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Sudha Ragunathan’s journey to Tiruvaiyaru

As I sign off the Margazhi concerts, the path of musical pilgrimage in the new year opens up and charts my course. I board the car to be by the banks of the Cauvery on Bahula Panchami in January… and my destination is the sands of Tiruvaiyaru. For over three decades, year after year, this has been a ritual.

With the Cauvery flowing serenely, there cannot be a better place to simply calm the mind, sing in abandon and surrender at the feet of the saint-poet.

The energy that envelops Tiruvaiyaru during the Tyagaraja Aradhana cannot be expressed fully enough in words. To me, such congregations that reverberate with musical fervour and surrender only reinforce our value system.

Enough research has been done and reams have been written on Tygaraja. He is a constant companion of every musician and music lover. He is a hierophant whose life demystifies religion and brings in a consciousness to those who perceive it as such.

Though Tyagaraja composed a large number of kritis, each one a gem, sadly only around 700 are available today that are being sung and shared. Every song carries a strong yet gentle message. His compositions speak elaborately about the fleeting nature of life, suggesting that one should not develop too many attachments. Some of them like ‘Sugunamule Cheppukonti’ in raga Chakravakam also talk about surrendering to the supreme being. Schools of meditation worldwide aim at calming the confused mind and what better way can there be than a Tyagaraja composition to achieve this. He did not preach, but gave poignant musical expression to his devotion for Rama that serve as great life lessons.

My grand guru G.N. Balasubramaniam extols Tyagaraja and says that he has composed the kritis in such a way that they allow the singer to bring out the essence of the ragas in a pleasing and satisfying manner, thereby giving abundant scope for manodharma.

For this annual pilgrimage, my planning begins in October-November, when I check the date of the Panchami thithi and the Pancharatnam singing. I accept no other invitation during this time. It is like a pre-determined process that simply sets my concert calendar on its own.

Some years, I have travelled twice to Tiruvaiyaru during the festival — to perform on the inaugural day and then again for the group singing.

An instance that comes to my mind is when I accompanied my guru, M.L. Vasanthakumari, for the first time to perform here. We sang ‘Mariyadha gadhiyya’ in raga Bhairavam. The pallavi is set in a manner that one vocalist can sing in the usual pitch and the other in the higher octave. I sang in the higher octave. After the concert, many in the audience expressed their appreciation of my singing to MLV amma. I was delighted to be lauded at this sacred venue and in the presence of my guru.

In the year 2000, just a few days before the Aradhana (January 23) I was in Paris to perform at Theatre de la ville. But I knew I could not miss the annual event. So I landed in Chennai on January 22 and headed straight to Tiruvaiyaru.

Another year, I got jaundice before my concert for Doordarshan’s South Zone programme at the Tygaraja Aradhana Festival.I was advised rest but I brushed aside caution and travelled. I stayed with a friend, where I was given a special diet, and I performed to my satisfaction and I was at peace. No medicine could have given me that feeling of well-being that the singing gave.

In 2017, when I got the rare honour of presiding over the inaugural function of the 250th birth anniversary of this great composer, I felt it was his way of rewarding my perseverance. Many a times, during the group singing, I have heard comments about the lack of synchrony, or a lag in sruti or sangatis. I am undeterred by such criticism. It is only the experience and the ecstasy of the music that matter.

The journey continues. The pandemic has impacted this year’s festival, but you realise nothing can stop the music from reigning in Tiruvaiyaru. When I sit in front of the sanctum sanctorum and begin to sing, ‘Jagadhanandakaraka’, the first Pancharatna kriti set in Nattai, my musical pilgrimage for the year is done.

The writer is a senior

Carnatic vocalist.

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