‘Motivator’ at Mylapore

A question of integrity



MUSICSCAN: Aruna Sairam’s multi-lingual concert for a cause deserves to be repeated in various cities and also at other venues in Chennai.

The task of reviewing Aruna Sairam’s unusual concert in the superb auditorium at the Seva Sadan’s Harrington Road premises is a very intricate one, because the context of the event as well as the performance had many different dimensions, mainly social, cultural, national and spiritual.

The highly-priced concert was organised by a couple of institutions concerned with a pension fund meant for providing a lifeline to languishing musicians — viz., the Interface (described as ‘social investment managers’), and Global Adjustment Services (‘a relocation, realty and cross-cultural services company’).

The event was organised on a grand scale, with special stage settings and coloured lighting effects, and a commentary in English provided by Ranjini Manian, the social service entrepreneur who runs Global Adjustments. Unity in cultural, national and spiritual terms was the theme of the show, and songs in a dozen different languages were featured.

Of course, all Carnatic music vocalists are usually familiar with songs in six languages — the four Southern ones (Telugu, Tamil, Kannada and Malayalam) as well as Sanskrit and Hindi (the last one usually involving ‘bhajans’). Aruna has also consistently rendered abhangs in Marathi in her Carnatic music recitals, and occasionally taken up devotional songs in other Indian languages such as Bengali.

All the languages mentioned above naturally figured in the concert. The singer had only to add the immensely popular national song ‘Vaishnava Janato’ in Gujarati, a Sikh hymn in Punjabi, a traditional musical prayer in Oriya, and an ode to the Virgin Mary in Italian, and presto! The score was a dozen! Among the factors which ensured the authentic tenor of the whole performance were Aruna’s perfect pronunciation of all the selected languages and her earnest and intimate association with various musical cultures and traditions of India, as well as the Gregorian chants of medieval Italy.

Another notable feature of the event was that four Northern musicians, playing the harmonium, tabla, pakhawaj, and a set of minor percussion instruments (such as folk drums, cymbals, bells and jingles, with names like chimta, ghungru and manjira) had been brought over from Mumbai to supplement standard Carnatic instruments, viz., the violin, mridangam and ghatam. This further enhanced the authentic sound of the music drawn from such wide-ranging sources. (There was the Carnatic flute also).

It is difficult to identify any particular song as the highlight of the recital, because all of them were rendered with equal measure of élan and exuberance. However, given the central theme of the concert and the prevailing communal tensions all over the world, one must say that the most moving song was Bharatiyar’s ‘Allah! Allah! Allah!’, said to have been composed by the immortal Tamil poet standing in front of a mosque not far from where he lived, in Chennai.

The spellbinding impact the music seemed to have had on the gathering was an eloquent tribute to Aruna Sairam as a Carnatic musician with universal appeal.

But what about thousands of Aruna’s admirers who turn up regularly at her Carnatic music recitals, and who couldn’t afford this performance? Surely it will be a great idea for the organisers to let some leading Sabhas in Chennai and elsewhere re-enact the show. Of course, that would perhaps mean that the expensive Northern instrumental support cannot be imported. But even with the usual Carnatic instruments — with the addition of just a morsing or kinnaaram — this diva is quite capable of moving the spirit of the listeners. For ultimately it’s a question of the integrity of the music, and not its packaging.

An interface with music

When Carnatic vocalist Aruna Sairam takes the stage for Aikya India 2010, she will not only be regaling music lovers with 12 songs from various Indian languages, but she will also be doing her bit to help ageing, retired and needy accompanying artists from the realm of classical music.

For, the concert hopes to raise funds for Smrutha Dhvani, an initiative of Global Adjustment and The Interface, an NGO.

What is Smrutha Dhvani all about? Usha Sridhar, the moving force behind The Interface, explains, “It is an effort to repay ageing accompanying artists who have contributed immensely to classical music. It is some sort of a pension fund for those who are in their twilight years and need financial assistance. As Ranjani Manian (CEO Global Adjustments) and I got talking about music, we realised that there are many artists who play instruments that are slowing losing their sheen… ghatam, thavil and morsing to name a few. So we decided to set up this fund to help such people. We hope more individuals and corporates join in and contribute to the cause.”

THE CORE GROUP: (from left) Usha Sridhar, Ranjini Manian,Unnikrishnan and Sudharani Raghupathy

The committee for this initiative comprises dancer Sudharani Raghupathy, Ranjani, and Usha with vocalist Unnikrishnan as brand ambassador.

Says Ranjani, “We have always ridden on the shoulders of Indian culture and through this endeavour, we hope to be able to give back to our culture at large and to the artist fraternity, in particular.”

The criteria

There are several criteria for choosing a beneficiary – number of active years, age, financial status and so on. Taking into account these aspects, Interface has chosen three people who will benefit from the funds raised through the Aikya concert.

The first is Ganesan, a tambura artist, who has been playing since the age of eight. He has accompanied many greats such as M.S. Subbulakshmi and Tiger Varadachariar. Says Usha, “We chose him when we discovered that he makes just about Rs. 250 for a show! And that too if the main artist is generous! Besides, the tambura is almost extinct now with electronic sruti boxes taking its place.”

Ghatam vidwan E.M. Subramanian and composer Thanjavur Sankara Iyer are the other two beneficiaries. “We zeroed in on Sankara Iyer as he is dire straits. Also composing for classical music seems to be on the wane.”

The Interface, which was started in 2006, aims to bring together people who need support and people who want to support. Usha says, “Our core competencies are to identify meaningful social causes that need a client’s support, profile them, help build a portfolio, and offer end-to-end tracking of the investment that is made by an individual or a corporate.” It works in several areas such as education, geriatrics, sanitation, women, arts and crafts, and healthcare. Contact The Interface at 98402-28008 or email theinterfaceonline@gmail.com or log on to www.theinterface.in

[The Aikya India 2010 show, co-sponsored by The Standard Chartered Private Bank, will be presented on March 27, 7 p.m., at MVSR Hall, Lady Andal School, Harrington Road, Chetpet. Donor passes (Rs. 2,500, Rs. 1,000, Rs. 500 and Rs. 250) are available at Global Adjustments, No.5, 3rd Main Road, R.A. Puram; Landmark (all outlets); Odyssey (Adyar and R. A. Puram) and Amethyst (Gopalapuram).]

12 languages, one theme…

If the recent ‘Mile Sur Mera Tumhara’ video proved that music is a binding force, so will Aikya India 2010, a musical offering by Global Adjustments. The show that will see the vocal powers of Aruna Sairam blend with the creative eye of Thota Tharrani and the wordplay of Ranjani Manian, will unfold on March 27.

The concert is for a cause, and in this case, it’s Smrutha Dhvani, an initiative of Interface, an NGO, and Global Adjustments, to care for retiring or retired artists in the field of the performing arts.

The format is the brainchild of Aruna Sairam. “Actually, while in college, we used to host what we called the Magic Carpet show, where songs from various Indian languages would find a place. That theme seemed perfect for Aikya India 2010.” This also gives Aruna a chance to showcase a wide repertoire of songs that she has learnt over the years travelling the length and breadth of India.

She recalls, “While living in Rajkot, I once heard a Rajasthani musician sing a local folklore with just an ektara to keep beat. The song moved me so much that I decided to learn it at once.” Similarly, she found herself “in the midst of thousands of devotees during the magnificent Rath Yatra of Puri Jagannath and heard the Oriya bhajan. I managed to get somebody to write down the lyric and learnt it at once. The Bengali bhajan I learnt is sung at Kolkata’s Mahakali temple at 3.30 a.m. daily.”

Melodies such as these from 12 Indian tongues including Sanskrit, Marathi, Telugu, Kannada, Malayalam and of course, Tamil will be presented by Aruna on March 27. As Aruna adds, “The theme is unity in diversity, but the underlying bhava will be bhakti.”

Setting the stage

Lending an aesthetic air to the proceedings will be the simple yet striking stage decoration by Thota Tharrani. “White, the colour of divinity, purity and peace, will envelop the stage. I plan to use letters of the alphabet from various languages to illustrate the theme. And maybe light it from below to create the right atmosphere,” is how Tharrani chooses to describe his vision of the sets. “The set should be such that it does not distract yet complements the music.”

Playing sutradhar will be Ranjani Manian, the moving force behind Global Adjustments. “We have all along been playing cultural connectors to expats and have helped them see India. To that effect, we plan a multimedia presentation of photographs of India as perceived by expats.” There will be eight accompanying artists.

Ranjani will take the audience through Aruna’s songs, and in the process showcase a nation that moves forward in spite of and because of its multi-cultural ethos.

[The Aikya 2010 show, sponsored by The Standard Chartered Bank, will be presented on March 27, 7 p.m., at MVSR Hall, Lady Andal School, Harrington Road, Chetpet. Donor passes (Rs. 2,500, Rs. 1,000, Rs. 500 and Rs. 250) are available at Global Adjustments, No.5, 3rd Main Road, R.A. Puram; Landmark (all outlets); Odyssey (Adyar and R. A. Puram); Chamiers; and Amethyst (Gopalapuram). Book online at www.indianstage.in. For details, call 98800 36611.]

A novel way to re-launch!

CHENNAI: When the eminent artist Thota Tharrani finished his artwork — a swaying Indian belle setting free a dove, reaching out to a silvery moon above — in just 30 minutes, the silence that prevailed till then broke out and the sounds of admiration filled the lounge of Courtyard by Marriott on Friday. The painting is to be used as the cover page of a magazine Culturama, which is being re-launched this March by Global Adjustments, an organisation that offers various services for expatriates.

It was previously being published as At A Glance.

The audience exclaimed in awe when Tharrani gave the final touches for the painting, which depicts India promoting peace in the world.
Beginning with yellow (a tradition for the artist), he filled the rest of the canvas in warm hues of orange, burgundy, white and black.

Indian music maestro Padmashri Aruna Sairam began the functionwith an invocation song and the US Consul General Andrew Simkin handed over the black marker to Thota Tharrani to begin the event.

Initially, there was silence as the audience concentrated on each stroke of the artist as a piano played Indian ragas in the background. Tharrani told the audience to feel free to talk, as he had often painted with children running around him, and once when a dog chased a cat. The Global Adjustments crew thanked the artist and honoured all the team members who were behind the production of Culturama.

An evening of art and conversations

From Manhattan to Mylapore

Joanne Huskey, author of ‘The Unofficial Diplomat’, and one-time Chennai resident, on her work with physically challenged children in the city. CHITHIRA VIJAYKUMAR writes

She was a professional clown in a circus, a mime in Paris and a masked theatre performer. But her travels from the streets of China to the jungles of Kenya were in a rather different capacity — as the wife of a U. S. diplomat.

A glance at the events that transpired in these countries while she lived there reads much like a list of the ‘Events that Changed the World’. There’s the Tiananmen Square massacre, the bombing of the embassies in Kenya, and the September 11 attacks in the U.S.

This is the stuff stirring autobiographies are made of; enough to make any literary agent swoon with delight. And Joanne Grady Huskey penned it all, from Manhattan to Mylapore, and New Jersey to Nairobi, in her memoir The Unofficial Diplomat.

“When I looked back on hiding in the basement of the Nairobi Embassy as bombs went off around us, I knew I had to make sense of it all. The trauma helped me realise how little we understand each other.” And the journal that she diligently kept let her revisit exactly what she had been feeling through it all.

In the fall of 1993, Joanne Grady and Jim Huskey, their four-week old daughter and a three-year-old son moved to Chennai. For the next three years, Joanne worked with the physically challenged, acted, danced, and did theatre — up to and including a Neil Simon play the night before the Huskies left India.

“Sometimes, the present has a tendency of erasing the past. I have seen it happen — governments and people sweeping inconvenient histories under the rug, pretending it didn’t happen. And having lived through some of these inconvenient moments, I thought they should be recorded, and I have to tell those stories.”

“Ignorance about a culture breeds distrust, breeds hatred,” she said. In the book, at some point during her stay in Chennai, she writes how she realised why the U. S. is looked upon as a hegemonic, arrogant state, as the controversy over the NPT treaty raged. “I realised the logic of the arguments of people here,” she said, “and I was free to express it, unlike Jim, whose every statement could be construed as U.S. policy.”

She worked to bring the physically challenged into the visual arts. This meant dancers in wheelchairs, and theatre for the deaf, as part of ‘Very Special Arts’, a committee she started in the city. “It is a way of bringing them into the mainstream, which also becomes a way of rehabilitation.” She would then take VSA to China, with the eminent politician Deng Xiaoping’s son, Deng Pufang — “who had been thrown out of a window during the cultural revolution.” — and then to more than 50 other countries.

Starting a school

“When I first came,” Joanne said, “there wasn’t a school here which taught a western curriculum.” Realising this was a disincentive for several families considering a move to Chennai, since most would eventually return home to finish school, the blueprints for a school were drawn up. In September 1995, the American International School of Madras opened its doors to its eighteen students. “Ironically,” a passage in her book reads, “in those early post–Cold War days, the rooms we found to rent were in the Russian Cultural Center!” That initiative would later grow into the American International School of Chennai, with more than 800 students.

In her first few months in India, as the Irish woman battled personal crises, the oppressive heat, and her homesickness, there came a moment of astonishment. “If I, with all my contacts, was finding it so difficult here, what about people who didn’t have the luxury of connections?” And that was the beginning of Global Adjustments, a venture she co-founded with Ranjini Manian. “We take care of everything for foreigners new to the city — finding homes, learning the language, finding schools for your children — everything. Leaving you to discover India,” she smiled. And now, fifteen years later, what started as a two-woman show has blossomed into a nationwide enterprise, with 60 employees in seven cities, besides a tie-up with the Women’s Leadership Board at Harvard. “We weren’t sure if we would even last fifteen months,” said Ranjini Manian. “The next few years we’re going to concentrate on bringing about cultural and gender intelligence amongst people, nations. We’d like to think we’ve come full circle — we’re going to help India re-root itself, become aware of its own strengths.”

And now, looking back, does Joanne think it would have been easier to have become the official diplomat? “I’m blessed that I wasn’t the official diplomat!” she laughs. “It gave me so much freedom, not having to represent a country, and being able to speak my mind.”

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