Business News/ Opinion / Online-views/  Tuning in to change

Artist Sudarshan Shetty and I are sitting on the steps of the Pushya Mahal ghat in Thiruvaiyaru town and chatting. The river Cauvery, so resonant to us south Indians, is flowing in front of us. Flowing is an overstatement. There are islands of sand in between large puddles of water.

Behind us, art collector Lekha Poddar sits on the steps and photographs the scene. Shetty’s wife, Seema, a Bharatanatyam dancer, is beside her. Art critic S. Kalidas is standing nearby. The group has spent the day visiting the nearby temples, including Darasuram, which in my view is one of the best-preserved temples in Tamil Nadu.

Shetty waxes eloquent about the stone carvings in the temple and the fine examples of Chola architecture. “You know what I felt when I saw Darasuram temple?" he asks. “I felt proud. Because it is mine."

Dual approach: The Festival of Sacred Music is attempting to revive the temple town of Thiruvaiyaru. Photo: C Ganesan

“So what are you looking at these days?" I ask Poddar.

“Indian terracotta," she replies. Can I print this, I ask, imagining hordes of collectors veering towards terracotta simply because India’s grand dame of art is collecting it. Poddar nods off-handedly. “Sure," she says. We break off because a woman from Coorg is giving an inspired speech in front of us.

Standing knee-deep in the water and holding aloft a plastic bottle like the Statue of Liberty, or Bharat Mata, she urges the gathered crowd not to pollute the Cauvery.

“I come from Kodagu, where the Cauvery is born," she says in a choked voice. “So please, don’t pollute this holy river."

It is about 9pm. We walk up the steps to view the performance behind us. A tall lanky man gives an introduction in a faint Australian accent. Kalidas tells me that he is Devissaro, a classical pianist married to dancer Daksha Sheth. Devissaro has brought Asima, an all-male vocal and percussion troupe from Kerala to perform for the Festival of Sacred Music (2-4 March)—which is the reason we are all there.

Chennai-based Prakriti Foundation holds this festival every year. Friends from Bangalore have driven to Thanjavur. Others fly into Chennai or Trichy and motor down to Thanjavur. Most of us stayed at Hotel Gnanam, comfortable if soulless for Rs1,500 per night. The festival is held in Thiruvaiyaru, a holy town on the banks of the Cauvery where Saint Thyagaraja, one of the “divine trinity" of Carnatic music composers, lived and worked. Every January, thousands of musicians from Chennai, including heavyweights like T.M. Krishna, Bombay Jayashri, Aruna Sairam and Sudha Raghunathan (all of whom have sung at the Festival of Sacred Music, incidentally), gather for the Thyagaraja Aradhana and sing his Pancharatna Kritis in a group.

The Festival of Sacred Music is attempting to revive this temple town through rural tourism. The hope is to bring in more people and offer them music, temples and later, home stays. The audience that evening is both global and local. Delhi-based Michael Pelletier, the minister-counselor for public affairs at the US embassy in Delhi, has come with his wife Sujatha—a Chennai girl whose father, Manohar Devadoss, created wonderful pen-and-ink drawings for his affectionate book on Madurai. There is a tall Dutch man, Robert, who plans to ride to Amsterdam on his Enfield Bullet motorbike; musicians from France, London and Amsterdam; Shetty, Kalidas, and Poddar.

There is a young fashion crowd from Chennai: fashion-show choreographer Sunil Menon; a young model named Sahitya; fashion designers Venkat Nilakantan and Raji Anand, who make us all laugh with their acerbic observations and biting wit, all delivered in superb Chennai Tanglish, now made popular thanks to Kolaveri. There is V. R. Devika, whom we all worship from afar for her knowledge of history and crafts. At the Thanjavur museum, Devika makes the Nataraja statues come alive for us with her tales.

I used to look up to her while at college and here she is now, still clad in her khadi blouses and cotton saris, all bought from craftspeople in Kanchipuram. We take bus rides together, singing Tamil and Hindi songs, through the verdant paddy fields of Thanjavur. We drink at night and relive our college days.

The evening concerts are alive with pretty young local girls in long skirts, braided hair and jasmine flowers. They love Asima’s contemporary rendition of Kabir and Kerala folk songs. It is a nice change from the Carnatic music they are used to. Sitting in the back, Shetty, Kalidas and I are a bit less charitable. We spot mistakes in their sur as they sing the Darbari Kanada.

Earlier that week, Shetty and I had lunch together at GallerySKE in Bangalore.

Shetty’s gallerist, Sunitha Kumar Emmart, had sent over a home-cooked seven-course spread including delicacies like bisibele bhath, jowar rotis, and kosambari.

“Try the rotis," says Shetty. “Sunitha’s cook does a terrific job."

Shetty’s father, Adve Vasu Shetty, was an acclaimed Yakshagana artiste who could hold audiences spellbound with his renditions of Vali and Sugreeva. “I find the aesthetic strategies of that form—Yakshagana—compelling," says Shetty. “You have to hold your audience through your ability to elaborate on what you are thinking and playing."

In Mumbai, Shetty grew up in a culturally rich, if materially poor household, with visiting Yakshagana musicians and performers who interacted with him and his sisters. When I comment on his fluent Kannada, Shetty says he went to a Kannada-medium school and speaks Konkani with his wife Seema at home. Being poor while young was a gift, he says, because it allowed him to take risks. There was nothing to lose.

Shetty is the second person who has extolled the virtues of being poor while young to me. But money has its uses, he says, because it allows you to dream big.

Shetty’s monumental public installation, Flying Bus, now stands in the Maker Maxity complex at the mouth of the Bandra Kurla Complex in Mumbai. Over lunch, Shetty told me that his father had to confront philosophical questions about Ram’s deceit while killing Vali and make it come alive for his audience. What would Vali think and say, asks Shetty rhetorically. The same could apply to his bus: Why would a flying bus think?

Stuck in traffic, flying buses make eminent sense to Shoba Narayan. Write to her at

Also Read | Shoba’s previous Lounge columns

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Updated: 30 Mar 2012, 09:17 PM IST
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