Harikesanallur – After the muses fled

If the English alphabet were to be taught children with Carnatic music words, H would always stand for Harikesanallur, though one must admit that finding terms for X and Z would be difficult.

The man who put Harikesanallur on the map was of course Muthiah Bhgavatar and yet, if there is a place where he is least remembered it must be his home town. But before we go to the place, let us see Papanasam Sivan’s recollections of the place when he visited it in 1912 in the company of Konerirajapuram Vaidyanatha Iyer. This extract is from his reminiscences published as Enadu Ninaivu Kadal, written in 1968.

“My memories of attending the skanda shashti festival organised by Muthiah Bhagavatar at Harikesanallur are fresh and clear despite 55 years having gone by. Two carriages had been reserved from Trichy junction and we arrived the day before the event. Like us, vidwans, bhagavatars and rasikas had come from many places. Muthiah Bhagavatar had no enemy in the arts. There was consequently no politics and it was not surprising to see musicians from all over south India. It appeared as though the entire village had donned its best by way of hospitality and we were received with love and warmth. Accommodation had been arranged in various houses.

The next day everyone left for the puja. Namavali was recited and it was music all the way with accompanists such as Malaikottai Govindasami Pillai and Shamala Iyer on the violin, Azhagunambi and Tanjavur Vaidyanatha Iyer on the mridangam and Dakshinamurthi Pillai on the kanjira. It made me wonder if the heavens had come down to earth. The puja itself was comparable to the Rajasuya sacrifice performed by Yudhishtira in the Mahabharata. The feast that followed for the several thousands who attended went on till late in the afternoon.

Music performances were held non stop throughout the day and night at a specially erected pandal near the place of worship. At 12.00 noon, Budalur Krishnamurthy Sastrigal performed on the gottuvadyam and the Sriragam that I heard that day has not been surpassed. That evening at 4.00 pm, the Karaikkudi brothers performed on the veena, accompanied by Dakshinamurthi Pillai on the mridangam. The entire congregation listened to their rendition of the Kapi Narayani piece “Sarasasamadana” in rapt attention. I did not have the maturity to appreciate the nuances of their performance but I listened to it with pleasure. At 8.00 pm, a full bench concert of Pushpavanam Iyer accompanied by Govindasami Pillai, Azhagunambi Pillai and Dakshinamurthi Pillai commenced. It was music fit for the Gods.

On the second evening, there was a Harikatha by Tiruppazhanam Panchapakesa Sastrigal followed by a concert of Konerirajapuram Vaidyanatha Iyer at 10.30. Considering that Kallidaikurichi residents generally felt that their Vedantha Bhagavatar was superior even to sage Narada, there was an enormous gathering to listen to Iyer with people having come from far flung areas.

The concert did not begin auspiciously. Iyer had hardly finished rendering the pallavi of the Hamsadhvani kriti “Raghunayaka” when Dakshinamurthi Pillai’s mridangam went off sruti. Repeated attempts to set it right were fruitless. There was a suggestion from a few that Azhagunambi ought to be called in. But he had already left for a concert at Kollam. Dakshinamurthi Pillai called for a second mridangam leading to a caustic cry from someone that this concert was to be with double mridangam. By the time the performance resumed the spell was broken and people had begun to leave. Muthiah Bhagavatar was disappointed even as several people streamed out commenting derisively that Pillai did not know how to tune his mridangam. The concert continued.

At 12.30 am, in the silent watches of that hour, Iyer began Todi. It was as though he had been a tiger waiting to make a spring all along. He now soared and it is impossible to describe the way he sang. Those dozing in the vicinity sat up. Vidwans like the Karaikkudi brothers rushed in and took up seats in the front. Within ten minutes the place was full. Thrilled beyond emotion I could hear my own voice offer its thanks to God by means of a high pitched “Nama Parvati Pataye”. “Hara Hara Mahadeva” intoned the crowds in reply and the cry rent the heavens. An emotional Muthiah Bhagavatar placed a garland around my neck.”

That was Muthiah Bhagavatar’s Harikesanallur during its days of glory.

Cut now to the 1940s when the lion was in his winter. Bhagavatar had then made neighbouring Veeravanallur his base and resided there. Old timer Sankari (Rajam) Subramaniam remembers as a child being overawed by his personality. Anything connected with music was enough to excite Bhagavatar she remembers. If singing was in progress in any house he would interest himself and ask as to who was teaching the children and would want to know what songs were being taught. He would ask the children to sing and encourage them. If a Radha Kalyanam happened, he would take the lead in the Deepa pradakshinam dance, when men wearing anklets would dance around a lamp even as the ashtapadis were recited or sung. The dance had a particular rhythm to it and Bhagavatar was the acknowledged expert. Every evening a bench would be put out on the street for Bhagavatar and his friends and conversation, largely on matters musical would go on far into the night. It was from Veeravanallur that Bhagavatar went to Mysore, a physically exhausted and ill man. There he died in 1945. With him died all music in Harikesanallur.

In 1997, scholar BM Sundaram, visited Harikesanallur and on his return wrote an article in Sruti (see issue 153, June 1997), lamenting the complete absence of any memorial to Bhagavatar in the village. He wrote of a bhajanai mandapam where a yantram that had the symbols of the vel (spear) and mayil (peacock) entwined and a large Tanjore painting of Subrahamanya, both worshipped by Bhagavatar, were kept. According to BM Sundaram, the bhajanai mandapam was built by Bhagavatar and that was where he conducted his skanda shashti festival. In 1997, this mandapam had a tiled roof. BMS had also written that the only resident who remembered Bhagavatar was Sankaranarayana Iyer who out of his meagre purse funded an annual skanda shashti festival at the bhajanai mandapam. Iyer also paid for the upkeep of the mandapam.

The biography mentioned a school run in Harikesanallur in the name of Bhagavatar. But I did not see it. Perhaps it is still being run. In recent years, the Harikeshanjali Trust and the Narada Gana Sabha Trust have both come forward and have been formulating schemes to perpetuate the memory of Bhagavatar in his native place. Hopefully something positive will emerge out of it. Till then, Harikesanallur will stand testimony to the Indian sense of history and respect for heritage.