Song of Surrender

Friday, 13 May 2016

Cleveland festival: the future has arrived

By Sujatha Vijayaraghavan

Children children everywhere
All the rooms were full!

This was the scene on the Easter weekend at Cleveland during the 39th Aradhana Festival. In the halls, on the stage, in the corridors, in the foyer and all around, boys and girls in pattu pavadais, blouses, davanis, kurta pyjamas in all shades of the spectrum, presented a festival of colours. 'Raga' means both colour and melody, and it was truly a visual and aural ragamalika – there was music everywhere. Even the hotel lobbies and lifts rang with Mohanam and Kharaharapriya as the children went over their alapanas and songs in a last minute revision. Mridangams, veenas, violins, saxophones and flutes in their bags were lugged hither and thither by children and parents. This was a mela of staggering numbers with more than 800 competitors and nearly a thousand performers in various events. 

The Cleveland Aradhana Festival has shifted its focus to propagation of Carnatic music among the younger generation of North America. What started 39 years ago as a group singing of Pancharatnas by the local ladies became a major cultural event subsequently featuring the stars and promising talents of Carnatic music from India. The overwhelming response from the diaspora led to the next stage when the vision was to instil Carnatic music among the children and youth of North America. With cooperation from senior gurus in India and the aid of the latest technology in communication, classical music flooded the homes of the young learners and the project Sustaining Sampradaya was launched a decade ago. 

Sustaining Sampradaya

This year the two groups of Sustaining Sampradaya featuring about 90 girls and boys, were dedicated to the memory of M.S. Subbulakshmi and Ariyakudi Ramanuja Iyengar respectively. Both teams had young accompanists who played with zest on the violin, veena, mridangam and flute. Both events presented vintage ragas and songs associated with the stalwarts. While the MS group made Sankarabharanam and Sankaracharyam their main piece, it was the four raga RTP Sankarabharananai azhaittodi vadi Kalyani darbarukku that was the climax of the Ariyakudi presentation. Perched on specially designed kolu-padi-like stands with mikes strategically placed, the children belted out not only the songs, but indulged in shared alapana, niraval and swaraprastara. The accompanists held their own when their turn came. It was great to behold teenage students of mridangam swooping down after every lengthy piece to help their younger counterparts to adjust the sruti of the mridangam that kept fluctuating owing to the cold.

The watchword of these presentations was "pathantaram" – the established version associated with a doyen or a parampara. The gurus who had imparted the lessons looked on with concern, the younger teachers – who took on smaller batches to hone them to perfection over marathon sessions – were an anxious lot in the front row, conducting and keeping time with their hand gestures. Relief and elation reigned over the teachers and the taught at the conclusion when the auditorium erupted in unending applause and whistles. Over and above the euphoria of the present moment hovered the vague realisation that the immortal repertoire of two doyens had been etched in the musical memory of children, who would realise the value of the treasure only in the years to come. 

The programmes had been so arranged as to feature solo and group events by children, interspersed with performances by seniors and sub seniors. Each group featured scores of children taught by senior musicians and gurus from India and the U.S.A. on various themes. Jayashree Varadarajan, director and guru of the Sri Rama Lalitha Kala Mandir School of Fine Arts from the Bay Area presented a bouquet of compositions by Purandaradasa on social and individual reform, outlining his philosophy as an advocate for change. Her students dressed in morning shades of yellow, ochre, orange, red and white ranged from tiny tots to young adults. The group stood out for its polished perfection and professionalism. 

Bhakta Meera to Bhaja Govindam was the theme of popular melodies by M.S. Subbulakshmi sung with competence by a group of 25 from Toronto – all the girls wearing strands of jasmine, the students of Kulanayaki Vivekanandan and her sister Bhushany Kalyanaraman. One hundred students of Ashok Ramani sailed through compositions of Papanasam Sivan and Tyagaraja. 

There were also heterogeneous groups trained in a two-tier system by a guru from India and by his/her students in the several cities of the US. Neyveli Santhanagopalan presented what he called his Epic Choir of 225 children. Starting with a traditional Todayamangalam followed by his composition, the group electrified the gathering with rapid fire renditions of alankarams in 35 talas in ragamalika. A jawbreaker of rhythmic phrases from Tiruppugazh set to music by him was another salvo. Pallavis of Tyagaraja’s kritis in Desadi tala followed next and the musical rollercoaster concluded on a high note with a theme song of the festival in Nalinakanti raga: “Aradhanai – Tyagaraja, Aradhanai – Clevelandil,   Aradhanai – aandutorum, Aradhanai" which was on everyone’s lips after this fun and frolic with Carnatic music. 

Overseas students of Ramani’s Academy of Flute in several cities of North America have been presented over the last several years at the Cleveland festival by vidwan N. Ramani. This year the mantle fell on his son R. Thyagarajan to lead the group in a homage to the late flute maestro. 

A novel feature

There were several solo concerts by the prizewinners and promising young talents of North America. The crowning glory for them was the new feature introduced this year giving an opportunity to a few select youngsters to sing with the stars. Geetha Shankar, a tenth grader in school, was the cynosure of all eyes as she sat with a serene smile next to Aruna Sairam on stage. At Aruna’s bidding she burst forth with a bravura alapana of Kharaharapriya in the upper octaves. With further encouragement, the girl revealed her amazing talent in the Brindavana Saranga alapana prelude to an abhang and wowed everyone by a flash of griha bhedam to boot. 

Neyveli Santhanagopalan was accompanied by young Vivrd Prasanna, an eighth grader in school. Triven Kannan, another youngster sang along with Kunnakudi Balamuralikrishna. Kamalakiran Vinjamoori (a student of A. Kanyakumari) from California and barely out of school, was for all practical purposes the 'asthana vidwan' of the festival. He was omnipresent with his bow, the violin case slung over his shoulders, an unfazed performer accompanying a junior or a senior, playing a solo late in the night, participating in an ensemble and holding his own everywhere. 

Sruthy Sarathy, the young violinist suddenly found herself playing for Chitravina Ravikiran, in an unscheduled concert. Vishwa Mohan Bhatt, who had been slated to do a jugalbandi with Ravikiran earlier in the festival, for some reason chose to play a solo for the entire duration on his Mohan Veena leaving the organisers and his fellow artist on stage totally perplexed. Ravikiran was then given a solo slot later in the festival, which proved to be more preferable to the audience. While Ravikiran made no allowances for young Sruthy’s age, he was openly appreciative of her rising to the challenge and coming out in flying colours. 

Eight-year-old Rajagopal Hari, sitting to the right of his mother Vishaka Hari seemed quite at home as he sang the Tyagaraja kritis with her and went on to recite a long excerpt from Chamakam with the right enunciation and intonation. 

Dance programmes

The lobbies and corridors were once again a rainbow of colours the next weekend when more than 90 participants arrived for the dance competitions which were conducted, results announced and prizes distributed in an operation planned and executed meticulously with military precision. 

The dance segment of the festival offered the same variety as in music, but in lesser numbers. The only solo by a senior dancer was that of Bragha Bessell, whose thematic exposition Vinara was scripted and presented by Sujatha Vijayaraghavan. Navia Natarajan performed with elan on the last day. Tyagaraja’s Nauka Charitram choreographed, supervised and conducted by guru Rhadha was presented by local dancers trained by her disciples. Kripa Bhaskaran, dance teacher from Milwaukee, who was awarded the title of Natya Seva Mani this year, presented her students in Rama Katha Sudha.

Aspiring young dancers in the U.S.A. were offered opportunities to try their hand at choreography and group presentations of the margam, and they acquitted themselves quite creditably in two programmes titled Sahitya and Parampara respectively. In Sahitya the musical segment was also handled by young dancers and musicians. The logistics in putting together these programmes meant coordinating participants in various cities of the US, a formidable task carried out by the youngsters. 

Varied fare

The group singing of Tyagaraja's Pancharatna kritis after a traditional unchavritti, kolattam and nama sankeertanam, was as usual the highlight of the festival and the biggest draw. The award presentation ceremony moved in fast forward with crisp introductions, devoid of lengthy speeches and platitudes. 

Music concerts, which form the main fare of the festival went on all through the day from 8 am to 10 pm and offered a great deal of variety in vocal as well as instrumental. There were solos, duos, ensemble, fusion and jugalbandis by senior, juniors and both together.

The vision and planning of the organisers in upholding classicism was evident in the choice of artists, the  arrangement of events and in the choice of ragas and compositions. Concerts by Suguna Varadachari and Rama Ravi stood out for their classical idiom reminiscent of Musiri Subramania Iyer and Dhanammal respectively. R.S. Jayalakshmi’s veena rang out with emphatic power and emotion as she played with effortless ease. While every number was soaked in raga bhava, the tanam in Bhairavi made everyone sit up with the realisation that the veena, Bhairavi and tanam were made for each other. 

Homage to M.S. Subbulakshmi overweighed all else. There was a presentation of her United Nations concert by her own great-granddaughter Aishwarya, a musical journey of her film and light classical pieces scripted and compered by her biographer and supporting voice Gowri Ramnarayan, a raga and kriti composed by her longtime accompanist V.V. Subramaniam, a Nari-katha by Suchithra Balasubramanian accompanied by dancer Smitha Madhav, a concert of her repertoire by Gayathri Venkataraghavan, a Sangeet Symphony and several more events. 

T.N. Seshagopalan paid a royal tribute to Ariyakudi in his pallavi in Todi with the sahitya “Ariyakudi mahimai ariya kooduma Margadarsi Sangeeta Ratnakara.” Saketharaman, in a memorable concert, rendered a Todi alapana with shades of T.N. Rajarathnam as a prelude to the Tyagaraja kriti Munu Ravana, one of the Alathur favourites. On 1 April, the anniversary of the passing away of K.V. Narayanaswamy, Bharat Sundar paid his homage which commenced with the Swati Tirunal varnam Sumasayaka and had other KVN vintage numbers. 

The informal late night discussions on music, a reminiscence of M.S. Subbulakshmi by her family friends, the couple Nirmala and Ramasubramaniam, mini concerts by youngsters and a Varakari bhajan by Sri Ganapathy Thukaram Maharaj and party at Comfort Inn Ball room were a lingering finale to each day’s events. One woke up to music and went to sleep with music ringing in the ears. Marching towards its fortieth year in 2017, the Cleveland Aradhana Festival has moved on from being an annual art event into a movement to propagate the best traditions of Carnatic music and Bharatanatyam in North America. The organisers V.V. Sundaram and Gomathi Sundaram, Balasubramaniam and his wife Gomathy, Jaya and Natarajan and Toronto Venkataraman who have steered it with a missionary zeal through 39 freezing winters are now watching the manifestation of their vision realised. The future has indeed arrived.

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