This festive season in Chennai, who would sing Amrithavarshini? This raga, meant to invoke the rain god, spans out best in Muthuswami Dikshitar’s Anandamritakarshini, a familiar peppy composition in the Carnatic concert.
Back in 1982, in the middle of a severe water shortage, the late violin maestro Kunnakudi Vaidyanathan stood knee-deep in the Red Hills reservoir in the city’s outskirts and played this piece with characteristic showmanship. Whether atmospherics or the atmosphere triggered the rain that eventually came is open to question, but one thing was official. The violinist made it clear that he was there on the invitation of no less than MG Ramachandran, then chief minister. Reason enough for music to be treated in these parts as a substitute for town planning. More such events invariably followed. In 2001 summer, right in the middle of the parched city, at the Mylapore Kalapleeswarar Temple, an ensemble of classical musicians performed for rain.
If one raga can bring rains, is there another that can stop the kind of downpour Chennai saw in the first week of December? Or after the event, at least alleviate? Even as the reluctant city is into its annual cycle of classical music and dance, are the performers addressing the trauma? Is there anything therapeutic on offer as music is believed to be? At the tentative commencement of festivities at Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, vocalist OS Arun apparently moved the audience into a soaring congregational chanting of the Lord’s name. Such cathartic highs were not in evidence elsewhere.
Two veterans, TN Seshagopalan and Trichur V Ramachandran, sang at Sri Parthasarathy Swamy Sabha, each to some 50 listeners. The number, no reflection on their stature, may not be any better in the best of times but the predictable applause from loyalists at the right pauses was clearly muted. The young Adithya Narayanan sang a sparkling Kedaragowla at Narada Gana Sabha after which a most appreciative critic went on about “How tall the lad is!” The 18-year-old math student is already well above six feet. Helps in a city prone to sink.
The waters have only receded physically. At the Music Academy canteen, known for easy conversation switches between recipes and ragas, it is an unusually quiet lot hardly looking up from the curd vadai in front. Everybody is trying not to look sad. Parts of the city, concert halls included, look two-dimensional, flat — a bit like film sets. In the foyer of one auditorium, banners of multiple sponsors, mostly banks, are mounted from floor to ceiling and stretched into a wall-length façade. To conceal the junk and slush washed up by the rain? None has the heart to peep behind the cloth curtain. Not that the Chennaiite is averse to finding fault, people here have seen enough stark stuff. They don’t want to see more.
Perhaps it is easier to cope with a flat image. What Chennai went through was a bit too real, much more than what the outside world saw on flat screens — TV and the mobile phone. Marooned for days, friends lived with multiple deprivations, from drinking water to their daily quota of television and WhatsApp. It is quite odd in these times to feel unconnected for uncertain stretches, said one. His family just sat at home through day after stimulus-deprived day. The familiar ambient sound was missing. No reassuring traffic din or the blare in the name of prayer from the nearby pavement temple. Just the relentless pounding of rain and worse, the eerie windless silence when it stopped.
A music-loving young mother who managed to show up at the concerts recalled that nothing was more musical to her ears than the whirring of the rescue boat. And sheer dance to the eyes, her school-going son was quick to add, was the improvised amphibian autorickshaw that cruised along, puffing clouds of smoke from a vertical plastic tube connected to the low fitted exhaust pipe. Regulars like them had budgeted for a rained-out season — truncated for other reasons as well.
Long before the floods, TM Krishna had dropped out of this year’s concert circuit over his running argument with Chennai’s Republic of Music. After the disaster, wife Sangeetha Sivakumar, herself a popular musician, is focusing on relief and rehab. Bombay Jayashri, another star vocalist, has pulled out. Dancer Anita Ratnam asks connoisseurs to choose between the effect of the record rain in 100 years and their 100-year-old tradition. “Your city or you?” Not an easy choice for Sanjay Subrahmanyan. He is this year’s nominee for Sangeetha Kalanidhi, the highest annual honour in Carnatic music which he will receive from the Music Academy after presiding over its day-long sessions. This also means he can’t stir out much to sing elsewhere. In short, the concert hopper would miss almost the entire peer group that rebooted Carnatic music in the 1990s.
In the bargain, a younger lot could catch attention. Don’t miss out on new faces, urges an organiser. There is a range of facial and gestural exertions that comes with stage shows here. These concert chambers have been veritable classrooms for the city’s cartoonists. Keshav of The Hindu refers to how “the veteran cartoonists of Ananda Vikatan, Mali, Gopulu, Silpi right down to Madan honed their skills by sketching through the December festival”. Keshav himself has built up a fine album on
Singers are more expressive than dancers; listeners even more than singers. The entire gamut of navarasas plays out, all nine emotional states the Natya Sastra talks about — from sheer wonderment to utter disdain. This time though there is a tenth. An elder steeped in the classics assures, “It’ll pass. It is akin to smasana vairagyam, the fleeting sense you get when you attend a funeral that life is only so much.” For now the doodling pen can’t quite catch it — the feeling of having been summarily let down by god and man.