I was in a deep reverie after listening to a soul-stirring dhrupad concert by Uday Bhawalkar at Chennai’s Music Academy auditorium, when my friend, a topflight bharatanatyam dancer, awoke me from my meditations. She expressed surprise at the small turnout for such a grand performance. “Why are we so unsupportive of great music from elsewhere?” she wanted to know.
I looked around to find a crowd of around 500 — each of whom had paid a minimum of Rs300 to listen to what was to most of them essentially an alien musical form. The audience, of course, included close to 100 migrants from other parts of India, most of whom have never stepped into a Carnatic music concert, but continue to support Hindustani music in their exile.
Yes, it is disappointing when such outstanding music does not draw a full house, but Chennai audiences do not reserve such treatment exclusively for visiting artistes. They can be totally non-partisan. Great Carnatic musicians whose forte is the chaste grandeur of their art, not box-office appeal, have been known to largely sing or play before family and friends.
The venerable MD Ramanathan with his magnificent deep bass voice and majestic gait tended to be bemused if more than 25 people turned up at one of his concerts. I once witnessed Chitravina Ravikiran accompanied by violinist Sriram Parasuram and mridanga vidwan KV Prasad produce music fit for the gods before a mere handful of discerning listeners. (I’m reasonably certain many of you readers do not recognise these names, but they are revered artistes in my part of the world).
A few days later, I met the young tabla virtuoso Anuradha Pal, on her second visit to Chennai in recent times to perform there. She too was disappointed by the perceived lack of local interest in her art. “Was it the rain that kept people away from my concert?” she asked.
I was, however, impressed by the size of the audience at her ‘tabla jugalbandi’ concert in which she, in effect, collaborated with herself in two different genres of drumming. It had been an entertaining, impressive performance of considerable expertise, but to expect a large turnout at such a niche performance would be considered extremely optimistic.
Home to such distinguished artistes as the likes of Umayalpuram Sivaraman, Karaikudi Mani, TV Gopalakrishnan, Guruvayur Dorai and Vikku Vinayakram and his gifted offspring, Chennai can produce some of the world’s best percussion ensembles, but unless it is promoted brilliantly, a tala vadya concert cannot hope to match vocal or other instrumental concerts in audience appeal. Perhaps the organisers of Anuradha Pal’s concert had not succeeded in targeting a dedicated group of tabla enthusiasts, or her performance, understandably, did not attract traditional lovers of classical music.
The fact is that Hindustani music — both khayal and dhrupad — continues to appeal to Tamil Nadu audiences, though not as much as it does to their Karnataka counterparts. Starting from Abdul Karim Khan and Bade Ghulam Ali Khan, they were wholeheartedly embraced by local musicians and listeners in the past, peaking in the record attendance at the concerts of Ravi Shankar, Ali Akbar Khan and Alla Rakha and they continued their impact through the Zakir Hussain-Amjad Ali Khan-Hariprasad generation.
Bhimsen Joshi and Pandit Jasraj were perennial favourites, while the younger Rashid Khan was for a long while the heartthrob of Chennai’s Hindustani music aficionados. Rajan and Sajan Mishra, Ajoy Chakraborty, and the Kirana gharana stalwarts from Dharwar are examples of Hindustani musicians with many followers here.
At the risk of sounding chauvinistic, let me stress the relative lack of interest in south Indian music on the part of Indians elsewhere. Carnatic music can boast of at least one north American bhagavatar in the late Jon Higgins who might have reached considerable heights as a vocalist in the Veena Dhanammal school had fate not snatched him away young. Over the decades other Americans too have tried to become performers in this demanding art, but Indian Carnatic musicians from outside the southern states are practically non-existent.
In contrast, haven’t quite a few accomplished musicians of south Indian origin achieved mastery over north Indian classical music comparable to the levels attained by native practitioners? (One cause of the indifference of the north towards south Indian music could be the inadequate effort made by its proponents to package and promote it attractively).
The sad part of the story is that while misinformation in the south about north Indian music has largely given way to a slowly growing but genuine interest in it, among both rasikas and musicians, the vice versa has not so far been true.
Even established ustads are under the impression that Carnatic music is all noise and fireworks, which is as superficial a view as the belief among some southern counterparts that Hindustani music, for all its purity of sur and emotion, lacks the sophistication of the Carnatic system.
The good news is that a dialogue is at last taking place. Ably led by musicologist-sitarist Arvind Parikh, the Mumbai-headquartered Music Forum and the ITC-SRA’s Mumbai chapter have been taking pioneering steps to close the gap between the practitioners of the two major streams of Indian classical music.
They have been trying to involve top musicians of both systems in an ongoing exchange of ideas, knowledge and information in a structured manner.
Not only have they conducted important seminars on the subject of mutual understanding between practitioners of the two musics at the NCPA, Mumbai, they have also taken the trouble to bring senior Hindustani musicians-musicologists to Chennai to engage in a dialogue with leading scholars and artists here. In a refreshing reversal of roles, the visitors have taken a clear lead in acknowledging with all humility and great enthusiasm the need to appreciate and understand the treasures of south Indian music.
The author, a prominent off-spinner in the 1970s, now writes on cricket and music besides editing Sruti, a leading monthly magazine from Chennai devoted to the performing arts.