As the days start to get shorter and cooler, the warmth of music fills the air in our hometown of Chennai, the cultural nerve centre of South India. Every year, around this time, the city gears up for the December music season, a dizzyingly packed schedule of concerts, dance recitals and much more. Every year, thousands of concerts and music fans throng the city from all over the world. But now the halls are empty, and the annual extravaganza seems a distant memory. A sombre reminder of the world we face comes in the form of an email from The Music Academy, which announces that for the first time in almost a century, the festival will be virtual!
We are Carnatic singers and musicians and have been performing for nearly 35 years as a vocalist duo on stages all over the world. India was early to impose curbs on March 24 and as artistes we had hoped that the December season would remain untouched by the pandemic. But as the virus raged and gatherings were banned, reality dawned on us. We saw live concerts, which are the staple of the classical music experience, reduce to a mere dream. The world changed and the energy that feeds the creative endeavour of artistes like us was nearly extinguished.
As we watched this changed world, we asked ourselves: How do we keep this experience alive, both for ourselves and our fans? The word “virtual”, hitherto absent from our vocabulary, became the call of the hour, as we realised that we had to adapt. We were not sure how the new format would be received. As physical live concerts transformed into virtual concerts, a new catchword was born — voncerts!
The journey to the virtual world was less than smooth for artistes. The first few months saw a grand pageantry of musical content being shared on social media in the form of unseen videos and solo performances from the family room. This content was enthusiastically received by fans — indeed, this offered a welcome diversion from the painful parade of pandemic news. As the gravity of the pandemic deepened and its long-term implications unfolded, it was time for us to look for sustainable alternatives.
As we embarked on this journey, we had more questions than answers. Should content be free? What should be the format? We realised that musical content simply cannot be presented in good form without aspects that enrich the experience — good recording, suitable stage and careful editing. With apprehension, we introduced a fee model and have been pleasantly surprised by the response. Music lovers have been willing to pay for concerts produced well. Importantly, it has enabled artistes to recreate much of the impact of a live concert in a virtual reality.
As artistes, it heartens us to learn that this new reality can indeed be enriching. Since restrictions do not exist for a virtual event, it has been surreal for us to see music lovers from Chicago to Berlin to Chennai in the same audience, making it a truly global experience.
As Lenin famously said, “There are decades when nothing happens and then there are weeks when decades happen.” Decades did happen in the last few weeks, but through this seemingly endless journey, a new reality of musical expansiveness and global reach has arrived. As we write this, news of a vaccine brings hope for green shoots for a new world — where the musical experience is unconstrained and virtual formats broaden the reach of music globally. At the ongoing December concerts, both free and ticketed virtual content have filled the vacuum of empty auditoriums. We look forward to a time of untrammelled travel, live concerts and a safer and healthier world in a pandemic-free future.
This article first appeared in the print edition on December 22, 2020 under the title “Notes from a new world”. The writers are Indian classical musicians