Carnatic and all that brass
Years ago, the Corporation Band enthralled music lovers with a liberal dose of Carnatic kritis. In a season that celebrates classicism, GOWRI RAMNARAYAN marches past memory lane...
MEN IN flaming costumes of crimson and blue, tasselled and frilled, striped with gold and silver, playing rousing marches on brass instruments big and small, in festive streets and public parks, in processions at wedding and election times...Life in Chennai continues to resound with the music of its brass bands.
Old timers can recall fascinating tidbits about the bands of the past, starting with those of the European regiments stationed in Fort St.George, Madras, to the city's Police Band. Every day at dusk, the latter played opposite what is now the DGP's office for the colourful ceremony of lowering the flag.
This ``Last Post'' ritual was also accompanied by the blowing of bugles. (Sadly, this practice has been discontinued). You will learn that the Anglo Indian Band of the Anglo Indian Volunteers Regiment played frisky medleys at sports grounds during hockey matches, and strains both frolicsome and plaintive for ballroom dancing at the Victoria Public Hall.
The old bands had detailed histories of their own. For example, the Leinstar Regiment (Royal Canadians) had its final parade in Madras with Irish pipes, and a drummer with dog skin apron. (This was the tanned skin of Sam, the Newfoundland dog, which marched in front of the band while alive).
And did you know that the Light Infantry (with battalions stationed in Madras) gave itself airs because it had a bugle horn?
My request for records of the Madras bands triggered the librarian's childhood listening experiences in People's Park, My Ladye's Garden, on Santhome Square and Marina Beach. He recalled that ``Corporation Band plays Carnatic Music'' was a regular advertisement of those times.
The band was a crowd puller, with its sizeable repertoire of kritis by Tyagaraja and Muthuswami Dikshitar. Lovers of Carnatic music will know that the attraction was mutual. Didn't these two maestros compose their own lyrics to the tunes popularised by the British Band? Remember "Varalilaganalola", and ``Santatam pahimam'', which transforms ``God save the king'' into a prayer to Parvati? The trend went on, as with the invention of raga Kadanakutuhalam, compositions like the Bilahari swarajati ("Rara venugopala"), and Madurai Mani Iyer's famous ``English Note", all modelled on band melodies. (And come December, don't we hear sangati fusillades in the festival cutcheris, crashing into the upper octave like trumpet and drum?
Only recently did I realise that Madras bands from the British era to the Rahman hejira would make splendid audio-visual material for docufilm and feature.
This was after watching a documentary at "Films from the South" festival, Oslo, by three young Latin American film school graduates, Sebastian Schindel, Nicolas Batlle and Fernando Molnar.
Their ``Rerum Novarum", profiling a 64-year-old band of that name in the Lujan province of Argentina, did more than trace a bit of local history. It evolved into a micro depiction of the global struggle to maintain individual identity and self esteem in the midst of social decay, economic recession and sliding values.
Starting in black and white, the film burst into the glorious scarlet of the band members' coats as they played with dedication and in high spirits. Newsreels from the past along with recollections of the old guard revealed how the progressive Flemish owner of the Flandria cotton plant founded the band in 1937.
The generous patron gave band members every privilege, including that of practising during factory hours.
"In those days, this was a town of 3000 workers, with looms which produced everything from car rugs to velvet. When I was 16, I earned as much as a bank manager did,'' an old worker recalls proudly. The factory owner ensured that prosperity brought higher standards by building streets, bridges, dairies, schools, hospitals, and clubs.
The closure of the plant brought hard times. The band lost both payment and privileges. But none stopped playing.
They continued to perform out of personal interest and the strength of bonding developed over the years. ``Someone may say he is too infirm and retire,'' a member smiles. But he will return within 15 days.'' After all, the band is an extension of their lives.
The present group has three generations of musicians; the youngsters are sons or nephews of the regulars. A recent change is the entry of a few daughters and nieces into the ranks. The film has good editing, an evocative choice of songs. There is gentle humour in dialogue and visual. The characters are many, but etched firmly, each old man has his distinct identity.
The silent moments are telling, as when the men revisit the factory where they had worked, now dark, dusty, cobweb-strung, derelict, desolate...
A powerful contrast is that of the band in rehearsal, when you see young faces bent over their instrument in earnest concentration, working in amity with the old.
The messages are communicated without underscoring: respect for experience, encouragement of youth, team spirit, and a love of doing something well for its own sake.
For filmmaker Sebastian Schindel, a great thrill was the awed comment from the young musicians after seeing his film,``Gosh! We didn't know there was so much to learn about our own band!"
"Rerum Novarum'' demonstrates that film can be a powerful medium for self-awareness, as individuals and as a community, striving for stability in a rocking world.
How stimulating when the process is linked to music! You see that tradition and values have a chance of survival after all.
CHENNAI HAS some of the best film makers in the country, and certainly some of the best music in every genre from the frivolous to the solemn, from military marches by its brass bands, to church choirs singing carols, as well as Tamil kirtanais on Christ. Not to forget bhajanai processions round the Kapaliswarar temple led by classical musicians like Papanasam Sivan, D.K.Jayaraman and S.Ramanathan in the past, with participation by Ashok Ramani, Neyveli Santhanagopalan, Vijay Siva and others in more recent times. Isn't it surprising therefore to learn that this music has never been the focus of any serious docu-film in Tamil Nadu? True, feature filmmakers have been tremendously inventive in harnessing music to their purpose, and docu-film makers have profiled individual artists now and then. But no one has made a film, which perceives music as a way of life, a means of community bonding, the evolution of history, changing social values, or the struggle for existence.
Even a cursory look at the December scenario will zoom in on subjects galore for the venture. The slow extinction of the nagaswaram, the emergence of women performers from mere songsters to full fledged concert artistes, the phenomenon of the Chennai sabha, fusion music by classical and film composers...And what about the evolution of the Madras music festival from evening entertainment for delegates of some long ago political convention, to an annual event of vital cultural significance?
"Nauka Charitramu" directed by Saroj Satyanarayan, presented a studied version of the spiritual quest of music through three legendary women musicians (M.S.Subbulakshmi, D.K.Pattammal, T.Brinda). "Season" by R.V.Ramani remained limited despite its length. "You get nothing from it, not even a feel of the music season it tries to capture," was one view. Another conceded that the film had its moments of intensity. Though thin and impressionistic "it looked around and not just at the centre."
A Chennai film historian said he knew of no other similar venture. He had himself tried to make a historical film on Tamil Isai in 1993, locating it as a non-brahmin communitarian movement, which had supporters among the brahmin performers of Carnatic music. It fizzled out due to ego clashes in Chettinad where he did a lot of painstaking research on the theme. Asked if he knew of any docu-film on the Madras music scene, another veteran filmmaker declared, "No. Great idea though. Maybe I can work on it..."
Send this article to Friends by