Yesterday I got a rain of texts from friends attending different concerts. “Circus, not concert — no wonder Hindustani musicians think Carnatic music has no melody,” grumbled the first. “Wow! Mind blowing Bhairavi!” said another. “Leave the veena to the gods, humans murder it,” the third sniffed.
Come December and Chennai goes music mad. Every listener turns critic — tweeting, texting, blogging, emailing music clips surreptitiously recorded during live concerts.
Arvind Kejriwal may kill giants, Lokpals may come and go, but during the December music season, Chennai has thoughts to spare only for Sanjay Subrahmanyam wrestling with ragas, or Abhishek Raghuraman taming swaras. How can anyone think of Indo-US bilateral rows when strong minded percussionists engage in do-or-die spats? With 2,000 classical music/dance concerts showcased across the city, in 70-80 venues small and big, featuring Carnatic musicians from age 8 to 80, and all day long — listeners have debating matters galore.
No government subsidy goes into this mega fest conducted by the Madras “sabhas” — private initiatives operating on members’ subscriptions, conducting monthly shows and seasonal festivals of mainly music concerts, with some dance and theatre performances thrown in. In the premier sabhas, membership can be so precious as to become a hereditary right.
Madras Jubilee Gayan Samaj (1883), the city’s first sabha, had brown and white Sahibs for patrons. One of its concerts had Tennyson’s ode On the Jubilee of Queen Victoria translated into Sanskrit and performed in Carnatic ragas! However, the Madras Music Academy — the mecca of Carnatic music — began as evening entertainment for the delegates of the National Congress session (1927).
A Madras saying has it that the Sabha Secretary is both Deva and Danava (god and demon), he can make or mar the debutant, and the star.
Like our politicians who cannot believe they exist unless they see their faces on newspapers and TV channels, Carnatic musicians may as well be dead if they do not mount the Chennai stage in the December season. Here veterans reaffirm status, stars rejuvenate charisma, young talent proves itself. Until recently their performance fee was either negligible or non-existent. There were sabhas where the musician paid for the privilege of mounting the stage. Things have improved now, though the sum involved is still chickenfeed for a Hindustani ustad.
There are other gains though. High visibility, promotion to higher slots, bookings for foreign tours, publicity (word-of-mouth, print, small screen in the past; Twitter, Instagram, kutcheri dotcoms now). December is when musicians and dancers vie with film stars on cover pages in newspapers and magazines, getting reviews (generously splashed with photographs) in “music season” supplements.
Not to mention concerts broadcast, telecast and webcasts everywhere... In December, sabha-hopping is in, staying put in a single auditorium is out. NRIs crowding the city also wedge their “ethnic” shopping between concerts. I wonder if any other Indian city has silk houses and jewellers advertising “music season discounts”?
Sabha canteens offer mouth-watering traditional cuisines in December, at competitive rates, the best advertisement for the city’s caterers. So, you may go to a Brahmagana Sabha concert, but prefer to lunch at the Naradagana Sabha canteen. Or choose the canteen first and attend the concert as an afterthought. You are sure, too, of meeting all the musicians there, tucking into a three-course meal, and chatting over filter coffee.
This December brought a bonus. Coming 30 minutes late, Amartya Sen sat through music and dance before releasing musician TM Krishna’s A Southern Music: The Karnatic Story. And you know what? He called it “one of the greatest books he had ever read”! Hmmm...
The author is a playwright, theatre director, musician and journalist, writing on the performing arts, cinema and literature.