Thiruvaiyaru-on-Kaveri in Thanjavur District, Tamil Nadu, is a one-cow town. It’s also the cradle of Carnatic music. Europeans who know their music call Thiruvaiyaru the Vienna of the Carnatic world. It’s 13 km from Thanjavur town, the district capital, once royal headquarters of the Maratha Bhonsale dynasty.
Thanjavur crowns the Kaveri Delta, one of the richest, loveliest tracts in all India. The Kaveri Delta rejoices in other ancient towns like Chidambaram, Kumbakonam, Swami Malai, Mannargudi, Papanasam, Darasuram, Gangaikondac-holapuram, each name a piece of Kryptonite in Southie bodies. It gives us our ‘tashan’ (attitude), makes us nod in polite, smiling agreement when upcountry people tell us we’re so ‘kaala’, we eat such boring food, we’re so prissy, so uncool, so coconut-oiled. We nod and walk away with a faint sneer, detectable only by the keenest eye. It’s got plenty to do with the Kaveri Delta and the treasures it gave us. Like I called a friend to squeal, “I just tracked down the ivory violin played by Vadivelu of the Tanjore Quartet! Swati Thirunal gave it to him in 1847!”. And that friend gasped at the wonder of it.
One person who’s done more than connect is a Gujarati businessman from Bombay, Ranvir Shah. His Chennai-based Prakriti Foundation organized a three-day festival of sacred music in Thiruvaiyaru-on-Kaveri last week that did the impossible. It wiped the lurking sneer right off several hundred Southie faces, made jaws drop and tears flow.
Like with a lot of Indian heritage, it is no longer the Kaveri and its once gem-like towns but the Kaveri-consciousness we carry that’s so magical. Physically, it’s no big deal today. But Ranvir made it a big deal. He got the Thyagesa temple boss, the Dharmapuri Adheenam, to get the temple spruced up. Ranvir had great lighting done, got the administration’s support, the scion of the Bhonsale dynasty, the music college, the townsfolk, a whole lovely buzz going of “Hey, there’s a party tonight!”
Bombay Jayashree sang Carnatic vocal the first night, Jayanthi Kumaresh played the veena the second night (her Raga Shanmukha-priya defied words) and on the third night, when we thought the heights had already been scaled, the finale took us even higher. It was a concert of Car-natic flute by the Sikkil Sisters, Neela and Kunju-mani and Neela’s daughter, Mala Chandrasekhar (google ‘flutemala’ to hear her).
Kunjumani is 81 now and Neela is 71. They played a full concert, spine straight, with everything they had. Young misses in ‘half-saris’ from the music college, boys in veshtis at half-mast, grizzled elders: all lost in wonder as Raga Mohanakalyani swung open God’s gates.
Long ago as young girls who played brilliant duets, the Sikkil Sisters could not bear to be separated from their music. So they married the same man. It was a policy decision. ‘Tashan’ doesn’t begin to describe their dignity and grace. South India completely understood. Sure, why not, when you had such a good reason. And as they all told Ranvir, “You brought this place alive for us!” Credit where credit is due.