Song of Surrender

Wednesday, 5 October 2016

Indian arts to the fore in Melbourne

By Shobha Sekhar

Australia usually conjures images of cricket in the minds of many Indians. But there is more to this island continent tucked in the southern hemisphere. With a constantly burgeoning Indian immigrant population and Melbourne being voted the world’s most liveable city for an unprecedented sixth year in a row – the city scored a near perfect 97.5 out of 100 – with top marks in healthcare, infrastructure and education, Melbourne’s art loving Indian immigrants have much to offer and share with the rest of the globe.

Melbourne boasts a cultural calendar bursting at its seams. Events by resident senior artists, students, music and dance schools in annual concerts, and overseas artists from India constantly beckon the population to attend. It is the worry of organisers not to clash – and hence the need to have a web calendar to crosscheck the availability of dates!

For the sake of brevity this story will cover only the Carnatic classical music scene and organisers.

Australia--particularly Melbourne--is a multicultural society. We strive in this part of the world to propagate classical music to a broad spectrum of aspiring students regardless of nationality, religion, caste or even those who may be intellectually or socially challenged.

It may come as a surprise but there are several families who can be financially strained. These students get fee concessions. Being far away from the Indian roots – its culture and values, I strongly advocate to keep in touch by learning and practising some Indian art form. Many students may not blossom into performing artists but I believe the music education will help them appreciate India’s rich legacy.

One of the main organisers in Melbourne is Sridhar Chari through his organisation InConcert Music. Sridhar has been a disciple of Kumbakonam Rajappa Iyer and Umayalpuram Sivaraman.

Sridhar also learnt flute from Thiagarajan Ramani and teaches both mridangam and flute to aspiring students at his Laya Vidhya Centre.

Sridhar is the early bird who begins the year with a concert on 26 January – when both India and Australia celebrate their Republic Day.

In March 2016, Neyveli Santhanagopalan, Nagai Muralidharan and  Mannargudi  Easwaran gave a memorable concert preceded by a choir. About 30 vocalists sang a song written (about Australia in Tamil) and composed by Santhanagopalan.

Three music schools in Melbourne paid tribute to M.S. Subbulakshmi during her centenary year. On 6 May students of Jayshree Ramachandran’s Sapthaswara School of music enthralled the audience by rendering many songs and bhajans popularised by MS.

Sridhar conducted InConcert Music Festival as a tribute to MS on 17 June  with a short multimedia presentation, songs from the silver screen by several artists and a thought provoking ‘Talking Dance’ presentation by Dr. Priya Srinivasan.

Shobha Sekhar’s Kalakruthi School of Music, which is affiliated to Music Academy, Chennai, also had a two-day annual festival where students from her school and universities (where she lectures) presented songs popularised by M.S.  Subbulakshmi.

Two schools successfully had charity events to raise funds for Monash Children's Hospital which is part of Monash Health, Victoria’s largest healthcare service. It is a network of paediatric health care  services across Monash Medical Centre, Dandenong Hospital and  Casey Hospital. A new hospital is being built and is slated to be opened in 2017. 

Kalakruthi School held a successful charity event ‘Kala Kiran’ on 20 March. R.T. Chari, a Vice President of the Music Academy, Chennai, was the chief guest. The event had three segments: Nada Yoga, an interactive yoga session for voice, a panel discussion to debate and plan future trends for classical arts in Australia, and a bhajan led by teachers of various schools.

Uthra Vijayaraghavan’s Keerthana Music School runs an annual school concert in April to promote young talent and to give an opportunity for the students to perform in front of a large audience. This year, the school and its members decided to run a special charity concert as part of the 11th annual school concert, in support of the Monash Children’s Hospital. The concert on the 9 April was a showcase of talents of all the students of the school, who gave commendable performances, accompanied on the violin and  mridangam by students from other music schools in Melbourne.

A major festival held annually for the past 30 years is Ravichandhira’s Mummoorthy festival (see Sruti 383, August 2016).

The Iyer Brothers are veterans in Melbourne who established their Pichumani School in 1990. The school held its 26th annual school concert in May where junior as well as senior vocal and veena students performed.

Sundari Sarimpalli and her Swara Sadhana School celebrated the 10th anniversary this year with a concert by all her students.

The latest major event was VISHWA – a confluence of music and dance by leading schools of Victoria (State) under one unifying Umbrella Organisation FIMDV (Federation of Music and Dance Schools of Victoria), held on 13 August to celebrate India’s 70th Independence. It was one of Melbourne’s most well attended programmes in recent times. The title VISHWA was coined as an acronym for Videshi (foreigner) and Swadeshi (citizen).

It was heartening to see a wide cross-section of nationalities including Alex Pertout, Former Head of Improvisational Studies from University of Melbourne, and all age groups – grandparents, parents and children – sitting in the front rows and watching with rapt attention). The women resplendent in bright sarees were complemented by their partners in equally captivating kurtas! 

Vishwa began with a welcome speech by its president Rama Rao. Vasan Srinivasan, Trustee, invited the guests of honour Jim Grivokostopoulos and Multicultural Commissioner C.S. Srinivasan. They spoke about the contribution to Australian society by Indian immigrants and the rich tapestry of art forms they bring along with them.

Sridhar Chari and his students from Laya Vidhya Centre commenced the musical segment with a mallari on the flute and percussion instruments – mridangam, ghatam and khanjira.

Vishwa Vitthala gave a spirited start to the vocal music section. Presented by Shobha Sekhar and Jayshree Ramachandran (both vice presidents of FIMDV), the two abhangs in praise of Lord Vitthala who reigns supreme in this viswa or world,  brought to the fore the invigorating beauty of the 13th century poet-saint Dhyaneswar and 16th century poet-saint Tukaram. The vocalists’ presentations were rejuvenated by violinist Murali Kumar (violin), Sridhar Chari (mridangam) and Pandurang Torvi (tabla).

This was followed by Ek Sur  – a garland of patriotic numbers in a string of ragas and languages by Rama Rao and Uthra Vijayaraghavan, Secretary, ably supported by the percussionists of the day (Sridhar and Pandurang) and young keyboard artists Sandeepan Pushparaj and Ravi Kumar. 

The instrument ensemble PravAha demonstrated the coming together of different styles of music (Carnatic, Hindustani and Western saxophone), different instruments and sounds. Pravaha which means “flow’ aptly described the music as it streamed from one instrument to the other. Vainika Ramnath Iyer played Kalyani raga, followed by Nicholas Buff on the saxophone (raga Yaman), Gopinath Iyer (veena), Saby Bhattacharya (sarod), Murali Kumar (violin), followed by Radhey Shyam Gupta (sitar). Sridhar and Pandurang on percussion supported in their respective Carnatic and Hindustani styles. The sound emanating had to be judiciously balanced by Charles Walker as the different instruments had very distinctive volumes and sounds. The energetic and culminating teermanams and  tihai were well appreciated by the audience. Kudos to Ramnath (who coordinated the concert) and his team for working together to present this 'Swara Pallavi'.

The intermission was spiced up by food from Biryani Mahal and was a precursor to an equally spicy dance segment.

Jhansi ki Rani is the story of the brave Indian warrior-queen from Jhansi. Tara Rajkumar (Trustee, FIMDV) directed the dance-drama. Enticingly coordinated by Ushanthini Sripathmanathan (secretary) and Meghala Bhatt, the story was brought to life by narrator and researcher Soundarrajan Iyer. This was an amalgam of different dance styles which highlighted the oft repeated phrase  'unity in diversity'. 

Ushanthini and students of Natyalaya, in well designed costumes, portrayed the opening scenes of the legendary tale Jhansi Ki Rani - Lakshmi Bai, showing her expertise in sword fighting and leadership qualities to gear up an army in spite of adverse conditions and pressure tactics by the British in colonial India.

Ushanthini (Bharatanatyam) set the stage for the story to unfold. Mohini Bordawekar made a convincing presentation in Kathak with her chakkars well timed and flawless. Shyama Sasidharan (Kuchipudi) portrayed the fierce Rani Lakshmi Bai appropriately with poise.

Nithiya Gopu, one of the best dancers Tara has mentored, played her part in the Mohini Attam style. The flowing movements as well as the Kalaripayattu (a martial art which originated in Kerala) appropriately narrated Lakshmi Bai’s conquests. The dancers came together in the final episode where the great warrior's prowess, unfortunately proved to be no match for the British might in arms and numbers. The finale Vande Mataram again by all leading dancers in their respective classical styles was a fitting tribute on Independence Day. Jhansi ki Rani, effectively sent a strong message of women empowerment and a motivation for women to stand up for themselves in the face of repression or suppression.

The National Anthems of Australia and India aroused the auditorium with power and patriotism. Harmonious indeed!

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