There is a whole, intricate language of music that permeates the life of the temple. I had never listened carefully to these instruments, never really understood how they parceled out time, sent out signals as clear as any words uttered. Certainly, on some subconscious level, I responded–knowing that the nagasvaram signaled something auspicious; something was happening, and that I better go towards that sound if I wanted to see what was actually happening. But, this is the crudest way to respond to this delicate choreography, and this language that everyone who lives and breathes in the temple knows, understands, and speaks fluently.
Today, thanks to Nambithirumalai, the temple’s multi-talented musician, I learned the names of many different instruments–the Tirucchinnam, the muracu/nakara, dampatam, dammanam, cikandi, cakra cikandi. A whole orchestra of sound to greet the deity, to process him, to welcome him. Each played only at particular moments, different beats and rhythms, different songs. It is this music that brings the festival alive for so many of us, causes that thrill and chill as the music just rises and fills the vast open corridors of the temple, even as it’s absorbed by all the bodies pressed together, making vast spaces become small. It seems that the experience of the first three alvar is ever alive, ever present, at every temple festival.
I have been attuned to this language of sound ever since the festival began. Last night, I parked myself on the other side of the Vaikuntha Vasal, with Tirumankai for company. And I resolved to listen very deeply to how the drama unfolded, to learn something about this esoteric language of sound. What would I learn without sight. [I did have my camera with me, but I took very few photographs].
There were gentle huffs of the two elephants, their shuffling back and forth, the swish of their tails. The scratch and turn of a large key in the wooden door. With every little fall of the tumblers, it felt that the door would open at any moment. But it did not. This was merely preparation. Through the door, I heard the drums, the conch sounded, the bell clanged. As I heard each of these sounds, I imagined the activity across the door–Nambi turning the corridor, the sounds are getting louder, so he must be right by the door. Suddenly the sounds ceased, and I could faintly hear Sanskrit chanting–ah, this was the Veda Vinnappam. Then silence, except you could you hear the restless crowd, impatient for the door to open. The key turned again in the lock. Nambithirumalai and his able team picked up their instruments. The door opened with a massive creak. The elephants began to trumpet loudly. The muracu and tavil were sounding fiercely, The nagasvaram was blasting. People were chanting. I heard the scurry of feet as young men rushed forward to hoist Tirumankai up on their shoulders. But still the god did not appear. The sounds intensified. You saw the poles of the palanquin first, and then he was there, and the instruments went into an absolute mad frenzy. There was a moment of arrested stillness as Tirumankai and Nambi faced each other–you could feel an invisible electric current between them–it was the music that made such feeling real. The music went on, softening, growing silky, even soothing, as Nambi processed “in reverse”, with Tirumankai in earnest pursuit. They never broke eye-contact, and the music did not pause for a moment.
Because the alankaras are always so spectacular, I am naturally drawn to the visual spectacle. Because this is the Festival of Recitation, I always pay attention to the rolling rhythms of the recitation. I always considered this music ancillary. Not until I listened blind, did I apprehend that it is the very foundation of the affective dimensions of temple ritual.
Deeper listening is required. It’s a good lesson to keep in mind in all things.