Monday, May 4, 2015

Travelling light: a journey in music

Chapter 4
The Chennai Season

The veteran violinist on stage is a picture of composure. He coaxes the most transcendental sounds out of his ancient violin. His opening salvo stirs the soul as only a great raga at the hands of a great master can. The concert is not all about total surrender in the best bhakti mode. It offers joy and playfulness as well, when the artist moves from worshipping at the altar of an omnipresent, compassionate god to marvel at the pranks of the little blue god, playing the perennial favourite, Krishna nee begane baro. As the concert progresses, you realise it is a master class for aspiring musicians.

The reverie is unfortunately broken by a cellphone going off in the second row. Soon a middle-aged man is engaged in loud conversation on his handset. You try to give him a dirty look and shame him, but he closes his eyes and continues his conversation. Another cellphone rings two rows from you. A couple have an equally loud conversation about the concert, with the man getting a free lesson in raga-identification.

At another venue, the same evening, a young woman is playing the flute with the mastery of someone years senior to her. Ten minutes into the concert, a young man walks in and occupies a seat in the front row. Seasoned listeners can identify him as the husband of the flautist on stage. Now what does he do to encourage his wife? He stretches his legs, leans back and spreads out the afternoon issue of Kutcheri Buzz--the tabloid avidly consumed by the hordes of music lovers who throng the auditoria during the famed Chennai music season, now covering almost all of November and December.

People constantly walk in and walk out. Videographers and photographers occupy vantage positions, unmindful of the people whose views they are blocking. Children wail. Mothers run out in panic.
The Chennai Season has arrived. People, who never so much as peep into an auditorium during the rest of the year, now invade all the well known halls of Chennai. Banners and hoardings mar the aesthetics of the concerts as much as the loud and often erratic amplification. When the musicians are not asking the mikemen to increase the volume of the “feedback”–invariably taken to be a signal to raise the decibellage of the speakers aimed at the audience—the senior citizens in the front rows shout “Not audible” in a chorus.

This is the time local Carnatic music buffs as well as the NRIs who descend on Chennai every winter go from concert hall to concert hall to take in one or more of the thousands of “cutcheris” organised in a marvel of logistics and time management. Various sabhas, a ubiquitous, uniquely Tamil Nadu institution, vie with one another to bring the best of Carnatic music to the city’s audiences in a frenzy of programming. Lecture demonstrations and concerts are held throughout the day, starting as early as 7.30 a.m. and ending around 10 p.m. for two weeks. Because each sabha starts its festival on a different date, the whole frenetic schedule nowadays stretches to a couple of months.

Kitchens are closed at countless homes, as there’s no time to cook and clean or even stop over between concerts. Delicious ‘tiffin’ and aromatic ‘full meals’ in the temporary eateries specially put up for the season draw rasikas from all parts of the city, but those who are there for the food alone and not the music far outnumber the music-lovers.

The unique atmosphere of the season has to be seen to be believed. All the great and aspiring artists of Carnatic music perform at different venues. Many of them overdo it, accepting literally every invitation to perform for fear of offending the sabha secretaries, their lifeline to a successful career in music. This season, some of the stars have decided to limit their appearances in order to preserve their voices (or instruments) and retain the freshness of their music. (One hugely popular star has gone on record saying she is really taking it easy, she is only doing 15 concerts during the season)!
Every newspaper brings out special supplements on the season. Some TV channels even conduct their own festivals. Critics damn or praise the musicians, but today’s musicians are often well educated and extremely tech-savvy, perfectly capable of striking back at the pen pushers.

 “Carnatic music is alive and well”, seems to be the verdict of most critics, but old timers predictably lament the inability of today’s practitioners to equal the class of the stalwarts of the past.
Among the musicians themselves, opinions vary as to the state of Carnatic music today. Some say, ‘Those were the days when the rasika-s were really serious about attending season concerts and it was not just a fad. Today, we miss the serious rasika.’
Others say, “The audience is more demanding now. It inspires us through the year to do well, give of our best.” 

Everyone who has ever been a part of the Chennai Season will however agree on one thing: There is nothing in the national music calendar to beat it for sheer excitement.

Our man in Madras-Chennai
Having been away from Chennai for a whole decade, Krishnan tried to attend season concerts at a feverish pace, going from sabha to sabha for the first couple of years since his return to the city in the early 1980s. That was the time the great men and women singers of the 20th century were in their ripest bloom, but there were also emerging superstars in the likes of TN Seshagopalan, TV Sankaranarayanan and Maharajapuram Santhanam. This was at the cusp of the era of the new kids on the block, like Vijay Siva, Bombay Jayashri, Sanjay Subrahmanyan and Unnikrishnan. The mandolin sensation U Srinivas was wowing audiences ranging from geriatric to juvenile. Ravikiran, the child prodigy, was making a second coming as a gottuvadyam tyro, still uncomfortable in dhoti-kurta, while another child prodigy Veenai Gayathri continued to play sensational music .

But all this was some two decades after Krishnan had had his first taste of the festival. The first time he had attended a concert that formed part of the Music Academy's December season was in the early 1960s, when he was around 17. Earlier, He had once or twice been part of the audience at the grounds of his first alma mater PS High School (before his father's transfer to a small town), where the music was performed in the very special atmosphere of a thatched roof pandal, as the Academy was yet to build its own auditorium.

By this time, he had been fully involved in his passion for cricket, followed closely by his interest in Hindi film music and Hindustani music. This was also a time of voracious appetite for reading what he considered great literature and philosophy. The inspiration came from a number of sources--his parents, cousins, friends and teachers. The range of reading was wide, and included Charles Dickens, RL Stevenson, Alexandre Dumas, George Bernard Shaw, Oscar Wilde, JB Priestley, Terence Rattigan, Noel Coward, AJ Cronin,  Albert Camus, Somerset Maugham, Jerome K Jerome, Stephen Leacock, Aldous Huxley, RK Narayan, Manohar Malgonkar, a whole lot of American playwrights, and above all, PG Wodehouse. He was no longer into Tamil fiction by the likes of Kalki, Jayakanthan and Devan, a childhood interest that would resurface years later, though he did make an exception in the case of Sujatha's thrillers, and the novelty of Indira Parthasarathy's writings.

In the 1960s, he continued to savour the concerts of the giants of Carnatic music, whom he now heard at the Music Academy's premises on the rare occasion some elder spared him a ticket, but caught up with the concerts he missed via All India Radio, which broadcast season concerts by regular arrangement.

The high point of that first season that Krishnan attended was Ravi Shankar's concert, which ended at the stroke of midnight. Panditji and Ustad Allah Rakha gave the audience much to cheer, with their exquisite music, and exciting sawal-jawab exchanges. Though Krishnan heard great vocalists like Amir Khan, Paluskar and Bhimsen Joshi in the few film songs they rendered, Nikhil Banerji's sitar had been the only Hindustani music he had been exposed to. He only got to hear that great sitarist as an elder relative was his disciple. With the Ravi Shankar concert began Krishnan's life-long love of Hindustani music.

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