St.Thyagaraja’s tanbura…

The Southern Indian classical music world owes a great deal to Venkataramana Bhagavathar (1781-1874), one of the prime students of the great composer Saint Thyagaraja (1767-1847). But for him, we will not find many precious works of the saint today. He stayed with his Guru (Teacher) for almost 26 years, learning music, taking notes and serving him. He was meticulous in writing the compositions on palm leaves and preserving them for posterity. The saint’s few operas too saw the light of the day due to Bhagavathar’s efforts. It is said that he had a beautiful writing as well, as evident from the palm leaves still kept in the town of Madurai, along with other memorabilia of him and the Saint, including the tanbura of St.Thyagaraja.


A couple of weeks ago, I had an opportunity to visit the house the Bhagavathar lived on his return from Thiruvaiyaru, the place of Thyagaraja. Belonging to Sowrashtra (a part of Gujarat in Western India) community, he settled down in Walajapet where many of his ilk lived. The Nayak Rulers of Southern India had great liking for silk wears and as the Saurashtrians were specialists in the weaving trade, they were invited by the Kings to come down south to take care of the royal wardrobe. Walajapet being close to Kanchipuram, a town known for silk-weaving for centuries, must certainly have played a role for this community to take roots here. Later though, the Nawabs of Arcot in the neighbourhood too enjoyed the silk robes woven by this community. In addition to teaching music, Bhagavathar engaged himself in weaving, his community tradition, to make a living.

The house stands as it was during his time and Bhagavathar’s seventh generation continue to live here. One of Bhagavathar’s music student, Pallavi Ellayyar, must have been a talented artist as the living room walls take up his numerous paintings. But his priceless works are kept at the altar (not allowed to photograph) – portraits of Rama and Sita, the Bhagavathar and Saint Thyagaraja; Also, the idols of Rama and Krishna given to Bhagavathar by the saint. Though various portrayal of Thyagaraja in circulation, if one wants to have an authentic look of the saint, this must be the place to visit as the painting was done during his visit here. The popular number, ‘nannu palimpa’ in the raga Mohanam supposed to have burst out of the saint when Bhagavathar presented him with a portrait of his beloved Rama, painted by his student, on the occasion of the saint’s daughter’s wedding.

Here’s the sampler of the song –

Having reunited with his student for a few days, the saint and his entourage walked on towards Thirupati where the magical ‘Theratiyagaradha’ flowed out of the saint’s heart.

I was told that many of Bhagavathar’s and the saint’s belongings once here were taken away by Bhagavathar’s community and followers from the town of Madurai to be preserved there. Bhagavathar too has lot of compositions that are sung in the concert circuit today.

Walking down the lane where these immortals walked and lived left a blissful chill up the spine !!


Somana Kunita – a folk tradition


 Another obscure folk tradition of India found its way to city stage  –

Somana Kunita is a ritualistic dance performed by two or three artists with elaborate masks. Only men are permitted to perform this dance. Somana kunita is region specific and is performed in the districts of South Karnataka such as Mandya,Mysore, Hassan, Tumakur and Bangalore. Usually only those belonging to okkaliga, lingAyata, besta and kuruba sects perform these dances. Soma is the name given to the masks worn by the performers. These masks cover only the head of the dancer and the remaining part of the body is covered either with an improvised skirt made from a saree of the deity or tight trousers. The masks are almost four times as large as a human head. They are usually made of a light variety of wood such as Pterocarpus santalinus which is commonly known as Red sanders. One of the Somas is red in colour and is truly awe-inspiring. Another mask is yellow and mild in its expression. This Soma is called Kenchamma or IraNNa. There may be yet another soma in blue called karirAya. Behind these masks is a triangular structure woven with cane and covered with multi coloured sarees, as many as 30. This cane structure is called banka. The artist can see the external world through the holes made in the nostrils of the mask. The performers wear many ornaments such as anklets and chest bands made of silver and brass.



The performers dance in a rhythmic manner to the beats of  instruments such as, Are (percussion) dUNu(percussion) mouri(wind) and sadde (wind to keep shruti). Songs about the village deities are sung intermittently. These artists accept invitations to perform at village festivals and annual fairs of the deities where religious fervour pervades and prefer not to perform for entertainment  (what is seen here is just a demo and not a performance).


Somana kunita is a ritualistic folk performance that has survived for centuries but didn’t invoke the ‘spirit’ (no pun intended) when gathered the city flavour this morning, confined in an enclosed space. Then again, Tibetan Mandala and Australian Aborigines’ Sand-paintings are demonstrated at museums across the world….guess it’s the only way to ‘educate’ the urbanites !!



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pretty Tuareg girls

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colourful fulani

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tuareg man


with great musician afel

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ali farka playing the grand finale


and here’s the clip….it was almost 2am, freezing Sahara and yet the great music kept us all warm…..can you find me somewhere on the very front …..???

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oumou in her farm

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salif in bamako


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Legends of mali Oumou and Salif


Because of musical and cultural interest in Mali for long, when I speak of the country, often had to look at quizzing faces with counter question/correction ‘You mean Bali?’ – from such geographical depths, today Mali has shot up to hit the front pages all across the world, though for wrong reasons.

Here’s a piece written almost 10 years ago during happier times in Mali. Incidentally, my first ever published article, a transition from Software to Freelance writing !

Please click –