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A month of music

Print edition : Jan 27, 2006 T+T-

This time the Madras Music Festival offered great variety in music and dance. For the first time it had a large orchestra playing classical Western music.


"THREE thousand concerts in a month! Impressive!'' exclaimed Zubin Mehta at The Music Academy, where he conducted the Bavarian State Orchestra in a special performance on December 26. A year ago on the same date, a monster tsunami had devastated South Asia. Mehta's show was in aid of relief measures for the victims of that catastrophe. This was the first time the Madras Music Festival had a large orchestra playing classical Western music.

Mehta's figures were slightly wrong, though. The over 3,000 concerts are part of the whole "December season'' as old Madras (now Chennai) named it, which spills back into November and forth into January. Still incredible, especially since this festival is conducted by private organisations without government funding. Last year saw 74 sabhas operating in every part of the city.

But it is a festival with no central organisation or system, and surprisingly little advertisement. The city's streets do not swagger with festival hoardings or posters. Yet it is not an elitist event. In fact, the years have seen a democratisation in its content and quality.

It all began in the 1920s as a Carnatic music festival conducted by a few sabhas, some under pandals on school playgrounds. There were fewer musicians and listeners. The stars - Ariyakudi Ramanuja Iyengar, Chembai Vaidyanatha Bhagavatar, G.N. Balasubramanian, Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer, Madurai Mani Iyer, M.S. Subbulakshmi - packed the halls a half hour before the show began. Eager fans from hardcore Mylapore and distant Purasawalkam arrived early and waited for the treat. The four-hour concerts included not only major ragas and kritis, but also a full-length pallavi, challenging the percussionists and bringing out the best in teamwork. The tailpieces were many and satisfied the taste for slokam and viruttam as much as the yen for kavadi chindu and javali.

Morning lecdems at the Music Academy were reserved for the giants. Mudicondan Venkatrama Iyer would demonstrate a pallavi in Simhanandana tala, and Professor Sambamoorthy would discuss ghana, naya and desya ragas. `Tiger' Varadachariar might get up and contest a point, or it could be Dr.V. Raghavan expounding on some abstruse line in Sangita Ratnakara. Those who came to such talks were themselves scholars and music students. Today many sabhas conduct their own lecdems of varying quality.

The changing decades have seen not only the birth and growth of other sabhas, but also the slow entry of Hindustani music, dance and related genres. A decade ago contemporary dance and avante garde theatre found its way in with The Other Festival. The Chennai International Film Festival appeared three years ago. The Sathyam Theatre complex added inputs this year with "Gitam Vadyam Nrityam", a film fest on performing traditions from Kathakali to Dhrupad.

Corporate sponsorship gained ground as late as the 1980s but has trickled down. The sabhas continue to be dependent on membership and uncertain ticket sales. Many concerts are free, especially in the morning and noon slots.

No musician performs in the December fest for money. There is no large remuneration from even the big sabhas, and nothing in some smaller venues. But just as he goes to pay annual tributes to the saint composer Tyagaraja in Tiruvaiyaru down south, every musician thinks it is an honour to participate in the Madras festival. For the veterans it is a chance to prove that they still reign supreme. For the young it is a platform to showcase their skills. This is where they impress locals, outsiders and non-resident Indians (NRIs), who may engage them for lucrative wedding recitals, or foreign tours.

Musicians make the impossible possible with 15 to 20 concerts within a month. Accompanists on violin, mridangam, ghatam and kanjira have bigger scores. Only the top ten draw crowds wherever they perform. The others get high voltage publicity during the season and have therefore learnt to ignore the empty chairs. Sabhas even conduct exclusive NRI music festivals where those who learn in MacDonald Land get a chance to fulfil their dream of singing at Chennai-Upon-Cooum.

December audiences are different. Daytime concerts attract senior citizens. Segments are made up of the floating population of NRIs and foreign aficionados of Carnatic music, who make their annual pilgrimage to the Coromandel city. Music students and young vidwans try to catch as many concerts as they can. Some seniors put in an appearance for part of a junior's concert.

Few musicians can be sure of retaining their listeners right through. December is the time of the Great Audience Shift - people move from sabha to sabha, catching Mala Chandrasekhar's varnam in one, hopping to nearby P. Unnikrishnan's for the main raga, ending up in Hyderabad Brothers' for the tailpieces. The restlessness is also part of the eagerness to know everything. By and large audiences are not under pressure to be quiet. Cell phones ring, plastic bags rustle, neighbours chat, and everyone thinks he or she can walk in or out any time. Yet the man who reads the newspaper in row ten and the woman who knits in the corner seat will know that the flute is not aligned to the sruti, or that the singer is mixing a phrase from Kedaragowlai in Sahana. That the same restive souls sat in moveless silence at Zubin Mehta's concert is another story altogether.

December 2005 offered great variety in music and dance. Veterans like T.N. Krishnan, N. Ramani, M.S. Gopalakrishnan, T.K. Murthy, Umayalpuram Sivaraman, Tiruchi Sankaran, R. Vedavalli and Suguna Purushotthaman showed that vintage stuff is still available for the seekers. It was heartening to see young musicians flocking to hear octogenarian R.K. Srikantan, whose ripe powers inspired awe. The next rung is also occupied by eminent performers from T.V. Sankaranarayanan and T.N. Seshagopalan to O.S. Thiagarajan.

Instrumental music, which once reigned supreme, has now taken a backseat. There are few takers for the flute, and fewer for that primal instrument, the veena. The violin should fare better, but it does not - not in solo. Listeners say that they want to hear the sahitya, as the lyric is the lifeblood of Carnatic music.

This is galling to the young instrumentalists who have achieved high standards. Young violinists Akkarai Subhalakshmi and Charumati Raghuraman showed remarkable maturity, as did percussionists like Trivandrum Balaji and R. Sankaranarayanan (mridangam), N. Guruprasad and Giridhar Udupa (ghatam) B. Shrisundarkumar, Anirudh Atreya and Bangalore Amrit (kanjira).

December is also time for unknown newcomers to surprise you with their remarkable talent. Years ago the Hyderabad Brothers had done just that. Bombay Jayashree had trailed light from her debut on a dingy stage. So had the Bombay sisters Ranjani and Gayathri with their sparkling violin, before turning vocalists. This year brought Pantula Rama from Andhra Pradesh, whose rich voice and confident expression made audiences sit up. Sikkil Gurucharan had already proved his mettle in the last two years. This year saw him aiming high and sustaining quality.

Among the popular artists Sudha Ragunathan continued to draw crowds and Aruna Sairam mesmerised with her operatic personality and vibrant vocalisation. Nithyasri was missed; with a child on the way, she opted to stay out of the season.

Sanjay Subrahmanian's originality in manodharma and effort at acquiring fine compositions from many sources made his recitals always interesting. When he peaked, he could amaze and move. T.M. Krishna remained an uncompromising classicist. His sarva laghu swaras were superb. What a tribute to his role model Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer! He even unleashed a slow padam towards the end of a recital, just when listeners expected some peppy lilts.

Vijay Siva was on a waxing phase, refusing to allow audiences to dictate to him in any way. Targeting in-depth bhava, he used his maturity to evoke it. He was one of the few singers to deliver perfectly polished kritis. Neyveli Santhanagopalan tried to overcome his voice problems with a sincere effort to find new strengths in the suddha swaras and succeeded in achieving sowkhyam. Bombay Jayashree has found her direction along the highway of classicism. Her alignment with the two tamburas on either side had a magnetic impact. What splendid music Ravikiran made! Generations of past-masters spoke through his chitraveena.

Ranjani and Gayathri gave polished performances, where everything from varnam to tukkada brimmed with feeling. The Malladi Brothers made robust music in a distinct style.

There was no dearth of talent among the youngsters. They have not only grasped but mastered the techniques. The difficulty is in going beyond. Many want to return to sampradaya music, chaste and profound. This despite the lure of fusion which has a ready market as heavyweight does not. But the younger generation is unable to focus on music alone. The demands of school and college, as also of professional courses, leave little time for practice. They believe that they can overcome this drawback by listening to the tapes of the masters. Fortunately for them this is the age of cassettes and CDs. But their concerts during the season showed that this results only in patchwork effects. Imitation could not infuse soulfulness. The internalisation process betrayed shakiness.

The major problem with Carnatic music, a problem which affects its appeal beyond the inner circle of cultivated taste, continues to be the lack of voice culture. Young artists seem hardly aware of the fact that they are in control only in the middle octave. The upper is a dicey affair, the lower is almost non-existent. They seem heedless of swarasthana suddham, letting the notes spill out of their slots without accuracy.

Most of them do not know the proper methods of vocalisation. They muffle their voices, suppress its volume and are satisfied with closed-mouth singing. Even the few who sing full-throatedly do not know how to produce the best tone. Some of them justify this lack of finesse by believing that the gamakas of Carnatic music cannot be rendered with fidelity to the pitch, whereas the Hindustani musician (they say!) can be sruti-pure because he sings straight notes.

The dependence on mikes continued its baneful influence. Singers do not seem to try to realise the full potential of their vocal chords. The gap between the mind (intention) and the voice (implementation) yawned wide. The instrumentalists keep pushing up the volume, often producing cacophony. Chennai sabhas continue to pay scant respect to acoustics, or balancing the sound. But facilities have improved. Old halls have been refurbished, new halls try to be kinder to artist and rasika. But no sabha can vie with Kalakshetra, where the sound quality is not of the best, but the ambience so perfect for forgetting the self and getting tuned to the music and dance. This makes for exemplary audience behaviour.

Variety marked Madras Music Fest 2005. Hindustani music was well represented. There were Venkatesh Kumar and Madhup Mudgal; Ronu Majumdar teamed with Ravikiran; and Amjad Ali Khan closed the year at the Music Academy. Rhythm ensembles had a good reception. All the major dance genres were displayed - the city even hosted a major Kathak festival, which brought a range of artists to Chennai for the first time. Perhaps no other city has such catholic tastes able to appreciate a diverse range of performance genres.

Nama sankirtanam or community chants and singing is very much part of the December festival as many sabhas begin the day with bhajanai and discourse. Visakha Hari excelled in harikatha this year, drawing mega crowds in the cutcheri slots. Narrating myths with fluency, scholarship and good taste, Visakha vivified them with her singing, steeped in melody and classical to the core.

A lingering moment of the 2005 fest was a talk by violinist R.K. Shriramkumar on the imposing edifice of Muthuswami Dikshitar's nine compositions addressed to Kamalamba, the presiding deity of his birthplace Tiruvarur. Shriramkumar took us into tantric worship and complex metaphysics in describing the nature and power of each chakra and its presiding deities. Since the speaker is also one of the finest musicians of his generation, his words had a feel that was distinctly different from similar expositions by scholars. It reminded listeners of the ancient and primeval roots of a culture enshrined in its music. It also pointed to the amalgam of intellectual, emotive and meditative qualities in its aesthetic vision.

A unique feature of the Chennai Music Festival is the way the musicians get together to welcome the New Year with group singing and chants. This time too, 2006 was welcomed enthusiastically, also with prayers for universal good fortune. It also paid tributes to the living legends of Carnatic music.

Another singular event connected with the festival is that after the birth of the New Year, many of the younger (male) vidwans gather at a playground. Discarding zari veshti and silk kurta they don 'whites'. With bat and ball in hand instead of tambura and mridangam, they play a happy game of cricket. This year too the game energised the `boys'. They are ready to get back on track once again.