Flight booking. Check. Hotel booking. Check. Car booking. Check. Music Academy season ticket. Check. All present and correct. That was last year.
It’s getting close to twenty-five years now and I don’t believe I have skipped the Chennai or Margazhi music season even once. Not that I spent the whole of December in the cultural capital amidst the carnival of Carnatic music and canteen camaraderie, but the latter half of December was my preferred time frame, when everything kind of boiled over, and the musicians were well and truly primed and warmed up for the final, climactic push. This is when the artists’ creative juices really flowed and the adrenalin rushed to reach its apogee. Rushing between sabhas, cross-referencing musicians and venues, keeping an eagle eye out for two of your favourite stars performing during the same time slot in different sabhas and craftily managing the complex logistics, catching up with old friends and relatives come down for the music and before you knew it, it was time to catch your flight or train back to wherever you came from. Time flies when you are having a good time. It was all one magical blur of Todi morphing into Kambhoji, Sudha Raghunathan’s soaring sancharas vying with Sanjay Subrahmanyan’s breath-taking kaarvais, raconteur Sriram V’s acerbic wit regaling audiences over a Sunday morning breakfast, swishing pattu podavais, spotless veshtis and always the coffee, endless tumblers of coffee permeating our olfactory senses. In short, in the immortal (if paraphrased) words of the late Tony Greig, ‘It’s all happening right here at the Music Academy.’
Sad to say, the good news has to be narrated in the past tense, your chronicler wearing a sporty pair of nostalgic tinted glasses, eyes moist with unshed tears. As any dispirited Carnatic aficionado will tell you, the music season this year is a non-season. A non-starter. We all know why. Covid19 has claimed its ultimate prized scalp, the feast of reason and flow of soul that is our beloved Season. Those of us coming into Chennai from other parts of the country or further afield from across the seas, are going through a sense of being left bereft – a hollow emotion that fans normally experience after the full season is over. The calm after the storm. To have to go through the anguish even before the season could commence is a bit thick what, as Bertie Wooster might put it.
Most musicians have attempted, gamely, to alleviate their fans’ deprivation by resorting to technology. Facebook, Twitter and Instagram are choc-a-bloc with musical Zoom chats, songs being sung by artists and their students, stars posting snippets from their concerts over the years – in short there is no dearth of Carnatic music activity on a variety of digital platforms. In many cases, the musicians have even taken the help of slick producers to create mood films with the help of professional lighting, pleasant locales, sound management and smart computer graphics. It’s a reflection of the technological age we live in and perfectly understandable that every trick in the book is deployed to keep the musicians creatively occupied and their fans actively engaged with them over the hyperactive social media.
However, when all is said and done, it is not the real thing, is it? To illustrate,let me move briefly away from Carnatic music to sport. In recent months, we have witnessed a Grand Slam tennis tournament, the French Open, a succession of IPL T20 games played out in the Middle East and the Premier League football games – all being played to empty stadiums. Obviously, TV viewership would have grown exponentially, the now notorious TRP bandits having a field day. However, the feeling of watching sporting events which unfailingly find stadiums bursting at the seams, now conveying a ghostly emptiness was eerie, to say the least. To add insult to injury all these spectaculars featured doctored sounds of crowds chanting and cheering to add verisimilitude: a sloppy, shabby device that only exacerbated the sense of loss. A dozen over-excited faces projected on the screens gesticulating wildly every time a wicket fell or a ball was hit out of the park, was hardly an endearing novelty. A Nadal – Djokovic final played to empty stands? Now I’ve seen it all. But then, this is the new normal, to tout the oft-repeated cliché. I guess we should be grateful that we are at least getting to watch something worthwhile ‘live’ on our television sets.
Notwithstanding the aforementioned, it is instructive to take a close look at what multi-hued columnist and ardent music lover, G. Pramod Kumar has to say on the subject of crowd-less concerts in a recent article in The Hindu – ‘Digital is no longer an alternative, but a new performance and revenue paradigm. One that the Carnatic music establishment should have embraced much earlier, like elsewhere in the world.’ He then proceeds to draw a parallel with Berlin’s Digital Concert Hall, home of the legendary and venerated Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra. and how they have coped with the pandemic through offering western classical music lovers a high-quality digital experience, one that has found favour with their clientele and proved to be a robust revenue model for the orchestra. Coming angrily from left field, contrarian superstar Sir Van Morrison wants the crowds back in full force, ‘The new normal is not normal. We were born to be free,’ wails the Irish blues shouter, somewhat naively, in his new anti-lockdown song.
It is in this context that the attempt being made by the Music Academy Madras to hold a limited number of concerts, time-abbreviated, to be digitally broadcast or telecast to their members free and to others on payment during the December season, holds out some promise for those who will be missing all the live action. Whether other organizations are doing something similar or not I am not privy to, but we can surely expect many more such initiatives. It will give the fans something to look forward to and for the artists, who must have been going stir crazy cooped up in the confines of their homes, to say nothing of the dent in their incomes, a chance to sit on stage and give full vent to their creative urges. As the pandemic shows stuttering signs of abatement, and let’s hope it’s not a false dawn, perhaps the Academy could consider a limited number of appropriately-distanced members to attend the concerts.
As a music lover, my own take is somewhat blasé on these innovations. While lauding the efforts of the Music Academy to try something different, forced by extreme circumstances, it is certainly no substitute for the amazing experience of sitting through a live concert. Any music lover who can distinguish a Kalyani from a Sankarabharanam will tell you that. The electricity, the frisson that runs through an audience as the artist essays a tremendous volley of swaras, returned with interest by the violinist and the percussionists can never be viscerally felt sitting in front of your desktop, laptop or even, for that matter, your giant LED television screen with surround sound. You can add to your enjoyment with cups of coffee, or something even stronger, being served to you while you relish the concert in home comfort. But you will sorely miss that octogenarian sitting next to you in the auditorium, who has seen it all and who will cynically go, ‘this boy is very good, but he is no GNB or Semmangudi.’ Or for that matter, the cute, precocious 8-year-old girl armed with a notebook and biro, who turns to you and plaintively asks, ‘Uncle, Uncle, what ragam is this?’ And you looking flustered and responding, ‘Why don’t you ask your Amma, dear?’ while Amma looks daggers at you.
Yes, we will all be missing our Season in our own different ways. However, the last word must go to one struggling artist who railed thus, ‘I don’t know what all the fuss is about. I get to sing in the afternoon slots, and all these years I have never seen more than 30 people in the hall, all snoring and socially distanced.’ My heart bleeds for him.