A teardrop in the ocean

Posted on August 25, 2012


It’s a small beginning, a modestly scaled cultural exchange between India and Sri Lanka’s Northern Province that’s hopefully the drizzle before a downpour. A report from Jaffna on an arts festival that ventures overseas for the first time.

On the penultimate day of the month-long annual festival of the Nallur Kandaswamy Temple, the long ribbon of road unspooling from Palaly Airport to the centre of Jaffna is dotted with tractors and trucks. Speakers strapped to the top issue songs in praise of Lord Murugan, impassioned proclamations of faith that can be heard almost all the way back to the airport. The rear of these vehicles has been refashioned to hold colourfully clothed tourists, while in front, devotees with miniature spears pierced through the cheeks and with hooks dug into their bronzed backs hang from hinged projections resembling the arm of a crane that was inspired by, well, a crane. As the long neck bobs up and down, these men – sometimes alone; sometimes in trios strung about in parallel – resemble hapless fish hauled up from the waters. Passers-by come to resemble visitors to an aquarium, stupefied by a strange and unfathomable world, whose silent denizens look back with glassy stares. Despite the horrific fascination the spectacle serves up, the sight is not so much a train wreck tugging at our most voyeuristic impulses as a time-capsule trip to a mythical realm populated with profound questions. For instance: What must it be like to be so close to God that you’re apparently immune to pain?

In a modest room in a hotel not far away, Alarmel Valli is afflicted with a somewhat different kind of pain. The morning has not begun well. Sitting cross-legged in front of a makeup mirror, spine as upright as a skyscraper, she frets that she has made one eye bigger than the other. “I don’t want to look like a monster,” she says, clearly alluding to a universe whose fearsome creatures come in lithe frames and with enormously expressive features, highlighted by thick streaks of kohl. “It’s not kohl,” she says, picking up a small bottle. “It’s matte-finish eyeliner.” She realizes something. “I’m telling you all my secrets.” Valli is preparing to go on stage for the first session of Svanubhava’s first edition in Jaffna – the arts festival’s first edition overseas, in fact – where she will conduct a workshop on Bharatanatyam. And this is the source of her great anguish. She has been informed, very recently, that the event will be attended by 500 students. “How can I interact personally with such a vast number?” But there’s a bigger problem: she is expected to present the entire program in Tamil.

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The irony of doubting one’s nimbleness in the language in the cultural capital of the Sri Lankan Tamils is not lost on Valli. “Maybe I was a bit blind,” she says. The day she left Chennai, she had just finished organizing a student’s arangetram, a first performance before an audience, and that needed months of preparation. In the meantime, she prepared for the Svanubhava workshop the way she always does – in English. It’s also that she believes, in dialogue as much as in dance, in being well-rehearsed and perfect. “I can talk in Tamil,” she says. “But how do you convey, without preparation, concepts and aesthetics? I am a great believer in the power and the beauty of language, but to communicate powerfully, you need to use metaphors.” And her metaphors are in English. She reads out a line, from the presentation on her tablet computer, that talks of “lyricism in subtlety and interpretation, as differing from overt sensationalism.” Without research and preparation, it does appear a task translating this into Tamil. “When you have a vision in your mind and don’t have the means to do it justice, it’s so frustrating. A great element of ad-libbing is going to be there,” she says, having conscripted TM Krishna in her battle. “I’ve told him he has to be emcee. I’m banking on him to save me.”


The saviour is seated in the lobby downstairs, in a salmon pink kurta and silk dhoti, and he is sympathetic to Valli’s plight, if also slightly amused. “Since last night, she’s been talking to everyone in chaste Tamil,” he reveals. But he has known all along that they will be required to speak in Tamil. “I’ve been here earlier, and I’ve interacted with the Tamil diaspora all over the world. I know how religiously bonded to the language they are.” He doesn’t see himself as emcee, though – more as an interviewer, a trigger. Neither does he see himself as the man who made all this possible. When he started Svanubhava in 2008, with Bombay Jayashree (who is no longer a part of the event), the intent was twofold: to create a platform for communication between senior practitioners of the arts and younger students and enthusiasts, and to facilitate dialogue between the various arts. (When he interviews Valli, he will be doing just that – facilitating a dialogue between Carnatic music and Bharatanatyam.) After Bombay Jayashree left, the work has been carried on by a big team. “I am just there to answer their doubts and questions,” says Krishna.

Svanubhava, whose initial editions were in Chennai, has travelled to Trichy and Delhi. This is its first trip overseas. “But,” says Krishna, “Jaffna did not happen by design.” He was in Sri Lanka last year – the first Carnatic musician in twenty-eight years to visit the Northern Provinces for a series of well-publicized concerts. The last performer of note to tour the island was M.L. Vasanthakumari, who was invited by the Sri Lanka Broadcasting Corporation in 1983. But as rumblings of dissent began to be heard, she was advised to leave at once. It was not a country, anymore, in the mood for music. After returning to India, she gave an account of her ordeal that essentially convinced artists to steer clear of Sri Lanka. Almost three decades later Krishna says, “I was touched by the response to my concerts in Jaffna, Kilinochchi and Vavuniya. I thought this should be more than just a flash in the pan.” That is how the idea of bringing Svanubhava to Jaffna came about, in collaboration with the Indian High commission and with logistical support provided by the local government. The organizing team felt that this was the best time to stage the event, as hordes of culturally inclined visitors descend upon the island for the Nallur temple festival. “Now we have to wait and see what happens.”

This is not the only hint of history about this event. Veerasingham Hall, where Svanubhava will be inaugurated, is laden with baggage of its own. The closing ceremony of the Fourth International Tamil Research Conference, in 1974, took place opposite this hall, in a makeshift arena where thousands gathered. After a while, the Sri Lankan police set upon them with tear gas and bullets, and in the ensuing chaos nine lives were lost. This incident is among the many that instigated the demand for a separate Tamil state and the civil war that resulted – today, a chalk-white memorial to the victims stands at this site. And beyond this memorial, hardly five minutes by walk, lies the Jaffna Fort, which was the Sri Lankan military base during the war. The siege of this fort by the LTTE, in 1990, marked their ascendancy in the peninsula, and it cleared the way for their eventual control over Jaffna. Veerasingham Hall, mute witness to these upheavals, will now resound with music and dance (especially by artists from India, Tamils from Chennai) – the occasion carries the suggestion of salve on an open blister.


The hall, this day, is packed with people of varying ages and experience. There are students like T Ketheeswaran from St Xavier’s Boys College, Mannar, an 18-year-old with a shy smile and a rainbow-striped tie that falls over his uniform. He has been learning Bharatanatyam since he was eleven. Beside him is his teacher, Narmatha Sujinthan. This is her first appointment, and she owes her employment to a school system that insists on compulsory art lessons, worked into the daily timetable. (There is even an attendance sheet being passed around this morning.) And closer to the stage, Dr NVM Navarathnam, Head of Department of Music, University of Jaffna, remarks about the change after the war, that so many people can gather so freely. At the height of the war, many established performing artists fled the peninsula. Students continued to learn dance and music, but gatherings were forbidden and the only performances allowed were those that instilled a sense of the Tamil cause. And even that was not always possible. “Everything had to shut down by 5 or 6 p.m.,” Navarathnam says. “How can you ask anyone to perform in the afternoon?” Today, it’s getting better. “People have slowly started venturing outside, though there is still fear. No one wants be out after 9 p.m.”

This dichotomy of life being better and yet, in some ways, the same is manifest in the road that connects the airport to the town. To set forth down this road is to witness auguries of death as well as rebirth. At first, on either side, there are shells of former houses, their complexions darkened by soot, their extremities pocked with bullet holes. Even the bathrooms, lying outside these homes, bear the stench of death – their location enables people returning from funerals to bathe before setting foot into the house. Outlying bathrooms aren’t unique to Jaffna – it’s just that, elsewhere, these outhouses probably haven’t been used as much for this singular purpose. But today, the Tamils who left their country during the war are returning and rebuilding their homes, which are no longer in the high-security zone. There are no army check posts visible along this road. (Earlier, there used to be one every 100 meters. Today, the only check posts are around the crowded Nallur temple, halting vehicles and insisting that the journey ahead be completed by foot. The thwarting of terrorism has been replaced by traffic management.) They can furnish these homes from the DAMRO outlet further down, whose strapping size indicates a confidence that much business is about to ensue, and when hungry, they can pop down to the restaurant that serves pizza. Six months from now, when construction is complete, they can take their children to the mall and watch a movie in the multiplex.

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Dr. Navarathnam, like many others, hopes for the old days again, when Jaffna drew nagaswaram artists like TN Rajaratnam Pillai and Thiruvengadu Subramanya Pillai. In the season when all the temples in the vicinity celebrated the utsavam, one after another, these artists would thrive on endless concert opportunities, which they would finish off at one shot and return to India. (In capitalizing on the Nallur festival, Svanubhava is essentially following their footsteps.) On stage, too, an orator expresses hope – in chaste and unbridled Tamil – that these programs will awaken artistic sensibilities that were much blunted in the past. As if in affirmation, the audience response for all events is instant and clamorous, hungry souls diving for the buffet. They congregate in crowds, standing if seats are filled. They applaud lustily. They question the artists with abandon. P Unnikrishnan is asked if Lord Rama has appeared before him, the way He appeared before Thyagaraja, and if his launching into the raga Amritavarshini has, as legend suggests, given rise to rain. He is then asked to render the alapana for the raga Simhanandanapriya, and when he says he’s only heard of the Simhanandana tala, an elder – who, so far, was content to tap his fingers on his lap, in accordance with the tala – rouses himself and belts out the raga’s ascending and descending notes.


But even that doesn’t flummox this immensely popular singer as much as the request to render, specifically, the second stanza from his hit song Ennavale, from the movie Kaadhalan. A film song on the Carnatic stage? Like a faithful wife in a morality tale ordered to step into the sleeping quarters of the bachelor next door, he looks imploringly at Krishna, in the audience, and whispers, “Paadalaama?” And when Krishna shrugs and says he should go ahead, Unnikrishnan slips into playback-vocals mode and earns rounds of deafening applause. Alarmel Valli, at her workshop, fields her share of discomfiting questions. A woman in the audience observes that she’d seen the dancer perform fifteen years ago at Krishna Gana Sabha. “You look the same. What is the secret of your figure?” The matte-finish eyeliner, mercifully, renders Valli’s expression indecipherable. These awkward and somewhat personal questions form a story of their own. With jaded audiences, to whom a performance by a celebrity artist is just a drive away, the concert experience is punctuated by concerns about the canteen and texts on the mobile phone. And the queries are often abstruse and technical. But here, after long decades of deprivation, the audience vaults over the barbed wire of accepted decorum, treating the artists not just with reverence but also the revelry that accompanies an unplanned union with Facebook friends.

They are presented with workshops in addition to Valli’s. Unnikrishnan speaks about the various aspects of manodharma. A band of percussionists – Nagai R Sriram (violin), B Ganapathyraman (mridangam), Chandrasekhara Sarma (ghatam), Papanasam Sethuraman (kanjeera) – improvises a demonstration on how to offer standout accompaniment without disturbing the rhythms of the vocalist. As if to underline their much-deserved moment under the sun, Rithvik Raja, the singer called upon to help them illustrate their theories, is banished to the corner usually accorded the mridangam player. In the concert that follows, however, the vocalist is restored to the centre of the universe. TM Krishna launches into a series of songs about the desire for the divine (Arul seyya vendum ayya, Sevikka vendum ayya, and Kaana kan kodi vendum, which was preceded by a rigorously inspired alapana), and he garners applause as soon as he delivers the opening words of the ever-popular Eppo varuvaaro, again a song about the desire for the divine. His last item, though, is mandated by the desire of the audience, who request of him Subramanya Bharathi’s Paarukkulle nalla naadu. He transforms the nation from India to Sri Lanka – “Bharatha naadu,” in the lyric, becomes “Ilangai naadu.” The reception is rhapsodic.

The concert also functions as an impromptu workshop, with Krishna highlighting open-throated singing, with importance to akaras, and the need for constant practice. He speaks mostly in Tamil, slipping now and then into English. Unnikrishnan, too, says that his is going to be “‘just a casual talk about music,” proceeds to “a small anecdote,” and goes on to advise, “Don’t worry over spilt milk.” Alarmel Valli begins impressively, with “Ellorukkum vanakkam,” salutations to all. She narrates a personal incident – Unnikrishnan might call it “a small anecdote” – about her congenital connection to Jaffna, which was forged when her parents, childless for long, prayed to Lord Murugan here and received a daughter as a blessing. (Hence Valli.) And then, just to hedge her bets, she confesses that she will be speaking in Tanglish, “which is very normal in Chennai.” The workshop is well-received. She’s an elfin fount of grace and beauty wrapped in yards of peacock blue. Later, when Krishna, her saviour, her interviewer, asks her questions, she manages very well, even if she still hasn’t found the Tamil equivalent for “overt sensationalism.”

Pictures by RK Radhakrishnan. An edited version of this piece can be found here.

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