Madurai, Here We Come

by Mahadevan Ramesh

Darkness was slowly creeping in on the town of Poompuhaar, even as a gentle sea breeze was hugging it. A large moon had just then popped out of the sea, as if it too wanted to be a part of the evening festivities. The merchants were closing their shops and were getting ready to have a drink or two and join in the special performances to mark the Sea Festival. The entire Market Street had come alive to the sounds of music and dance. The royal lamplighters were already out on the streets lighting the numerous lamps - some especially set up for the festival. Isn't it true that the Market Street in Poompuhaar almost never sleeps ? Nay, it never even rests !

Kovalan felt the gentleness of the breeze as he stepped on to the street. He was still feeling the hot flashes from his angry outburst. He wanted to calm down and enjoy the evening. Should he go home and rest it out in the company of his wife Kannaki or should he go back in and apologize to Madhavi for his rude behavior and make it up ? Or should he go to the concert taking place at his friend's house ? No, he should simply go home to Kannaki !

As Kovalan made up his mind, the events of the past couple of days flashed by his mind. My ! How things have changed in the last hundred and twenty 'naazhigai', he wondered - and it was all because of his friend and his friend's guest musician.

The guest musician had come especially for the Sea Festival from a far away kingdom. Kovalan remembered how his friend was utterly enchanted by the new musician and almost dragged Kovalan to the concert - "Being a patron of arts, you would really love the experience" his friend told Kovalan.

The new musician was not only a talented singer, but could also play a difficult type of Yazh called Sagoda Yazh. As the musician produced strain after strain of music, Kovalan, who himself was an accomplished singer and master of Yazh 'Vilayaattu', simply could not believe his ears. He had never heard anything like that before. He asked his friend.

"Where is this musician from ? I have never heard a tune like this before. Is this the music of the Greeks brought over here by the Yavana merchants ?"

"Guess again ! The performer is actually from the Pandya Kingdom" his friend answered "And he just happened to spend his youth in the northern countries near the Himalayan mountains. This music is actually from the North."

"How wonderful ! Is there a classification for this music ?"

"You know the northern people. What we call as 'Pann', they call 'Ragam'. This one is in a Ragam called 'Shiva Pantuvarali'. It is so different from any of our Southern Panns. You cannot derive it from our musical grammar 'Ilikkiramam' by simple modal shifting.."

"No wonder I could not relate it to anything I know. And I thought I knew everything in music and arts. Interesting how newer and newer systems always get discovered" exclaimed Kovalan "And even more interesting, people from Madurai are showing leadership in adapting to music from foreign lands. Madurai must be the center of the cultural universe."

"Why Kovala, even itinerant folks like the 'Kuravas' from the Madurai kingdom are so talented that they are performing all over Poompuhaar in this festival. Somehow we Cholas are not keeping up with the modern arts.."

Kovalan was a man transformed as he left his friend's house that night.

As if addicted, Kovalan visited his friend and the musician again the next day. And this time, he even brought Madhavi along. Madhavi herself being a premier musician and danseuse, was completely amazed at the new Pann that seemed to endlessly come out of the Madurai musician's Yazh. There was pathos in the pann; and at some other places there was an element of helplessness and appeal. It was so moving that Kovalan and his courtesan partner were begging the musician to play more. At the end of the concert Kovalan even presented the musician with a bag of gold coins - over the years Kovalan had lost much of his money he had inherited from his businessman father. In better times, he would have given much more.

When Kovalan and Madhavi returned to Madhavi's house that day, they retired to the terrace. Madhavi took out her Yazh and tried to play 'Shiva Pantuvarali'. Her fingers moved around. But the pann never came out. She was struggling. Kovalan tried to help her out by singing some melodies. But even together, they could not reproduce the tune. Kovalan was even more impressed by the new tune and its impact. For the first time in his life he looked at Madhavi with a little contempt.

"Now I realize it !" Kovalan thought "I am actually in love with the arts and music, the intangibles - and not with a manifestation of music and dance called Madhavi."

Kovalan had been feeling a little introspective the entire next day. For the second day in a row Kovalan and Madhavi tried to play the new Pann Shiva Pantuvarali, this time sitting in the main Hall of Madhavi's house It simply would not come out of their Yazh. Did they tune the Yazh correctly ? Or perhaps, after all these years, they probably needed to go back to the basics - start from the primitive Pann, the "Tondru paadu murai', and relearn everything.

Madhavi did notice Kovalan's sudden disenchantment with her and her musical abilities.

"Give me time, Kovala" she told him. "I can learn this and play it better than that man from Madurai. After all, I am well versed in all the arts."

Kovalan looked at her cynically, grabbed the Sengottu Yazh and sang a song. It was about Kaveri.

"Who is Kaveri ? Is it another woman I don't know of ?" she asked him, feeling insecure and inadequate.

"Oh, it is the river." replied Kovalan. As he tried to go to higher pitches, he suddenly realized that Madhavi had intentionally tuned the Yazh to the wrong frequencies to make him look like a musical neophyte. This jealous woman ! Kovalan was red with rage.

"This is it, Madhavi. I am leaving you. Not only are you an imcompetent musician, you are also a very petty minded person who can do mindless and stupid things in a fit of jealousy ! You can wither away and die if you wish and I don't care. The limits of music and arts are beyond you. You were just a medium for the arts and now, after so many years, you no longer appeal to me. You are, simply put, unexciting."

And he stepped out of Madhavi's house in a flash.

Madhavi couldn't believe all this actually took place. Tears of rage and an intense feeling of hurt almost paralyzed her for a brief while. She broke into a loud scream, rushed inside and cried on the shoulders of her matron.

"Amma, he left me. Kovalan left me."

The matron touseled Madhavi's hair and tried to comfort her. She wasn't too surprised. In fact, she was surprised that the relationship lasted this long. Courtesans were very temporary necessities for rich men.

"Amma, I thought I could eventually marry him and produce children for him..."

"But you know that he already has a wife. He has already abandoned her in the prime years of their marriage to spend time with you. That's all right. Compose yourself. Someone else will come your way."

"What ??? I don't want to follow our way of life. I want to be like any other woman. I want to have children too. I may already be pregnant by him. I thought he and I had a genuine relationship going and now I realize he was only after my music. All this doesn't make sense."

"Child ! You have had a good life and you had happiness - and all this was possible because you are an artiste and a courtesan. Remember, it is our duty to be of service to the larger society and that sometimes involves making small personal sacrifices" the matron tried to comfort Madhavi "Besides, there are advantages to belonging to our community. Eventually, you can be a great teacher of the arts. Would you rather belong to some of those castes where the women's duty it is to steal and pillage.."

"Why did he leave me ? Is he going to come back ?"

"Leaving a courtesan is what men do all the time. Perhaps he was feeling guilty all of a sudden. Or maybe he found someone else. Look at yourself, girl. You have something permanent no one take away - our music and dance and the arts. No one else can dedicate themselves to these higher things in life. And no one else can reach the level of joy we reach in performing arts..."

Madhavi was still mad. She tore herself away from the matron. She went straight to the terrace. She sat in a 'padmasana' posture, still fuming at Kovalan. Then she reached for her Sagoda Yazh and played it. Suddenly it calmed her. The power of music ! She even tried to play Shiva Pantuvarali. It was a struggle to reproduce even the simple musical phrases. She felt angry all over again. Changing her mind, she played something she knew very well. Her music carried itself all over the Market Street.

That was two days ago !

Now, Kovalan was almost home, He could see Kannaki standing on the 'upparigai' balcony. For a fraction of a second their eyes met.

"I have neglected my wife." Kovalan was very remorseful "And I have neglected even my business. All for the sake of arts. And now I am not even good at the arts. Music is so dynamic, I cannot hope to chase and conquer it with or without Madhavi's help."

Right in front of their house was a small group of Kuratthis from the Kurunji ('mountain') land. They were just about to perform their 'Koothu', the 'Vatta Paalai'. Aha, they must be also from Madurai, thought Kovalan, remembering that a lot of Kuratthiyars have come to Poompuhar from the Pandya kingdom for the festival. These Madurai artists are everywhere !

The matron of the Kuravayar group drew a large circle on the ground. She marked twelve points along the circle, to denote the twelve zodiac signs. These were also the twelve basic 'tones' of music. Kovalan was amused. How many times had he seen this primitive dance ! On the circle, due east was the sign Libra and the first Kuravyar dancer woman walked over and stood there. She would form the basic note in the musical scale as well.

As Kovalan approached closer to home, he was expecting to see seven or perhaps nine women to stand on the circle and start their dance. That was the usual number. In fact, he had seen even complicated forms of such a dance where the entire grammatical rules of music were spelt out during the dance and all the Panns were derived. He briefly paused for a second to see what the Kuravayar would do next. He could see Kannaki looking at them with wide eyed awe. "What a simple woman" Koavalan thought "Even an unsophisticated Kuravayar dance is enough to amuse her."

There weren't nine, nor seven dancers who stood on the circle - but just five ! Kovalan was surprised. These dancers were obviously performing an abbreviated version of the dance, he realized. The music began and the women started dancing to the simple 'Mullai Pann' (Mohana Ragam) - fancy, people from the mountains singing and dancing to the music of the forest districts, Kovalan thought. But then, wasn't it said that people from Madurai were ingenious ? The main Kuravai who started out due east on the sign Libra was dancing, pretending to be Mayavan (Krishna). The other woman was Mayavan's beloved, Nappinai. Then his brother Balaraman and two arbitrary Gopiyar for Mayavan to frolic with.

When Kovalan entered his house, Kannaki had already come down from the Upparigai.

"Kannaki. I have returned home" Kovalan told her. "This time I am not leaving you. I am not going back to Madhavi. I want to be with you and I want a new beginning - a totally new beginning not just for my personal life, but also for my artistic passion."

Kannaki could not believe her ears. She couldn't bring herself to say anything. It was so unbelievable.

"Yes, Kannaki. I have been thinking about it." Kovalan continued. "I think we should get away from here. Let us go to the Pandya city of Madurai.."

Kannaki was still silent.

"Over the years, I have frittered away most of my wealth. I don't have much now - I may have to teach music in Madurai, just to earn a living till I find myself an employment befitting my ancestry. I am not sure if I can even be a competent music teacher in a land which seems to be filled with outstanding musicians..."

"If you don't mind.." Kannaki spoke up for the first time. "I do have some jewels that we can sell off in Madurai and start a small business. I have two pairs of anklets, the 'Silambu's..."

"Oh, do you ??" asked Kovalan "Isn't it a miracle that I didn't steal them and give them away to Madhavi.."

"Of the two pairs, one pair is filled with rubies and the other with pearls. I don't like the ones filled with pearls. Those are what queens and princesses wear - those are meant for the royalty - I don't know how I got them. In fact, why don't you send them away to Madhavi as a final gift ? Let us take the commoner 'silambu' filled with rubies to Madurai...."

"Thank you, my love" Kovalan said, totally moved by Kannaki's gesture. "Let us leave very early tomorrow. I am already very excited about going to Madurai."

Author's note: From whatever little Silappadhikaram I have read, I could not really figure why Kovalan left Madhavi all of a sudden. The above story is just a little speculation. Can someone else shed some light ?
Copyright Ramesh Mahadevan