We were in Matanchery, Cochin, Kerala to attend 2 days out of the 10-day Sree Ramanavami Mahotsava Celebrations at Madapally Madom. This was the 96th year of the Madom’s celebrations.
Specifically, we came to attend the Bhajan with Divyanamam rendition by Narayanan and his troupe. Narayanan alias Sreedhar is the husband of Prema, my wife, Jyothi’s cousin.
We had been invited to attend Narayanan’s bhajans for several years now but hadn’t been able to make it. This time, we received the information well in time to plan our trip.
Such events are a part of the age-old traditions of Kerala Brahmins. Many members of the area settled down in different parts of India and the world plan their trip back home to attend such events. It is an opportunity for the families to come together. These events present a great example of community service in which members find a way to contribute to and participate in such events. Whether it is through contributing or collecting funds or providing food to devotees or partaking in the various rituals or through coordinating logistics or providing arrangements for lodging the various artistes, there is something for everyone to contribute to.
We had a comfortable Volvo sleeper-bus ride from Bangalore to Matanchery. Prema had prepared delicious Adai and Aviyal. She added jaggery and milagai podi to the menu. We washed it down with hot filter coffee and got chatting. Sreedhar also joined us in the conversations.
Cochin is quite hot and sultry but inside their home, we didn’t feel the heat. In the evening, the city really cooled down. We had 2 varieties of Prema’s delicious arishi sevai with chutney before we left home for the venue.
We reached the venue at 8:30 PM by Sreedhar’s car. Sreedhar, being one of the main artistes, was wearing the traditional soman (dhoti worn in a ceremonial way). He was bare-chested. He had applied vibhuti (sacred ash) on his forehead, chest, and arms. I was wearing the dhoti in the regular form with a green half-kurta. Jyothi & Prema were in a saree.
The venue was the Madapally Madom. As we entered the Madom, we heard hymns being sung by a couple of middle-aged men. One of them was holding a small sruthipetti (musical instrument that produces a consistent tone as accompaniment). They were facing a podium on which several pictures of gods and goddesses were neatly arranged. The pictures were generously adorned with floral garlands.
The modest venue was a medium-sized hall opening into a few rooms and into a verandah converted into a makeshift kitchen. When we reached, the hall was being arranged for the bhajan. Three large traditional and colorful jamukkaallam (dhurries in Malayalam) had been laid out on the floor and about 50 plastic chairs had been randomly thrown around. Six microphones had been arranged and connected to two huge black speakers.
The audience was seated in an informal manner. Many were seated on the floor. I am not very comfortable sitting on the floor for too long. I grabbed a chair. The location under the fans was at a premium. I was one of those seated exactly under a fan. Jyothi occupied a premium seat on the floor facing the artistes.
The three main singers took their positions. They were seated in a row, each facing a microphone. Sreedhar was at the center. Behind the main vocalists was a row of senior citizens holding books of hymns. They would also get a chance to sing.
Along with the vocalists, a young man was seated, playing the harmonium. Facing the vocalists, two percussionists had taken their positions – a South Indian hero-like young man with a twirled up mustache on the dholki and a bespectacled accountant-like gentleman on the mridangam.
The event began after the customary mic. testing. The main artistes took turns to take the lead. Most of these type of bhajans encourage audience participation. After the artistes sing a line, the audience is expected to repeat after them.
It was an informal setting. The audience was coming in and going out at will. The artistes were not disturbed. Women were coming in and meeting their friends. I could hear a lot of friendly chatter behind me. The speaker volume was adjusted to a level that drowned the side conversations and the artistes could focus on their task undisturbed. I spotted some women seated at the opposite ends of the hall communicating using sign language. It was certainly not the American sign language. To me, it seemed more like Kathakali gestures.
So much to observe
The audience was swelling. Young boys and girls came in, settled down and began fiddling with their phones and exchanging notes. Several senior citizens had occupied a place, seated on the floor, using a wall behind them as backrest. Many of them seem like retired senior bureaucrats. Some were peering into their phones and singing along. I was not sure if they were using the phone to follow the lyrics or if they were checking their WhatsApp messages.
There were some side attractions for me. For instance, the harmonium player also begins singing. All the singers hit perfect notes. It was such a treat listening to these singers. Although all of them have a different day job, they sing very well. They have received training for several years in the Carnatic form of singing. This group, Satsang, has released some of its own bhajan CDs. A young boy of about 6 years of age seated behind the artistes was also fully participating in the singing. I gathered that he is the harmonium player’s son. As the singing was in progress, a priest began performing the traditional aarti to the gods and goddesses while offering flowers. After the aarti was over, he would hold the aarti lamp in the direction of the audience and we received blessings from a distance.
Meanwhile, one more percussion artiste showed up. This lanky young man took his position behind the dholki and the mridangam players. He took out his own mridangam wrapped in blue velvet cloth, set it up and began playing. Since this was expected to be a long affair, I think a back-up had been called.
Late night action
It was 10:30 PM. The audience had swelled by now. The ladies section was full. The artistes had chosen a very popular rendition that aroused the audience. The men and women were clapping and singing along. The percussionists were in competition trying to outdo each other and this was further arousing the audience. The vocal artistes were also encouraging the percussionists with their gestures of praise. The dholki and mridangam alternating were adding to the magic. The volume was turned up. The friendly chatter behind me had also increased. There was some light-hearted banter, some teasing, some sarcasm going on but everything was in good taste. I watched the community interactions peaking.
Meanwhile, a middle-aged lady rose from the audience and came to the center of the hall where a metal and glass cabinet was placed and created a kolam (rangoli) on the floor. The cabinet was moved and placed over the kolam. Meanwhile, one of the senior citizens approached the artistes and proceeded to apply kumkum on their forehead while garlanding them. The artistes touched the feet of the senior citizen.
The traditional dance
As the artistes sang ‘begaa baaro’, one of the senior-citizen artistes held the traditional lamp that had been lit and began a gentle dance in front of the gods and goddesses. It was a graceful dance in slow motion. The audience stood up in reverence. He approached the metal cabinet, lowered the lamp and gently placed the lamp inside the glass cabinet.
Immediately, about a dozen members rose, formed a circle and began a gentle dance around the glowing lamp placed inside the cabinet. Their leader was another senior citizen. In my opinion, he would be about 85 years old. He was facing the artistes, singing and also dancing. From the way he was picking the right notes, I could tell that he was also Carnatic-music-trained. The dancers were now dancing in a circle around the lamp, moving in and out.
Suddenly some young dancers joined and broke into a vigorous dance while clapping at the same time. They were dancing in patterns, weaving in and out of the circle. One of the artistes joined the dance circle. The youngsters wanted to continue the vigorous dance but I think they were advised to keep the rhythm manageable for the seniors. They slowed down up to a point but resumed their vigor just after a few minutes. Difficult to contain the enthusiasm of these youngsters!
At 11 PM, we were served sweet avil (flattened rice) and some Gujarati gatthiyaa. There are several Gujaratis settled down in the vicinity and they participate fully in the temple events. This was another great example of Gujaratis integrating into a local community.
Meanwhile, the artistes raised the tempo. They sang simple bhajans that could be followed easily by the audience. The audience joined and everyone was clapping and singing along. The dance circle comprised only youngsters and they were in full vigor, sweating profusely. The youngest was the 6-year old boy. His gestures were very special and the audience seemed to love him.
It was now past midnight. The bhajans were reaching a crescendo. The percussionists were peaking. The young dancers resumed their vigorous formation. The audience was singing along. Suddenly the boys broke the dance formation and settled down while young girl-dancers took over. Their movements were graceful and gentle, a refreshing change. However, as the singing peaked, their dance also gained intensity. The girls were handed over Dandiya sticks. Suddenly, a new-found enthusiasm pervaded the entire gathering.
It was now the turn of ladies to dance in a circle around the lamp. Jyothi and Prema also joined the group. Later the entire group prostrated before the gods and goddesses.
The finale was an exclusive session of the percussionists. Everyone formed a circle around the percussionists as they competed with each other and excelled in their craft, sufficiently encouraged by the audience.
It was 1:30 AM by the time the session wound down. It was time to bid farewell. We also said our goodbyes and returned home.
Some things just cannot be explained
Beyond a point, it is very difficult to explain the magic that was happening there.
For instance, how does one explain the subtle fragrance of the fresh flowers and the incense filling the air? How does one explain the spirit of the lighthearted banter exchanged in good taste? How does one explain the quality of the singing, the perfect notes, and the accompanying percussionists to produce a high-quality performance? How does one explain the motivation of these artistes who have a day job in their life, yet coming together to perform? How about the teamwork among the artistes to ensure everyone gets a chance? How does one explain the ecstasy that the audience seems to reach every now and then while singing along? How does one explain the process of being elevated to a different plane?
How does one explain the enthusiasm of that playful 6-year old to participate in the age-old traditions? How does one explain the motivation of so many senior citizens to stay up until the small hours of the morning? How does one explain the glue of devotional music that holds a community together?
How does one explain the continuing tradition of hymns of Saint Thyagaraja created more than 250 years ago still playing in 2018 to a full house?
When things cannot be explained, it is best to experience them.
Well, block your time next year and be where the action is. At the Madapally Madom at Matanchery, Cochin, in God’s Own Country.
Thank you, Sreedhar & Prema!
I am a travel storyteller. If you wish to read more of my travel writings, click on the tab, Sights, on my website.