The Sacred River:
a Festival of Carnatic Music, its dance, and Flamenco
by Rajika Puri, New York

Feb 2001

The festival programme this year represents a dream of five years - Aruna Sairam as the fulcrum of three days of music in which Carnatic music and pure, classical, Flamenco - in the person of a magnificently sensitive and brilliant guitarist, David Serva - would meet, while his wife Clara and I would create improvised movement strategies to complement the music. I wanted it to be at a magical and sacred spot - and we were fortunate to be able to organise it at Maheshwar on the banks of the Narbada - meeting point of south and north India, under the aegis of Lord Shiva, Devi Rani Ahilyabai Holkar, the ancestor of Richard Holkar and the townspeople of Maheshwar, particularly the weavers of Rehwa Society the driving force of which is still Sally Holkar.

We did it! - Mahadev, (i.e. Lord Shiva) and his 'workers' Richard Holkar, and I. ‘The Sacred River' was a stupendous success, and will probably never be recreated as magically and perfectly, (though our sound systems will improve as the lighting and stage, too!! I hope).
DAY ONE: We began in the morning with a Lecture on Carnatic music and how the dance music was allied to it. Then in the evening, the performances began with a Carnatic music recital. Aruna sang like a dream as we were silhouetted against the sky at sunset and overlooking the Rehwa (or Narbada) river. Facing the SHIVA temple from one end of the ramparts, after an initial shloka to The Sacred River (Music) to which I moved, she sang a 70 min rendition of one of the most beautiful Carnatic ragas: Todi - a favourite of Shiva's.

Then we moved down to the courtyard and, facing a gallery which overlooked the river, with a magnificent elephant frieze behind us (an excellent resounder, as it happens), we did the Movement and Music portion - a Ram Geetam (based on an old composition from the dance repertoire), "Mahadeva Shiva Shambhu", after which Aruna sang a couple of lighter pieces, including a fabulous Marathi abhang, and we ended with an unusual Tillana which describes Krishna fighting with Kaliya - using bols, and rap-like couplets at times.
Aruna Sairam, Rajika Puri
Photo courtesy: Mukesh Munim
The only lighting was from several diyas (the bugs simply got fried on the lights and it tasted like a fish frying market for a while!) - so though you couldn't quite see my facial expressions, the atmosphere itself was perfect for music (and you could always imagine the subtlety of abhinaya - even if it weren't there!!!)

DAY TWO: Started with a lecture on Flamenco (audience of Kalidas - critic of India Today and a music scholar, Sunil Kothari, & Premshankar Jha, as well as a foreign contingent which included Mary McFadden, the NY designer who had done a piece for the Golden Eye exhibit during the Festival of India, and who had designed costumes for one of Muzzaffar Ali's films), a German couple of India aficionados / musicians, Lekha Poddar, Sunita Kohli, the designer, Peter Stern of the World Monument Fund, Martand Singh,et al. Second half of the evening, lit a bit better, was a meeting between Aruna and David Serva the flamenco guitarist accompanied by his son, Pablo (a wonderful percussionist who had miraculously been sent by the Spanish Government to perform in New Delhi only ten days before his father and Clara arrived in Mumbai!!!)
Thus started my "CARNATIC-FLAMENCO' dream concerts.
Aruna sang a Kshetrayya padam - something that is so slow and generally not even enjoyed in Madras (oops, Chennai) anymore done to a Solea rhythm with the guitar also accompanying in the harmonies, rhythms, and melodies of SOLEA (one of the most dignified and deep of Flamenco song forms). She then sang a Tamil folk song, which Pablo and David did in ‘Bulerias' rhythms and chords, among other things. We ended with a TANGOS in which Clara and I added movement and dance sections.
Photo courtesy: Rajika Puri
DAY THREE was an off-day, when we all sat down and looked for strategies to do a meeting of two great southern traditions of music and dance - including the wonderful violinist, B. Raghavendra Rao, and percussionist, N. Ramakrishnan.
DAY FOUR: A 75-minute concert of a blend of the two traditions that was SUPERB!! Simply SUPERB. Aruna is such a consummate singer and Carnatic musician, and David such a brilliant guitarist and Flamenco musician, and Pablo a delicate percussionist, not to mention two young south Indian musicians - the percussionist and violinist - that they simply took us to heaven. The blend worked not only for us sophisticates The three hundred Maheshwaris - weavers and families, shopkeepers who had heard the buzz, people from Indore and from across the river - kept coming closer and closer, beating time with us when requested, and generally showing their delight at what was going on.
David Serva
We ended up with FIVE major pieces, sandwiched between a Shloka to Shiva (a dancer's shloka actually: "Angikam bhuvanam...." - Clara's idea, which she also did in Flamenco style) and a Shloka that Aruna's great friend, supporter, and musical right hand, Rajagopal, found for us in honour of the Narbada / Rewa from the Narmada Ashtakam by Maheshwarananda Saraswati of the Kashi Shankaracharya Peeth.

The first offering was a danced version of what we now call "Payyada por Solea', then an Alegrias in which the melody (since this time we had no Flamenco singer) was carried by the violin who did amazing, gypsy-like things. This led into a Bulerias in which everyone 'jammed' including the two percussionists, the two melodic instruments, and of course Aruna doing all sorts of variations on the folk song she had chosen to sing to the Bulerias rhythm.

Clara then did an exquisite dance to Aruna singing a folk song, a 'kaavadi Chinna" (?) while Raghavendra Rao, the violinist, played delicate pizzicato. We then ended in an extended version of the Tangos from the night before - in which Ramakrishnan, the versatile and wonderful percussionist stole the show even as he had such fun with Pablo Martin, the young percussion phenomenon who had spent his ten 'dead' days in Mumbai studying with a mridangam teacher!

The audience was in bliss, I think Shiva inside his temple a hundred yards away was pleased, and the musicians just couldn't be happier.

WISH, WISH, WISH, more of my dance colleagues could have been there - even if you would have had to survive extremely dry, dusty, hot and tiring conditions. Our food was excellent, the people of Maheshwar so warm and supportive - drivers, waiters, paan walas- priests in temple and of course all Richard's staff from the fort and from the Rehwa Weaving Society. And The Sacred River of music did indeed bless us as the river Kaveri and the Rio Guadalquivir met on her sacred banks.