With early-morning light filtering through the expansive canopy of a banyan tree, students gather in a wooded area worlds away from the teeming masses and chittering horns of central Chennai. The sweltering Indian heat has not yet taken hold, and there's a relaxed atmosphere as last-minute stragglers remove their sandals and hurriedly step up to a raised circular platform.
It's a visual feast, with the multi-hued rainbow of saris a variegated foil to the muted earth tones of the trees, jet-black hair of the overwhelmingly female group, and reddish-brown soil. On invisible cue, silence descends and there's a moment of anticipatory respite. A buzzing, single-note drone begins, and, unified, the students begin to chant.
It's an artistically-inclined group, with people from the far provinces of India peppered with an occasional devotee from South America or America. They're here studying Indian arts-- instruments like the veena, various traditional Indian dance forms, theatre, and the violin, which was introduced into the Carnatic tradition by military musicians traveling with the East India Company and Portuguese missionaries.
As the chant rises on a meandering upward journey, pentatonic leanings give way to more complex scales. Bent notes, glissandi, and ornamentations are intuitive for some singers, who close their eyes and connect with their surroundings. Others follow curvilinear Tamil script in their notebooks, singing the ancient Sanskrit, Christian, Muslim and Hindu texts in a monophonic melody that seemingly dips into a unified stream of ancient consciousness.
After several minutes, the devotional is over, and the business of the day begins. But, for just a moment, the last note of the chant hangs in the wooded air, punctuated only by the rustle of the breeze and the calls of kingfishers from the branches.