanmars, Lord Tyagaraja! Each youngster sang a song – some tentatively, afraid of not doing justice to the master, some boldly, full of verve.
A brief walk from the temple is a temple of Sundaramurti Nayanar, his home. Here, we rendered Dikshitar’s only kriti on a human, Sundaramurtim in Takka. Sundaramurti Nayanar is an incarnation of a celestial, so strictly speaking Dikshitar never sang of mortal men.
In the evening, we proved our loyalty to secularism by visiting Nagore Dargah and Velankanni Church, bearably crowded though it was Christmas Eve.
The lengthy van journeys proved good times to discuss a variety of topics, like the music season, kalpanaswaram, philosophy, Facebook and Tendulkar’s retirement from ODI cricket!
In summary, this was an invaluable learning experience, where we listened to and rendered good music, visited places we would have never known about otherwise or given a second thought if we had come across them any other way. We got insights about stories, religion and life in general, and shared our ideas. I feel extremely lucky and privileged to have had this experience.