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A Varnam in Jaffna

The northern Province of Sri Lanka is slowly emerging from its three-decade long nightmare.

TM Krishna is the first major Indian musician to travel to Sri Lanka’s Northern Province in nearly three decades,there he found a community still holding on to their music

The northern Province of Sri Lanka is slowly emerging from its three-decade long nightmare. An active cultural calendar is an early sign of “normalcy” returning to any conflict-ridden region. And earlier this month,Carnatic vocal maestro TM Krishna performed three concerts in the Northern Province and one in Colombo. Performances by Carnatic musicians from India are regular in Colombo. However,Krishna’s recitals in Jaffna,Kilinochchi and Vavuniya was the first tour of the Northern Province by an Indian musician since the war started. The last Indian musician to perform there was Carnatic musician ML Vasanthakumari,in 1983,who had to abandon her tour midway due to unrest.

In a gesture of goodwill,the Indian High Commission of Sri Lanka and the Indian Cultural Centre,Colombo,organised this concert tour. Its idea was born in Colombo last year where Krishna had gone to perform in the memory of Neelan Thiruchelvam,the MP who was assassinated by a LTTE suicide bomber. Ashok Kantha,the Indian ambassador to Sri Lanka was in the audience. He suggested a tour of the Northern Province to Krishna,who accepted. Kantha might have made the request solely on the basis of Krishna’s superlative musical skills; more likely,he knew that Krishna would be a befitting harbinger of a cultural revival in the Northern Province.

Krishna is no stranger to breaking boundaries. He is often seen as a maverick in the rigid world of Carnatic music. He has attempted changes in the structure of a vocal recital: a varnam that is usually sung at the start of a recital is often his central piece around which he improvises for an hour. He has presented a ragam thanam pallavi that traditionally comes at a later stage in a performance,within 10 minutes of his recital. These attempts have attracted criticism,but Krishna is unfazed. In his eyes,he is a classicist. “There are two distinct parts to music — one is the music itself and the other is the performance of it. The performance is only a reflection of the music. I don’t understand why we need to obsess about the structure of the performance,surely,it cannot be more important than the music. As long as I am faithful to the raga that I am singing,musically that is,why should a change in its mode of presentation compromise it?” he says.

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Krishna has brought about changes in the in the lyrics of the composition as well. Most Carnatic compositions have religious (and Hindu-centric) lyrics; Krishna wants to expand the repertoire by introducing compositions with secular lyrics. “Of course,I cannot not sing Thyagaraja’s compositions,they are too beautiful for me to do that,” he says,“But why not include secular,non-Hindu lyrics as well? Just like we have compositions about the virtues of Rama,why can’t we have one that talks about the beauty of Chennai? At times,I like to sing lyrics that directly relate to our lives.”

Krishna did exactly that in his concert in Jaffna on October 2. He opened with a composition that extolled the greatness of the Mahatma and his principle of ahimsa. The impact was profound: the invocation of ahimsa in his first rendition in the war-ravaged city struck a poignant note in the sold-out auditorium. The composition was in Tamil; Krishna performed only Tamil compositions in the Northern Province. In a region where language has been vested with political currency and has been at the root of divisive politics,his decision was significant. “I made the conscious choice to not sing Sinhala compositions in the Northern Province (which he did in Colombo). I did not go there only as a musician,there was a humanitarian aspect to the tour. And given the present state of their psyche,I wanted to reinforce their cultural moorings,reinforce the pride that they take in Tamil,” he says. But doesn’t he feel that singing in both Sinhala and Tamil would have carried a message of harmony? “Bridge building is not my job,” he says,“that is for the politicians to do. I felt it was more important to boost their morale and give them a sense of cultural belonging.”

Jaffna,before the war,was an important centre of Carnatic music and regularly hosted musicians from India. However,Tamil Nadu and Jaffna,despite the 20 miles that separate them,have never been considered culturally monolithic. This is primarily because Carnatic music in Jaffna has always been Tamil-centric,to the extent that “it is referred to as Tamil Classical Music there,” says Krishna. In Tamil Nadu,compositions in Telugu and Sanskrit,among other languages,prevail alongside Tamil compositions. This had never been a hindrance to the flow of Indian Carnatic musicians to Jaffna,until the war broke out and ML Vasanthakumari cut short her trip. Since then,a generation has grown up without ever having listened to a performance by an Indian musician.

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Yet,as Krishna discovered,the youth of Jaffna have not let go of their cultural legacy. While he was in Jaffna,he visited the Ramanathan Academy,a music school,to address students who were unable to attend the recital the previous evening (transportation in Jaffna is challenging; it is difficult for young students to travel in the evening). “I was expecting about 45 students. But when I reached there,I saw around 400 of them waiting for me. And they were like children anywhere else — smiling,curious — you couldn’t tell that they have been through those horrors,” says Krishna. He faced a group of students who were virtually unexposed to cultural events that we take for granted — recitals,lectures,workshops. Yet they were not in a vacuum,instead they engaged him in an intelligent conversation about Carnatic music. “It is unbelievable,even amidst what they have gone through that they have held on to their music,” says Krishna.

Even in Kilinochchi,one of the worst affected towns of the Northern Province and the one-time de-facto capital of the LTTE,Krishna saw the city’s love for music. He sang to about 150 listeners,a considerable number under the circumstances. The highest point of his tour awaited him at the end of the concert. Krishna recounts,“When I finished singing,an elderly gentleman came up to me. I could see that he had tears in his eyes. He told me that he has not felt happier after an event in the last 30 years. I may win many awards in life,but nothing can mean more to me than those words.” The elderly gentleman was probably one of several hundreds in the Northern Province who found hope in Krishna’s recitals. Hopefully,this tour will herald a cultural spring in a region where children still cannot easily find transport to reach concerts.

Arunabha Deb is a Kolkata-based freelance journalist

First published on: 16-10-2011 at 09:46:08 pm
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