Momasar – a Rajasthani village festival

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Stage for home-grown folk arts

As my taxi changes gear from highway to village-dirt-lane, a street dog barking furiously runs along for it finds a foreign moving object in its neighbourhood in this early hour of the day. We outdo the dog by a long way, and I could hear strains of music wafting in through morning stillness. I ask the driver to head in that melodic-way. Musicians belong to Islāmic faith singing Hindu bhajans in the courtyard of quaint Hanuman Dhora temple at dawn opens the festival. Villagers sitting cross-legged on the blanket are taking in the bliss. White-clothed and turbaned elders walk in at their pace while head-covered women in bright red Rajasthani sarees gather in a corner on the blanket. A few SUVs to my left and camels inside house walls to my right. Desert sand underneath my feet and peacocks trot at higher elevations looking for breakfast, this hour is indeed sublime !

Momasar

A village 160 miles north-west of Jaipur in Rajasthan is hosting the 6th edition of Shekhawati Utsav, organized by Jaipur Virasat Founndation that works to keep and promote traditional art forms of the state. The festival runs for 2 days, staging 200 artists from various regions and attracts a few thousand crowd to this remote hamlet, mostly from nearby villages and also a handful of die-hard fans from abroad.

We break for tea and simple refreshments at a local temple-hall. I meet up with a group who come from US and various European countries. “Marc and I chanced upon this festival last year and this year we are here to play. Yes, we were suggested city gigs but we settled for this unique village one” says Markus from Germany. In a first, this edition would feature a non-Rajasthani band in Marc Sinan and Iva Bittova. Energized by tea and with the help of a local guide, we stroll through the maze of lanes for local attractions such as temples and century old charming havelis that are painted with frescos, belonged to wealthy merchants of yesteryear.

Music at rural settings

I enter Patwari ki Haveli, an exquisite heritage building of Momasar, for ‘Music in the afternoon’. A group of women sing welcome-songs at the massive door. An array of activities in the courtyard include men spinning yarn from drop-spindle, rope-making demonstration and young students of wood-craft display their creative works. “This reflects the motive of our Foundation – preserve and encourage tradition in all forms” says Vinod Joshi, Director of JVF and the force behind this festival, which also serves him as a pay-back to his birth place. Along the wall, Kathodi performers present a unique image as two men blow into a mouth-piece of a vertical wind instrument, a man on scraper and another rubs a thin metal rod placed over a brass plate to produce the drone effect. “They live in the forest and make their own musical instruments” says Joshi. A flight of stairs in the haveli brings up a compact hall that is open to the skies where the 80 year young Safi Mohammed sings with gusto often tossing and turning the tanpura on his hand, more than strumming on it.

A quick stop for snacks at the temple hall and as the light starts to fade, we head to a farm. Though it is dark, I could get a sense of the expanse of the place and feel my respiratory system is more at ease now. As the wind blows across under starry sky, a dimly lit make-shift platform offers space for more folk art traditions. A red-turbaned, white dhoti clad man with anklets thumps his feet and waves his arms around to the beats and singing of two men playing on maante drum, a large clay-pot – their silhouette leave a surreal feel. While Marc and Iva sounds are a novelty in village-ears, the day ends at Taal Maidan, an open-air ground, at midnight with “Kuchamani Khayal”, a folk-theatre tradition from the Nagaur region of Rajasthan and is very much on the decline.

Curtain downs with a bang

Second day begins with ‘Baal Mela‘ that features a few thousand young boys and girls from 13 different schools in the village to get them re-acquainted to their rich roots and help them understand that tradition and progress could go hand in hand. “This is very crucial for the future of what we are now involved in” says Joshi, who sounds keen on covering the entire spectrum in his quest. The children get to see artists who do not make it to center stage this year, yet perform amid children’s’ competitions and workshops.

On the grand finale evening, hoards of villagers stream in one direction, young girls giggle their way in, boys bond with arms around shoulders while women look in unwind-mode with their day chores done with. Now my taxi struggles its way through this mass in this otherwise no traffic zone. As I reach brightly lit Taal Maidan, the place is buzzing, children play in sand chasing each other, flies and bugs have a field day around high wattage lamps and even crawl on people, excited in their sudden-found-illuminated-lives. The stage that exudes Rajasthani decor is all set for the show. An endless kaleidoscope of folk forms that include Dhol-thali, Kalbeliya, Gair, Bhapang, Kachhigodi, Sahariya Swang dance unfold on front that last well into the wee hours.

Though a comfortable hotel stay is some 25 miles away, the festival affords to experience folk art at its provenance. While Langa and Manganiar musicians are hot invitees on world stage, JVF aims to bring the world to their homes.

 

This piece by yours truly was carried in India’s national daily –

http://www.thehindu.com/features/friday-review/A-stage-for-home-grown-arts/article16644617.ece

 

Sex in stone

Well, if you think we have ‘evolved’ in our innovative ways in the centuries past, going by the carvings in stone, the answer is a big ‘No’. I have left out documenting scenes of gingerly orgies, perhaps personal taste unconsciously played out in that omission. The temples in Odisha seem to have been lot more ‘liberal’ than the ones in rest of India. I wonder if the proximity to Khajuraho had its influence here, as the temples in both places built around the same period. Most of the temple sculptures consist of erotic, music and dance in nature giving the impression that it must have been one party-town! At large, the niches on the walls alternate between eroticism, musicians and dancers. No wonder the most sensuous of the Indian classical dance form Odissi has its origin here !

In general, the artists and sculptors seem to have had lot more freedom to express themselves though the administration in those days was primarily under the ruler of the province. There is even an inscription belong to circa 10 CE of the famous king Rajaraja in Thanjavur that says only the administrators are reportable to the court whereas the sculptors have full freedom to express their art. After all, how many gods and animals the sculptors could think of chiseling in, as they needed variety in subject. It is said the reason behind finding such bold and blatant erotic sculptures in the outer walls of Indian temples is that the pleasure-stage has to be ‘passed’ before we ‘reach’ higher-consciousness that is in the form of a deity at the sanctum. And on the ground, after satiating this strong and powerful force of nature, through self-inquiry, one is expected to reach the higher plane. Kamasutra by Vatsayana too written with similar views on life. This perspective is in tune with the four entities, Dharma (duty/righteous living) Artha (wealth) Kama (pleasure) and Moksha (liberation), that Sanatana Dharma (Hinduism) prescribes for a common man. These stages help mellow gradually, as not everyone is blessed with ‘sudden-enlightenment’. Whatever be the reason, the sculptures certainly evoke curiosity and interest and draw tons of tourists to these temples. Let alone the text Kamasutra, nothing in comparison did ever exist to these ‘open sex manual’ anywhere else on this planet.

From being so liberal, how did India become conservative? I recall watching a documentary on Africa where the local black women express a confused-look at topless European women on the African beach, and the narrator goes ‘ these women must be thinking when they were ‘topless’, the colonial occupants covered them up in the process of civilizing, and now their colonial descendants come over here and look ‘uncivilized”. Many of the famous Chola bronzes of the 10 CE are topless. So the colonists in India too must have had a role in bringing about a conservative mind-set. Prior to that, the burka-clad Islāmic invaders enforced their fuddy-duddy ways and many Hindu Indian women started to cover to save themselves from invading rapists and kidnappers whose idea was to expand their faith numbers.It is said this is the reason behind the practice of women covering their face today, particularly on the western front states such as Gujarat, Rajasthan as through these regions Islam forced itself into India. These are indicative of an open society that changed with Islāmic invasion followed by Victorian/colonial values from the West.

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Women in Rajasthan today

History in the neighborhood

Given the history and culture stretching back to unthinkable time here in India, it is no surprise we stumble upon the remnents close to our urbanised environs. A bunch of us, like-minded enthusisasts, left in the early hours of one cool morning to travel back in time. Breakfast by the farms, in a make-shift shelter meant for farmers to upload the freshly harvested veggies to towns, was enough to propell us away from the city of Chennai and into the past.

1. Mela Chitambur

This hamlet houses a Jain monestery that serves as the head for the faith in southern Tamilnadu state. Since the faith is an off-shoot of Hinduism, the temple here shares several commonalities with Hindu architecture and beliefs.

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Jain temple

2. Thirunathar Kundru

On top of this hillock are couple of inscriptions in Brahmi and Tamil dating back to 6CE and 8CE. The inscriptions are at the spot where couple of Jain monks observed sallekhana, a prescribed practice of fast-unto-death to purge thier karmas. The writing says 57 days of fast before one of them passed on and the other right next says 30 days. A notable feature of this inscription is the presence of probable-root of the letter ‘ஐ’ in the Tamil language. To commemarate the event, a bas-relief of 24 Thirthankars or Jain spiritual masters are carved overhead on a huge rock.

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intense inscription reading

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writing in stone

 

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landscape around the site

 

3. Nehanur Patti

A place of massive stone works carried out by nature. Underneath the adukkankal (Tamil) or what appears like stones piled up one over the other, are brahmi inscription dating back to 4CE and pre-historic cave-painting of roughly 1000 BC. The Brahmi inscription talks of the existence of a Jain school and the name of the founder –

” Perum pogazh sekkanthi thayiyuru sekkanthanni se vitha palli” (sekkanthanni, mother of sekkanthi of Perumpugozh village has built this school)

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adukkankal

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a phallic rock shaped by nature

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a brahmi reader

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the writing that talks about the established school

and the pre-historic cave painting is found in a dugout roof and looks like done by someone of artistic inclination, reclying on the rock surface as a way of relaxing right after his hunting expedition followed by gratifying lunch. They might have been painted with lime as they are white in colour.

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4. Mela Ulakur

Right in the middle of residential houses of this village stands a stone sculpture of Jyeshta Devi, the goddess of misfortune. Jyeshta Devi worship was at its peak in southern India during 7-8CE but soon by 10CE, she went into oblivion. This sculpture dates back to 8CE or may be even earlier as this goddess is bellieved to have existed in India as far back as 300BC. Today though, numerous images exist but not worshipped. It is believed women paryed to her in the past more to keep her away from their homes. Her image too is not one of beauty associated with many Hindu goddesses but of flabby belly, pendulous breasts and her attendants holding broom. As the villagers here not aware of history, continue to worship her in good faith.

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Jyshta Devi and her attendant

 

5. Passumalai

A steep climb on the hillock reveals stone-beds for the Jain monks and a meditative sculpture of their 24th Theerthankara (teacher) Paswanathar on a rocky wall right across their beds so that the monks could be in constant meditation upon their master. The Brahmi inscription here speaks of a man by the name of Mosi made these beds at the request of another by the name of Sangayiban “Sangayiban eva Mosi seida adishtanam” and the likely period is 3CE

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paswanathar

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monk bed

6. Thondur

Here’s the best part of the day – we get down from the bus and walk in single file on the trail, flanked by paddy fields and honestly not knowing what on earth could be lying in wait – viola, our jaws dropped at the sight below –

a huge rectangular sculpture in the midst of rice-fields where in the Hindu God Vishnu reclyning atop Anantha/Adisesha, the serpent that symbolises eternity, surveying the proceedings on the front. It is indeed an awe inspiring sight because of the ambiance, as such sculptures of the gods are generally found inside the temples. The head of Vishnu is rested to our right which is contrary to normal-left and this may be done such for some specific purpose. There is a speculation a nearby battle field had some significance to it as there might have been a belief a Vishnu in reverse would cast misfortune on the enemy. I’m told there are only two such head-to-the-right Vishnus found in Tamilnadu and the other being in the town of Kanchipuram (Sonnavanam Seida Perumal). The ornamental stone work on the front is again a part of the jigsaw puzzle. The dating of the sculpture could be in the period of the Pallava king Nandivarman III (846-869CE). The crown on the head of the sculpture matches with the ones found in Combodia and that could certainly point to the Pallava’s link to Combodia. The popular Ankur Wat was initially built by a Pallava origin King.

It’s inevitable that speculations run high on such trips. Taking the very script of Brahmi – what is the origin – the Ghandara Script Kharosthi or the Semitic Aramaic or the Indus valley script found its way back in different form after the civilisation ended ? Did Brahmi influence another ancient dravidian language Tamil at all ? Outside of what’s written in stone, it’s hard to pin-point the happenings of the past, by the so called historians or otherwise, but there certainly is no dearth of fun in time-travel !

Sufi Sutra Music Festival

DSCN0764Lately, the usage of the term Sufi in India, be it in music, dance, fine arts, festivals, amongst young and Bollywood, makes one wonder if the term is indeed understood or  it  is only a fad that sweeps across the country without really getting a sense of what it’s about. I get asked questions when I say going to a Sufi festival, both from within and without India, and from musically inclined contacts – what is Sufi, are Qawwali and Sufi same and so on. Perhaps the association of the great Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan to Bollywood brought about this wave in India, or it is the ‘secular’ India suddenly waking up to a sect of Islam, not sure as I was away from the country and started hearing the term here only on return.

Mystical dimension of Islam is Sufism. This school encompasses music and dance as part of the meditative process to attain that union with the divine, though the link between music and divinity existed since time immemorial, be it in shamanism or animism. Another school of Islam opposes music lest that it has the potential to intoxicate the mind and lead one away from the path of attaining Allah. Well, that is my limited take on the term.

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Having said that, the focus here is the music festival. World music is still hard to come by in India and understandably so for the mind-boggling variety and wealth of music around. After all, the origin of music ever is said to be Sama-veda, one of the four Vedas of Hinduism. But, these Sufi festivals are indeed a welcome treat for they showcase performing arts from other cultures, though a Langa group from Rajasthan and a Qawwali group are invariably part of such festivals, probably included more to justify the ‘Sufi stamp’. In addition to very many obscure Sufi festivals across the country, the three major annual ones, at least I know of, are World Sufi Spirit Festival at Jodhpur with a regal touch, both in terms of venue and admission price, and backed by the likes of Aga Khan Trust and the Royal family of Jodhpur; Ruhaniyat, an itinerant gig that packs 5 or 6 groups in just one evening; and Sufi Sutra, a free for all festival that lights up the city of joy – Kolkata (Calcutta). Having done the first two in the circuit earlier, this year I soaked in the music at Sufi Sutra.

At the first look, the venue of the festival was rejuvenating with lots of green and flowers. It was Mehar Kunj, a park adjoining the popular colonial landmark, Victoria Memorial. The walkway inside the park was lined up with billboards of the participating bands. Black and white photographs of historical Calcutta took up a small niche. The stage and the seating looked as it would at any other outdoor concert venue. A band that was scheduled to perform in the evening was rehearsing on stage with no audience presence as I was guided to the morning workshop session at another section of the park with sprawling lawn.

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The workshop sessions were quite informal and provided opportunity for visiting bands to introduce their genre, both verbally and musically, as a prelude to their formal act in the evenings. It was also the time to interact with the audience and answer queries they might have, jam with local musicians and get the rich exchange and learning curve going. While the audience indulged in circle-dance, media was busy with photo-ops and interviews at back-stage with artists who were done with their morning slot. Two bands were presented at these sessions. Handicraft artisans had spread out their exquisite wares along the periphery of the lawn giving the event a multi-faceted touch.

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The evening scene was quite a transformation from what I saw in the morning, as the crowd swelled to capacity, illumination ran up the trees in all hues and the stage was set with state-of-the-art sound and light equipments. Constant supply of steaming tea and the music more than made up for the dip in January evening temperature. Three bands performed in the evenings at this three-day festival.

El Bola (Spain), Mu (Portugal), Radiant Arcadia (Denmark), Win Bang (Iran) Barkbroder Extended (Sweden) and Arnob & Friends (Bangladesh) were the bands participated this year.

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In my books, Sufi Sutra beats other festivals on all fronts – ‘music for all and music for peace’ motto, great venue and decor, friendly staff, opening avenues for local folk musicians and handicraft artisans, laid-back atmosphere, providing opportunity for people to get their feet wet in World music by keeping the festival open for all and of course, which festival offers you limitless supply of no-charge-tea ! Given the limited resources in India, it’s quite remarkable that an organization could venture in uncharted waters (world music) and stage something like this – Kudos to Banglanatak.com team for pulling off such an act that I would say exceeded some of the outdoor acts I have seen abroad.

Though the city of Kolkata didn’t have a call for me all these years, in the last 1 year I found myself there on 3 occasions – first, to ‘reconnect’ with my time in the Amazon at Sundarbans, as its called the Amazon of Asia, second for the Sufi Sutra festival and quite recently for the World Hare-Krishna festival (ISKCON) – so, it’s certainly turning out to be a happening-city! No metro (subway) in the world can beat the clean, ad-free, efficient and air-conditioned ride for a mere Rs.5 – though a new kid on the block, no wonder it was voted as the #1 metro in the world on the PBS documentary I watched a few years ago! And the eco-friendly clay tea-cup used at the street-side shops was a welcome sight yet walking through the labyrinths of Kumartuli where the potters churn out gleaming Gods and Goddesses was simply magical !

An artistic director of one Sufi festival rightly asked me once why there was such Sufi-craze in India with so much of Hindu music in its bag, while his counterpart at another festival rightly answered that Hinduism embraced all faiths with open arms. Yet, I personally wish to see India stages a festival on the lines of Fez Festival of World Sacred Music, sans Indian classical but providing platform to multitude of regional and state-wide genres of Bakthi (devotional) music and as well invite rich world sacred music traditions that include tribal, shamanistic and animistic categories. Abhang, Nama-Sankeerthan, Samprdhaya Bhajan, Oduvar tradition, Thirupugaz singers,Theru-koothu,Yakshaganam,Garba andDhandia, Kummi and Kollattam, Bauls of Bengal, three styles ofChhau, Somana Kunita, Pavai dance, Bishnoi bhajans, Bhagavatha Mela are the art forms that are much older than Sufi or any such traditions and many of which trace their roots to Sama-Veda. These are just right off the top of my head and the list will be endless if dig deeper across the country. These art forms are currently pigeon-holed to respective regions and that too on a very negligible scale. With plenty in the backyard, if India doesn’t showcase these hoary but dying traditions to the world on a common platform, no one else will and they are not likely to get invited to Iran or Pakistan as we find bands from such countries here, nor for that matter at the money-spinning, agent-oriented World music venues and festival destinations. Probably the first organisation in India, Prakrithi Foundation in Chennai, has started hosting an annual festival in the clichéd caption ‘Thiruvaiyaru Sacred Music Festival’ on the banks of river Cauvery, with a little mix of other flavours but only adding more classical vibes to that town Thiruvaiyaru that already has a strong association with that genre.

Following is an interview by yours truly of Win-Bang, the band from Iran that was featured at the festival, carried by the daily Deccan Herald –

http://www.deccanherald.com/content/389167/sufi-music-young-voices.html

 and also in World Music e-mag INSIGHT in Germany –

http://www.insight-worldmusic.blogspot.in/ (please find the photo below at their site and click)

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The Mad Mad Chennai (December) Festival

100_0369 Come December, the city of Chennai in Southern India resonates with music and dance. What had begun as a festival organised by one or two musically bent groups or Sabhas back in the 1920s, today it has exploded into a matrix of mind-boggling jamboree, thus making it probably the largest and longest running festival in the world – it runs the entire December and percolates well into January. Yet, large part of the world is still unaware of this massive expression of classical art, but the informed ones lap it all up. File0005 Interestingly, a festival of this magnitude has been happening with not a penny from any government body, but funded entirely through private, corporate sponsorship and the SabhasFile0002 A typical festival day lasts about 14 hrs., interspersed with demos and lectures on the subjects and genre. Newbies to established find platform thus blazing the way for new talents to surface. File0003 There appears to be no end to the stretch of this festival as the overwhelming response seems to be only on the ascend, year after year. File0004

Here’s an overview of the festival, written a few years ago by yours truly for a Hawaiian based publication –

ChennaiMusicNDanceFest (if unwilling to click this PDF, below is the text )

The Best Keeps Getting Better

For nearly 80 years, the annual Chennai Music Festival has amplified tradition with talent and innovation
Anantha Krishnan, Chennai

It’s the middle of December and the festival of music and dance that I have come to witness is just about to begin. One of the largest music celebrations of its kind in the world, it features a month of performances that take place all over the city.
Unlike the classical Hindustani music of North India, the Carnatic music of the South is more structured, lyrical, ornamental and strict. Due to these formalities, it offers less opportunity for improvisation but is more representative of time-honoured tradition. “Carnatic music seeks more to enlighten than entertain because of its Vedic origin. This is an art for God’s sake and not for art’s sake, ” says one knowledgeable musician.
Lord Siva’s “original band ” is said to have consisted of celestial musicians playing mridangam (drum), tambura (drone), cymbals, vina (stringed instrument) and flute. Today, a traditional South Indian classical performance might feature these five instruments along with the ghatam (clay-pot) and the violin. In South India, music and dance have developed as an adjunct to worship. Devotion is the driving force of this art form, which is comprised of songs in Sanskrit as well as in all of the main southern languages: Tamil, Telugu, Kannada and Malayalam. According to South Indian tradition, the purest form of teaching has always been the oral method, in which training is passed along personally from teacher to student. Because of this, many of the great South Indian compositions have been lost simply because they were never written down.
Bharata Natyam is the featured style of dance at the festival. It is the oldest of the four major dance traditions of India and the main classical dance of the South.
The Chennai Music Festival offers a rare opportunity for new artists to be discovered and for established performers to hold their ground in the hearts and minds of the festival’s dedicated attendees. Celebrated annually since 1927, this grand music extravaganza has always been organized and promoted by Chennai’s Music Academy, an educational institution that was formed one year after the first festival took place and is today the oldest and most respected music institution in South India. There are over 40 such schools in Chennai alone, and they all join the Academy in offering more than 1,000 music and dance performances during this festival month. The concerts themselves are graded, with juniors performing in the afternoons and seniors in the evenings. The afternoon slots are generally admission-free and not crowded, but the evening concerts are packed. That’s when the stars come out to shine.
Though violin has long been part of the South Indian classical ensemble, there has been a recent trend toward bringing in other Western musical instruments, such as the mandolin, guitar and saxophone–as well as a variety of keyboard instruments. Carnatic music is still the style of choice and the expectations for excellence have not diminished. While these new instruments are very popular, they are still considered a novelty.
The dancers are also experimenting. There are new dance categories with names like
“dance-drama ” and “celluloid classics.” This last division features young high-steppers performing dance sequences from old Tamil film classics. One of a handful of overseas participants this year included a dance group from Singapore performing traditional Chinese dance.
Finally, there is one non-musical specialty of the festival that cannot be neglected. Distinguished and distinctive South Indian cuisine like dosai, vadai, pongal and uttappam can always be found in a variety of preparations at a number of Chennai’s famous eateries, casually referred to as “canteens.” I must say that these canteens are as much a crowd-pleaser as are the performers. Certainly they make as much or more money. When I asked one plump fellow what made him step into one of these establishments even during the high point of an excellent concert, he replied with gusto: “It is in the tradition, sir. A music-lover will have his snacks while visiting the festival during the music season. The music and the canteen go together.”
Canteen visits and instincts for socializing can make an audience forever mobile and audible in a concert hall during a performance. This can be somewhat disconcerting for those who are not used to it–especially connoisseurs from the West who are accustomed to a certain reserve in the art of music appreciation.
A young man named Gopu, sitting next to me, said, “This is the way a Carnatic music lover experiences a concert. It does not make him any less of a fan. Yet as these artists of today travel the world and get used to the quietly disciplined venues elsewhere, they are starting to demand similar behaviour in Chennai halls as well.”
During this festival season, there are a number of bhajan groups out and about. These dedicated souls are not formally trained. They qualify for their music only through their heart-rending devotion. Yet they are unforgettable. Many a morning, I woke up to this joyful singing. Peering down from my hotel window, still in my pajamas, I regretted not being right down there on the dusty road to catch these joyful and carefree renditions belted out by bhaktas (worshippers) so fully immersed in the bhava (devotion) of their music they hardly noticed the sun rising.
Because the death anniversary of the great South Indian composer Thyagaraja coincides with the festival, many committed musicians now travel on pilgrimage to his burial place on the banks of the river Cauvery in the tiny hamlet of Thiruvaiyaru. These ardent souls can be heard singing the saint’s legendary compositions far into the night.
Even when the festival is over, Chennai residents are reluctant to let go of the party spirit. Certainly, at times like this it seems this ancient musical tradition will live forever. Yet as my taxi goes scarily winding and speeding toward the Chennai airport, I ponder the despondent thoughts expressed by one music lover who was concerned that the arts of South India were dying. Even as he was talking to me, I could not help but think: “Although some legends of music may appear to be lost, new genius is undoubtedly in the making, and great innovations are certainly on the horizon. Nothing great is ever lost.”

Bommalattam – puppet on string

In the Tamil language, Bomai meaning doll and Attam is dance -This is one of the simplest form of outdoor/indoor entertainment for children, even during my growing years, at schools, halls, market places, fairs, temples where the theme would be anything from Indian epics to moral stories to social issues. The ‘magically’ moving dolls on raised platform would keep the children riveted and tickle their innocent senses. But today, it is just another art form that has vanished into the web-world.

Bommalattam finds mention in the Sangam period (1 CE) literature and the itinerant puppeteer drew large crowd over centuries. Bommalattam combines the techniques of both rod and string puppets. The strings are tied to a ring which the handler wears like a crown on his head or some just hold the strings on hands. The jointed limbs of the puppets enable easy manipulation.

The Marionettes may be made of wood (kalyana murungai/moringa oleifera tree), leather, cloth or other materials. They are then painted, decked with rich ornaments, costumes and headdresses. The ones made of wood is heaviest of all though kalyana murungai wood is of lightweight nature. Generally, a single puppeteer hide behind the screen and manipulate the puppets from above while a small group assist him in handing over the right puppets at the appropriate times. Music, live or recorded accompany the show.

Only about 4 groups in southern Tamilnadu are trying to keep it going, with the patronage of state government and few private sources, and one such group from the town of Kumbakonam recently staged a show in the city of Chennai.

following are the images –

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the following images are of Pinnal-Kollattam, pinnal meaning plait and kollattam mean stick-dance – another art form hardly seen these days. This art involves the dancers go around each other in intricate patterns, playing with the sticks,  so that the coloured ropes hung from a single point above that they hold on to form into a plait as they dance around. And then they unravel the ropes by reversing the dance steps.

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below is a video clip of Pinnal Kolattam (note: the dance ends at 11:13)

Rongali Bihu – an Assamese delight

jaapi

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It is mid-April and the Tea-Bamboo rich north-eastern state of Assam in India is dancing. Rongali Bihu is celebrated to mark the beginning of Spring, Assamese New year and agricultural season. Originally a farmer’s festival but now has assumed an urban twist. In addition, the term Bihu is loosely used to refer the folkloric dance and music performed during this time.

The cattle that is important to the agrarian world gets special attention this time while the Assamese women indulge in preparing local delicacies like Pitha , a rice flour dish that has sweet, salty or vegetable fillings.

Various musical instruments are used to accompany the Bihu dance – Dhol (a 2-faced drum), Taal (cymbals), Pepa (buffalo horn), Baanhi (flute), Gogona (a bamboo jew’s-harp), Xutuli (a clay-whistle) and so on. Coming to the dance part, both men and women take part. Men, who mostly play the instruments enter the area first, in line, by beating the Dhol and blowing the Pepa, and the women dancers follow. Dancers get chance to show off their individual virtuosity by stepping aside. The dance itself has definite characteristics in hip, arms, wrists, finger movements and in easy and relaxed steps to go with the beat.

They dress in beautiful traditional attire – The men in dhotis and gamosa. Dhoti is a long unstitched rectangular white cloth that is wrapped around the waist and legs and tucked in at the front and back and gamosa is a white rectangular piece of cloth with red border that is wrapped around the head with a fluffy knot. The women are dressed in traditional Mekhela and Chador that come mostly in red and beige; Mekhela is like a sarong, pleated and tucked in at the waist while the Chador is draped over the upper part. A blouse is worn below the Chador.

The ubiquitous Jaapi hat made of bamboo is used not only in dance but has become the very symbol of the state itself. Jaapi is used as a decorative piece on the walls and is offered as a welcome gift to guests.

Assamese living outside their state form their associations and celebrate the festival with same gusto. They had one in Chennai, the city I live in, and helped me soak in –

Bihu wards...

Bihu wards…

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as my 10 year old loyal Kodak camera broke down, the following photo credit – web images –

jaapi dance

jaapi dance

pipa blower...

pipa blower…

dhol and the dancers

dhol and the dancers

gogona dancer

gogona dancer

Bihu1

please click below for a video clip –