Adding spice to swara sessions
The Margazhi music season in Chennai is not just food for the soul but also for the stomach, what with most rasikas spending more time in sabha canteens savouring traditional delicacies.
Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer... an inspiring presence.
"I WAS twelve when I accompanied Chembai (Vaidyanatha Bhagavatar) at a concert where he expanded the raga and sang" Brovavamma''. On the way home my father asked me what raga I had played. I replied at once, 'Bhairavi of course.' That was when I learnt that the raga in question, which resembled Bhairavi so closely, was a different one called Manji. Soon after my father took me to G N B (ala Subrahmanyam) who taught me its form and features.'' This engaging reminiscence was from violinist T.N.Krishnan at the raga lakshana session, the Music Academy, where allied ragas (someone called them cousins) were analysed."
Let me have my say first otherwise my partner S.R.Janakiraman will not only expound on his theme, but exhaust mine,'' said V.Subramaniam, and went on to give a pithy picture of Janaranjani. S.R.J discoursed on its sibling Purnachandrika, reeling off an inexhaustible wealth of facts, references and examples traversing the centuries on a texts-hopping journey.
The audience sparkled with musicians young and old, ready to pounce on every debatable point made on the stage. This bred its own etiquette and jargon, where vociferous humility becomes armour and strategy for the speakers, against fierce attacks from the floor (`If there is anything right in what I am saying it is due to the blessing of elders, any mistake is my own limitation for which I beg forgiveness' was a steady refrain).
"Does the Nayaki gandhara belong to Darbar or Nayaki'' asked a senior rasika of another as they tottered down the stairs of the mini hall after the session. "No idea," replied his friend, tapping the walking stick in a wobbly sankirna nadai. "But after listening to the experts I realise that sadly, all my life, I have relied on instinct, not science identifying both ragas right through wrong methods.'' Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer may never have inspired the adulation in the years he made magnificent music as now, when he talks with a magnificent disregard for time. The nonagerian walked in with gleam intact in eye, impishness in tongue, and sprightliness in gait despite walking stick and sishya support. He arrived on time to catch the tail end of the raga commentaries, which preceded his releasing a CD of raga appreciation by his sishya V.Subramaniam. Semmangudi's meanderings through memory lane had biting remarks about such a scholarly waste of time. "I am the only man who has attended the Music Academy sessions for 75 years without a break, and I tell you, awards are not for seeking. And ragas are for singing, not discussing," was the 45 minute-refrain (We hear that he performed the same marathon at the Narada Gana Sabha). But did anyone stir? No, the audience felt privileged to be in his presence, an experience to file away and recall for our unborn grandchildren. The few who did steal out for quick idli-kasihalwa sustenance lost nothing when they returned. The doyen's verbal alapana resembled the Manji raga, which Krishnan had assured us claimed, demanded, throve on repetitions.
By the way, at one of the canteen lakshana debates between concerts over "kaapi-tiphan", a Rasika Sadas decided on the Mallippoo Idli Award to the Music Academy Mess and the Milagu Sevai - Seppangizhangu Morkoottu Pattam to the Narada Gana Sabha crew. "The best lunch is at the Mylapore Fine Arts,'' proclaimed a connoisseur who had come to Chennai for the festival, adding that the kurma at the Bharat Kalachar had all the spice of the Anuradha and Sriram Parasuram duet she had enjoyed.
A craggy voice objected to the entry of north Indian dishes - `What is bhel puri doing in the Academy canteen'? After all, the sabha canteens had been citadels of tradition with stuff like akkara vadisal and pulipongal, which are no longer made even in homes, certainly not with the chaste purity or weighty classicism of yesteryear. "If we don't watch out, our Arusuvai sikhamanis and Palsuvai chudamanis will serve us pizza off the hot plate instead of kal dosai," he warned. "And who knows, with coconut chutney on it, just like our vidwans scatter Ahir Bhairav over Chakravakam."
"What difference does it make what they sing when what you hear is distorted anyway? Madras doesn't have a single sabha with good acoustics," lamented another, with justification. The vidwans too rail constantly at the lack of a feedback system. The Music Academy probably has the best of the worst (the rustle of a plastic bag is actually audible here), but the amplification itself remains wayward, as evident in every cutcheri almost. Narada Gana Sabha is inconsistent; one cutcheri may pass off well, while another is wholly marred by imbalanced mikes. The hall being so huge makes for different levels of sound distribution in different spots.
The Mylapore Fine Arts and Sri Krishna Gana Sabha are constantly assaulted by traffic fusillades. Though one relishes the freedom of wide open doors in the latter, the lack of sound insulation is becoming more inimical with each year, the loud hum of the fans adding to the auditory discomfort. It is difficult to visualise the shabby Rasika Ranjani Sabha as having been an important centre for dance and music (Haven't you heard people sighing over the snake dance by Kumari Kamala or the brika blitzkrieg by GNB at this venue?). At Srinivasa Sastri hall, it is a miracle that often the ambience triumphs over jarring mikes and highway cacophony.
Some musicians are pleased with the acoustics at Rani Seethai Hall. But they are not subjected to straitjacketing in the seats. Besides, the theatre is getting dingier and more claustrophobic with passing time. The Kalakshetra auditorium is a thing of beauty, a perfect setting for the dance, but not as suitably designed for music.
However, there are some signs of awareness creeping in. Rasikas have been happy with Freedom Hall where Mudhra holds its festival, and the Chettinad Vidyashram auditorium with its televised Marghazhi concerts. The completely renovated Vani Mahal has paid attention to installing a better sound system.
At the smaller, some of them fly-by-night venues, one expects nothing better than audibility. An exception has been one small auditorium that has tried to stand out over the years, in terms of programming as well as acoustics. At the refurbished Ragasudha hall with its agreeable ambience for rasikas, cars and horns are muffled, if not wholly shut out.
Why such apathy in most of the sabhas to sound technology in a milieu that prides itself on classicist sophistication? A seasoned listener has a philosophical shrug to go with his theory. "Carnatic music is not about voice, or purity of sound and pitch. Neither bad throat nor bad mike, not even lack of sruti alignment, can prevent the enjoyment of a mature Sankarabharanam or Syama. Votaries of Carnatic music don't listen with their ears, but with their hearts, relating what they catch auditorily to what reverberates in their minds in remembered performances of the past. After all, you enjoy a "Talli ninnu" because you associate it with all the Kalyani you have ever heard and internalised."
However, sometimes novelties too have their own appeal. An event to remember was Carnatica's New Year celebrations at its debut festival Sangeethanubhava (Why should an imaginative attempt like this be squeezed into the satiating December feast?). An all night session drew doyens like T.N.Krishnan and O.S.Thiagarajan, as also younger stars like Nithayasree Mahadevan, Unnikrishnan, S. Sowmya, Vijay Siva, Ranjani \Gayathri, the Priya sisters, and Gayathri Venkatraghavan, not only to perform, but to join together at the stroke of midnight to chant an auspicious welcome to the coming year. "Many of us don't attend all night parties, but would still like to welcome the New Year in a way that is appropriate to our culture and tastes." explains Shashikiran of Carnatica. "With this kind of encouragement we will certainly do something bigger and better next year."
Meanwhile, as we sit back to assimilate all the Kalyanis, Kedaragowlais and Kiravanis of this season, musicians too took a break from the sabha scene on 5th January. Ravikiran, Shashikiran, Unnikrishnan, T.M.Krishna, Mannargudi Ishwaran, S.Varadarajan, Palghat Ramprasad, Sikkil Gurucharan, Trivandrum Balaji, Poongulam Subramaniam, B.U.Ganeshprasad, Manoj Siva, B.S.Purushotthaman and many more of the tribe, were found at the YMCA ground, Nandanam. No, not for any open air orchestral medley, but to for the annual cricket tournament of Carnatic musicians. Veshtis and jibbas gave way to whites, and the willow to string and drum, as the players tried to hit the ball to the boundary with all the punch of sangati and mora deliveries. No heroines in this all male tamasha. Will next year witness some parallel or joint feminist action on the sports field from our Sudha Ragunathans and Aruna Sairams?
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