Some refer to the season strictly by the Margazhi month and also by the 15 days or so when the Madras Music Academy hosts its annual festival, but in reality it picks up by mid-November and goes on till about the second week of January. If you split further, the November concerts are considered warm-up events and those in January, the spill-over. Either way, it’s the same Carnatic music and the same artistes. It’s indeed a lot of concerts and a lot more singers and instrumentalists.
As usual, this music season has also been primarily about the scale, the superstars, the stars and the strugglers. The stars continued to more or less retain their stardom while the strugglers continued to struggle for attention despite their discernible talent. Some tenacious ones however have managed to break through the glass ceiling. Some of them have even found a more respectable time-slot to sing – Chennai’s age-old grading system that indicates where you stand in the hierarchy of importance – while some have managed to go prime time. There were also some, who had been singing prime time, but have slipped.
What’s mind-boggling about the Margazhi season is the number of musicians that Chennai, or rather a community with a certain socio-cultural ethos, churn out. Despite an extremely low probability of making it big, youngsters seemed to be heavily invested in it and more and more are making debuts every year. Some are persisting with it even while doing regular jobs – which also means that they won’t have time for anything else – while some others have given up their well-paying careers for their love for the art. It’s both awe-inspiring and disheartening because Carnatic music is not a career that necessarily pays. For a handful, it pays well; for a few others it pays a little; while for most, it doesn’t pay at all. In fact, it’s as bad as unorganised skilled labour in which professional experience doesn’t translate into progressively rising salaries.
Anyway, this is a perpetual conundrum that the Sabhas and the musicians don’t seem to be interested in cracking, probably because of a certain ritualistic ethos that they associate this form of music with. It’s indeed a sign of remarkable commitment to an art, but at the same time puzzling too. Who doesn’t want their art to get bigger audiences and better money?
Let’s take a look at the highlights now.
Although Margazhi offers concerts from morning till late night at innumerable places, only the most musically-tenacious can indulge in Sabha-hopping because the format of a concert entails warming up, reaching a peak and then cooling down. Attending more than one concert, back-to-back, means you are going to go through this process more than once without hardly any break in between. It’s like several cycles of gym-sessions on your sensoria at a stretch. If you are one who takes your music seriously and likes to indulge in an immersive listening experience, this could tire you out, blur your distinction. Still, some do it. Probably, they have devised a method in which they clock more concerts, but without majorly disturbing their apparatus of experiences. I for one, cannot do that, and at the most can do two concerts in a day, one in the morning and the other in the evening. The best slot, however, is in the evening. Or more precisely, when the day starts to wind down.
As usual, it’s only the stars that fill the halls while the attendance for even the moderately successful artistes is just about average. The difference in patronage between the handful of stars and the others is really baffling. Everyone knows who the stars are and how sensational their concert experiences are. I pay attention to only one of them – Sanjay Subrahmanyan – and the experience is getting headier every season. This year I attended nine of his concerts that also meant that I had to miss many other favourites, including some of the upcoming artistes. Choosing your concert from a complicated web of schedules is hard: when you pick one, you are sure to miss another one or two. Although all Sanjay concerts are exceptional, the stand-out ones for me this year were at the Parthasarathy Swamy Sabha, Krishna Gana Sabha, Brahma Gana Sabha (the New Year Concert) and Vani Mahal. I haven’t attended his concerts at Music Academy and Narada Gana Sabha, which received rave reviews, and hence am excluding them from my list.
The others that continued to captivate me were Abhishek Raghuram, who is sort of an absent- minded genius constantly surprising me with his unique genre-bending art; Saketharaman, whose virtuosity and command over the medium thrills me no end, particularly in the most complex aspects of Carnatic music such as Pallavi and Kalpanaswaras; Ramakrishnan Murthy, who with his perfect pitch, aesthetics and prowess providing a rare vintage experience that’s uniquely attractive; Sandeep Narayan with his attractive voice, riveting improvisations and deeply expressive style; Kunnakkudi Balamuralikrishna, who like Abhishek, is constantly thinking out of the box and enthralling me with his unpredictable takes on even the most commonly heard ragas and compositions; Brinda Manickavasagan with her thundering voice and expressive style; Gayatri Girish with her never ending repertoire, pleasing ragas and scholarly approach; JA Jayanth, with his singing flute; and Rithvik Raja, with his poise and leisurely gait. On top of my list were also the Akkarai Sisters, the violin-vocal duo, one of the most exciting musicians among the younger generation, who in effect are two musicians with distinctively identifiable personalities singing as one with perfect synchronicity. When they are in their element, they traverse genres and lift Carnatic music to a more universal form. They continued to enthral me with their violin (both as a duo and accompanists) and vocal concerts.
The Season also means catching up with a lot of other itinerant connoisseurs – called Rasikas in local parlance – and exchanging notes with them. It’s from them that I hear about the artistes that I had missed because of clashing schedules. The names that I heard quite often this time were Palakkad Ramprasad – who seemed to have a rising league of followers -, Sunil Gargyan – whom I heard very briefly -, Kalyanapuram Aravind Soundararajan – whom I heard just once – , Bharat Sundar – who’s already gotten into the big league -, Girijashankar Sundaresan, Vignesh Ishwar – whom I heard once -, Deepika Varadarajan and so on. In fact, the next generation line-up is so impressive that I often wonder how a small community could produce so much talent, that too in a profession with a finite, and very limited, window of opportunities. Remarkable enough, what they have committed to this art is their life.
Despite this huge talent-pool and the myriad experiences they provide, what makes Carnatic music a tricky profession is the inward looking socio-cultural and political ecosystem that sustains it. The ecosystem does provide the right soil and appropriate inputs for it to grow, but not beyond its limited universe and worldview. That inherently limits the art and its universality, market and possibilities.
The way the Sabhas – which incidentally have done a good job in sustaining the art – control the entry of music lovers to the prime time concerts is a case in point. All the major Sabhas, except probably one, don’t sell any of their front rows to paying customers, but reserve them for either the sponsors or VIPs. It’s not just a block or a few seats, but entire rows, a few of them, at the front. Therefore even if you are willing to pay for the highest denomination ticket – which in fact is quite expensive – you don’t stand a chance to sit in the first two-three rows. In some places, the seating for the highest denomination tickets start from the 4th, 5th or even the 6th row.
This is unique to Chennai Sabhas where the best seats, that could sell at a premium, are wantonly kept away from music lovers and are reserved for sponsors and VIPs. Reserving seats for the sponsors happens everywhere in the world, but blocking the entire front rows doesn’t, particularly because a classical art such as Carnatic music calls for a very personal, intimate experience. It’s bizarre indeed that in present times, when the paying consumers can choose their seats by virtually checking it out online (even the seating position, the view etc) elsewhere in the world – the Sabhas get away with this disregard for the paying music lovers. Evidently, it’s not because they don’t know that the VIPs and sponsors/patrons can be accommodated in some blocks without cornering off the entire premium rows, but because they don’t care. For some, music is also a device to peddle influence, particularly when the VIPs want to watch the trophy singers. I may have spent about Rs 50,000 for my tickets, all of which for the highest denomination, but except twice, I ended up sitting behind a few rows of the VIPs.
Another strange habit of the Sabhas is not to assign a seat number but only indicate a few rows which essentially means that even after paying a hefty amount, you have to queue up early and make a dash to find a seat while they get to still rig the seating. At one prestigious hall, which has all the pretensions of a Vienna concert house, the only guarantee for the highest denomination ticket – that you will get to buy only on the day of the concert – is a place in any of the six rows which essentially account for nearly half the hall. Because of this free-for-all, people who get in early reserve the seats next to them for their friends and families. Here, locating a place to sit even with a premium ticket can be quite humiliating.
The continuing feature of audience-indifference except for a handful of top musicians is quite disappointing. For a city-wide festival of such mammoth scale and long duration, half and near-empty halls are bizarre and normalising it as the historical standard does more harm, than good, to the art. The reason, as a senior musician pointed out, is that there’s hardly any new audience that’s coming in. It’s still run as a community affair: the lingo, the cultural paraphernalia and even the socialisation around the art can put off cosmopolitan music lovers that may consider taking a look at it as part of their interest in the wider spectrum of music. There have been great efforts from some quarters, mostly by individual musicians or aficionados, but none from the traditional patrons.
Unless the traditional patrons who wield a lot of power in the practice of this art-form look beyond their universe, the situation is not going to change. Three things need to change urgently: make the paying music lover as important as the sponsor and more important than than VIP (let the free ticket holders sit in the garden as is practised elsewhere); promote the art in more innovative, experiential and universal ways throughout the year in which the artiste takes the centre-stage so that more people get attracted; and create an online and offline Hub – a very common practice even in India – that will serve as a single window for the music lovers to sample music, plan their schedules and buy tickets in advance.
It’s also high time that Carnatic musicians, or at least the young ones, realised that their art fits so perfectly in the universal spectrum of classical or improvisational music and all that they have to do is to boldly claim their well-deserving place. Some have done it single-handedly, and that’s why they are the stars.
Disclaimer: my interest in Carnatic music is as an honest lover of the art-form and the artistes, and as a consumer; not as somebody who has a ritualistic affinity towards it. I am not an insider or part of any cliques that control the art-form, and I have always paid for my tickets.
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