Being a trained Western classical musician and someone who has composed private classical pieces and commissioned works for foreign groups, Ganesh composed an introductory melody using the Tamil alphabets (Shanmuga Kavacham has 30 stanzas and each stanza begins with Tamil alphabets in chronological order) and visualized the music of the piece on the lines of a choir, like an a capella. He performed the play to his friend, Anand Mahadevan. Anand was impressed, but at the same time there were questions … Who will accept a Tamil sacred work in classical Western format? Won’t die-hard purists on both sides criticize him? But then it had happened without the composer consciously intending to try something like it. So, Anand suggested that Ganesh continue, and along with another friend, Dr Prem Venkatesh and Ganesh’s father, K Balakrishnan, became a patron of the project. It took about 14 months to compose the whole piece. Today, five years later, it has become an ambitious project that will have a renowned European choir, led by Nicol Matt, who will perform it in a capella format.
Ask Ganesh about the difference with Ilaiyaraaja’s Thiruvasagam, and he says, âIt’s in a different genre – an oratorio, whereas it’s an a capella chorale. There you have a full symphony orchestra accompanying the singers but here it is only the voice. of them told them it was something they had never heard before. But they also suggested having it validated by an authority on Pamban Swamigal’s works, someone who can tell them if the piece was tuned correctly and Tamil correctly interpreted musically. And so, they roped up V Muthukumaraguruswamy alias Sadguru, whose grandfather allegedly received the works of Pamban Swamigal directly from the spiritual guru himself, and researched and performed the works of Swamigal. Sadguru found the music wonderful but told them there were inaccuracies in the way some words had been separated. So Ganesh had to rework the whole piece.
Words in Tamil have rhythm and meaning. Several words can have the same meaning and the same word can have several meanings. Sadguru explained all these things, told us how by changing the bifurcation of the lyrics, the musical phrase changes. In classic western, you don’t have 16 time lines, but being a shloka, this piece is made up of 16 talams. So, he said, let’s try to compose it in 16 bar phrases. So we had to lengthen or shorten the melody to make it 16 bars. And that’s not a cosmetic change. There had to be a change in the DNA. And once you changed the main piece, all of the backing pieces needed to be changed. We therefore had to start from scratch, âexplains Ganesh.
Sadguru says he was very impressed with the project’s fidelity to tradition. Our mantras are meant to be chanted without any instruments. Many, from Variyar to TMS, have released Shanmuga Kavacham CDs, but they all have musical accompaniments that we associate with Carnatic music. But this piece is entirely devoid of instrumental music. Even the accompaniment is done by the voice and resembles the Aa Oo Mm, the components of the pranava mantra, Aum. Having this sound, which is supposed to be the basis of all life, in the background and praying to a deity is considered to usher in good vibrations, âsays Sadguru.
In the meantime, they began to contact western choirs and soloists to return the piece. They requested internet auditions and focused on Malcolm P Cooper, who teaches music in Delaware, for the solo tenor after finding his voice very suitable for this project. Interestingly, Malcolm didn’t even know there was a language called Tamil until he came across their audition call! Ganesh called him in Chennai and for over a month two language trainers, Divakar and Georgina Singh, taught him the melody and pronunciation and they recorded a scratch version.
But finding the right chorus was getting a bit difficult, mainly because of the budget involved – between `3 and 5 crore. So they explored the possibility of doing this one way or another locally with local singers. We called conductors and they heard the piece and told us the piece is demanding and needs a world class choir. So out of necessity we had to go to a western choir, Anand says.
It was then that they contacted Nicol Matt, German conductor and founder of the Chamber Choir of Europe, who expressed his interest in the project and asked them to send them the score. He initially cited a budget of around 2.5 crore, but when they told him they couldn’t afford to spend that amount, he calculated a discount because he was excited to see the score. The choir is made up of singers from 10 countries across Europe and they come together during the off season to rehearse for their next season. And Matt decided to host the rehearsal of this project as part of their regular rehearsal, which removed the `1.5 crore that usually goes towards rehearsals. Still, the number was pretty formidable and when they asked for an extra discount he spoke to his choir members (who also thought it was something new to them), and came up to them with a figure of about `75 lakh to` 1 crore.
Ganesh then recorded a simulated version of the entire piece using a local singer, Sooraj, to perform the solo parts. Now, after the people involved in the project have done all they can, the team is raising funds by appealing to interested people – a kind of crowdfunding. And they’re happy to do it that way because that’s how everything about divine plans was done in ancient times. If a king wanted to build a temple, he wouldn’t do it on his own or would only call three or four wealthy people and ask them to fund the project. He would ask all of his subjects to donate something – it might even be just a handful of rice – so that it benefits everyone, âsays Anand. They have tentatively blocked a date – September 20, 2015 – in Frankfurt for the world premiere and rehearsals will start a week earlier. They are still collecting contributions but time is running out because they have to find the funds no later than mid-August. And as a long term plan, after the premiere, we plan to bring the choir to Chennai and perform the concert in Chennai and take them on a three phase tour – concerts in Singapore and Malaysia, then in the to west, across Europe, then to the United States and Canada, reveals Anand.
Our objective is to carry out a project in Tamil language which will have a global reach. If presented in a classical Western format and performed by Westerners, it immediately enters traditional Western classical music itself through the performance of choral groups, âexplains Ganesh.
WHEN SHANMUGA KAVACHAM HEALED PAMBAN SWAMIGAL!
Legend has it that in 1923 Pamban Swamigal had an accident when an oxcart wheel rolled over his foot. He was rushed to the government hospital in Chennai, where an x-ray revealed a few bones had been broken. When British doctors advised him to amputate his leg to prevent further infection, Swamigal prayed for a few minutes and told them Lord Muruga told him it was not necessary and the broken bones would mend. He then asked his disciples to recite the Shanmuga Kavacham at their homes and continued to stay in the hospital. On the 11th day, he saw a vision of two peacocks dancing in front of his window. He got up from his bed and walked to the window. When the stunned doctors took an x-ray, the bones miraculously joined together!
The Shanmuga Kavacham is a devotional hymn, a compilation of 30 verses, written by Pamban Swamigal in 1891. The popular Kanda Sashti Kavacham must be sung 36 times a day to take full advantage. So, Pamban Swamigal decided to write a new inspired one, which can give the same benefits even if it is only recited once a day. He believed that God is omnipotent and that he inhabits and permeates every soul by activating it from within. So, he wrote the play, which is divided into six chapters, which deal with the human body, dark forces, animals, diseases, fate and dimensions. Even though he is a Hindu saint, he is said to include all religions and has written that anyone belonging to any community, religion, language and nationality will benefit when he recites this verse.