The Ambassador and I

Behind me, on the stage, were Balamurali Krishna, N. Ramani and Ravi Kiran, preparing to perform together for the first, and (the announcer opined), possibly the last time. In front of me were 1000 people waiting to hear this trio in concert. I had come to the center of the front row of Waetjen Auditorium in Cleveland to talk with the Chief Guest of the Tyagaraja Aradhana, Deputy Ambassador Srinivasan.

Why was he the Chief Guest? Apparently the Indian Ambassador is regularly invited for this slot. Is this mixing of classical music and nation-state innocent? Is Srinivasan merely a fan of Tyagaraja? He told the audience that Clinton and Vajpayee had signed a mission statement and with Clinton’s visit to India, “we have really entered a new chapter in Indo-US relations.”

It was about this new chapter that I wanted to talk with the Deputy Ambassador. He told the audience that India was proud of its 1.3 million Indians in the U.S. “You are the ones that have been able to convince this nation that you are carriers of a tradition that is 5000 years old.”

Did the Ambassador know that we are interested in the battles of the present, not of the epic past? I trembled as I began, “I would like to ask you something about what you said about Indian and US friendship in connection with Clinton?s visit. Did you know that he pushed through financing of a dam on the Narmada which the people of the region oppose?”

“That is not Clinton, that is the World Bank” he said with a smile. “It is not the World Bank, it is a U.S. company called Ogden and the deal was signed during Clinton?s visit.”

I handed him the leaflet on Ogden, and then told him that an example of Indian and US friendship was the statement of solidarity which the National Alliance of People’s Movements (NAPM) had extended to the U.S. movement for democracy and against globalization and corporate control. I handed him this flyer as well. He said, “we have tried to live without corporations for 50 years, but we want 10% growth.”

He and his wife said many things, to which I responded as best I could. “Don?t the people get another place to live? Are you exaggerating?” were some of the classics. If you are one of those 1.3 million Indians who is a mini-ambassador of Indian culture in the U.S., why not convey your viewpoint to Deputy Ambassador Srinivasan? He remembered the people outside his office on March 14, International Day of Action for Rivers and Life. His wife also seemed to be curious. Ask them to call Ogden, and see that this new chapter does not get off on the wrong start.

I could also have told him about Indian government?s murder of Indian Army Colonel Pratap Save, who was only trying to save the land in Gujarat, as part of Kinnara Bachao Sangarsh Samiti, nonviolently resisting the entry of a Multinational Corporate Port.

But the concert was about to begin. We should have seen the warning signals. The three had never practiced, Balamurali Krishna had not touched a violin in 2 years, but just came to the stage and picked it up. Sure we are impressed by his genius, and we are all in favour of experiment and improvisation, but need we do it in the Saturday night slot of a week-long festival? The first hour was a drag. The passionless theatrics of Ravi Kiran came off as mere machismo.

The three crescendoed well. When the applause subsided I saw that the front and center seats were empty. I turned around to look for the Ambassador and his wife; I saw dozens of people exiting. Next came a bhajan to wind down and a tillana to finish. A hall that normally pulsates till midnight on the eve of Easter Sunday was empty by 10 pm.

So much the better for Sanjay Subramaniam. The Sunday morning slot often suffers from the lateness of the previous night, and sometimes also from the clock change, should Easter fall at the end of March. This time the hall was packed early in the morning. I enjoyed his highly expressive hand and head movements, at times churning buttermilk, pulling taffy, darting to catch runaway pieces of paper.

Previous years concerts have riveted me to my seat — that quality was entirely absent from this years? featured artists concerts. Of course major treats were in store later in the week, including R. Jayanti (Veena), S. Sowmya, and T. N. Seshagopalan. In the individual singing, however, you could not even go out for water without missing something. A spring of surprise talent rose in the under-10 age group. The amateur sessions simply get better year after year, and this is only my fourth year. I can only imagine the satisfaction of someone like T. Temple Tuttle, who has seen this festival over 20 years. He came to greet the audience, though he is seriously ill. “One of the first concepts I ever learned about India is the extended family, and that brings with it both great privileges and responsibilities. I simply had to be here today.” The Aradhana Committee declared that from now on the Children and Youth Competitions would be named “Tom Tuttle?s Children and Youth Competition.”

How will these youth assume their role as the “carriers of culture?” Only in the Amateur section of the festival do we see women and men, boys and girls cheerfully and mutually-supportively sharing the stage, thinking of nothing more than music and devotion. Vests were popular with the boys and the half-sari had made a comeback among the teenage girls. After the morning bhajans and pancharatna kiratanas, we were never to see so many women on stage again. The old-boy quality of the festival came out most in the awards ceremony. Only one award went to a woman (for her volunteer services) and she effaced herself while accepting it. The men donned the shawls, referred to their previous awards, congratulated one another. CDs were released and accepted. However when a young man from Cleveland offered his CD to Ravi Kiran, the Artist could barely manage a perfunctory blessing. How different from the exuberant Ravi Kiran we saw in Cleveland six years ago.

Why in such small age increments do we see the unkindness and social inequalities creeping in? Will the same children we see today inherit the same gender prejudices ten years from now? Or even sooner? What “new chapter” in Indo-US relations will the youth of today inaugurate in their turn?

The Ambassador’s message of U.S. spending being good for India is one this audience is ready and willing to receive. Earlier we saw digital infotech employed to standardize certain themes of the epic Ramayana, in order to make the story available “without language barriers” meaning, in the first world’s first language. The salesman explained that wherever there was a difference between their “CD Ram” and what they called “cultural belief” abut the epic, they justified their choice with reference to Valmiki. Presumably, the sage saved his files.

Not all the discrimination was in the hands of the organizers. Out of 57 visa applications for artists, 53 were granted and 4 were rejected. These four were the nadaswaram troupe, including the only 2 artists of Muslim background invited for the festival.

Early comers to the premeire show of Annamayya dance drama got a treat since the musicians tested sound to old standards like “ninnu kori.” As no programs were given nor were artists introduced, I know no names. Here again are state markings on the life of 15th century poet Annamacharya. Not only are the costumes of the dancers in the invocatory “Surya Namaskaram” orange and green, but the shadows cast by Annamacharya are also orange and green (at a 30 degree angle).

Kudos to the child Annamayya who not only performed vigorous steps in a lengthy dhoti (while the more subdued first scene was done in the abbreviated lungi), but managed to pick herself up after a fall, and still maintain her expressions, including the half-closed eyes of bhakti.

Annamayya’s youth and marriage are followed by a second marraige. Nothing like a woman narrator explaining, “believing it to be God’s will, Annamayya marries Akalamma.” Skepticism rumbled through the audience.

For a show that was advertised with only two words, “Sold Out,” at least a quarter of the seats were empty. It opened with a series of comparisons between Annamayya and Balamurali Krishna. Both legends in their own time, devotees of Narayana, they even shared a birth star. Balamurali fans will turn out for this, and he certainly stands and delivers. I can still feel my heart fluttering at his “Jo Acyutananda.” I only wish he sang the whole song. The best dancer had all the non-characters … the minor gods, demons, animals, the bow. He also played a harijan* who was barred from the worship of god, prompting Annamayya’s song “Brahmam Okkate.” (god is one). All this fair-mindedness doesn’t keep the hindu nationalism out of the drama though. The narrator tells us that the drama uses many dance forms, including yaksha gana, odissi, mohini attam and kathak. (Watch carefully, because while they add a nice touch, most of these last barely a minute. The sole kathak dancer is brought back at the end to figure as the Muslim invader, destroying temples and sending Annamayya on a quest where he has a vision of Hanuman.

Review of Cleveland Tyagaraja Aradhana, 22-23 April 2000

*This is the term used at the time.  The more respectful term is “Dalit. ” Since the drama did not reflect Dalit consciousness, I left the term as is.


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