Impressions from the 2014 edition of ‘Svanubhava’.
What was running through Ustad Mohi Baha’uddin Dagar’s mind, on the first day of Svanubhava, when he set up his rudra veena and began to play? There’s a reason behind this question, and it has to do with the sessions that preceded his. The morning began briskly, with Kalakshetra students executing Rukmini Devi’s elegant choreography for Gopalakrishna Bharati’s Natanam aadinaar and, later, a Natabhairavi thillana. They were an energetic lot. The stomping of feet and jangle of anklet bells could be heard in the bleachers at the other end of the hall, where I’d seated myself, quailing at the prospect of spending an entire day sitting cross-legged on the floor, beside bright-eyed students from various schools.
The next programme, Laya Advaitam, suffused the air with more energy – or perhaps the word is “electricity.” Sukanya Ramgopal and Suresh Vaidyanathan sat down with their ghatams, beside a rhythm machine that traversed the equivalent of adi taalam with what sounded like a hit on a drum kit’s hi-hat, followed by seven instances of rice being pounded in an Indian kitchen, circa the 1920s. With this monotone in the background, the artists let their fingers fly, on an apparent mission to leave no part of the ghatam untouched. I was sitting behind the team recording the event – the sound bars on the Audio Mixer kept threatening to leap off the laptop. At times, it sounded like firecrackers going off in a tin can, and one student, at the end, rose to ask in wonder: “How come the pot didn’t break?”
Ghatam gave way to kanjira as BS Purushotham and Anirudh Athreya – in olive green and crimson kurtas, reminding us of just how much Fabindia has changed the complexion of the Carnatic stage – came up to play a complicated tala pattern, involving cycles with three, four, five, seven and nine counts. Explaining this to the kids, Purushotham tapped out these tala structures and asked them how many counts there were in each. At some point, he began to look like a maths teacher – that is, if your maths teacher would reward your right answers with an exuberant cry of “Super!” The performance resounded with the sound of beats – the children who couldn’t tap out the talas took to clapping.
It was after this boisterousness that Ustad Mohi Baha’uddin Dagar came on stage, and he must have realised that he had to somehow prepare the mostly young audience for what was in store. He said, softly, that he was going to play a dhrupad in Shuddh Sarang. “I shall play one raag and I shall play it for a long time, as I have learnt it, as I know it.” The announcement sounded partly anticipatory, partly defensive, partly apologetic – but it had its desired effect. For the first time, the hall quietened down. Maybe it was because this was the last session before lunch, but between phrasings of the alaap, I had time to think about how Svanubhava, with its bite-sized servings of arts and artists, is essentially a mini-meals type of concept – only, the waiter, at the end, answers your queries about how this dish was made or where that one came from. The alaap quickened, the first slap on the pakhwaj was heard, and the audience sat up. The most surprising part of the performance, for me, was when Dagar finished playing, set his instrument down, and reached for his wristwatch, which I hadn’t seen him remove. It was a touchingly utilitarian gesture at the end of such virtuosity.
The women in the audience contributed the expected colour, reds and greens and ochres, but the men, too, made little style statements. An elderly man near me wore an “Adidas”-emblazoned cap, with a pair of sunglasses perched on the visor. An Oriental-looking youth walked about in a lavender kurta, a streak of ash between his brows. The solitary ear stud, in a variety of stones, seemed quite the rage – glints from the odd diamond pierced the dimness of the overcast (though muggy) morning. People kept gravitating to spots under the fans, which drooped from the thatched roof on long stems.
Over the three days of the festival, there was a Tamil play; a Carnatic concert by Pantula Rama (centred on the Sri-raga composition, Sree varalakshmi namastubhyam); an Odissi performance by Sujata Mohapatra; Nangiyar Koothu by Shalini Vijayan; a contemporary dance production by Samudra titled The Cosmic Dance of Shiva (the stunningly callisthenic choreography came off like a pagan ritual at the Cirque du Soleil); a piano recital by Anil Srinivasan; soul-rending Baul music by Parvathy Baul; a couple of superb mridangam solos by Sumathi Rammohan Rao and Umayalpuram K Sivaraman; and a Harikatha based on the Prahalada legend by Kalyanapuram Aravamudachariar, whose stamina on stage belied his 79 years. He began with the admonishment, “Konjam amaidhiya, porumaya kelungo,” and went on to garnish his narration with sprinklings of English. He called Harikatha a “variety entertainment.” He spoke of the “syllabus” in Shukracharya’s gurukulam. He marvelled at how bhagavan found a “loophole” in the boon given to Hiranyakashipu. And he ended by pointing out “indha kadhayoda quintessence.” In other words, he perfectly embodied Svanubhava’s aim of bridging tradition and the modern world.
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