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music for the gods

Festival of sacred music

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SAY HALO: Thiruvaiyaru was chosen as the venue in order to revive interest in the town's local architectural and musical heritage. All the concerts are free

India has a wealth of ragas, vedic chants, Sufi music and its derivatives khayal and qawwali, baul, Sikh kirtans, Christian choral music and Buddhist chants. Enough material for multiple concerts if we had an audience for them. Thank god we do - as the forthcoming Festival of Sacred Music will demonstrate.

The festival was first mounted in 2009 by Prakriti Foundation, a Chennai agency for art and cultural dissemination, in the town of Thiruvaiyaru, in the district of Thanjavur. The town conventionally draws two kinds of pilgrims - Shiva devotees and Carnatic music disciples. The former attend Panchanatheeswar (' Lord of the five rivers' ), the famous Shiva temple and the latter come to the stoop of Saint Thyagaraja, one part of the holy trinity of Carnatic music. Thiruvaiyaru owes its tourism to Thyagaraja, in whose honour the annual Carnatic music carnival has been held every year for the last 164 years. Now it owes a little to the Festival of Sacred Music as well.

In its earlier runs, the festival has had Carnatic vocalist Bombay Jayashri;veena artiste Jayanthi Kumaresh;flautists - the Sikkil Sisters;Vidya Rao performing Hindustani thumris (from Meera bhajans to Sufi poetry); the jugalbandi of Pandit Krishna Ram Choudary and KM Uthirapathi on nadasvaram performing Yaman, Malkauns;and Carnatic vocalist Aruna Sairam who performed with violinist Raghavendra Rao and Patri Satishkumar on the mridangam. "The first year was purely Carnatic, the second year introduced Hindustani to Thiruvaiyaru for the first time, and this year we're opening the door a little wider, " says Ranvir Shah, founder of Prakriti and orchestrator of this event.

By wider, he means conducting new impulses to this conservative Carnatic nerve centre. This is why, in addition to the Madras String Quartet, Carnatic vocals by Shri TM Krishna and sacred chants by Sri Nadaka and Smt Gopika, Shah has invited Father Joseph Thattarassery and his chapel bhajans and Yodhaka Band and their pop-enfolded Sanskrit shlokas to the stage. "By the fifth or seventh year, I hope to have world sacred music, " he says hopefully.

A former choirmaster, Fr Thattarassery began to write Christian lyrics to Carnatic music about a decade ago, when his frequent attendance at kacheris (Carnatic music performances) influenced his view of church music. Even though his lyrics were devoted to Christ, his parishioners squirmed at the way their hymns were turning 'Hindu'. "But they slowly came to understand that music is beyond religions, " says Fr Thattarassery, who now conducts a 4 am Bhrama Muhurta bhajan session for a growing parish.

Shah believes sacred music is inclusive like no other. Unlike rock or jazz that demand a certain initiation, sacred music, he believes, transcends all politics and can deliver everyone. Which is one of the reasons why the concert is entirely free. And it has been located in dormant Thiruvaiyaru in order to revive interest in the local architectural and musical heritage. Shah is halfway to convincing locals to open their homes to tourists - the bulk of who now camp in Tanjore, 20 minutes away. He also hopes to train local youth to serve as guides and secure a government grant to convert a disused college into a museum of music.

The location of the festival has invited as much approval as the performances themselves: poetic ruins of the Husoor Palace (old summer palace of the Maratha kings of Thanjavur), the Pushya Mahal Ghat leading down to the Cauvery, and the outer prakarams of Panchanatheeswar temple. Previous festivals have seen these locations converted into hallowed sanctums - with lamps, incense and floral arrangements. In the past, priests have also participated in the act with supplicating chants and river rites, turning an otherwise passive performance into an active ritual.

(The Festival of Sacred Music will be held from March 4 - 6 in Thiruvaiyaru, Tamil Nadu. www.prakritifoundation.com)

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