Annual Music Fantasia at Rama Seva Mandali
Story and interview by Choodie Shivaram, Bangalore (first published in October 1995)
Rama Navami meant to me as a child newfound freedom–exams were just concluded and school closed for summer vacation. I would enthusiastically run to the Rama Mandira behind our house to be with the crowd. At age ten I couldn’t comprehend what devotion meant. Yet I spent most of the day there with other girls of my age. After morning puja, we would draw colorful designs called rangoli in front of the sacred images. We would wait till people came for darshan in the evening, and eagerly looked forward to their comments and appreciation for our rangoli and then bask in the compliments. The evenings were aglow with brightly lit pandals (stages) erected at temples and playgrounds. Mellifluous music, both vocal and instrumental, rent the air. The characteristic feature of Rama Navami celebrations is the expression of devotion through classical music and harikathas.
When I went to the concerts with my mother, she would expect me to sit quietly and listen. The childish curiosity in me would ponder why this festival was celebrated with classical music and not dance or dramas, which we children would enjoy more. After childhood I became a serious listener of classical music. It’s my children now who ask the same questions.
Numerous organizations in India celebrate Ramotsava, inviting musicians to perform. Sri Rama Seva Mandali of Chamarajpet, Bangalore, is perhaps one of the oldest and most noted in the country. This year, the Mandali is celebrating its 57th year of Ramotsava. Spread over a month and a half, it is the largest Rama Navami celebration in the country. It hosts over 150 celebrated musicians from all over India. It was here that young musicians like “Mandolin” Srinivas, Kadri Gopalnath, Ravi Kiran and Sashi Kiran, brothers who shot to international fame later, began. The living legend of carnatic music, Dr. M.S. Subbulakshmi, has enthralled the audience here with her devotional rendition for 35 years continuously. Veena maestro Dr. V. Doreswamy Iyengar says, “The Sri Rama Seva Mandali’s Rama Navami celebration is one of the premier festivals in the country. This stage impels the best musicians to come forward and perform every year.”
In April and May, the three acres of playgrounds of the Fort High School–built during the British Raj–are converted into a huge auditorium. The school is surrounded by Tipu’s summer palace, a centuries-old Lord Venkataramanaswamy temple and Tipu’s fort. The road in front of the school leads to the main bazaar named after King Krishnarajendra, of the Wodeyar dynasty. The market area is now congested with vehicular traffic, vegetable, fruit and flower vendors and roadside hawkers.
Amidst this hustle and bustle, the sleepy, dusty Fort High School grounds suddenly come alive in preparation for the music festival. Special pujas and little ceremonies surround the pandal construction, everyone anxious to impregnate every post, rope and crossbeam with a feeling of power. The massive pandal is constructed out of casurina poles and zinc sheets. Once completed, it becomes an imposing open-air concert hall that can accommodate over 10,000 people. Sober advertisement banners carrying welcoming messages to the performers line every available space inside and outside the pavilion.
The sparkling, seven-foot-tall bronze mandapa kept aloft at the center of the southern end of the pandal arrests attention as one enters. Big images of Sri Rama, Laxmana, Sita and Hanuman draped in silver outfits adorn the mandapa. The deities are exquisitely decorated with garlands of jasmine, fragrant lilies and bright orange flowers.
My first visit to these concerts fifteen years ago is still alive in my memory. Nothing has changed ever since. The road leading to the venue becomes a scene of increased confusion as a splurge of vehicles heads towards Rama Seva Mandali. The traffic policeman desperately blows his whistle to command some order. Restless drivers continuously sound the horn, impatient to get inside the auditorium before the concert begins. The scene repeats day after day. All at once, the cacophony quiets as the musicians saunter to the microphone.
There is a characteristic feature about the people who attend classical music concerts. Most of them are middle-aged and above. But of late, I have noticed more young boys and girls accompanying their parents to these concerts. I rejoice in this new trend. Women clad in traditional zari saris, diamonds in their ears and nose studs glittering–the heavenly scent of Mysore mallige worn in their hair–blend in fashionable harmony to the classical pieces. The main concerts featuring renowned musicians begin at 6:30 evening time and last for at least three hours. At times, artists continue longer, responding to encore requests from the audience. Halfway through the performance, the strong aroma of south Indian sambar and rasam distractingly wafts through the air reaching those sitting in the front rows, tingling the palates. It’s the smell of the piping hot food cooking for the volunteers and organizers at a makeshift kitchen behind the main pandal.
I have spoken to musicians who have been performing here, asking them how different it is to play on this platform. All of them are unanimous in their opinion. “The audience here is very receptive and it encourages the musician to excel. It gives us immense satisfaction and what adds to the whole thing is the spiritual atmosphere,” says veena master Doreswamiengar. “There is some shakti in this place. I can feel it when I am performing. There are occasions when I have been unwell before a concert, but when I begin, I feel a new surge of energy in me.”
Sarod maestro Ustad Amjad Ali Khan, who has performed for the Mandali, once wrote: “The sacred and spiritual atmosphere that prevailed in the thatched pandal, the soothing breeze flowing around, made the whole environment more conducive to the pleasure of the musicians and music lovers. It is difficult to imagine the gathering of more than 10,000 people in a music concert in Bangalore.” Indeed, it is a huge number for a classical music concert. The crowd increases whenever a famous musician performs and many must listen from outside the pandal.
The unpredictable summer showers do not deter people from coming to the concerts. Last year people braved the rains at the prodigy U. Srinivas’ mandolin concert. The buttery, golden voice of Begum Parveen Sultana silenced the heavy downpour. Her devotion-charged rendering of a composition on Goddess Bhavani mesmerized the audience, who could feel Her presence amidst the thunderclaps.
Besides hosting concerts of musicians of high repute, the Mandali affords opportunity to up and coming young musicians to perform. They call it the “Juniors Program” which starts an hour and a half before the main concert. Many child prodigies and beginners who made their debut here have achieved international recognition. “Unless we give a chance to the youngsters and encourage them, how will they get a break? Earlier, we would organize music competitions for youngsters and renowned musicians would judge them. But we scrapped that to give a chance to everyone rather than encouraging this competition spirit,” says Narayana Swamy Rao.
The Mandali is not just a cultural organization. There is a religious side to it, which is in fact its true identity. Elaborate pujas are preformed three times a day to the murthis. A homa is organized every year. Every morning, a revered pontiff from one of the Hindu religious mutts delivers discourses on the great epics or Puranas–attended mostly by housewives.
The Rama Seva Mandali has been annually celebrating the festival for 57 years without one break. Petty fights and controversies have not dogged this organization.
The Mandali has been battling to secure a place of its own. Its future aspirations include a music academy providing training for youngsters, a library of music and dance and providing scholarships to deserving students for advanced training. The Mandali continues to enjoy the support of world-renown musicians who perform at very modest rates, their philanthropy inspired by their love of music and regard for the great masters.
Sidebar: Mandali’s Main Man
My first visit to the Mandali was on assignment for a daily of South India, The Deccan Herald. When I arrived at the mandali stage that summer afternoon, it was dark and quiet. No one was around. I noticed an elderly man stretched out on a wooden bench, clad nonchalantly in a dhoti. I approached him and said I was looking for Narayana Swamy Rao. The man on the bench regarded me quickly and kindly, then stood up and said, “I am Narayana Swamy Rao.” I was startled, and it took a few minutes to appreciate that this unassuming person was the intelligence behind this major event. As I began to talk with him, he narrated the beginnings of what is now one of the prized mandalis in India. It started 57 years ago on a village lane. Fourteen-year-old Narayana Swamy, a police officer’s son in a middle class family, felt a sudden urge to celebrate Ganesha Chaturti. With two other friends he went house to house seeking donations. They raised a total of five rupees. Their success encouraged the boys to celebrate Rama Navami the next year. They collected fifteen rupees for this event, the birth of the Sri Rama Seva Mandali, in 1939.
Narayana Swamy Rao had become friends with the distinguished flutist, T.R. Mahalingam, and received an introduction to the famous violinist A. Chandrasekariah. “My introduction to Chandrasekariah was a turning point. He introduced me to the Chowdiah, a legendary violinist, and there soon developed a rapport. These two great artists recommended other musicians to perform for a modest sum. This tradition has continued unbroken,” says Narayana Swamy Rao.
Bringing the Mandali to this pinnacle of acclaim and popularity was an arduous task. Narayana Swamy Rao made many sacrifices in his career and personal life. “I never give up. Failures do not discourage me. I know Rama will always guide me,” he says optimistically.
Narayana Swamy Rao sidelined academics to pursue the Mandali’s development seriously. He studied up to the eleventh standard, then got a job with Aeronautics Limited. But his employers failed to understand his driving commitment to the Rama Navami celebrations, and refused to grant him leave for organizing the festival. He quit that job after two years and joined the Life Insurance Corporation, but again had to quit for the same reason. This cycle continued until he finally gave up trying to hold a job and serve the Rama Navami Mandali. He dedicated all his time to husbanding the Mandali’s growth. “He would leave the house at seven in the morning and return only in the evening. He would go house to house collecting donations,” says Narasamma, Narayana Swamy Rao’s wife of 44 years.
Narayana Swamy Rao is now in his 70s and of late there have been minor aggravations of his health. Still, he doesn’t leave the pandal till the festival is over. He lives there, out in the open–a thin sheet on a hard wooden bench is his bed. His youngest son, Varadaraj, has started staying with his father now. Months before the Navami gathering, he commences his fund drive and organizing. Booking of musicians is done at least three months in advance. For three months after the event Narayana Swamy Rao takes his time finalizing the accounts, having them audited and submitting the audited report to the Mandali committee.
(Courtesy: Hinduism Today)
Below are the excerpts from an article that appeared in The Hindu (2005):
Though Narayanaswamy passed away in the year 2000, his sons continue to carry on the tradition with unwavering enthusiasm. “It is an extremely difficult task to bring so many musicians. But my father has built such goodwill with his selfless work that artistes willingly oblige to our requests,” explains Ramaprasad, managing trustee of Ramaseva Mandali, who now freezes the programmes over telephone.
The Fort High School pandal no longer looks the same. Commercial enterprises have stepped into the arena with the huge pandal now dotted with assorted stalls — from eateries to those put up by music companies.
On the lines of the Madras Music Academy, the Mandali now has another wing, SVN Academy, in memory of Narayanaswamy.
- M.S. Subbulakshmi’s first concert for the Ramaseva Mandali was in 1952. From 1952 to 1992, she performed 31 times for the Mandali. It was a matter of strange coincidence that it would rain during most of MS’s performances, but that certainly didn’t deter her or the crowd. She would perform to a packed audience, who would leave only after she did.
- With great difficulty, S.V. Narayanaswamy brought the brilliant Ustad Bade Ghulam Ali Khan in 1956. A day before the concert it started pouring, and rains continued to lash the city for the next one week. But Narayanaswamy was determined to make the Ustad sing for the music lovers and wouldn’t let him leave. The Ustad, ever gracious, didn’t disappoint and performed a week later.
- From the year 1947 till his death in 1998, Veena Doreswamy Iyengar performed every single year without fail.
- The Mandali cherishes the visit of the Mysore Maharaja, Jayachamaraja Wadiyar, in 1955. He came again in 1957, and that year, C. Rajagopalachari shared the dais with him.