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June 17, 2000

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In memory of Thyagaraja

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Kalpana Mohan

Come with me for a stroll through a picturesque village on the banks of the river Kaveri. A proud rooster ambles on into the muddy path ahead. A lazy cow trudges past, kicking up dust carelessly on an immaculately handcrafted kolam gracing the entryway of a house. A timeless raga filters in with the first rays of the morning sun.

Bare-chested men, in their white cotton dhotis, sporting little tufts on cleanly shaven heads, go about their daily chores. A small procession of devotees makes its way towards us, singing hymns in praise of Lord Rama. A little doe-eyed girl peeps out from behind a pillar on the verandah as her mother steps out to join the other curious villagers. We are in India's Tiruvayyar, home to the renowned saints, poets and musicians of a bygone era. We have drifted back two hundred years, to the musical world of one of India's foremost composers, Thyagaraja, courtesy one Anuradha Sridhar.

Two years ago, Sridhar quit a career as a finance executive at a networking company to pursue her passion for south Indian classical (Carnatic) music. An idea came to her last March as she watched her six-year-old learning complex concepts via animated games on CD-ROMs.

"My son was absorbing material like a sponge without realizing it," says Sridhar. The notion of weaving an intriguing tale around documented historical facts from Thyagaraja's life and tying them to his ingenious musical compositions began to hold her mind hostage. In June 1999 Sridhar formed Solfa Creations to propagate and promote Carnatic music and its great composers through informational and interactive multimedia titles.

On May 21, Sridhar delivered her first labor of love titled The Evolution of a Composer Saint: Thyagaraja.

You could blame Sridhar's courage and initiative to see through this daunting task on her musical pedigree.

"Music permeated every aspect of our existence," says Sridhar's mother, Shrimathi Brahmanandam, referring to her own musical upbringing in Lalgudi. "At our house, if we weren't playing the violin, we were discussing music theory. We breathed music from morning to night." Sridhar is the great, great, granddaughter of Lalgudi Rama Iyer who was a direct disciple of Thyagaraja. Little wonder then that the violins in this family resonate with distinct tone, timber and personality.

When the Solfa team set to work in July, Anuradha Sridhar had invested hours in research.

"It took about four months of intense research at the end of which I had read a dozen books on Thyagaraja's life and his compositions, research papers by eminent musicians and all the information available on the Internet," states Sridhar. Solfa hired a graphics team in Bangalore, Phoenix Global Solutions, to draw, animate and make the story spring alive. Sridhar consulted a language expert, Dr Sarasvati Mohan, for assistance with the meaning and the pronunciation of every word of every one of the fourteen compositions incorporated into the project.

"The Thyagaraja project was a revelation about how musicians of Sridhar's caliber demand and chase perfection," says narrator Sridhar Sundaram, referring to Sridhar's attention to detail. Sridhar admits brooding over each frame for hours in her meetings and in her phone calls with the graphics team. Some of the trickiest problems were minute details that are now unnoticeable because they are done meticulously. The animation of the bard's chipla blocks matches the rhythm of the cymbals beat for beat.

Thyagaraja ages gracefully: the deft morphing of the composer from youth to old age resulted from countless debates on how exactly he must have looked at every stage in his life. It took imagination even with the availability today of many paintings of the musician. It was even harder, Sridhar says, to depict his wife and his mother of whom there is little or no information today.

The Bangalore design team traveled to locations where Thyagaraja lived in order to do justice to its portrayal of his life in the village. Every detail of his home and the surroundings mirrors the ambiance of the bard as it was two centuries ago. The prized idol of his beloved deity, Rama, preserved as it is today at the residence of a devotee in Thanjavur, is sketched with an eye for detail.

Sridhar consulted many stalwarts of Carnatic music to help her extrapolate information that was not available anywhere.

"Where do you think Thyagaraja might have had his first concert? In a temple or a palace?" she asked her uncle, Lalgudi Jayaraman. Jayaraman felt it may have been a palace and so a delightful scene was set up, wherein the young Thyagaraja enthralls the king and his courtiers. The rich imagery afforded by Sridhar's screenplay entertains and educates, frame after frame. Young Thyagaraja is deeply moved by the Ramayana as he reads it sitting under a shady tree. His truant playmates, on the contrary, are more tickled by a game of kittipullu. The young music lover is hypnotized by the melodious notes sung by his guru, Sonthi Venkataramanayya. Behind him, village pranksters are flitting time away spinning a top.

It is not hard to see how this prodigious musician composed many thousand songs in his lifetime. In his darkest days -- when his jealous brothers tossed his idol of Rama into a river -- he broke into a song. In his happiest moments -- when he found his idol after a whole year -- he broke into yet another song. Out of the several thousand gems composed by this prolific poet, only a few hundred are recorded in the annals of Carnatic music. Sridhar has included a rare composition in her collection, Endhu Daginadu, which had to be interpreted from the work of Rangaramanuja Iyengar. The meanings of the lyrics are animated vividly and woven crisply into the narrative.

"Anuradha had a vision of exactly how the end product should look and feel. The rest of our team was clueless but she knew what she wanted right from the start!" says Sridhar Sundaram, the narrator of Thyagaraja's story whose involvement extended into the writing of the script and the marketing of the product.

The high-powered team included Sridhar's brother, Shriram Brahmanandam, a renowned expert on the mridangam, whose percussion magic is exploited skillfully throughout the story and the songs.

Srikanth Chary, who conveys the composer's every mood with his emotional rendition of the songs, is a highly acclaimed musician tutored by Lalgudi Jayaraman.

Sridhar insists that her effort only "scratches the surface" of the life of this ardent devotee of Rama. The title, despite her modest observation, is a monumental effort to engage and teach -- with approximately an hour of story animation, an hour of songs sung primarily by Srikanth Chary and Anuradha Sridhar and another hour of games and quizzes on rhythm and scale.

Kalpana Mohan is a freelance writer based in San Jose, California. This review was first published in the June issue of India Currents Magazine in Northern California. Previous: US regrets Prithvi missile test

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