After silence, that which comes nearest to expressing the inexpressible, is music. Aldous Huxley.
The 2019 Chennai Music Season is upon us. The 2018 Season seems just like yesterday. A pleasant aural illusion. Over recent decades, we have witnessed a massive upsurge in the interest and enthusiasm evinced in Carnatic music. Those who brought about this tectonic shift to the Carnatic music scene at the turn of the millennium are today’s superstars. In their wake, another clutch of youngsters has put their hands up, and are packing the audiences in. The sabha managements are deliriously happy, and for a brief period of 3 or 4 weeks, the secretaries and committee members rule the roost, possessively handing out tickets and passes like they are going out of fashion. Yes, we are aware that full houses are the sole preserve of a few big names, but that has always been the case.
It is therefore a challenge to write a refreshingly original piece on the Season, because most of the observations, once considered novel, now appear trite. However, one thing can be said. In more recent years, we have had happenings (not always savoury) that have riveted the public’s attention. The ‘Me Too’ brouhaha had everybody talking about things other than Sanjay Subrahmanyan’s Todi or Ranjani Gayatri’s abhangs. Fortunately, the pruriently exaggerated interest shown in these salacious news reports were relatively short lived, and the named and shamed appear to be carrying on with their professional lives with insouciance. Speaking of ‘savoury’, the only savouries worth giving a once over are those to be found in the sabha canteens.
If you ask me it is a good thing that public memory is short. Nobody went to court, nothing was demonstrably proven but a bit of muck stuck. Doubtless it is now completely washed off and consigned to a rapidly distant and fading memory bank. Let me hasten to add that it is not my case that those who were the alleged victims of these alleged misdeeds should not be given a sympathetic and fair hearing. The same applies to those charged as well. The problem is, once you start talking to the media in high dudgeon and play the victim card, you’ve got to be prepared to go all the seamy way, if you’ll pardon the unintended double entendre. That involves muck raking and finger pointing which no one, least of all in this environment wants. My best advice to anyone who knows for sure that she is being harassed, just administer a tight slap with plenty of wrist work and follow through, or a swift kick at the offender’s nether regions and move on, and make sure he does not darken your doors ever again. You will feel elevated about it and the glad-eyed Casanova will never bother you. Caution: You had better be right and not merely vindictive, else retribution will be swift.
On to more pleasant subjects. While Carnatic music is the dominant presence on display during the Season, other art forms find their own dedicated space. There are classical dance performances, primarily Bharatanatyam which most sabhas try to fit in. In fact, the Music Academy has an entire fortnight dedicated to a classical dance festival close on the heels of the music series. Then there are Tamil dramas staged by some sabhas during the festival, plenty of lecture demonstrations every morning where experts go into the theory and practice of Carnatic music. Unlikely as it may seem, some of these lecdems can get quite tense at times, with gnarled veterans crossing swords over some obscure technical issue. The moderator has a hard time maintaining the peace.
In recent times, programmes of a more eclectic variety have begun to make their presence felt. The likes of Anil Srinivasan (The Piano Man), Sikkil Gurucharan, Jayanti Kumaresh and U.Rajesh (to shoot a clutch of names off the cuff) think outside the box to perform and discuss various aspects of Indian and global music to entertain and enlighten the audience. The coup de grace, (I have said this before, and I will say it again) is historian Sriram V’s morning illustrative lectures on past masters: always a blockbuster. Even standing room is not available if you’re tardy in arriving. He has an easy, jocular, laidback, conversational style of presenting his celebrated subjects, speaking ambidextrously in English and Tamil. He is unfailingly introduced to the audience as ‘the Neville Cardus of Carnatic music.’
At the end of the day, however, it is the music that must take pride of place during what everybody and his uncle refers to as ‘the Music Season.’ A frenzied air of anticipation and excitement is palpable in the ether. If you hang around in the portals of the venerable Music Academy, Madras (I am glad they didn’t change the nomenclature to the populist Chennai) during The Fortnight, the corridors will be buzzing with self-appointed experts, poseurs, academics, young hopefuls, music lovers and, of course, the odd sprinkling of foreign culture vultures who visit to take in what is arguably the biggest classical music festival of its kind. Groups of aficionados can be seen huddled in corners or in the canteen (always the canteen) animatedly discussing some arcane points of music. The sweet strains of Kalyani and Kambhoji literally suffuse the air. Lately, some of the bigger stars, if seen in public view, are avidly approached for selfies and autographs. Last year, Sanjay Subrahmanyan T-shirts were being worn by a large group of fans (bhakts), many from across the seas. Move over, Ed Sheeran.
As we slip into December, and as the musical tempo rises, a whole phalanx of supremely talented musicians, who have been laying down a marker this past few years, is making its presence felt. There are many such potential stars on the horizon, and subjectively naming a personal selection would be invidious. Suffice it to say that the health of Carnatic music is sound and in tune. To paraphrase Mark Twain, reports of the demise of Carnatic music are greatly exaggerated.
Kind permission of Deccan Chronicle 11/12/2019