(Jottings about events in the 2007 December season in Chennai.  Published in Sruti with the byline ‘Sarvalaghu’)

Margazhi was celebrated in the city with full gusto – music concerts, dance concerts, lecdems, tiruppavai pravachanam, other kathakalakshepams, awards, canteens… and this despite horrendous roads in many parts of the city and intermittent heavy rains.  Following are some stray reports and jottings about a few events during the “season”.

One of the earliest events in the city in December, heralding margazhi as it were, was a talk by John Strotton Hawley of Columbia University organised by Prakriti Foundation.  The talk, titled “Seeing the Bhakti Movement”, was on a peripheral, if interesting, aspect of the bhakti movement.  What stories about the bhakti movement can we find in sculpture and architecture?  What, about the bhakti movement, can we (literally) see?  With mild suggestions thrown in that to talk of a “movement” is a mere convenience, trying to understand one verse in Bhagavata Mahatmyam, a little known text, the talk was delicately nuanced.  And even though the lecture did not address this question, the question that one carried away was what our dance and music would have been without the bhakti movement!  This is not meant as a rhetorical question because surely, if the bhakti movement had not happened our dance and music would have moved in another direction.  Ah!  But which?  Actually, the course of classical dance forms perhaps has not been determined by the bhakti movement as music has been, especially Carnatic music….

Talking of bhakti, the tailend pieces in a Carnatic concert tend to be overtly and explicitly bhakti oriented.  Abhang-s and bhajan-s are, of course, immensely popular even when they are rendered with atrocious pronounciation and full Carnatic nuances. But seriously, there is enough variety in Carnatic music itself and the satisfaction of hearing or singing a tiruppugazh or tevaram or padam at the end of a concert cannot be matched by tirtha vitthala, kshetra vithala – but who is anyone to sermonise when janata janardan thinks otherwise!  What is really irksome is when these songs or any other tukada song is sung with explicit sentimentality.  If there is a “Muruga” or a “Krishna” or “Vitthala” in the song, then oh, one can expect to hear the singer tugging at those words, going progressively higher and higher until there is the all too predictable dramatic ending with a “Muruga!” at the tara sthayi gandharam or some such swara! 

There was this memorable concert of Gopalakrishna Bharathi songs by Sanjay Subrahmanyan a couple of years ago when he had the audience spellbound with neraval at aduttu vanda ennai tallalagadu.  There was Kambhoji pure and unadultrated – no sentimental toying with swaras or words.  It was truly moving and a member of the audience was so moved he suddenly got up and burst out with a muruganukku harohara!  Never mind that he got the wrong god, the feeling was genuine. The singer, however, just looked on impassively and went on to the next piece.  But that is how it should be.  A Carnatic vocalist should sing the kritis and ragas etc, and that itself will do the job of elevating.

The poor harassed mikeman was a villain in many places, as usual.  Srimushnam Raja Rao’s outburst while on stage with veteran Srikanthan and Ravi kiran (a unique event as billed by Carnatica) had the latter two squirming.  “If you would only leave the amplification at one level, I will know how to play.  You keep raising and lowering the mike, I have to raise my decible level too.”  He was obviously very irritated and continued, “Some people don’t like the mridangam and so they keep asking for the volume to be lowered – avaaloda kadai arutudanum.  Mridangam illamal enna sangitam?”  Anyone in his place would have been irritated, not everyone in his place would have burst out like this.  But all sympathies to Raja Rao Sir.  It is hard enough for the artists to settle into a concert and to have such avoidable extraneous factors is well, avoidable!  A senior Khayal vocalist in Pune once just packed up and left without singing for the AIR when she had to put up with the air conditioning coming on and going off thrice.  The instruments all had to be retuned each time and she had had enough….

Talking of mikes and mridangam players, one mridangam player was complaining that he did not have enough feedback during his concert for Nada Inbam.  And then he said something mind boggling – “I am here after playing for three concerts – it is such a strain for me if the mike is not set loudly enough.”

One can’t imagine the physical and mental exhaustion that such a feat must involve – four concerts in a day and that too a physically demanding one like mridangam accompaniment.  But it is surely no solution that the mike be raised to a level high enough to spare him more physical strain!  Such is the madness of this phenomenon of the mad mad season that many musicians, especially accompanists, perform at more than one venue on many days.  Accompaniment and any kind of performance in general, besides the physical demands, is a matter of having some instincts right and surely that must get dulled if one performs for such long hours.

Even vocalists perform at more than venue on the same day.  The more the merrier, as they say!

Kalakshtera flagged off its season concerts with a film by Chennai based R.V. Ramani called SEASON.  The film captures moments with most leading singers and dancers before, during and after their concerts during the 1996-97 season.  It is surely one of its kind and a must see.  Director Leela Samson also launched the Kalakshetra website.

Oh, and there were no mosquitoes!  I had gone clothed to take the Kalaksetra mosquitoes which can really bite through your clothing to get their share of your blood!  But, it was mosqui free!  I asked the girl sitting next to me in her dance practice costume:  “where are the mosquitoes?”  She looked a bit dazed, unsure that she had heard right.  Obviously a sense of humour is a rare occurrence among the students there.  It turns out Ms. Samson has come up with a simple solution – tortoise coils or Goodnight coils or whatever.  But she had these stuck all over the place and hey presto!  It is such a simple solution.  But not every evening during their series had these repellants, or so one hears!


Pt. Ulhas Kashalkar, one of the finest exponents of Khayal in the country, sang at Kalakshetra to a not very full house.  But those who were there enjoyed his Chayanat, Basant etc. immensely.  When someone mentioned he could have sung Patbihag or some other jod raga, the Pandit said with a smile, yes, but it is difficult to find good tanpura-s here!  Now where in the world did that come from, one wonders.  The point is that singing a complex raga requires a greater level of concentration and if the tanpura does not stay steady it can be really tough!

But, it should surely offend anyone in Chennai that we are deemed not to have good tanpuras/tamburas by the northies.  Pt. Kashalkar is not the only one who has this opinion.  But, it is a sad truth.  There is very little awareness about tanpura maintenance in this great cultural beehive that is Chennai.  The idea of changing strings regularly, keeping the bridge in good condition etc. are simply not part of the consciousness of the average Carnatic musician.

It might strike the most casual observer that in a Hindustani concert the tanpura –s are often retuned in the middle of a concert whereas in Carnatic concerts, while the tuning of the mridangam and violin are often adjusted, the tanpura is rarely retuned.  What can the reason be?  Maybe those Hindustani tanpuras don’t stay tuned while our Carnatic ones do?  Or maybe the singers are not senstive enough to the fluctuations in the tanpura’s tuning?

Most Carnatic vocalist perhaps don’t really use the tambura – they may take two or three tanpura-s on stage, but the question is to what extent are they really listening to it.  The more fundamental issue is whether the tambura can be heard clearly for most part of the concert – even by the musicians on stage, leave alone the audience!  The vocalists rely on the accompanying violin it seems for sruti!

One star singer started to tune the tambura on stage for her concert for Nada Inbam and the mridangam artist offered to do it.  She smilingly and willingly let him do it and when it was “done”, she did not think it necessary to check if it was indeed tuned properly!  Won’t be able to hear it anyway! Such a thing is astonishing, but there are many Carnatic vocalists who do not care to pick up the fine art of tuning the tanpura.  Especially now with the electronic tanpura coming in many shapes and sizes.

And, during the concert of a young singer, who actually had a tambura on stage, instead of just the electronic one, the tambura was quite off key.  The only person to be bothered by it was the poor tambura player.  At one point he could take it no more and tried to adjust the tuning but the singer and the violinist admonished him as respectfully as they could – you see time was running out and a couple more songs had to be sung!

There is another angle to this.  SVK, the late SVK of Nada Inbam, once told me that the kind of sruti shuddha that is an ideal in Hindustani music cannot be achieved in Carnatic music.  It ought not to be sought was his opinion.  There is something in this to mull over.  The pinpointed precision of notes that Hindustani musicians aim at is not the Carnatic musician’s objective.  The ubiquitous presence of gamaka-s and the greater value of azhuttam pushes this away somewhat.  More important is the madhyama kala rendition that is the norm in carnatic music.  Of course, there has to be a general sruti shuddham but it is different in kind from what Hindustani musicians aim at.  A related phenomenon here is the strident growth of the crooning style of singing among Carnatic vocalists, both male and female, which many connoisseurs deplore.  Would this be the result of a (perhaps misplaced) seeking after the pitch perfect?

Hamsadhwani of course ran its NRI festival and I did hear one of them – a lady from Madrid, Spain!  How in heavens does she keep it up – not that the music was outstanding or anything, but certainly there was hard work in it.  She sang Bhairavi (Yaro ivar yaro) with a detailed alapana etc. – with generous splashes of Todi!  The poor violinist (very much local) accompanying her shut her eyes tight each time the Todi garnish was thrown in.  Yet, it is a good thing that Ms Mohan was getting this platform to sing in Chennai.  Performance opportunites keep spirits up and eggs one on to improve and wherever these artistse are in the world, they do their bit about spreading Carnatic music.    That was the vison of RRC.  Of course Todi should be kept out of Bhairavi, and the sad thing is that these musicians and dancers perhaps just don’t get the right kind of feedback – the kind that is called constructive critisicm.

This is also the season for the Q and A.  Musicians are called upon to answer questions from members of the audience – and not all of them relish it.  But some positively revel in it.  There was this question put to Neyveli Santhanagolan on a TV programme.  The caller was obviously a young person, and her question was this:  “They say that if you sing the ragam Chandrakauns during a fullmoon night, a chakram (or some such thing) will rise from the waters.  Is this true?”  The question was so genuine and naiive and innocent!  Now, how in the world does one answer such a question?  It is like being asked by a child if Santa Claus is real!  There is much that is part of musical lore and a musician cannot rubbish it; at the same time one cannot blatanly say “yes” to such a question.  But, Santhanagopalan handled it with astonishing finesse.

There were many attempts at offering newer experiences to audiences besides the regular concerts and lecdems.  Mudhra with its penchant for the new and novel, included in its month-long series a few thematic presentations such as a multimedia presentation called “Ariyakkudi to Semmangudi”, and “Trimurthy Vaibhavam” and also held a quiz contest, besides running Carnatic music appreciation programmes.  Carnatica jumped into the December bandwagon with a series of concerts and presentation of the award “Nisshanka Sarangadeva” to Dr. V. V. Srivatsa.  Global Carnatic Music Association organised a series of events billed “Coffee with a Carnatic celebrity” and had musicians like Aruna Sairam, Neyveli Santhanagopalan, Ganesh Kumaresh, Sudha Raghunathan interact with interested people over coffee at Sangeetha Hotel outlet.

And so it goes, newer and newer programmes, longer and longer series, more and more sabhas….  They say the word “margazhi” is on its way into dictionaries other than Tamil to mean a musical and dance extravaganza!

Lakshmi Sreeram

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.