The Season of Melodies – Carnatic 101

The traditional South Indian musical artform is known for having a melody for every mood, time, and season. And the opportunity to become a discerning patron is once again upon us with Margazhi season just around the corner.

For example, Bilahari, a morning raga exudes refreshing happiness, while the raga Amruthavarshini is said to bring showers. Each raga is potent, weaving magic through a specific sequence of notes. Each engenders an experience that is intimate with nature, and the divine.

In a typical performance, a solo vocalist brings to life mythical tales of bhakthi, love, and salvation, supported by the graceful tunes of a veena or a violin, and set to resounding tala (complex beat cycles) emanating from hand drums such as mridanagam or ghatam. The singer, eyes drawn close in surrender, explores the emotive force of the raga to its fullest. With the Kalpana sangeetham every rendering arises from the imagination, allowing room for soulful improvisations.

A rendezvous with the grand ragas

Over the ages, many composers have crafted masterpieces, but a few have become the quintessential rendition of the raga in which they are composed.

Raga Sankarabharanam is considered the adornment of Lord Shiva himself; Kalyani, the queen of ragas ushers in auspiciousness, and is the melody often played in weddings; the deep and sombre raga Thodi inspires humility that leads to wisdom; Kamboji has given birth to devotional masterpieces such as ‘O Rangasayee’ – the song is an earnest appeal to the Brahman beseeching grace and union with godhead; ever rich Bhairavi is likened to a prayer booming forth to the supreme consciousness. These constitute the 5 grand ragas of Carnatic tradition, and have given birth to the most number of compositions.

In one of the lighter and playful songs composed in Chenchurutti, in a song addressed to Lord Krishna, mother Yashoda tries to coax him out of going out in the open to herd cows. The rest of the song is an endearing repartee between the mother-son duo. Does it come as a surprise that the son has the final word? Listen to this infectious, and heartening song vocalized by famed singer Aruna Sairam.

For a taste of the popular ragas all packed in one song, look to mainstream cinema where the song Oru Naal Podhuma, masterfully rendered by late singer Balamuralikrishna makes an appearance in the 1965 Tamil epic, Thiruvilayadal. Appreciate the genius as the song effortlessly meanders from Thodi to Darbar, Mohini, and Kaanada.

A one of a kind music festival

But, come Margazhi, it rains all kinds of melodies all over Chennai.

Every year, between Dec 15 and Jan 15, the city hosts around 1,500 to 2,000 carnatic music concerts with an assortment of panel discussions, themed performances, harikathas, and jugalbandis, all accompanied by delightful food from the sabha canteens. This sparkling event is a one of a kind celebration of classical music in all of Asia dating back to 1927.

If you are a music lover fortunate enough to be in Chennai this December, here is a roundup of all the happening places of the city. The top sabhas are located around the cultural centres of Mylapore, T Nagar, and Alwarpet.

The Music Academy: Chennai’s Margazhi kuctheri season took roots in the Music Academy. One of the biggest sabhas in the city, it is a reputed cultural landmark which has A-listers vying for a spot to perform. It needs no mention that the institution draws huge crowds every year. This year, stalwarts like Kunnakkudy M Balakrishna, Sudha Ragunathan, Dr S Sowmya, Ranjani and Gayathri, Aruna Sairam, Neyveli R Santhanagopalan, Bombay Jayashri Ramnath, and other artists of renown are set to captivate the audience with their enthralling musical renderings.

Naradha Gana Sabha: Located in TTK road, the sabha features both upcoming and established singers. This year, there are kutcheris by Unnikrishnan, Dr. K J Yesudas, Sid Sriram, Nithyashree Mahadevan, Shobana, and other lead singers.
Brahma Gana Sabha, and Kalakshetra foundation are other prominent institutions which curate interesting art, theatre, music, and dance performances.

Chennai truly comes alive every Margazhi. And, there is no better place to catch it live, and experience the divine music as it unfurls into the human realm.

All You Need To Know About Onam

Onam celebrates the homecoming of demon king Mahabali who once ruled Kerala. It is said that under his judicious rule, Kerala witnessed a golden era.
Celebrated for a glorious 10 days in the Malayalam calendar month of Chingam, with street parades, pookalam, pulikali dance, snake boat race, and much more, Onam transforms God’s Own Country into a festive riot of colours.

The Myth of Mahabali

Bali, in South Indian languages, is sacrifice or giving. Maha bali translates to ‘great sacrifice’.
The story goes that, like his grandfather Prahlada, Mahabali was a seeker of the benevolent grace of Lord Vishnu. Although he had conquered all of the vast lands and heavens, he was dissatisfied with his earthly life. He, therefore, decided to sacrifice all his possessions for the greater good and well-being of his people. It is at this fateful time that a brahmana called Vamana (dwarf) arrives holding an umbrella made of palm leaves over his head.
The kind and generous Mahabali welcomes Vamana, offering the Brahmin anything he wants. Vamana asks the king for all the land that he can cover in three strides. The wish is granted. But, at this instant, Vamana grows taller and bigger, covering the entire universe with his two feet. Seeing as there is nowhere to place his third feet, he asks the king’s head as the third feet, to which the king obliges willfully.
Mahabali makes the master sacrifice, surrendering his own sense of self beyond everything he owns. The great sacrifice happens on the day of Tiruvonam. Onam is therefore a festival of giving, offering, and listening, to the other.
Although he has transcended the realm of earth, Mahabali is granted his wish of returning once each year to meet his people.

The Onam Affair

Onam marks the yearly visit of king Mahabali to his beloved kingdom. There are folktales - Maaveli Naadu Vannidum Kaalam (When Maveli, our King, ruled the land) - that testify to the popularity of the demon king, even today.
Day one marks the preparation for King Bali’s visit. On this day, people decorate the entrances of their homes with colourful floral carpets or Pookalam, with as many as 10 concentric rings of flowers arranged in beautiful patterns and colours. Fascinatingly, more layers and rings are added on consecutive days. Day five unravels in an uproar of sport, with the famed and spectacular snake boat race. Up to 100 oarsmen row the long and elegantly carved snake boats in Aranmula and other regions of Kerala.
It is believed that Mahabali, having arrived in Kerala, visits the homes of his people, on Thiruvonam. Edging closer to Thiruvonam, people prepare and place clay pyramids that represent Mahabali and Vamana, in the center of the Pookalam. Homes are decorated and the grand Onam feast, Onam Sadya, is prepared to treat the visiting king.
Traditionally the sadhya is a delicious spread of a variety of dishes including upperi (banana chips), maranga curry and naranga curry (sour lemon pickles), erissery (a sweet-spicy vegetable preparation) , parripu curry (thick lentil gravy), inji curry (ginger pickle), sambhar (savoury lentil soup), moru kachiyathu (seasoned buttermilk), chenna mezhkkupuratti (fried yam), avial (mixed vegetable with coconut gravy), payasam (sweet rice pudding). Onam is a feast for both the senses and spirit!

The Birth of a Star

Krishna is the most endearing of Gods. His life, as told in the songs, ballads, and epics of India, speaks of the life-affirming thought that defines Indian spirituality. Is there any other God that embodies the joys of life as gracefully, playfully, and as captivatingly, as Krishna? It must come as no surprise then, that he continues to command the love and imagination of so many people.
Janmashtami, Krishna’s day of birth, is the first of many stories that define his time amongst the mortals. The torrential rains that herald his coming into this world, are reflective of the turmoil the people live with, and the ensuing calm, a reflection of the new dawn soon to follow. Through the course of his childhood, he vanquishes many a demon, ultimately slaying the demon king, Kamsa.
Of Krishna, there are as many stories as there are stars in the sky. What makes them so enchanting and captivating is that we learn the simple lessons of life in these stories. His playful nature tells us to not take life too seriously, even if there are much larger things at play.

To celebrate Krishna is to celebrate love.

From the divine love of his consort Radha, to the spiritual longing of Mirabai (the Rajput queen who renounced royal life for the Lord), Krishna has won many hearts, both within and without his leela (act or play). Mirabai’s poems are a testament to Krishna’s emphasis on bhakti (devotion) as a way to salvation.

Come to my Pavillion

  • Come to my pavilion, O my King. I have spread a bed made of delicately selected buds and blossoms, And have arrayed myself in bridal garb From head to toe. I have been Thy slave during many births, Thou art the be-all of my existence. Mira's Lord is Hari, the Indestructible. Come, grant me Thy sight at once.

    Mirabai

Utterly, Butterly, Simple.

It is no secret that butter was Krishna’s mainstay in Gokul. That is why, on Janmashtami, the special offerings (prasadam) include a sumptuous serving of butter with flattened rice and jaggery.
And as we savour the concoction, we reminisce about the story of butter tax which was levied by Krishna. Krishna made sure to collect his dues from the Gopis (cow herds) of the quaint village by any means necessary - persuasion or coercion. Yet he remained dearly loved by all. If that isn’t evidence of how good intentions outweigh actions, what is?
Today, in parts of India, particularly in Gujarat and Maharashtra, the Dahi Handi (Pot of Curd) is yet another imitation of Krishna’s never-ending antics to have butter. Just as Krishna relied on the support and strength of his brother and friends, during the game of Dahi Handi, boys and men find new brethren among strangers, as they give each other a hand or leg up in pursuit of a common goal.
From the confines of high art, to calendar portraits, and Gokul Sandal tins, Krishna truly permeated modern life in all its nooks in the subcontinent. His stories are so popular that the one about butter tax is captured in a beautiful painting titled “Daan- Lila” in the Harvard Art Museum.
This Janmashtami, we urge you to revel in the simplicity of the Lord’s ways and persevere on this journey that is life, as you celebrate both the little things, and the big things.