Hindu Festival of Sacred Music starts this weekend

We preview this weekend's Festival of Sacred Music, which is giving a contemporary spin on a temple town's musical heritage.

Violinists perform in the Chettiar Chathram, a performance space in Thiruvaiyaru, Tamil Nadu.
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South Indian or Carnatic music has a hoary history that dates back to the Vedas, ancient Sanskrit works that form the foundation of the Hindu religion. This music flowered in the 18th century around the temple towns of Tamil Nadu when three composers - Thyagaraja, Muthuswami Dikshitar and Syama Sastry - created hundreds of songs in praise of Hindu deities.

The devout Thyagaraja, arguably the most famous of the three, composed thousands of songs in praise of Rama, the hero of the Hindu epic, Ramayana. Most of the Thyagaraja kritis (songs) have the plaintive devotion of Sufi music and are filled with pleas and questions about faith and redemption.

The temple town of Thiruvaiyaru is perhaps the nucleus for lovers of South Indian music. Every January, musicians crowd into this small town and sing the Pancharatna (five gems) songs composed by Thyagaraja. India's top musicians sit side-by-side with novices and for a few days, musical hierarchies are ignored as violinists, singers, drummers and devotees sing in memory of the composer regarded as a saint, who has a small shrine in the town.

Recently, the Prakriti Foundation, a Chennai-based charity, gave a contemporary spin to the musical heritage of this town by organising the annual Festival of Sacred Music. Founded by the businessman Ranvir Shah, the festival seeks to preserve India's cultural heritage and inheritance, and to encourage rural tourism. "It is not only the concerts that are important but also heritage preservation," says Shah. "We want to explore identity through history, heritage, art and cultural expression."

The bespectacled Shah, clad in traditional Indian kurta-pyjamas and handwoven shawl, is emblematic of the new breed of Indians - at home and abroad - who take pride in delving deep into their heritage while seamlessly navigating the global world of arts and letters. As an example, one of the musicians whom Shah has invited to perform this year is Phillipe Bruguière, an ethnomusicologist from Paris, who plays the rudra veena, India's oldest music instrument, which is on the verge of disappearing simply because few contemporary musicians play it.

Accompanying Bruguière on the mridangam drum is the London-born jazz musician and composer John Boswell, who has learnt several Indian percussion instruments. Monks from the Drepeng Loseling monastery in Atlanta, Georgia, will chant invocations to the force of goodness, melodies to deny the ego, and perform black hat dances on the first day.

The remaining two days of the three-day festival have a selection of intriguing performances. The second day begins with a nadaswaram recital by Mylai S Mohan from Chennai. The nadaswaramis akin to a trumpet and is played during South Indian weddings to connote good fortune. Very few musicians play the nadaswaram in concert halls, which makes Mohan's concert all the more unusual. Following this, Asima is an all-male choir from Kerala that uses chanting and percussion instruments to create music that blends the ancient with the contemporary.

The last day of the festival begins with a concert of Sopana Sangeetham by Ambalapuzha Vijayakumar, also from Kerala. Sopana refers to the sacred steps leading to the holy of holies in Hindu temples. The plaintive notes and simple tunes of this music are supposed to lead devotees to higher planes of spiritual ardour. Vijayakumar comes from a family of sopana musicians who have performed in Kerala temples for generations.

The showstopper of the festival is expected to be a concert by Sudha Raghunathan, arguably the best singer in Carnatic music. Raghunathan travels all over the world for concerts, but her music is rooted in the classical traditions of Carnatic music — no fusion or experiments for her.

The Festival of Sacred Music in Thiruvaiyaru runs from Friday to Sunday. All concerts take place after sundown, when visitors congregate on the banks of the river Cauvery, clad in their cotton saris and white dhotis, and listen to sacred music reverberate through the air.