The Cleveland Thyagaraja Festival: The largest Indian classical music festival outside of India

 Started in 1978, the event has now grown to be a 12-day festival with more than 10,000 attendees

By Suchitra Srinivas

Started as a musical gathering in a basement of a local Church with only a few people in the audience, the Cleveland Thyagaraja Music Festival has grown manifolds in the last 43 years. V. V. Sundaram, secretary and co-founder of the Cleveland Aradhana Committee (CAC) was just like his fellow immigrant Indians who had lots of dreams and aspirations for not only the profession but for Indian fine arts as well.

Congressman Raja Krishnamoorthi was the special guest at the event

“Moved by wild love for listening to a good concert, we organized the first one. Finding people with an interest in music became a tough task. To fulfill our mission of bringing Indian classical music to the US we needed a larger audience. We brought artists who could stay in the US and teach music to children here. Senior artists like Nedunuri Krishnamurthy stayed for months teaching even basic lessons of Sarali Varisai,” recalls Sundaram.

Organizing 15 hours of non-stop music concerts, starting at 8 am each day for 12 days, Sundaram never falls short of enthusiasm and has been so for the past 43 years.

Was the pandemic signaling a stop?

No, 2023 Aradhana was yet another bang, he says.

Veteran musicians from India singing the pancharatna krithi of the saint composer Thyagaraja

About 5000 people attended the rendering of the group singing of Saint Thyagaraja’s Pancharatna kritis in 2019. The three years that followed were all about COVID. It was thought that restarting the Aradhana could be a real challenge. But quite the contrary in 2023 participation never took the hit. Over 1400 children participated and the competitions happened with the usual vigor. 112 programs organized in the 12 days attracting an audience of over 12000 is a great feat.

Musical dance drama production “Oozh – the divine destiny”

The local grocery shops and pizza outlets are used to having the Indian audience visit their shops for some bites. “Come April we look forward to seeing those young children dressed in colorful Indian attire ordering pizzas,” said a local vendor.

“Flying from the West Coast and staying for a week is definitely expensive yet it enriches our experience,” said a parent. “We make travel arrangements much ahead to book the best deals,” claimed another.

Sushmitha Ravikumar of MA (vocal), Prahlad Saravanapriyan of CA (Violin) and Arvind Kaushik (Mridangam) from Chennai during performance

Sustaining Sampradaya, Carnatic Symphony, Carnatic Epic Choir and a host of group performances are very popular. Children from around the US get trained for months by veteran practicing musicians from India. The organizing committee presents a good spread of artists. Equal focus is given to the young US talent.

Initially, it was all about getting veteran artists from India, but then the mission moved to teach and prepare the US audience to appreciate music. Today we have a very good number of young Indian Americans performing exceedingly well, says organizers.

Carnatic Symphony -Students from across the US presenting

On to a question, would Cleveland move to different destinations, Sundaram said, “not with the emotional connection we developed with this city.” The organizing committees with over 100 volunteers start the work right after the conclusion of the festival each year. There is no hierarchy and everyone is a volunteer.

“Cleveland Aradhana has tremendous goodwill and we are still not able to accommodate all requests to participate,” he said.

This year the sustaining Sampradaya model program for the Bharathanatyam was also introduced. Sixteen children from across the world were trained on a theme by iconic dancers from India and performed.

It costs around $6,50,000 to host a 12-day festival of this scale and the committee manages funds through contributions from well-wishers, loans, and donations, said Sundaram.

Showing a $100 check pulled out from his pocket, he continued “We are always ready to accept small or big contributions and I keep making that announcement shamelessly but to one’s disbelief we receive the money required to pull the strings.”

Audience gathered to witness the panchatantra rendition

Sundaram, a health freak summed up his four-decade journey of organizing Cleveland Aradhana to the sign board readings, found while biking uphill, 6000 ft above while panting for breath due to lack of oxygen; the signboard shows up: “It may sound crazy believe me this helps.” Just as he would continue to bike that time he continues to host the Cleveland Aradhana every year.

The festival has definitely helped many pursue their passion, provided the access to trainers, and opened up the platform to perform.

Definitely, a bucket list destination for true art lovers.

Image courtesy of Provided

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