Monthly Archives: January 2009

A giant shopping mall

Twin Towers, KL, Malaysia
Image by tuis via Flickr

Summer of 2008 – We stopped in Kaula Lumpur, Malaysia on our way back home. I had a concert lined up at a cultural organization there. On our first day we were off to Batu Caves, the famed limestone caves which was also a temple for Subramanya. Climbing 272 steps (phew!) only made me realize I was terribly out of shape.

The traffic jams and noise levels in KL reminded me of Bangalore. The monorail had me wondering when the Metro line was going to come up back home. Standing on the upper level (open for visitors) at Petronas towers we got an aerial view of the city – a lush rainforest surrounded by a concrete jungle. The contrast couldn’t have been sharper. KL is one giant shopping mall. My friends insisted that a trip to Berjaya Times Square was a must but once there, I was bewildered by the plethora of choices. My husband put on a valiant smile (he detests shopping in malls) while I had a hard time controlling my budget!

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Tyagaraja aradhana festivals in Bangalore

Goshti Gaanam

As a followup to the Tyagaraja aradhana festival at Tiruvaiyaru in Thanjavur several sabhas in Bangalore organized similar festivals. Last Sunday the Devagiri devasthanam (Venkateswara temple) in Banashankari held a Tyagaraja aradhana festival where I had participated. Unfortunately similar aradhana festivals were being organized all over Bangalore (BTM, Whitefield, etc) at the same time making it difficult for Carnatic musicians to participate.
When I showed up at the temple accompanying my guru Smt. Seethalakshmi Venkateshan there was already a good crowd. Some of Bangalore’s well known musicians had also turned up.  The "goshti gaanam" spearheaded by Smt.Neela Ramgopal began with well known geetams such as Shree gana naatha, paduma naabha before rendition of the pancharatna kritis of Tyagaraja. The pancharatna kritis Jagadhananda karaka (Nattai), Dudukukala(Gowli), Saadhinchane (Aarabhi), Kanaka ruchi (Varali) and Entharo mahanubhavulu (Sri ragam) were sung with great gusto to an appreciative audience. I had attended a similar aradhana festival a week earlier at the Tyagaraja temple in Vasanthpuram, organized by the family of Anoor Ramakrishna. The festival organizers in both these venues had also organized a lunch for all those present.
My article on Tyagaraja and the Tiruvaiyaru festival was published as a middle in Deccan Herald. Click here to read the article. (URL below)
http://www.deccanherald.com/Content/Jan222009/editpage20090122113926.asp

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Adventure of the Temple Cave

This picture was captured during my recent tri...
Image via Wikipedia

This article originally appeared in the Deccan Herald

Batu Caves are a group of limestone caves and one of the most popular tourist destinations in Malaysia. Chitra Srikrishna explores.

‘Just a few more to go, you’re almost here!” My husband encourages me as I gasp for breath on step 200! I can see that our two daughters, already at the top, are impatient to proceed into the caves. We are at the Batu caves just outside Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Finally, with only one more short stop for catching my breath, I make it over the last step and am at the top.

In front of me is the Cathedral or Temple Cave. The word cavernous takes a whole new meaning as I try to take in the sheer size of the natural cave. There’s a damp, pungent smell inside. Despite the early evening, the corners of the cave are already getting dark.

Long stalactites protruding from the ceiling and stalagmites rising from the ground form bizarre patterns. Out of the corner of my eye I espy a huge bat heading for me straight at great speed. Instinctively I duck and it sails just past my head.

Monkeys with unusually long tails are running across the alcoves chattering like magpies all the time. I feel a little awed and stand staring at the surrealistic scene of a South Indian temple with its pyramidal roof painted in bright colours inside the cave’s Martian landscape.

My reverie is broken by my daughters pulling on my hands. They are anxious to explore further. As dusk hastens they want to make best of the light still coming through the natural openings in the cave’s distant roof. We hurry across to a short flight of stairs at the far end of the cave to get to the main shrine.

The Batu Caves are a group of limestone caves and cave temples and one of the most popular tourist destinations in Malaysia. The name Batu comes from the name of the river that flows past the hill. The caves which are 13 km north of Kuala Lumpur are believed to have been discovered by an Indian trader, K Thamboosamy Pillai in the late 1800s. The main draw of the Batu caves is a shrine of the Hindu God Murugan (Kartikeya or Subramanya). At the base of the caves a giant golden statue of Murugan, holding his weapon the vel (spear), greets visitors. The Batu caves also offer adventure to motivated spelunkers — prior permission is required to explore the Dark Cave (just below the Cathedral Cave), which is otherwise closed to the public.

As we stand in the temple watching a priest complete his rituals, I am struck by the rapid conversation he engages in Tamil with another family. I would have lingered on but my husband shepherds me towards the exit. “It’s going to rain; we need to head back.” Soon enough as we begin our descent down the long flight of steps, the torrential downpour takes us by surprise.

My husband and daughters being more agile quickly get to the bottom of the nearly 300 steps. Ever the careful one, I gingerly put my feet onto every step valiantly holding on to a temperamental umbrella. I remember the cab driver’s words on our way here from the hotel. “It can get slippery on the steps, especially when it rains — be careful!” We quickly clamber into our waiting cab. I remark that there aren’t too many visitors now. “You’re lucky — it’s closing time. You must visit during thaipoosam, hardly any room to stand!” Our driver is in an expansive mood. He tells us that during the Thaipoosam festival in January the atmosphere reaches a frenzy as devotees carry milk offerings for Lord Murugan in containers or kavadis (carriers) on their shoulders and climb the steps watched by a million others.

Some of these carriers are extremely heavy and ornately decorated with peacock feathers and flowers. For the devotees, it’s a sacred mission. I cannot help admire them and the wondrous panorama that the Batu caves offers. If you see me on the Stairmaster machine, you know I’m preparing for my next trek up those 272 steps!

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Season Bites

Image for the :en:Purandara Dasa page.
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Its mid-December and I am in Chennai, the heartland of carnatic music. The Margazhi Mahotsavam or Season, as locals call it, is in full swing. A monthful of classical music, dance and lecture-demonstrations broken only by bouts of canteen hopping – but more on that later. A casual visitor to Chennai could have easily mistaken it for election season.  Giant, larger-than-life, billboards of Kancheepuram wrapped musicians and star like portraits on vernacular magazine covers greet me everywhere I go.

As a musician and a rasika, I am overwhelmed by the plethora of concerts on offer. While season regulars have fine-tuned to an art, their concert attendance with advance planning, I prefer to play it by ear. At the heart of their organizational secret is a small indescript booklet. It lists all 2000+ concerts held across the city during the festival, cross referenced by venues and artistes. My first task upon landing in Chennai usually is to relieve my mother of her copy of this nifty booklet. For the Musically Challenged, yet another booklet lists every Carnatic song alphabetically with its raga, tala and composer – so upon hearing the first line, the MC can quickly rustle through the book to find the details.

Sabha-hoppers at the festival are the most adventurous lot . A peep into one hall for an earful of Raga Mohanam and they’re off to another hall to catch the latter part of a Tyagaraja kriti. I marvel at their memory and unflagging enthusiasm to carry it off. Then there are the quiet listeners who vigorously nod their heads in murmured appreciation and break into an occasional sabhash. Disapproving glares are their response when there’s a stage whisper or a shuffling of feet among the audience. Yet another kind of listeners are blessed with a 360° rotating neck. They greet long-lost friends and family with barely suppressed glee, unfailingly spotting them at far corners of the halls, oblivious to what’s happening on stage. I am particularly wary of the snoozers who nod off in the air-conditioned halls and unwittingly match the musician’s notes in the higher octaves. The mridangam thani when the percussion plays his solo recital, is often a restroom break. Such a mass exodus from the hall in the midst of a performance would be inconceivable in opera or concerts halls elsewhere in the world. To make matters worse the Season finds cell phones occasionally adding its plaintive tones to the instruments on stage.  Whatever happened to silent mode?

A day at the season begins early. Morning programs feature seminars and lecture-demonstrations on various topics of classical music and draw huge crowds. When Nedunuri Krishnamoorthy, a stalwart in the field, gives a presentation on Annamacharya kritis he is accompanied by his disciples, the popular Malladi Brothers. The hall fills up rapidly and latecomers stand for nearly 90 minutes to listen to the maestro perform. Even the whiff of vadas and poori bhaji emanating from the canteen doesn’t tempt the glued audience. I could play the enthralled listener having gorged myself on an early morning idli and vada at the sabha canteen. The Season is a fulfilling experience in more ways more than just musical!

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Mysore concert

just got back last Monday from Mysore. I had given a concert in the city’s oldest sabha Nada brahma Sangeetha Sabha. My guru Seethalakshmi mami was honoured with the title “Nada Brahma” by the sabha. The main piece of my concert was Marachithivemo nannu”(Purvikalyani), a kriti of Mysore Vasudevacharya – the concert was held in Vasudevacharya Bhavan and the organizers wanted me to include a composition of his in my concert.

The bard of Tiruvaiyaru

This article originally appeared in the Deccan Herald

Five songs. One collective voice. It’s unlike any other music festival. It’s mid-January and there’s a motley crowd gathering in the town of Tiruvaiyaru, near Thanjavur in Tamil Nadu. There are pandals erected everywhere and the town becomes the focal point. It’s the annual memorial to Tyagaraja, the saint-composer of Carnatic music where Carnatic musicians have gathered to pay homage to him.

Tyagaraja’s “pancharatna” kritis are rendered by Carnatic singers, instrumentalists and percussionists at his shrine. The Tiruvaiyaru festival has spun-off similar festivals in different parts of the world that follow the same pattern. In April, the American edition of Tyagaraja Aradhana takes place in Cleveland. It is a huge success with near live telecast of it back to the heartland by Tamil TV channels bringing the music full circle. Tyagaraja, who lived nearly three centuries ago and never ventured from the Cauvery Delta, today is alive and a global traveler. After the hectic month of December concerts in Chennai where he figures figures front and center, Tiruvaiyaru is all Tyagaraja, as is Cleveland in March/April and Bangalore with its Rama Navami festival. A peripatetic lifestyle for someone who has been dead for nearly 300 years!”

This year, a familiar figure in the Tiruvaiyaru festival will be sorely missed. Kunnakudi Vaidyanathan, a famed violinist and one of the lead organizers of the Tiruvaiyaru aradhana passed away last year – who can forget that smiling countenance and the super-sized dot on his forehead?

I’ve often wondered what makes this festival unique? It’s one singular occasion where the music itself has no variations, petty politics are cast aside, and musicians come together for the explicit purpose of celebrating this great composer’s music. Tyagaraja along with Dikshathar and Shyama Shastry formed the triumvirate of Carnatic music who are often likened to Mozart, Bach and Beethoven of western classical music. Tyagaraja’s music stands out for the simplicity of his lyrics and the sheer emotion that it inspires. Like the Bard of Avon remarked, “if music be the food for love, then play on”. Tyagaraja actually lived this philosophy – his legacy continues to inspire musicians all over the world.

The night of the storm

A thunderstorm over :en:Wagga Wagga, New South...
Image via Wikipedia

This short story originally appeared in the magazine Eve’s Touch

It was getting dark when Prabha walked out of the teacher’s lounge. Her driver was picking her up at 6 pm. There was no sign of him when she reached the college gate. She looked at her watch and turned a worried eye to the dark clouds gathering. An unusually strong wind was beginning to blow, making small eddies of fallen leaves. Prabha tried to hold back her sari ends from flying in all directions and still not drop the test papers she was carrying.

After waiting for nearly fifteen minutes she decided to call Anil at work. When she got her cell phone out of her purse it bleated and flashed “low battery”. ‘Can it get any worse?’ she muttered.

Earlier in the day a long phone call with her father-in-law had upset her.
“Beta, you never call me – even Anil has forgotten his father is still alive”.
“Papa, Anil tells me that he calls you every other day?”

Anil’s father belonged to the old school – daughters-in-law were meant to be seen, not heard. He never bothered to ask her if she could speak on the phone at that moment, insisted that she call him right away and began his litany of woes as soon as she phoned. The call had drained Prabha and her cell phone!
‘Anil, why is the driver not here? I’m running late – I’d promised Kriti to help her study for her mid term tests next week”. Prabha was impatient to reach home.
“I’ve sent him to the airport to pick up my boss – I’ll send you another car”. Anil was clearly irritated.
“Will you come home early today?” she persisted. “You’ve promised to help Kriti complete her science project”.
“You’ll have to do it – I have too much work here”.
Prabha resisted the urge to snap at him. By the time she gathered her thoughts the plaintive tones of her phone made her realize that Anil had hung up.

The wind had turned into a regular gale and was playing havoc with her sari. After the aborted phone call with Anil her thoughts were as tumultuous as the gusty winds. Stealing another look at her watch, Prabha dialed her best friend Rita. Her phone continued to bleat pathetically, while she waited for Rita to answer.

“Hey Prabha, what’s up?” Rita’s cheerful voice came crackling over the bleats.

“Oh, Rita it’s good to hear your voice. I’m waiting for my ride home and it looks like its going to pour.”

“How come so glum?” Rita was her usual perceptive self.

“Anil forgot to send the car,” she resisted adding the word again. “I’d promised to coach Kriti for her math test next week – I’m concerned about her grades, she’s not doing too well in this new school.”
“You worry too much Prabha – kids take some time to get used to a new school. Between Anil and you, I’m sure you can help her cope.”

“Hmm., I am not sure…”
“Why don’t you get Anil to help her? Last time you spoke you’d mentioned that things were not hunky dory between the two of you. And we never got to talk about it. Maybe this Kriti project will help”.
“I don’t know, Rita.” Prabha tried to keep anxiety out of her voice. “He seems distracted all the time – even when it’s just the two of us. When I try to talk about it, he becomes sullen. Sometimes I feel he’s turned into a stranger!” Prabha confided.

“Prabha I’m sure all the uncertainty at work for Anil is not helping. My cousin Sujay, who works in the finance department told me the other day that the company is facing a severe cash crunch – you may be reading too much into it” Rita’s thoughts seemed plausible. “Why don’t the two of you get away this weekend maybe to a resort? I’ll take care of Kriti. Both of you need a break and some quality time together”.
“You’re a gem, Rita. I’ll talk to Anil about a vacation when I get home today.”
“Prabha, make him earn this vacation – get him to study with Kriti!” Rita was on a roll. Still laughing, Prabha hung up feeling a little more buoyant after talking to her friend.

She saw the taxi approaching as the first few drops of rain began to fall. The driver stepped out and opened the door for her. She hadn’t seen him before. He was clean shaven chap with a well trimmed mustache and unusually big shoulders that looked incongruous in his white uniform.
“Madam, Sinha saab sent me from JB Road”.
“Yes, yes – let’s go, I’m already late!” She quickly got into the taxi and once he settled in behind the wheel, rattled off her address.
There was a grunt from the front seat and the taxi started moving.
“Slow down, you’re going too fast!”

The driver didn’t seem to hear her as the taxi swerved slightly to avoid hitting an errant cyclist. By now the weather had turned into a full fledged thunderstorm. Rain was coming down in thick sheets and small objects and even carts careened across the road even as the trees swayed precariously.
When Prabha looked out she could barely see the flyover.
“Arre, why are you taking this route? It will take too much time.”
The driver didn’t seem to hear her. He seemed to be in a race with cars she couldn’t see. The words “bat out of hell” rose in Prabha’s mind, as she tried to get him to slow down. A particularly nasty bump, made her reach for the handle on door – except that there was nothing there! A quick glance at the other door revealed itself to be as bereft of handles as her own.
Working woman kidnapped! All those articles on women’s safety that she had read flashed in her mind’s eye. She fought the urge to panic as she reached into her purse. The pepper spray in her purse seemed so useless – merely a pathetic attempt of bravado on her part. She remembered her cell phone and fished it out and with trembling fingers dialed Anil.
“Hello!” Anil’s voice, even distracted was a rush of adrenaline to her.
“Anil, thank God you’re there! I’m in danger – this taxi driver seems to be taking me somewhere, help me…”
“Speak up! Stop mumbling. I can barely hear you, the line’s bad”. Anil sounded brusque and she found her panic rising! She felt that he was going to hang up. “Please, Anil, do something…” When there was no response from his end, she knew that the call had dropped. She hit redial – static was the only sound that seemed to come out of her phone. Even as she tried calling Rita now, her phone went dead as the battery gave up its ghost.

As though this were a cue, the driver stopped the car and got outside. The violent rain had toned down to a steady drizzle and all around were tree branches fallen about like dead drunks. Prabha peered out to see where they had stopped – the car had pulled off the main road somewhere near the city reservoir. When the door opened, she aimed the pepper spray at him and pressed hard – nothing came of it! He laughed loudly at her foolhardy attempt at self defense. He reached with a ham-sized hand for her. The incongruous sound of a phone ringing distracted her just then. The driver grabbed her by the shoulders and yanked her out of the car. The phone continued to ring. Prabha tried kicking him and beating him with her fists. He hardly seemed to notice her blows and gave her a hard slap that knocked her to the ground.

“Aaah!” The pain was unbelievable. The phone rings seemed to grow louder. Somewhere deep down she realized it was the driver’s cell phone ringing. As she struggled to her knees, she heard him answer.
“Saab, I haven’t finished the job yet!”
The strident voice from the other end sounded so familiar…could it be?
‘No, No’ her mind furiously denied the truth staring in her face.
When the driver gave her a wolfish smile, she knew!

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