(This is a contributed article authored by Adithya Mayuran – an MBA grad who hails from Coimbatore, lives in Mumbai and is a Marketing professional with an MNC. In this post he recollects how his tryst with Indian performing arts began)

It was a Margazhi long ago in the late eighties and I was just a lad of seven, when I first set foot into a Sabha. Coming from Coimbatore – which back then did not have an established classical arts scene like today,  apart from the once in a blue moon arangetram or kutcheri, Sabha hopping was as alien as alien could be. So there I was, in the middle of my winter holidays in Chennai, a fidgety seven year old being dragged into the Madras Music Academy by my maternal grandmother. It wasn’t a matter of choice for her either; she had to be there at the concert as a social obligation and could not leave me alone at home. Hence, after repeated promises of ice creams and toffees as gifts for my angelic behaviour, I was there, sitting in the front row of a stage that I would  grow up to consider as hallowed ground.

And after a wait, which to my seven year old fidgety self seemed eternal, the curtains parted with a hint of music and applause, the arc lights swung into action, the audience went into a mute mode and the stage came alive. Transported into another world, I clearly remember the richness of the costumes, the rhythm, the overpowering sounds of the salangai– not that I understood what I was seeing, but I was in complete awe of that poetry in motion that I was witness to. The thillanna at the end was in my opinion, the piéce de résistance – the joy of dance resonating in every move.  And I had every right to be in awe, for there she stood, grace personified during the curtain calls, a true legend called Padma Subramaniam.

Winter Holidays over, I was back home in Coimbatore, the mudras, the abinaya and footwork still vivid in my mind. Once I did try to imitate them, least expecting the pandemonium that it would cause. As luck would have it, my father chanced upon me and had, what could be best termed, a mini-heart attack. There was no way, in his wildest thoughts, that his son – the scion of a feudal family would  try to do something so effeminate. The men in the family were aghast that a boy could be interested in something that to them belonged solely to the realm of the feminine. Promptly, I was packed off to Taekwondo classes so that I may grow up with macho traits. That I lasted in Taekwondo classes for only two years is another story.

For the next few years, I looked forward to going to Chennai for my vacations, as my grandmother had realized by then that video tapes, which she meticulously recorded from Doordarshan, would keep her grandson occupied when she was busy with household chores. So I would have my daily dose of dance. And it also helped that my grandparents had the Dhananjeyans for neighbors in Adyar. Once in a way I was taken to their dance school to watch the classes. The sights and sounds of a class in practice were far removed from a concert. The dancers seemed more human and less divine, but the sounds of the salangais clanging in chorus is still memorable. By then I had accepted I was not going to learn this dance form, but then there was nothing stopping me from learning about it.

During those years I was fortunate enough to watch the stalwarts in action, especially during Margazhi, Chitra Vishweshwaran , Sudharani Raghupathy, The Dhanajeyans, Padma Subramaniam. I consider myself fortunate to have been given a chance to watch the “Virali Malai” kuravanji which at one point had all these stalwarts perform together. It is a pity that this unbroken dance drama performed annually for centuries by the Devadasis at the Murugan Temple in Virali Malai, has not taken place since 1993.

But with more performances, I began to realize that I especially enjoyed the ones that I understood and these were invariably set to Tamil or Sanskrit lyrics .The Tamil songs helped me understand what was being depicted on stage only aiding my appreciation for the dance form. Unconsciously, that was when my tryst with music began. Unlike dance, this was something I could learn as well, it would not set off alarm bells at home.

My lessons in music would last hardly for a year as the rat race for every half a mark on the progress card would see me off to different tuitions and classes. It was inevitable; the board exams had pressed a pause button on everything in life other than school, coaching classes and tests.  But as fate would have it, my neighbor was a trained Carnatic Music Buff, who would more than gladly lend me her cassettes and I would be transported to the divine world of MS and MLV. I would go to bed with the strains of Mahrajapuram Santhanam. It was at that time that stars like Nithyashree Mahadevan, Sudha Raghunathan, P. Unnikrishnan, Bombay Jayshree rose to fame. My only connection with the arts at that time was the weekly reviews in The Hindu.

With the drudgery of 10th and 12th over, I finally had some time to myself. The internet was becoming accessible and opened with it the vistas of knowledge of both music and dance, which hitherto, I had no access to. It gave me the chance to understand these esoteric arts and their nuances. With respect to music, it gave me a chance to understand the basics, the ragas, their families and a few thaalams. It also opened to me the meaning of the soulful lyrics of Dikshitar and Tirupugazh, along with a better understanding of Annamacharya . Understanding them only moved me to a world of wonder; these lyrics were simultaneously simple and complex outpourings of devotion. No one can take away the magic of a well rendered Dikshitar kirti or Tirupugazh. Till date, a well rendered “Kanchadalayadakshi” or “Nadha Vindhu” can give me goose bumps. Coupled with their understanding, it was a new magical world.

After having moved base to Mumbai, I have been fortunate to watch various classical dance forms and listen to various genres of classical music. I am still at the starting point of my journey of understanding the complexity of these art forms. For me they are a source of a personal bliss, contentment and enjoyment. This emotion is very personal, something that panders to the inner recesses of my soul. And for this, I still thank that one Margazhi evening when it all began and Padma Subramaniam draped in blue with all her finery for helping me start a journey where I experience the Divine.

Glossary

Margazhi – The Tamil month from Mid December to Mid January

Arangetram – The official Debut of a Bharatanatyam Dancer

Kutcheri – A classical music concert.

Salangai – Anklets worn during dance

Thillana –(also called tillana) is a rhythmic piece in Carnatic music,  performed at the end of a concert and widely used in dance performances. A thillana uses tala-like phrases and limited lyrics.

Kuravanji – Traditional Dance Dramas of the temples, few survive today.

Dikshitar – Muthuswamy Dikshitar, (1775 -1835) century poet and composer , from Thiruvarur, composed mainly in Sanskrit, credited with pioneering the use of the Violin in Carnatic Music.

Tirupugazh – 15 th Century anthology of poems written by saint Arunagirinathar. Mainly composed on Lord Muruga and the Shaivite pantheon.

Annamacharya – 14th Century Vaishnavite poet, also the official song master of the Tirupati Temple with 36000 compositions in Telugu to his credit.