Tampere Vocal Music Festival

From my diary [by Vijayalakshmy Subramaniam]

I received the invitation from the World Vocal Music Festival, Tampere, late
last year. I was really excited as this was an international Vocal festival and
I would be representing the Indian way of singing. Also, it was being held in
Finland, a country not found on many itineraries.

After much planning, we, Murari, my husband Subra and myself, finally left on
May 29th, 2003.

May 29th

We arrived at Frankfurt airport at 7:30 am. Our friend Sriram, a much revered
Yoga teacher, was at the airport to receive us. We drove to their beautiful home
in a village called Beerfelden. Of course, because of the Right hand drive in
Europe, we constantly felt we were on the wrong side of the road! It was a
pleasure to drive on the autobahn. While we were still gushing over Sriram doing
180 miles/hour in his Passat station wagon, we saw another car overtaking us at
200 something!Angelika, Sriram’s wife and my friend, a German who has studied dance in
Kalakshetra and speaks fairly fluent Tamil welcomed us to their house, along
with their dog Inu and cat Choky. After some delicious bread with home made jams
and basil pickle, we took a refreshing walk into the woods near their house.

Sriram then drove us to Schonau, a quiet place near Heidelberg for our
performance on 31st. We stayed with a wonderful couple, Shanta( a Bengali lady)
and her German husband, Theo. They run a hotel and a ballet school. Shanta had
prepared a special Indian meal for us.

T.R.Sundaresan joined us here after conducting some mridangam classes in

May 30th

We spent the day visiting Heidelberg. It is a beautiful town with a lovely
castle and the river Neckar flowing gently down its length. It was sunny, quite
warm at about 28 degrees C. The cobbled streets gave the city an old world charm.
The place was teaming with tourists with their cameras round their necks (like
us!). It was nice long walk for us looking at all the sights and shops. There
were a couple of Indian shops; one a restaurant called Raja Rani and another a
phone call center. They were both pleasant but not particularly excited at
seeing fellow Indians!! The pubs are very cute. When the sun is scarce, people
really learn to appreciate it. Most people were sitting in the sun sipping their
beers and relaxing. Heidelberg is basically a University town and we could see
many students earning extra money working in these pubs. It is better to have a
juice or something stronger, if you like in most of these places. Coffee is
served without milk and sugar. You have to ask for it if you want. But the milk
is never warmed up. So for coffee guzzlers from Chennai this can be quite
difficult! I discovered this after asking for an Expresso coffee, which came in
a little cup; just decoction, tasted like some ‘kashaayam’ to me!!

The place is very scenic. The Germans are basically well built but there was
many a sight to cheer the tired eye! Jeans and short tops are universally
fashionable now, some shorter than the rest, spiked hair, colored hair. Very
different and interesting, in all!

We took a train back to Schonau. All the instructions at the vending machine
were in German and there was no one around to guide us. After much guessing and
buying a ticket to somewhere in North Germany, we finally got our tickets and
had a good ride back!

May 31st

The day began with my workshop on music. The participants were seated close
together. Love for music and an interest in most things Indian was a common
thread. Aided by the power point presentation I had prepared, I explained to
them various facets of Carnatic music. I tuned a sloka in Mohanam raga and got
them to sing along! This was a real hit. They could now understand better the
concept of Sruti, raga and laya. My workshop was a big success.

Sundaresan conducted his tala workshop in the afternoon. It was really cute to
see Germans sitting on the floor, putting tala and doing ‘ taka dimi taka junu’

Our concert in the evening had a good turnout. The main piece I sang was
Papanasam Sivan’s Janakipathe in Kharaharapriya. The applause was tremendous and
most encouraging. We had many questions to answer informally. It was a tiring
but rewarding day.

June 1st

It was a relaxed morning. Our friend Egon had baked some fresh rolls and served
us with hot tea in never ending pots. He is an interesting man and we learnt
some special swear words in German and taught him some Tamil ones, part of a
holistic cultural exchange!

Shanta took us for a walk around Shonau. She is so popular; we suggested she run
for Mayor of the town! It turned out that this was no joke and a serious
suggestion had been made to this effect!!

Summer is good time to visit Germany. All the plants are in bloom and the place
is heaven. Roses, geraniums, rhododendrons, poppies, blossoming apple trees,
berries; an endless collage of colors. Every house and every public place takes
pride in display of flowers and their color schemes. We just couldn’t get enough
of it.

Sriram picked us up at 4pm for a drive to Stuttgart for a home concert. It was
sad bidding goodbye to Shanta and Theo who have grown to be very close friends.

The concert was in a very beautiful house in Stuttgart. We had a select
gathering of music lovers. Some of them had attended Sundaresan’s workshop and I
was amazed that they were putting talam with me! This, truly, is creating
awareness about Carnatic music in the western world; our contribution towards
making people enjoy our music. I explained briefly about the ragas and composers
of the songs I presented. Sriram translated these into German for those who were
not fluent in English. Again, our program was wonderfully well received and we
left for Munich with a sense of anticipation.

June 2nd

Ah, a day exclusively for sight seeing and shopping! I discovered that shopping
is not very exciting in Germany, or Europe for that matter, as things are really
expensive to Rupeewallahs! Interestingly, many Indian things and styles are in
vogue and we saw many famous boutiques displaying things Indian and took pride
in that! There are the ubiquitous “made in China” and “made in Taiwan” tags.
However, all this did not really deter me and I did end up with a bag full of
gifts for my dear ones! Got home with weary feet, predictably. Murai and Subra
decided to take charge of dinner. Anjali was joining us later that night. We had
delicious aubergine [eggplant] and zucchini fry from Murari and a dal makhani
from Subra. Boring jobs like making the rice was left to me! It was sumptuous.

June 3rd

We rehearsed in the morning. I decided to present an RTP as the piece the
resistance that evening. Our concert was in the Ethnic Museum-Volkerkundemuseum.
It was beautiful with exhibits from all over the world. The entrance had a
serene Buddha welcoming everyone.

The hall was packed to capacity and even had a few people standing at the back.
The concert was a success from the word go. The Germans are a very cultural
people themselves and come with an open mind to listen to other styles. They are
very disciplined listeners and their intense attention inspires you to give of
your best.

Got back home in really high spirits. Ilango, the charming son of Sriram and
Anjali, spent some time with us and we had really good fun. Despite a good
dinner, we were hungry and polished off the lovely asparagus and cream sauce (a
seasonal delicacy) Anjali had made earlier!

June 4th

We bid them goodbye in the morning and took the superfast ICE (intercity express)
to Frankfurt where we had to board the flight to Helsinki. Sriram and Anjali had
been really nice and helpful and made out stay in Germany full of warm memories.

The train was delight. It had a bistro in the next coach and we enjoyed a
croissant and coffee there.

After checking in our bags we had almost two hours to kill. Filled our hand
baggage with more goodies, had pasta and pizza at an Italian restaurant and then
boarded the plane.

We arrived at Helsinki at 1730 hrs. We found Jani Salo, our driver to the van to
Tampere waiting for us with a smile and a board that said SUBRAMANIAM. In
Finnish, the J is pronounced Y. So he was Yani to us.

From here onwards the absolute professionalism of organizing left us dumbstruck.
Yani gave me a bag with a welcome note from the Director of the festival,
detailing my schedule till out departure. There were artist badges we should
wear, meal and coffee coupons, and the festival brochure. The drive was nearly
two hours and Jani updated me local news and customs. He is a guitar player and
one of the nearly 200 volunteers who work for this festival. As in any other
country, he is finding it difficult making a living out of music and is also
training to be a psychiatric nurse! Some things are the same all over the world,

We had dinner with some other people from the festival office. We then met Kerb.
She would be our guide during our stay. Unlike Germany, most Finns speak English.
Kerbo has visited India and also many other countries. She was very articulate
and it was a pleasure to have her with us.

June 5th

The real purpose of our tour started! The day began with a TV interview for me.
A few questions on what I hoped to tell them in my workshop and what I expected.

The workshop began at 1000hrs. I had my CD presentation and my tambura. It was a
very interesting workshop as all the participants were musicians/ singers/ choir
conductors.! It was easier talking to them but also more challenging, as they
were all professionals. I could explain more intricate details regarding our
music and they could follow it very well. I got them also to sing and I must say,
they are quick learners. The afternoon saw Murari explain violin playing
techniques in India. Sundaresan demonstrated the mridangam, kanjira , morsing
and the konakkol with great aplomb.

We attended the performance of a Swedish group called The Real Group. It was
amazing. They had no instruments but together the five of them created real
magic on stage, mimicking various instruments even as they sang! Incredible!!

The flags of the participating countries were flying outside the main hall. My
heart filled with pride to see the Indian tricolor flying high there.

June 6th

We walked around and saw a little bit of Tampere in the morning. Went to the
museum and had a good time. My concert was at 21hrs. My sound check was at
19hrs. It was sheer pleasure. The stage, the mikes, the lights. Absolute
professionalism. (They had earlier faxed me the stage proportions and asked for
my requirements in terms of seating, mikes, etc.) Each person executes his job

We started about 15 minutes late. The hall, Old Customs House, was packed. I
started with Saveri varnam and did Nanupalimpa in Mohanam as the main piece.
Sundaresan played the kurraippu with kanjira, morsing and konakkol thrown in.
The applause at the end of this piece was tremendous! I concluded with a javali
and a tillana.

My goodness, we had an ovation of more than 5-6 minutes! It was overwhelming!
They wouldn’t let us leave the stage! I had to sing one more song before they
let us go, and that too because there was another special performance from
Africa after us.

It was an exhilarating experience to say the least. What made it more special
was that the appreciation was from a musically very knowledgeable gathering.

The group Tartit, from Mali that performed after us was quite robust. Their
music resembled our Rajasthani folk music. An interesting incident was one lady
participant’s fascination for my Sari! She took a photo of me and then wanted to
know where the zip was! I had to show her then that it is an unstitched garment
and tell her how to wear it!!

June 7th

Our day of leisure in Tampere. Went sightseeing in Kerbo’s car, ate doughnuts
and ice cream, shopped in their supermarket.

Vegetarianism is catching up among the younger generation and we were ok on
the food front. Of course, we’ve never eaten so much lettuce in our lives, so
regularly! We enjoyed Mexican enchiladas and tortillas, Felafel and Thai tofu
stir fry. There was good bonhomie among our team and everyone was game to try
out new things. It all added to a very enriching experience and made us more
aware of different people and cultures and reiterated the fact that the world
doesn’t revolve around Adyar and Mylapore alone!!

We also attended more concerts. Philomela from Finland was very impressive. Also,
Anuna from Ireland.

June 8th

Left Tampere at 0330 hrs to catch our flight from Helsinki to Chennai via
Frankfurt. Back in Chennai by midnight.

Finland has a population of about 5 million people. It has very severe winters
and short summers. They suffer from a very high rate of suicide as the winters
can be very depressing. But the country is very rich in its music and folklore,
not to mention their sportsmen. The sheer energy and enthusiasm of the people is
amazing. Almost 60 choir groups participated in the competition. With the
resources at hand, the festival was a perfect study in organizing efficiency.
People are truly cultured. You may enter the hall only between pieces, if you
are late. There is no sauntering in and out of concerts. People come because
they want to listen and they listen with full attention. No talking in between.
It would be really good if we could practice some of this etiquette in our
concerts back home. We have every reason to be proud of our culture and rich
heritage. Maybe we could culture ourselves some more?

It was a very satisfying trip to me personally. We in Chennai know about
Carnatic music and its glory. But what is immensely gratifying is to be able to
communicate this to stranger, to us, to our customs, language, lifestyle and
music. Bias is inherent towards vocal music because of the perceived language
barrier. To be able to transcend all this and create a sense of happiness and
satisfaction among the listeners is something that has to be experienced. It is
a challenge and therefore an achievement, something that I shall look forward to
always and render as my service to this art.