Music Season - Madras 1990

by Ramesh Mahadevan

If it is December, it must be Madras. The time when the month-long Music Festival is held across the city, showcasing South Indian Karnatic music. The sleepy city awakes to the sound of music and dance and its vast population imbibes more than its share of culture in just a matter of days.

For those of you who don't know, now there are more than fifteen organizations and cultural academies in Madras which organize music/dance concerts during December. Add to this a number of independent, smaller outfits. On a good day, during the height of the season, as many as 35 concerts are held simultaneously in various parts of Madras. The concerts usually go on almost round the clock, from early morning to late night, the prized slot being in the evening. Many musicians would kill to get any slot in some of the more prestigeous concert halls. Lest you might think that this is some kind of an elite activity for the rich, almost half the concerts are free and sponsored by corporations and private companies. Even the more expensive 'sabhas' usually have tickets for three or five rupees (about the price of a cup of coffee) for the general public. Of course, this Janata ticket entitles you to squat on the stage near the artistes, and due to the proximity, you might even catch the music first. It is an awesome scene to see the fans arrive in droves, the yuppies in their marutis and Bajaj scooters and the single ladies (and dhoti-clad males) in their more user-friendly Kinetic Hondas. And many, just riding the bus and walking. It is stampede city. There are usually about twenty foreigners (read it as 'white skinned') and many NRIs in most concerts.

The Music Academy is probably the grand daddy of them all. The concerts are run with utter professionalism. The auditorium has excellent acoustics and in a country where schedules and punctuality are mere suggestions, the concerts are run like clockwork. The cafetaria itself is an interesting place. It is like ten downtown McDonalds at rush hour, put together. You just have to walk to the entrance and a robot would seat you at a table and take your orders and get it in a jiffy. The same robot will also seat someone looking like Caspar the friendly ghost, who turns out to be a B. Rajam Iyer or someone equally important, across from you at the same table. Despite being perpetually crowded and being inexpensive, the academy canteen is well-known for some dishes.

Many musicians like Kunnakkudi Vaidyanathan, Lalgudi and T. V. Gopalakrishnan have established trusts to sponsor events, besides personally being forces of motivation. (Kunnakkudi Vaidyanathan has so much of sacred ash and bindi on his forehead that you can hardly see his forehead anymore. It looks like some kind of a headband and rumors have it that he is renting it out for sponsors, like Jim McMohan.) By the way, if you are not interested in serious music and want to 'see' something very hilarious, a Kunnakkudi concert is highly recommended.

There were so many faces on the stage. Many old and some new. Almost everyone who is anyone in music can be seen. Ilayaraja gave a lecture demonstration on 'Classical Music in Films'. There were several lectures and panel discussions on music and dance. It was inspiring to see an amputee gentleman without both arms and legs, singing away on stage. (Does anyone know his name ?) There are people who have moved up to better slots like Mani Krishnaswamy, Sirkazhi Sivasidambaram and Usha Raghunathan and people who have fallen a few notches like Nedanuri and (very deservingly) Chittibabu. Balamurali's viola, Seshagopalan's veena and T. V. Gopalakrishnan's vocal have all been featured more than they usually would have been. Still the person who attracts most crowds is Maharajapuram Santhanam and the present theory in Madras is that this attraction is purely gravitational. (okay, no more jokes on people being fat) D. K. Jayaraman was given the Sangeetha Kalanidhi this year and people have now given up hoping for Lalgudi being honored thus. In a formal resolution, the Music Academy voted to rename Gottuvadhyam as Chitra Veena on Ravi Kiran's recommendation. (The Hindustani equivalent of the fretless veena is Vichitra veena)

I was in the audience for the 'sadhas', which is Music Academy's concluding ceremony honoring the musicians. There was a lot of patting each other on the backs. There were the usual harangues against the grand conspirators who are polluting the 'pure Karnatic music'. And sarcastic sermons against today's low taste which makes people go for dumb things like movie songs instead of serene classical music, which was attributed directly to the declining morality of these days and stress brought on by the spiralling cost of peanut oil. And some people moaned "Gone are the days when one could hear GNB's brigha. These days it is nothing"

The festival wasn't limited to just Karnatic music concerts. There were classical dances, Kathakalakshebams (story telling through music) etc. There seems to be a total explosion in dance. There are about a million dancers, many of them very talented, and there are even experimental dance jugalbandhis, juxtaposing odissi and bharatnatyam. And this once female bastion is now filled with a number of males. More than a handful of Hindustani concerts too were held. Light classical music is getting very popular these days, especially the Bhajan songs. (There are even Christian hymns these days, tuned to Karnatic ragas)

The music season brings out concert reviews in many newspapers, a good lot of them written very poorly. "The great Vidhwan Sri ... attained the Lotus feet of the Lord last year and his sishya Sri ... now has the yeomon task of filling his shoes. His begada was adequate." Then there are the write-ups which are ostensibly in english, but are essentially transliterated tamil/sanskrit. "Sri ... comes from a parampara of vidwans and vidushis who are well known for their sruti suddham and akara suddham. A pattu angawastram was pottified (just kidding !) by Sri.... " and so forth.

Every music season sees the birth of a new star and this season it is Master Shashank. He is a twelve year old flutist and his debut was so sensational that the Music Academy had him on their plum time slot on the New Year evening and tickets sold out in a matter of minutes. He is being hailed the Child Prodigy of the decade. These days, child prodigies are groomed more thoroughly instead of being treated like freaks of nature. They don't burn out easily. (Look at U. Srinivas or Ravi Kiran or Sowmya) These kids realize that there are many talented youngsters almost just like them and so they too concentrate on being professionals and don't want to be treated as special musicians. Shashank's father gave up his job as a professor and is now devoting full time to his son's career. The young kid impressed the late flute great, Mali, so much, some six years ago, that Mali suggested that he be taught by a vocalist, since the kid was already too good as a flutist. (His Guru now is K. V. Narayanaswamy)

I attended the concert. When the little kid got up clumsily to bow to the audience before the start of the concert, there was a perceptible appreciative groan from the audience. You could hear "How cute !" all around you and many women would have just rushed to the stage and given him a hug, if it weren't for their not wanting to lose their seats. When he started off with the Viribhoni varnam, the audience went wild. His mastery over flute was consummate and nowhere did it sound like my uncle's post-idli bout of belches, even in the lower mandra stayi. His repertoire seem pretty impressive and he played ragas like Karnatic Behaag and Karnatic Kapi. His most extensive piece was Mohanam ('Nannu Palimpa') and you could see glimpses of genius. His sense of rhythm was perfect. Uncle Ramesh would gladly give an arm and a leg to be able to acquire a tenth of his musical abilities.

But Uncle Ramesh also critcizes quite a bit. While there was no question that Shashank is an extraordinary student of music, reproducing whatever he was taught, there was a serious lack of improvisation and Manodharma. His alapanas were micro-mini and there was not one neraval in the entire concert. His kalpanaswram in Mohanam and Poorvi Kalyani sounded mathematical and symmetric. It is not clear yet if he is the next genius or just another well-tutored kid. It is too early to make any pronouncements. Whatever may be the case, Madras is now gripped with a Shashank fever, with popular magazines competing with each other for his biographical sketches. Remember, you heard it here first, about Shashank !

Now back to work.