Sunday, November 28, 2010

AIKYA: The 2010 Campaign Concert, November 26, 2010

(LONG post alert. No apology!)

AIKYA is a Sanskrit word for harmony, for oneness, for coming together and for merging. When Sowmya and I were hunting for a single word that could bring together the three components of the 2010 Campaign, we stopped at AIKYA. It was perfect.


Sowmya entered the Prajnya community last year with so much enthusiasm and warmth that when we started planning this year's campaign and decided to make a tradition of devoting the first Friday of the campaign to a music concert, we called her without a second thought for help. Two important considerations went into the way AIKYA was conceptualised. First, that we should involve more and more people and get them to think about the issue of gender violence. Second, that we would rather initiate a process than stage an event that people can enjoy and forget about.

At last year's concert, Prajnya had recognized the work of four Chennai organizations working for women’s rights. We remembered that one of them actually organized women’s unions and ran programmes for adolescent girls. We approached Renuka Bala at the Centre for Women’s Development and Research to see if we could train a small group from this large membership to perform at the concert. CWDR was very enthusiastic, taking no time to say yes.

Enthused, Sowmya approached her friend, Sudha Raja. Sudha Raja is one of Chennai’s best-regarded Carnatic music gurus, but as she puts it, if one of her eyes is Carnatic music, the other is a devotion to promoting choral music.

Anyone who has ever sung at a satsang or in a schoolbus en route an excursion or in the school or church choir can attest that singing together with other people is a truly uplifting experience. Hearing one’s voice raised in melody and harmony with others underscores the feeling that you are not alone. You step out of the satsang or the choir, revived and ready to continue your personal journey.

Sudha Raja trained with and sang in M.B. Srinivas’ Madras Youth Choir and then took over as conductor when the eminent musician passed away 22 years ago. In addition to MYC and the newly formed SaReGaa children’s choir, she also trains community organizations and schools across the state. Sudha defied Chennai’s seasonal rains to trek across the city thrice to conduct training sessions for CWDR members.

And what rains! We keep lamenting how inappropriate the global campaign dates are for Chennai programming. Exams and holidays, monsoon and the music season all mitigate against robust public participation in the campaign. And this last year, it has rained like the equatorial regional climate described by geography texts of my childhood. Every week has had a couple of monsoon-like days. And those were usually days that CWDR and Sudha scheduled training sessions! 

Anyway, we also asked Sudha if SaReGaa, the children’s choir she trains, could perform on the day. Founded in August 2010, the choir has over 50 children of ages 5-15 and they already have a full performance behind them. Sudha readily agreed.

The final component of the AIKYA programme was to be a Carnatic music kacheri. Chennai is the capital city of the Carnatic music world, and a gender violence awareness campaign that did not reach out to its afficionados was a job half-done. That was the rationale for including a kacheri last year, and it remained valid this year.

Vidya Kalyanaraman agreed enthusiastically to be part of the campaign and the campaign concert. This very young, rising musician trained with Padma Sandilyan and Suguna Varadhachari. Six years ago, she had already performed at Rashtrapati Bhavan. We were certainly lucky she was happy to sing for Prajnya programme!

That’s the backstory of how this very unusual evening of music was put together! Many phone calls, emails and auto-rides later, we were all at Srinivasa Sastri Hall, Mylapore, and it was show-time!

An evening of uplifting music

A word about Srinivasa Sastri Hall: I first heard of this venue when Sowmya mentioned it. Srinivasa Sastri Hall is located in the building of the South Indian National Association, which also houses the Ranade Library. Three things predisposed me favourably towards this venue. First, the magic word ‘Ranade.’ Those who have known me for a long time know this is special for two reasons. MG Ranade and I are both Elphinstonians. Moreover, I ran Elphi’s Ranade Society for History and Politics for two years. The second was just its historical antecedents. As a very new Chennai organization with a new-to-Chennai Managing Trustee (me), Prajnya is always happy to connect with positive and liberal elements of Chennai’s history. Finally, this was a venue where nationalist meetings took place and this was also a sought-after music venue in the old days. I only saw the hall on November 26, but already liked when I heard about it!

Back the evening itself, which actually began in the afternoon. Sudha Raja and the Snehidhi Singers—as we christened the CWDR group—met early for a dress rehearsal even as the Prajnya team and volunteers set up the hall. The Snehidhi Singers came dressed in maroon sarees and stood out everywhere! By 5 p.m., the first of the ‘podis’ (little ones, Tamils) began to arrive. Their arrival immediately made a festival out of the programme. Exuberant, energetic little presences filled the hall with positive vibrations. By 6 p.m., the hall was packed and the mood reminiscent of a musical gem from another world: Perpetual Motion!

This evening, for a change, Sowmya played MC! Taking an evening off from performing in the run-up to the Margazhi season, she introduced the programme and performers.

The programme began with the children singing. They had already become restless waiting for the clock to strike six. Even before the MC took the mike, Sudha and her colleague Rangashri had to herd them up to stage just to occupy them and use up some of their energy!

To be very honest, most of us in the audience did not know whether to look at the darlings and gush or listen to them and gush. Whatever grown-up cares we brought to Srinivasa Sastri Hall were erased—if only temporarily—by the SaReGaa performance. The children sang:

1.                  Vaarungal Vaarungal
2.                  Shanti Geet
3.                  Raama Janaardhana
4.                  Kuttanaadu
5.                  Ye Waqt ki Aawaaz Hai
6.                  Maitrim Bhajata

Second on stage, the Snehidhi Singers sang joyously, and the ‘Tandanadana Tandanana’ of their Kummi Adi, is still ringing in my ears as I write this. Their performance had joy and dignity and resolve. We only managed a few training sessions, as I wrote earlier, but determination and practice had truly made them perfect. We were all moved but their dedication and discipline; so many of us take opportunities like this for granted.

Music is a gift—whether you are singing or playing an instrument or listening. The Snehidhi Singers, through their resolve and performance, showed that they recognized the value of this gift—perhaps more than many of us who have more opportunitues do. They sang:

1.      Kummi Adi
2.      Odi Vilayaadu
3.      Siru Siru Malarai

The words of the last song, similar to ‘Little drops of water… make the mighty ocean,’ were so appropriate for AIKYA, a programme that brought together girls (and a few boys) and women from different parts of Chennai, different life-stages and singing in different styles to say one simple thing: We will not allow the silence about gender violence to continue. We will talk. We will write. We will organize. We will sing. We will end that silence.

In the strong, sure single voice of Vidya Kalyanaraman, the buzz of the many voices merged—as if particles into essence. Vidya was accompanied by B.Ananthakrishnan on the violin and Kallidaikurichi Shivakumar on the mridangam. She chose to sing songs by women composers, some as well-known as Andal and Ambujam Krishna and others less well-known like Rukmini Raman. She even forsook the traditional Mangalam ending for a song about Hanuman, which was written by a woman.

Carnatic music afficionados attending the concert who were hearing Vidya for the first time were very impressed by her performance. I know I felt a great deal of stress and exhaustion wash away as I closed my eyes and listened to her sing. A few short years from now, not even that long, Prajnya can proudly say: “Oh, Vidya performed at the campaign concert in 2010! She’s an old friend of ours!”

Are you tired of my gushing? There’s only one solution, to come to our programmes so you don’t have to read about them. And if you really couldn’t make it and wish you had, we did record the proceedings and will post here when we figure out what we want to do with the recordings.

PS: Blogger won't let me post pictures in here. Will do so separately. 

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