My Random Thoughts on the 1995 Cleveland Festival

Although the Cleveland Thyagaraja festival happened about two months ago, it is only now that I have had the opportunity to pen my thoughts about this remarkable festival which I attended for the first time. This is not exactly a concert review but a little story of my visit to the grey city.

When I first arrived in USA (from Australia), the first thing that struck me was the size of things. Every thing seemed so big. The cars, the roads, the airports, the malls were all much bigger than what I was accustomed to. The Cleveland festival was no exception. In Sydney, to band together a troupe of Carnatic musicians for a single concert takes a big effort, but in Cleveland they had got together twenty-five artistes from India performing eight concerts in succession. And the organisers did not merely have to cater for the musicians, they had the mammoth task of feeding 1500 or so visitors. One more thing - it was all free.

I arrived in Cleveland (from Atlanta) on Good Friday and made my way to the Comfort Inn which was opposite Cleveland State University (the venue for the festival). It was like stepping into the foyer of the Music Academy, Madras. There were quite a few musicians around (some of whom I knew vaguely) and lots of other Indians (none of whom I knew). The familiar words of Tamil floating around the motel made me feel quite at home.

Not wasting too much time I introduced myself to V V Sundaram (a key festival organiser), whose brother (Ramesh) I know well in Sydney, and volunteered my services. I was taken to the home of Smt Gomathi & Sri R Balasubramaniam. The place looked like a marriage party had struck it. Dozens of shoes lay outside. The kitchen was full of food. The lounge room filled with women and men (including violinist Kanyakumari) making flower garlands and the phone was continuously ringing. The shouts across the room included:

"Who can go to the airport?"

"What room number is Srinivas in?"

"Who wants coffee?"

I had missed the music competition which took place earlier and some of the musicians present were discussing the talents of some of the local youngsters too. I was introduced to many of those present but the barrage of newcomers was too much for my memory to keep up with.

Young volunteers continued to stream in for preparation for the next day's feast. A large truck was loaded with items to take to the hall already. I met a few of the volunteers - most of whom were students from India studying at CSU and soon we were on our way back to the university to unload the truck and set up the kitchen. I was driving on the wrong side of the road, in a rented car, in a city I had never seen before. Thankfully with some direction (from Srinidhi and Hema) I made it (safely) to the university.

We fetched some carts and set off to unload the truck but found that the cafeteria (the venue for the feast) was locked. Some more waiting for security ensued before we began the task of unloading the truck under the direction of Rajesh Shetye. Boxes of plates, napkins, cups, cutlery, sugar, coffee, potato chips, cylinders of Coca Cola, pots and pans, etc. were wheeled out in preparedness for the feast. It was great to see so many students (some of whom had little interest in music) eagerly assisting. I think it was well past 10 pm before we left the hall after setting up tables and chairs for the next day.

I made my way back to the Comfort Inn and to my room and I could still hear Tamil. Vittal Ramamurthy's familiar voice was ringing through the walls. I decided to give him a call and before long both he and Bombay Jayashri surprised me by coming to chat in my room.

"You look different" they said. (I had already changed in my pyjamas ready for bed when they came!) I asked them if they liked the States. They had preceded me here from Australia by a few weeks.

"We liked Australia better ... Life there is like India with all the comforts. It is a little too mechanical here."

Somehow I agreed but then again we don't have a Cleveland festival in Australia.


The next morning I got up early and had my shower. U. Srinivas and his Dad were in the other room next to me so I decided against singing in the shower. After a quick coffee with the Hyderabad Brothers, I made my way to CSU at about 7 am. There were already people there cooking and making more arrangements. I shuttled between the auditorium and cafeteria trying to make myself useful.

The festival started a little after 8 am with poojas and bhajans. The musicians and devotees of music continued to filter in. Before long, the rendition of the Pancharatna krithis had begun. Local artistes sat alongside the visiting professionals in respect to Saint Thyagaraja. Probably the coordination of the musicians could have been better but that is difficult to help when artistes come from all over the North America and India to participate.

After this first dose of music, it was back to the kitchen for me. I was made a waiter to the artistes.

"You're from Sydney. Sydney, Australia?, " mridangist KV Prasad asked.

"So you've come all the way for the festival and you are in the kitchen ???"

Better than simply standing around I thought. It was a mammoth effort and every vacant hand was needed. Even violinists Radhika and KS Mani (from New Jersey - formerly Australia) were busy heating potato bondas and mixing more curd rice in the kitchen. Sure organising a concert with visas, the accommodation, the venues, and the sound is difficult but catering for two thousand is huge. The meal too was rather elaborate. Hats off to the hard workers behind the scenes.

After the lunch, the main work was over. The rest was mainly music. I have provided a list of the items rendered as a separate posting. We had concerts by Ramani and the Hyderabad brothers. The first concert was a solid Ramani performance. Atul Kumar's Madhyamavathi alapana was reminiscent of his grand-dad's rendition on one of the prerecorded cassettes. The latter concert by the brothers from Secunderbad lasted for about four hours with the dynamic duo presenting a host of beautifully presented javalis and padams at the end. Unfortunately the thani avaratanam was interrupted by a message announcing that the fire alarm had gone off in the adjacent hall. It was (like previous years) a false alarm. It was nice to see that some of the teenage girls (from Toronto) taking a keen interest in the concerts and notating the repertoires. I believe it was the same girls (under the guidance of Smt Bala Narasimhan) who scooped the talent competition prizes.

The next morning Bombay Jayashri gave a concert. She and her accompanists seemed a little tense with the other senior musicians sitting in the front row and perhaps she didn't perform to the best of her ability. Her Enduku peddala (Sankarabharanam) was great though.

That afternoon I met some of the fellow rmic-ers. It was quite unusual meeting people who you had only met via the internet. I (like most others) had a preconceived idea of how some of the other people looked and often this didn't match with reality. Some of the students from Purdue University had some nametags to identify themselves as rmic-ers. We managed to get together a group of about ten and take a photo which will probably appear on some Web page soon. In years to come a small stall (manned during the breaks) should be set up so that more of us can get to know each other. I am sure there were many more netters present. Over the next few days I got to know some of the people who remained in Cleveland a little longer like Mani Vembar, Praveen Dala, Shrivas and Nandu a little better. Some of us sat together in the other concerts and tried to guess what raga or piece would come next.

The U. Srinivas concert of the evening was delightful - the best concert so far I thought. It had been a while since I heard Srinivas. After the Hamsadhwani, Sri and Pantuvarali pieces I thought it would be a mediocre performance but to his credit Srinivas produced a serene Sama (Santamuleka) and a magical Kambhoji (Evarimata) that really lifted the concert to dizzying heights. His concluding korvai was very well constructed. The Vakulabharanam RTP was a little hard for me to appreciate as I haven't really heard this ragam much but the ragamalika kalpana swaras were fantastic. The way he weaved Nalinakanthi around "S G R M G R S N" was enthralling. Rasikapriya was a real tester for the raga guessers. Kanyakumari kept up all the way too and Srimushnam Raja Rao played much better than he did the previous evening with Ramani.

Over the next few days, the atmosphere in Cleveland was much more relaxed. Most of the interstate visitors had left and those who remained were mainly the Cleveland locals, the die-hard music lovers and the musicians. Unfortunately the number of volunteers also dwindled due to work commitments and yet twenty-five artistes still had to be looked after. S. Krishnamurthy (Kannan) really worked very hard to cater to the artistes needs. His van (or rather taxi) was always full with people.

Since I was staying at the same place as the artistes and I had a car to my disposal, I was asked to drive the artistes to lunch (and have lunch too). It was a great opportunity to get to know artistes like Jayanthi Krishnan and Padmavathy mami, Ganesh & Kumaresh, KV Prasad, Balaji, Dr N Ramani and Atul Kumar. All of them seemed very polite and friendly.

The Monday evening concerts started with Tanjavur Sankara Iyer. His concert was very interesting and educative. Although his voice is not in good condition, the music he offered made up for this. The way he presented raga alapanas and kalpana swaras was indeed unique. Although the alapanas were short, they offered the essence of the ragas, presented in a concise fashion and the way he zig-zagged his kalpana swaras was very nice! Though quite different, it somehow reminded me of M D Ramanathan's music.

The concert by Ganesh and Kumaresh was surprisingly good. The first half of the concert, culminating with a grand Thodi alapana by Ganesh and the krithi Dasarathe, was full of depth and maturity. However, the RTP in Amritavarshini failed to impress. Still the work of the mami's who prepared food was not complete. The yogurt rice served back stage after the concert was much appreciated.

Tuesday's veena duet by Smt Padmavathy Ananthagopalan and her niece Jayanthy Krishnan was in my opinion the best concert of the festival. It was a concert that would appeal to those who like grace, class and classicism in music. I particularly loved the Surutti (Angarakam), the RTP (Shanmukhapriya - alapana by Jayanthi) and the Sankarabharanam. After the Pallavi I was expecting some lighter pieces but soon came a brilliant Sankarabharanam alapana (by Smt Padmavathy). The execution of the kalpana swaras where Jayanthi played Tisra nadai phrases and her guru played sarva laghu was delightful. Narendran also played very well and impressed his fellow mridangists in the audience.

The final concert on Wednesday was by Smt Nirmala Sunderarajan (disciple of TM Thyagarajan and T Brinda) and the youngsters Kalpana Kishore on violin and Balaji on mridangam. Her rendition of the javalis and padams were especially polished.

And so, with the rendition of Thyagarajaswami's "Gitartamu sangitanandamu" in Surutti and mangalam, the Cleveland Thyagaraja festival of 1995 came to close. Next year's festival starts on April 6th 1996 it will feature a dance drama composed by Tanjavur Sankara Iyer and N Ravikiran.

All in all it was a memorable week. I envy those who live close by and can afford to attend year after year. The quality music, the dignified musicians, the hardworking and dedicated volunteers and the wonderful friends I made all contributed to the remarkable experience that will stay fresh in my mind for many years to come.

Mohan Ayyar