Sunday, November 28, 2010

Carnatic Carnival

(Adapted from something I wrote for The Hindu Folio on 29 November 1998).

For all the controversy that surrounded it, the recent Commonwealth Games was a grand spectacle, a mammoth task of organization. It must have been a nightmare of logisitics, like all mega events of the kind.

If the organizers of the Games had consulted that uniquely south Indian body of men, the ubiquitous sabha secretaries of Chennai, they would have gained valuable insights into how to run a multidimensional show of even greater complexity. These miracle makers manage year after year to conduct hundreds of Carnatic music concerts packed into a month of frenzied programming, featuring formidable teams, at dozens of far flung theatres of war. Yes, these are the modern versions of the Carnatic War fought not by the British and the French, but by these little cultural oligarchies. In a marvel of logistics, time and resource management, they detonate an explosion of rhythm and raga razzmatazz that leaves whole suburban populations stunned. Their weaponry? Antiquated amplification systems whose noise levels create world records on the Richter scale.

The early morning lec-dems investigate in minute detail such compellingly seminal topics as "The Influence of Schopenhauer and Nietzsche on the Development of the Mela Karta Scheme" or "Rap, Raga and Rachmaninov: Is Fusion The Way to Go?". That is where demure damsels, fiery feminists, voluble vocalists, and intimidatory instrumentalists vie for top honours with obstreperous octogenarians and superannuated scholars.

These are followed by the virgin volleys of child prodigies and teenage tyros, unleashed at an unsuspecting public straying idly in after a hearty repast at the cafeteria. (The last IMRB survey reportedly revealed that, for every critically ill concertgoer, there were at least three committed canteengoers. Their unfaltering support has over the decades raised what started as a modest sideshow into a spectacular main attraction during the music season. In fact, in some circles it has been suggested that the Chennai December season be renamed the Food n' Frolic Fest.
Some of these postprandial somnambulists settle down into deep slumber even as the next batch of curious onlookers fights its way towards the rare empty seat. By now they are hampered by the growing crowd, and overzealous ushers who learnt their job by correspondence and never got beyond lesson two, to borrow a simile from "English literature's performing flea", P.G. Wodehouse. This is the high point of the unfolding drama, the last chance before the next season comes round to pass judgment on the stars of tomorrow without paying for admission.

To borrow yet another intriguing piece of imagery by yet another eminent Englishman, Bertrand Russell, a Martian visitor who happens to land his flying saucer at the Music Academy one December afternoon, will go away with the impression that earthlings who have strayed from the path of virtue are packed into uncomfortable seats and tortured by sophisticated acoustics; those guilty of the more heinous crimes are banished to the balcony.

Suitably stirred by the vigour of the vocal gymnastics on display during the next two hours, these devout worshippers of the divine music of our ancestors, spring into action even as the last strains of the mangalam begin to fill the auditorium. To make a quick dash for the door, and head straight for the canteen is for them as effortless as drowning the vocalist's feeble attempts at being heard is for violinists and percussionists. After reviving themselves with a stiff coffee or two, they then cleverly take a detour around the ticket window towards the exit, to rest and recuperate before they hit the roads on the morrow. For this is the hour that produces the man - the supreme optimist at the ticket counter who hopes against hope, that this season's share of the uninitiated will pay to listen to the senior vidwan featured here, and not gravitate towards a free cutcheri elsewhere.

What infinite variety this indefatigable band of music lovers present! An endangered species is the doughty old warriors whose first season coincided with the debut of Ariyakudi Ramanuja Ayyangar, the trailblazer whom critics have charged with inventing the modern cutcheri format. These are the most admirable segment of the audience, for they have braved the rigours of classical music in the severe Chennai winter for over half a century, sweater-and muffler-clad, and remaining stolidly critical of succeeding generations of vidwans. Anno Domini is catching up and alas, this species will soon be extinct, replaced entirely by more thick skinned listeners whom the December cold leaves untouched.

Mylapore mamis too are fast becoming a vanishing feature of the season. The swirling silks and glittering diamonds which were an integral part of the scene earlier are becoming less conspicuous every year. One school of thought however has it that the mamis still continue to throng the sabhas, only they are disguised as lesser mortals. This deduction is based on a recent research finding that the number of patrons in the front rows who talk through concerts has actually increased in the last decade. (A similar finding is that the number of men who sing along is also on the upswing, with a significant growth in percentage of apaswaram. At last count too, an incredible 22 per cent of the audience were found guilty of wrong tala accompaniment during tani avartanam).

To earn the applause of a Chennai audience is not easy, unless you happen to be a Hindustani instrumentalist with long hair, purple kurta and an American accent with which you announce that you will treat them to the exotic delight of raag Hamsadhwani. The Carnatic musician may occasionally mesmerise audiences abroad. But his manodharma is scarcely equal to the irresistible lure of the 8.35 bus home. Every percussionist from Palghat Mani Iyer down to Vikku Vinayakram has lost out to the fatal attraction of the aroma of coffee wafting in from the canteen at tani avartanam time.

Increasingly, devotees from the wicked West descend on staid old Chennai during the December season. Some of them look more Indian than Indians, veshti-jibba, sari-pigtails, jolna bags and all, but what really distinguishes these seekers of nirvana through raga and gamaka is their glazed expression. And they, like their Indian counterparts, keep coming back for more, such is the addictive power of the season for all seasons.

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