In its 165th year, the annual Thyagaraja Aradhana festival at Tiruvaiyaru in Thanjavur district is without question getting bigger and better. Thousands of people come from all over India to pay homage to the musician-mystic Sri Thyagaraja, one of the greatest masters in Carnatic music. Filled with such spirit and passion, there is clearly more to the festival than just the music
Thiruvaiyaru is a small town situated on the outskirts of the Thanjavur district in Tamil Nadu. A place that is usually quiet and simple, takes a complete turn in the months of January and February each year. Home to some of the largest rice fields in the state and the sacred Kaveri River, it is also synonymous with the Thyagaraja Aradhana festival, one of the biggest celebrations of traditional Indian music.
The Thyagaraja Aradhana music festival is held annually to pay homage to the famous musician Sri Thyagaraja (1767-1848), who grew up in this town. Music lovers flock from all over India to be immersed in the performances and primarily pay homage to his piety and devotion so evident in his compositions. For the musicians themselves, it is more an act of devotion rather then a place to get recognised.
This year, the festival was held over four days from January 10-13, 2012. Now in its 165th year, the number of people attending has increased rapidly year after year. It is even starting to get international recognition.
Sri Thyagaraja is believed to have composed over 24,000 songs. Although researchers have only managed to maintain about 700 of his compositions, these 700 have clearly changed the world of Carnatic Music.
Born into a Telugu Brahmin family in Tiruvaiyaru, he learnt the art of music from a very young age. A spiritual and selfless person, he made his music for the Divine, rather than for himself. His main inspiration was the great Lord Rama. Regarded in Hindu mythology as ‘The Perfect Man’, Rama is revered for his courage, devotion and compassion - qualities, which may perhaps also be attributed to Sri Thyagaraja.
Sri Thyagaraja’s teacher, ‘Sonti Venkataramanayya’, a well-known music scholar, was more than impressed after seeing him perform in his home. He decided to tell the King of Thanjavur of his great achievements hoping he would also want to see his student perform.
The king wished for Sri Thyagaraja to have a life performing in the royal courts, so he sent him an invitation, along with many gifts. Sri Thyagaraja, however, chose a different path and went on a pilgrimage around South India to all the great temples and found inspiration for his compositions from the deities.
He led a simple life and believed that ‘money couldn’t bring you happiness’. He never wanted fame, but instead only sought acceptance from the Supreme. Many people believe he never earned a single rupee in his life.
His compositions consisted of distinctive and original hymns, the majority of which were devoted to Lord Rama. His music took people on a journey and lifted the status of this style of music. His immortal compositions form the core of Carnatic music and influence all Carnatic musicians today.
Carnatic music is something distinctive to Tamil Nadu and this festival is something truly precious to the people here. The festival is held on the grounds where Sri Thyagaraja is said to have left his body, right by the Kaveri River. Close to the venue, people can visit the home where he lived. Though it has been re-constructed over the years, people still go there to absorb the energy of his divine presence and pay their respects. The whole area is regarded as sacred and hence the utmost care is given to ensure it is well looked after.
The stage itself is set up inside tents and is split in half. While one side is performing, the other is used to set up for the next act, enabling everything to flow smoothly. The audience is seated below the stage as you may expect, but instead of having chairs or concrete floors, they sit spread over piles of sand, which helps create a spiritual atmosphere.
Festival goers can also visit a range of stalls, which sell anything from jewellery to musical instruments, and even music lessons are on offer. Here, people are not trying to ‘sell sell sell’ as it usually is in shops and stalls. There is simply no pressure to buy anything and it is fine just to have a look. Any information you need about how it is used in Carnatic music. The profit from the stalls goes towards the event to help make it what it is today. The festival is also sponsored by musicians, audience members and businesses that choose to help out. One of the major sponsors is City Union Bank Limited.
Entry to the festival is free of charge and open to people of any age, gender or ethnicity. Accommodation is also available as well as a food stand providing free meals for all.
A Warm Welcome
A.K. Palanivel is the head secretary of the Thyagaraja Aradhana festival. Sharing his position and duties with V.Rajarao, Palanivel has been organising the festival for about 25 years and is also a musician himself. At one point he was named the number one Thavil player in the world and has won many awards including the coveted Nadapperoli, Tavilisai Tilakam, Palkad Mani Iyer awards and many more.
He takes his position very seriously and informed us that if people misuse their position in any way they are automatically dismissed. He was enstated to the position when he was just 35 years old. Members in the festival committee were so impressed with his skills as an instrumentalist and his knowledge of Carnatic music, that he was deemed a perfect choice for the role. Thyagaraja is great inspiration to A.K. Palanivel. He works hard to keep alive the spirit and tradition of his divinely inspired music.
“I wanted to make the festival as peaceful as possible; I talk in a friendly manner with people rather than ordering them. If we as organisers really set the atmosphere, then everyone will follow,” he explains.
He has truly succeeded in this. When walking through the gates of Thyagaraja Aradhana, you automatically feel a wave of calmness come over you. When asking people where things are, they were more then helpful. At concerts back home, people are usually scared to even look security in the eye as their presence tends to be intimidating. But not here. One of the first people to talk to me was a guard with a huge smile on his face saying, “Welcome, Welcome to the festival.” It was soon obvious that everyone was there to just have a good time and truly embrace the music.
He found one of the hardest aspects of organising the festival was just seeing how the day would turn out. “You can only do so much planning and organising. I was nervous that things would not run on schedule. We have to push for this to happen and for the show to run smoothly,” he explained.
With so many musicians wanting to be a part of the festival, everything needs to be quite tight. They even had to stop letting people join the show because they just wouldn’t be able to fit them in. “Some people are still waiting, just wanting to get their chance to give praise to the Saint and gain his blessing,” he confirmed.
They have tried to keep the festival and its tradition the same every year, but have made everything bigger, increasing the number of stalls, accommodation and food stands. “We started off with hundreds of people but now it’s turned into thousands. We can’t even count,” he explained.Coming Together
As a result, January 13 was a hectic day. There were people up before the gates even opened. Hundreds of cars paraded down the street. We asked Mr. Palanivel why he couldn’t extend the days of the festival to allow more talented musicians to be involved. “People want to be as close to the 13th as possible, the main festival. If we extended the days, it would simply be too far away,” he said.
In appreciation for this sacred day, all the musicians came together to perform what is referred to as his most famous kritis, the ‘Pancharatna Kritis’ (his five core compositions known as his five gems). The titles of the compositions are Jagadanandakaraka, Dudukugala Nanne, Saadhinchane, Kanakanaruchira and Endaro Mahanubhavulu. These particular pieces stood out from the rest because of their beautiful sound and captivating meaning about liberty and freedom.
All of the musicians sat on the ground. This leveling act erased all hierarchies and fostered a spirit of equality and a sense of oneness with the audience. They sung the Pancharatna kritis in unison. As their voices melded and flowed, it was a river of piety that merged in the ocean of the Lord’s embrace. The effect was sublime and powerful. Every year on this day, people feel closest to Sri Thyagaraja. His music connects people of all levels, class and status to share great pleasure and joy.
From Bangalore to Madurai, from Chennai to Trichy, people came from all over to experience this rhythmic journey. I looked around and saw elderly people, school students, families and friends. The music of Sri Thyagaraja knows no boundaries. N. Shiva Kumar attended the festival with his wife and ten-year-old twin children. He told us that he has been coming to the festival for the past seven years.
“It is a very fine festival. Before me, my father had also been coming for many years. This is my seventh time and the third for my children. Since I was a young a boy my parents would tell me great stories of Hindu mythology. The ideas of music were what stood out for me more than anything. I have chosen to pass this knowledge onto my children,” he said.
He was so knowledgeable in Sri Thyagaraja history and impressed by his non-materialistic life. He emphasised that the musician never performed for name, fame or money.“ He never earned any money, not a single rupee. He could have lived a life of royalty but chose a life of devotion,” explained Mr Kumar. The Kumar family travelled from Hyderabad in Andhra Pradesh and stayed for all four days of the festival. Over the years, Mr. Kumar said he hadn’t seen any major changes to the festival other then the facilities getting bigger.
“This year there are so many more stalls and things to see and also the number of people. The main area where the concert is has remained the same and I don’t think this will change. I like it this way.”
After chatting with the whole family, I could tell that they were eager to get inside the tent and listen to the music. The kids in particular had made efforts to dress up for the event. To them it was such a special occasion and they were excited to come back in future years.
Agricultural expert S. Kanagasbai had also noticed a change in the facilities more then anything else. “With the number of people coming to the festival, they have to make it accommodating. I feel the organisers have done a flawless job and made it just perfect for everyone,” he said.
A music lover of many genres, Carnatic music is one that stands out for him.
“This festival gives me a chance to forget everything and just be absorbed in the music. Thyagaraja Aradhana also gives people a chance to see new talent,” expressed S. Kanagasabai.
He has been impressed with the young performers, some of whom this would be their first time in the festival.” They perform the songs with passion and confidence,” he explained.
He loves the fact that people of all levels come together and that there is such a great variety of things to see. “All the performances I’ve seen have been meticulous. Truly moving. I have been coming here for the past eight years now and I enjoy it every time.”
As I looked around the venue, everyone was in such good spirits. When talking to people, they all knew the impact of Thyagaraja and his story. They were not just aware of how his music sounded, but also of who he was.
From famous performers like Nithyashree Mahadevan and Mahathi, to young boys just coming out of music school, you never really knew who would come onto the stage next. Sitting in the audience, I looked around trying to guess who would be a performer but it was too hard. Every act I saw was a pleasant surprise. Solo performers, duos and groups. There was no set structure other then Thyagaraja’s compositions. The musicians were allowed to choose what song they would perform. Considering he composed so many, there was a large variety to choose from.
Dr Suma Sudhindra is an internationally recognized flute and Veena artiste, and member of the festival committee; “I am the only woman on the committee and have been performing in the festival now for about 20 years. I look forward to the experience of Thyagaraja each year. It is my time to come and say thank you,” she said.
Her instrument, the Veena, is one of the oldest instruments in Carnatic music and she describes it as ‘a completely indigenous instrument’. She loves stringing the chords and creating a mellow tone.
Although she is based in Bangalore, she has also been travelling around different areas of India and the world for about 35 years. She thanks Sri Thyagaraja for her career path and thinks he made Carnatic music what it is today.
“He has inspired so many people to perform this style of music. He deserves every praise we give him,” she said.
She feels the celebration is growing into a major festival and that its future is promising. Her favorite aspect of the festival is the magical atmosphere and positive energy. “It is so beautiful here and you can just feel the appreciation. It is a very charged atmosphere, I really love it!” she exclaims.
V.M Ganesh is a 24-year-old Thavil artiste. Although it’s his fourth year in the festival, he feels he is still learning. “I see coming here as an opportunity for me to learn from the experts. There is no other chance for me to see all these performers together. Each year I will come back to learn more and get better,” he said.
First time festival performers M.Nithya and M.Karitha, also see the festival as a learning experience.” We were so nervous to perform not only in front of the audience, but in front of all these talented musicians. After we finished, it felt like a great achievement and we got to experience something incredibly special.”
The duos are 18-year old twin sisters. Their choice of instrument is the resounding Nadaswaram, said to be one of the loudest acoustic instruments. The girls told us it was the obvious choice as all members of their family play the same instrument.” From a young age we have always been hearing the sound of the Nadaswaram and it feels right to be performing it here,” explained the sisters.
They usually perform on special occasions and this is the biggest event they have been involved in so far. The said they will definitely come back in future years. “Even once we get married, or if we get other jobs we will be sure to make the effort to return to the festival.”
There were over 200 musicians performing over four days, each performance ranging from 10-20 minutes. All musicians perform voluntarily, clearly showing that it was purely about the experience. Everyone we met agreed that Sri Thyagaraja was no ordinary musician. He was divinely inspired. Backstage, everyone was so friendly and helpful. There was no competition. They gave each other tips and helped tune their instruments. It really was something which would surely have made Sri Thyagaraja proud.
A Spiritual Journey
Witnessing the Thyagaraja Aradhana was a spiritual journey. The sound of Carnatic music evokes a sense of meditation and allows your whole self to be immersed. Looking around the arena, people were standing, sitting and lying down. There was no set way to experience the music. Instead of watching the music, they were feeling it.
I was greatly impressed by the selflessness of each musician. No one was there to be the ‘star’. They were there to show their gratitude and appreciation for this inspirational saint. I have never attended a festival where artistes of all levels come together on stage and perform as one. It is truly something unique. The message of Thyagaraja’s life - peace, freedom, and most of all devotion - is a clarion call that still reverberates across Tiruvayaru. It is clearer than the temple bells, softer than the gentle breeze and more fluid than the flowing waters of the Kaveri.