As the music season comes alive in
Chennai, and the Margazhi Festival draws a horde of artists and rasikas, young performers tell us about their experiments with music. What drives them to search for a new sound, and how accepting are the connoisseurs of what they do?

BY NANDINI KRISHNAN

Drive into Narada Gana Sabha on any day of the Margazhi Festival, and the first question the watchman will ask is, “Kutcheri-aa, canteen-aa?” (Are you here for the concert or the canteen?) In January and December, this bastion of the annual dance-and-music extravaganza in Chennai that goes by the terms “Margazhi Festival”, “Music Season” or just “Season”, draws lovers of Carnatic music, Bharatanatyam, and food.

Despondent rasikas sulk at the ticket counters, as important-looking clerks shake their heads, “You can only get a ticket for tomorrow. Today is completely sold out. No, no balcony tickets.” Those who’ve had the forethought to purchase tickets in advance saunter smugly into the crowded main hall and mini-hall.

The reception area smells of old silk, jasmine flowers, and worn sandals—a scent that gets more intense when one walks into either of the halls. During the season, the slots at the sabha are filled so quickly that even eminent musicians perform in afternoon slots at the mini-hall. The seats are taken up fast, and rasikas crowd into the aisles, in front of the stage, and even the sides of the stage. In the packed auditorium, musicians perform as latecomers push through for the best seats they can hope to find, listeners flip through music notation books, trying to find the song an alaap corresponds to. Retired couples shout to each other, and others drown out delicate turns of music in screams of appreciative euphoria.

On the evening of December 9, the music that rang out of the Narada Gana Sabha wasn’t Carnatic vocal acrobatics punctuated by the mridangam and supported by the violin. A piano was the centrepiece, with the flute, tabla, and two Hindustani singers for company. The audience was mostly young, with less than 50 “sabha mama-mamis”, as the regulars have come to be designated.

“There are some people for whom seeing a piano on stage would be a sin—like, they would have to be reborn some four times to pay off that karma,” says a grinning Vedanth Bharadwaj, who’s trained in Carnatic and Hindustani vocal, and classical guitar. He had performed that evening, with acclaimed pianist Anil Srinivasan.

Most of the songs they presented were those of the Bhakti poet, Kabir. The evening was part of a lecture-concert series conceptualised by Srinivasan, called the “Festival of Parallels”, curated with the intention of bringing different worldviews within music into a season that has become synonymous with Carnatic.
Thirty-one-year-old Bharadwaj is one of several young musicians, trained in the classical tradition, but trying to forge a space for music that draws from various vocabularies—music for music’s sake, defying categorisation. Most of them have entered into collaborations with each other, and with other artists of some renown, exploring the boundaries of tradition.

“There’s a growing crowd for this sort of genre,” says Bharadwaj, “There were quite a few Mylapore mamis and mamas at that concert—at least they were open enough to come, whether they liked it or not. Even a minuscule change in mindset has to be appreciated with fanfare, because the kutcheri format is something we think has been on for centuries.”
In school, Bharadwaj learnt to play the guitar as an accompaniment to his singing, and dons this role with a fusion band, Anubhuti. But it’s hard to label his brand of music. Having been trained by distinguished Carnatic vocalist Neyveli Santhanagopalan since he was four years old, and continuing to study advanced Hindustani and Carnatic music under Ramamurthy Rao (a disciple of Bhimsen Joshi), Bharadwaj has been exposed to various classical influences. Ask him why he doesn’t perform in the traditional Carnatic or Hindustani style, and Bharadwaj laughs, “There are enough people doing it, no?”

Anil Srinivasan, 35, is one of the forces behind a movement in the musicscape of Madras that is rapidly gaining momentum. He says he doesn’t see the piano as an “accompaniment”, but as part of a format where the piano has its own melodic identity.

"Srinivasan’s music is elusive. He plays the piano, a Western instrument. His music can sound Indian—part Carnatic, part Hindustani, his notes escape the rigid definitions of both schools—and yet he brings in piano runs and crescendos in the Western style. The sound he creates is his own. He stumps people who are looking for categories [quoteclose]

“What I’m doing is composed and crafted in such a way that it has its unique melodic lines, but is complementary to what the other person—it’s always with another musician who plays in the Carnatic tradition, whether an instrumentalist or vocalist—is playing. The rhythmic structure is the same for all music; it’s only the nomenclature that’s different. What is the Purvi Kalyani ragam in Carnatic corresponds to a certain scale in Western notation.”
For the audience at the Narada Gana Sabha, Srinivasan’s performance was a departure from what they come to expect from the venue. Each piece was introduced with a story, and the soft notes of the piano underscored the mellow voices of the singers. The sounds were not what the sharp ears of the rasikas are used to, and search for.

Prema Venkateshwaran, a theatre personality who takes time off all other commitments to devote to the Season had attended the piano concert. She says “something offbeat” in the middle of the Season helps “break the monotony”.“It was refreshing to see young musicians performing in prime time, to a packed audience,” she says, “It shows that there’s place for other kinds of music too.”

But is something that doesn’t qualify as Carnatic music acceptable to the sabha regulars, in the middle of the season? Do they feel cheated?

“I mean, you know Anil Srinivasan is a pianist, he’s not going to play the violin,” says Bharadwaj, “And the fact that they were willing to give it a listen, without deciding from the concert listing that this is not for them itself means they were somewhat prepared.”

Venkateshwaran says some in the audience did start leaving, but not because of the format.

“The title was misleading,” she says, “It was called Hanumad Ramayanam, and we walked in expecting songs from that, but apart from Anil talking about Hanuman’s version of the Ramayanam, the concert had nothing to do with it. It was a compilation of songs in praise of Rama.”

However, she isn’t entirely thrilled with the genre. “All the pieces were slow-paced, which we are not used to—each song was a slow raga, and slowly rendered. I know the piano is a soft instrument, and it was the main instrument there. But a concert can sag a bit if it isn’t paced in a way that appeals to the audience. Maybe if the songs had been woven together in such a way that there was the odd fast song, it may have infused more life into the concert.”
Another rasika, Aarthi Varanasi, feels innovation of the kind Srinivasan and Bharadwaj have brought in is crucial in bringing in new listeners, especially those who are daunted by the technicalities of Indian classical music. “We’re at a stage when even Carnatic musicians are trying to bring something new into every kutcheri,” she says. “They reach out through social media, they have Facebook pages in which rasikas give them feedback, and they do bring in new elements into their music. When there is a saturation point, and you don’t want to listen to the same thing again and again, this sort of music stirs you.”

"The Season is believed to have started in the 1920s, to commemorate the founding of the Madras Music Academy. There are over fifty sabhas, and it’s believed that at least 1,500 performances are given over the five-week span of the festival. The size of the auditorium ranges from 50-seaters to 1800-seaters. Tickets for the evening concerts are sold in denominations ranging from `100 to `1000, and sometimes even more, depending on the fame and accessibility of the artist[quoteclose]

But Lakshmi Karunakaran, a listener from Bangalore, doesn’t think she can relate to the piano or the guitar in a classical music setting. “I’ve learnt a bit of the sitar, and I’m conscious of the difference in sounds between the sitar and the guitar. The sitar has more sustenance, because of the rounder tumba. The reverberations of the sound itself last, so even a stroke can move you. With the piano, when it’s running smoothly it’s fine, but when there’s a harder stroke, I feel like I’m being jerked out of meditation!”


Srinivasan’s music is elusive. He plays the piano, a Western instrument. His music can sound Indian—part Carnatic, part Hindustani, his notes escape the rigid definitions of both schools—and yet he brings in piano runs and crescendos in the Western style. The sound he creates is his own. He stumps people who are looking for categories.
“People don’t know whether it’s fusion or not, whether to call it an accompaniment or what. And for me, part of its success is that—that it’s created a different format for itself. Why does it have to fall into some category that’s already been predefined? And I’m not saying this on a whim. After putting in a hell of a lot of homework into it, it’s occupied its own place, it has its own following, its own listeners.”

He points out that there is a fusion movement of sorts in the West—that there is a proliferation of collaborations where modern instruments and technological tools have been used to support Western classical arrangements.For instance, the electric violin that Vanessa Mae plays, and the electronic-infused Western classical piano of which Maksim Mrvica is an exponent.

Srinivasan’s longest-running collaboration is with vocalist Sikkil Gurucharan—a partnership that goes back to 2005, when they met at the golden jubilee celebrations of their alma mater—but he has also teamed up with singers Aruna Sairam, Unnikrishnan, and Anuradha Sriram. He has brought out albums with instrumentalists including Mandolin U Shrinivas, Chitraveena Ravikiran, mridangist Umayalpuram K Sivaraman, violinist Lalgudi Krishnan, and several others.
However, it’s taken over six years for him to find a place in the Margazhi calendar, though he has performed at sabhas in the “off-season”. In the 2011 Season, he played at Bharat Kalachar and Kalakshetra, and in 2012, he has performed at the Narada Gana Sabha, Krishna Gana Sabha, and Brahma Gana Sabha, venues with rich history of Carnatic music.

“You know, someone posted a comment on Facebook saying ‘Thanks to you. You’ve paved the way for a lot of different things to happen’,” he says, “And I’m very glad somebody said that.”

That he is trained in classical music helped him gain the confidence of the organisers and the powers-that-be that run Margazhi. That he had gained an audience that vouched for him further redeemed him in their eyes. It gave legitimacy to his music, gravitas to his experimentation. It gave him a chance to play mid-Season at an august venue.

Can the piano become a part of the Carnatic vocabulary? Anil is clear that it isn’t his intent, and he doesn’t see it happening either. “At least not in the near foreseeable future. The instrument’s capabilities and the idiom’s requirements are orthogonal to each other.”

THE ARIYAKUDI FORMAT

Introduced in the 1920s, it allowed the audience to sample a variety of musical pieces within a span of 2-3 hours, and suceeded in making Carnatic music appeal to a wider base. The main features of the Ariyakudi style are:

• The overall structure of a concert – varnam to begin with, followed by a fast kriti, a slower kriti, a main piece (including improvisations like raga alaapana, neraval, and kalpana swaras), a secondary piece known as RTP (ragam-thaanam-pallavi), padams, javalis and viruthams, ending with a thillana followed by mangalam
• A brisker pace – madhyama kalam – to render kritis
• Emphasis on variety – for instance, singing compositions of poets who are not part of the Carnatic Trinity (Thyagaraja, Muthuswami Dikshitar, Shyama Shastri)

BEFORE ARIYAKUDI
• A concert went on for over five hours, with no definite structure
• The main piece would be the RTP, which could go on for up to, and sometimes more than, two hours
• Fewer songs, with emphasis on the variations within each song

Venkateshwaran can’t see the piano finding a place in Carnatic music either. “While I don’t think the piano itself can become a part of this, Anil is brilliant. He is able to play Carnatic tunes on the piano, and he can make the piano sound like a jalatarangam, or a veena. At times, I was wondering whether there was actually one on stage. But it doesn’t have to become part of the Carnatic idiom. If you look at Kadri Gopalnath. he’s brought the saxophone to Carnatic music, but you can’t really play the sax with a voice, simply because the sax is so loud. But the piano was able to blend with the voices, and it’s actually very pleasant.”

In that case, can we do away with categories? Many musicians who explore new instruments—or new sounds— don’t like the idea of categories.

Among them is Debashish Bhattacharya, who adapted the Hawaiian guitar to make what he calls “The Indian slide guitar”. The 49-year-old was nominated in the “Traditional World Music” category of the Grammies in 2009. His “guitar” can sound like the sitar, or veena, or santoor, or sarangi. He says the ‘Trinity of Guitars’ he has designed—named Chaturangui, Anandi, and Gandharvi—encompass all those sounds.

“Indian music is just that music in which notes glide from one to the other.It’s not staccato notes, not guided by harmonies or time signals,” he says. “It’s all about melodic movement.”

Bhattacharya says the instrument he has adapted has the same capabilities as a vichitra veena or gottu vadhyam, but it has reached out to a larger Western audience, partly because of his concert tours, partly because of his collaboration with John McLaughlin’s Shakti orchestra, an ensemble of classical musicians coming together to create “fusion”.

The universal appeal of crossover music came home to him during a concert tour in Canada. An old man came up to him with four CDs that his son used to listen to, as he lay dying of cancer. The son had given away all his other CDs, but said the Indian sound of Bhattacharya’s music gave him succour when his body was wracked with pain.

To those looking for neat slots to peg the music, he says, “If you’re looking for categories before you appreciate something, if you want the musician to give you fast beats and high frequencies before you clap, then the audience is behaving like they’re quite dumb. Music should speak to people’s hearts and souls and minds and bodies”
However, that isn’t quite how an audience that flocks into the sabhas of Chennai for the Margazhi season, from across the city, country, and even globe, sees it. Categories do exist, and that which cannot be classified does niggle.

As for those who dabble in both the Carnatic and the parallel, are there risks involved?
When Anil began to work with Sikkil Gurucharan, the latter was at a delicate stage of his career, on the cusp of being invited to perform in the coveted evening slots at prestigious sabhas.

Gurucharan, now 30, says he didn’t quite see it as a risk.

“I thought it would be a perfect foil to my Carnatic career, a complement,” he says. “If it had involved something where I had to change my singing style, or which involved a completely new format of rendition, like Hindustani, or something that intersperses Western classical into the voice, I wouldn’t have been comfortable. But this was an extension of my work in Carnatic.”

The first live show they did was in 2007, two years after starting work on an album. Gurucharan found the experience somewhat similar to what he felt in a Carnatic concert, except that he was far more conscious of his own voice—it wasn’t broken by rhythmic beats from a percussion instrument, and it wasn’t accompanied by a string or wind instrument. The piano, rather than go with his voice, gave his voice layers to play itself up. “But to be very honest, to the Carnatic musician and the purist inside me, there was a little feeling of discomfort when I played this music to ardent Carnatic rasikas—I was feeling a little jittery about how they would react,” he laughs.
Gurucharan belongs to a family that is steeped in the Carnatic tradition. His grandmother and great-aunt made up the famous flautist duo popularly known as the “Sikkil Sisters”, Sikkil Kunjumani and Sikkil Neela. His aunt Mala Chandrasekar is also a flautist, married into the family of M S Subbulakshmi. While his family was supportive of the new venture, they did have reservations.

“I played them Aasai Mugam from my first album with Anil. They all really liked it—my aunt felt it goes straight to the heart—there are no complexities that the mind will have to unlock before the heart realises the music. But, you know, being purists, they asked me ‘Is it really necessary for you to sing this slow?’

He admits his grandmother didn’t listen to much of the first album. “She isn’t the type to discourage anyone. She said ‘If you like it, then you should do it’.”

But, she was won over when she heard him another song, Suttum Vizhi Sudardaan, to Srinivasan’s piano, in a televised concert. It was in a rare raga, Rathipathypriya.

Gurucharan is pleased with the reaction the collaboration has had. “Now, people have recognised what we’re doing as a new sound, and they don’t associate me with a Carnatic idiom when I’m on stage with Anil.”

Also straddling two idioms, as it were, is the Trichur Brothers duo, Srikrishna and Ramkumar, sons of renowned mridangist Trichur R Mohan. Their foray into fusion began when they moved to Chennai a few years ago, having already become Season regulars. Anubhuti, as their band—comprising guitar, drums, bass, mridangam and vocals—is known, started when the duo met Bharadwaj. Anubhuti was formed, with the brothers on vocals, Bharadwaj on the guitar, Navaneeth Sundar on the keyboard, Jeoraj Stanley on the drums, and later, Aalaap Raju on the bass guitar. Trichur Mohan plays the mridangam with them, guiding the band’s rhythm.

Their big break came in the 2011 Novemberfest, organised by The Hindu, when a performance by Zeb and Haniya—the Pakistani duo made famous by Coke Studio—was suddenly postponed. Anubhuti had just returned from performing at the Kollam Fest, with a 16-member ensemble, when Trichur Mohan got a call, four hours before the concert was scheduled to start.

“We just had enough time to get dressed and run to the stage in time for a sound check,” the brothers laugh. It so happened that almost everyone was free—their friend Sridhar stepped in for Stanley on the drums, and the performance got them a standing ovation.

It made them take on Anubhuti as a parallel career, which allows them to experiment with world music.
Some of those who went to what they expected to be a Zeb and Haniya concert were drawn into Carnatic because of what they ended up hearing. “Though the sound system wasn’t great, they were able to keep me transfixed,” says Katyani Ratan. “I was planning to leave midway with a friend, but we kept saying, ‘Let’s listen to one more song’, till the concert was over! And that made me want to listen to those boys singing pure Carnatic too.”

Validation also comes from videos they’ve put up on YouTube. “Some of the best compliments are from people who are hardly exposed to Carnatic music, who say things like, ‘Hey, this is really cool. We never thought listening to Carnatic music could be this sort of experience’. You know, with swaras going at one end, and bass guitar and drums backing that up.”

On whether the dual role has affected their Carnatic style, the brothers say their foundation is strong enough to allow them to separate the two. They trained under Madurai Balamani Eswar and Professor Neyyattinkara, and are now guided by P S Narayanaswami.

Gurucharan says he has a list of casualties, after singing with Anil. “Sometimes the understanding of a song gets deeper and better. And many a time, I want to bring that into my Carnatic concerts. For example, Aasai Mugam, in the Carnatic structure, is sung at the fag end of the concert, and we’re playing to the gallery, with a fast beat, when you need people to sort of clap with you. But now that I know the meaning of the song, I try to render it a little earlier, and I sing it the way I usually do with Anil—though I don’t explain what the song is about, I try to convey the mood. It’s after all a lament. Similarly, I sing several padams and javalis that I do with Anil in the same way at Carnatic concerts. I’m not able to sing these songs in my Carnatic format anymore!”

The month-long music Sesason in Chennai has become a tradition in itself. Holidays are planned to coincide with it, NRIs are swept up by nostalgia, and days are marked with concerts or “kutcheris” as the locals call them. Sarees, food or music, the Marghazi is a return to some mythical pristine roots of culture. It is a time to gloriously conform, not wildly explore. Bharadwaj acknowledges that people don’t take too kindly to “experimentation” during the Season. “You have to be full achaaram (orthodox).”

Srinivasan is more outspoken. “The other day, I was saying it should be called ‘The Annual December Music Market’. Because, often, it’s about some people who’re stuck in a time warp, and sporting Kanchivaram silks, and feeling smug about being seen, about being acknowledged as an audience of rasikas. And then what happens to the music, to the musician’s career? Frankly, I would prefer watching concerts in July or August, when the musician is catering to the music, and not to the audience.”

The Trichur Brothers and Gurucharan have more conservative views about the Season. Gurucharan says the Margazhi season means Carnatic music, not only to him, but also to the rasikas who throng the sabhas for those 30 days—and he believes this is what causes the sabhas, the artists, and the festival to grow at such a rapid pace.“Bringing in a completely different genre during the Margazhi season, rather than being seen as a complement to Carnatic music, may start being seen as a substitute for it, which is not the need of the hour, I feel. At this time, I don’t do too many collaborations— partly because the calendar is so full, partly because the logistics involved are tough when every venue has back-to-back concerts, and partly because of what the audience is there for. But if measures are being taken adequately to ensure that the mainstay of December Season, which is Carnatic music, is not compromised, then collaborations are most welcome.”

While Anubhuti performs in other cities during the Margazhi Season, the Trichur Brothers stick to pure Carnatic in Chennai.

The Season is believed to have started in the 1920s, to commemorate the founding of the Madras Music Academy. There are over fifty sabhas, and it’s believed that at least 1,500 performances are given over the five-week span of the festival. The size of the auditorium ranges from 50-seaters to 1800-seaters. Tickets for the evening concerts are sold in denominations ranging from `100 to `1000, and sometimes even more, depending on the fame and accessibility of the artist.

The structure of the kutcheri as it is known today was formulated by Ariyakudi Ramanuja Iyengar, almost a century ago. While doyens including M S Subbulakshmi and Balamuralikrishna have made minor alterations in their presentations, putting in their own compositions and including bhajans, most musicians have stuck to the “Ariyakudi format”.

In this format, a kutcheri would begin with a varnam—a piece in a single raga, with sahityam—lyrics—interspersed with swarams—notes. This would be followed by shorter songs, of which each might have different stanzas in different ragas. Before each, the musician renders an alaap in the same raga as the first stanza of the song. Then, the concert moves on to an exposition of the musician’s talent in an RTP—ragam-thaanam-pallavi. This is one of the key components of a kutcheri, the musician’s opportunity to showcase his skill. The accompanists get their turn with the tani-avartanam, where each instrumentalist is given about ten minutes to do a solo piece.

A few years ago, vocalist T M Krishna, now 35, baffled the audience by singing varnams towards the end of the concert, rather than at the beginning. He often sings alaaps in different ragas from the song that is to follow. But he isn’t the only one. Today, there are organisations such as Mudhra that promote the single raga format, and others that invite musicians to standalone concerts that go on for over four hours.

Srikrishna feels it’s a personal choice. “Before Ariyakudi, a musician would sit on stage and perform for seven or eight hours. People accepted the structure he brought in, and it works for a short concert, because it takes some time for a musician’s voice to warm up, and starting with a varnam is a good way to do it. But the main thing is for a musician to be comfortable in whatever style he chooses. I’m sure there are fans of T M Krishna who look forward to the surprise element in his kutcheris. And he himself probably doesn’t really think about whether it’s working on the audience or not. It’s probably just his own way of expressing his music. We musicians often don’t think about whether it appeals to the audience. It’s more about self-satisfaction. And there’s no hard and fast rule about sticking to the format. But Ramkumar and I prefer the traditional structure. It’s challenging in its own way, because in two hours, you do a varnam, alaapana, swaram, neraval, RTP, and thillana.”

However, they themselves learnt that they had brought in an innovation when critics started writing about it. While doing alaaps, they tend to instinctively exchange phrases, each taking up where the other left off while exploring ragas.

Listening to the brothers in concert is a stirring experience. They alternate between the playful and the meditative, teasing each other with arrangements of swaras, throwing strands of music at each other, and seemingly playing a game of catch that only they can see.

Gurucharan feels the structure suits him too. “It’s time-tested and popular, and trying to change it overnight is not something I would personally want to do. But I do see immense scope in the same structure—we can infuse our own creative elements into it.”

In the off-season, or at informal settings during the Season, he himself renders the occasional Hindustani song, or nottuswarams—compositions by Muthuswami Dikshitar in the Western style, often resembling Celtic folk tunes.
Does he think it’s important to play around with the structure, as a trigger for the audience, to show them that it isn’t sacrosanct?

“I don’t know whether it’s important, but it’s very difficult to curb imagination all the time,” he says. “If you have a creative impulse, it’s only natural that you express yourself. If Thyagaraja didn’t feel like going ahead and following his heart and composing new ragas, we wouldn’t have ragas like Andholika, Nalinakanthi, Maalavi. He invented these. Back at the time, I don’t think people said ‘Thyagaraya is experimenting with swaras’. That’s another word people use often now, to speak of what may be a creative force, an immediate outpouring from the heart. I think at some point of time, the artist should go ahead and give way to his creative energy on stage. And as I said, if it doesn’t disturb the general trend, and the general progress of Carnatic music, these ‘experiments’ are not at all something to be worried about.”

It’s hard to say when Carnatic music was formulated. It is generally acknowledged that the “Trinity” of Carnatic music—Thyagaraja, Muthuswami Dikshitar and Shyama Shastri—lived in the eighteenth to the nineteenth centuries. Thyagaraja, who wrote volumes of songs, didn’t put down musical notations, and for decades, music was only passed on through the oral tradition. The “Ariyakudi structure” has remained popular since it came in about 90 years ago, and was part of a movement to publish texts with musical notations to popular songs, that would serve as guides to students of Carnatic music.

Since the Ariyakudi revolution-of-sorts, the major innovations in Carnatic music have had to do with the introduction of new instruments—Kadri Gopalnath with the saxophone, U Shrinivas with the mandolin, and about a century before them, the violin—but the structure of a concert hasn’t changed. The fact that a varnam will be sung as a varnam, a kriti as a kriti, and an invocation song as a geetam, is generally accepted.

Bharadwaj acknowledges that the Ariyakudi structure makes a lot of sense, but warns that musicians could fall into a trap, singing the same set of songs, and playing to the gallery. “It’s like a formula film. You know it works, and you know that when you do this-this-this, that-that-that, the audience will clap. It’s easy to get carried away, and look at audience appreciation, and focus on the moments where people start clapping. That becomes a formula concert.” He says in a hardcore Hindustani classical concert, the musicians get offended if they hear claps in between songs. “Their explorations of a raga can go on for anywhere between 45 minutes to two hours. In a Carnatic concert, you’ve got this structure, but you need to be aware of why it’s there, what it’s doing.”

He explains, “When Thyagaraja composed and sang his songs, he may have sung each line once, maybe twice. Shyama Shastri and Muthuswami Dikshitar wrote down the notes, but for Thyagaraja, we don’t even know whether what we’re singing now is the same tune. And within this, each line has, like, 10 sangathis (variations of tune), and people keep improvising on those. The audience loves it, and you can get caught up in that. You know, it makes me think of this—if you have a two and a half hour movie, with a script that’s mindblowingly good, but it’s all shot in one room, will it be a hit with an audience? I don’t think anyone will make such a movie, at least, not now. Maybe that’s how concerts have become. You need to give people variety, because people want all of this in a span of some two hours.”
Srinivasan, too, is wary of being guided by an audience. “Ultimately, I think we create works of art because we’re in love with the art, not because an audience demands this or that. A true work of art should be able to create its own audience, it should not be tailored to an audience’s tastes.”

But he knows all too well that an audience does matter, and it takes persistence—and marketing—to win one.
Bharadwaj feels this movement in music has helped draw a younger audience. “Compare this to a regular Carnatic audience, where the average age is 60. The young people are either forced to go to it, or they’re being baby-sat. They’re not there by choice. Or, they’re foreigners. Or, they could be students, in which case, they’ve probably been forced into everything, right from paattu class to kutcheris, by parents. Look at our own selves—how many of us take the month off to go attend Carnatic concerts? There’s always some motive. Maybe you go to them when you’re writing an article about them. Or, it’s someone famous. Or a friend.”

While the younger audience drawn in by the likes of Anubhuti can spill over to traditional concerts performed by the same vocalists, this audience is also getting increasingly educated about music.

“I think the sabha audience can only change for the better,” says Charan, “The rate at which people listen to music right now, all of us musicians have a very big challenge ahead of us, to keep up with their interests, to keep up with their expectations. People are more liberal nowadays, more open. They just want good music, they’re not fettered in by preferences like Carnatic, or Western, or film, or jazz or fusion. They know what to expect when they come to listen to a particular concert, and they’re happy when they experience something unexpected too, as long as it’s done well.”

Finding an appreciative audience isn’t the only challenge here. Meaningful collaborations take a lot of work, and investment in terms of time and adaptability.

Srinivasan says his work with Gurucharan is special because, being close friends, they make time for each other, travelling extensively with their work, and spending long hours creating new sounds, so that they’ve developed what he calls “a very organic connectivity.”

In the early years of making their music, they did face some hurdles. Gurucharan was not used to singing without any instrument to play with his voice, to punctuate the beats. And he was used to singing at a particular tempo. One of the songs that posed a particular challenge was Aasai Mugam Marandhupoche, now a favourite among their fans. Among rasikas of Carnatic music, it is thought of as a gopika’s song about how much she misses Krishna after he leaves Brindavan, and how much it hurts that she can’t recall his face.

At a concert in 2007, Srinivasan explained that the song was written by the Tamil poet Subramaniya Bharathiyaar when he discovered that he had lost his only photograph of his mother, during one of his rushed journeys to escape arrest by the British. His mother had died in his infancy, and he couldn’t remember her face—losing the photograph meant he had lost her face.

“Anil asked me to sing it slower,” says Gurucharan, “And I thought I’d slowed it down a great deal, and he asked me to sing it still slower, because the emotion has to come through.”

Gurucharan went with Srinivasan’s instinct, and the rendition left many in the audience in tears.
The duo then began to collaborate with other artists, including the famous Bharatanatyam performers, the Dhananjayans.

Gurucharan says he was sceptical when Anil suggested that they perform with dancers. “I think singing for dance is much more difficult. You need to be very attentive to what’s happening on stage, you need to look at the dancer, and the number of times you do a sangathi, and the amount of time you get to do a sanchari, is all quite limited. The artist has to operate under several constraints on stage, and ideally, you need to go in for rehearsals—it’s a different ball game, and not one I’ve felt was for me. But it was really exciting that a master such as Dhananjayan and Shanta Akka felt they could work with this music. And after a couple of interactions with them, I found there was no fixed style that we had to follow. They said, ‘You play your music, and we’ll dance. Let it come together seamlessly, there’s no need to forcefully put in a few abhinayas over here, or a few swara passages over here, or any such order’. So, we decided on some four-five songs, and said let’s see what happens on stage.”

“It was simply fabulous,” he says, thinking back to the day, “I never thought I would enjoy singing for dance so much. Most of the time, I tend to shut my eyes on stage while singing. But by the time we were into the second song, I realised I was enjoying watching them dance, enjoying their moves, and I was responding to them as well, and very subtly, they would glance at me, saying sing it again. Catching all those last minute ideas on stage, you know, it was all quite fun!”

The duo also collaborated with a cellist from the Singapore Symphony Orchestra, Thomas Marlin. Srinivasan says they had 33 pages of notation, which Charan had to follow with them.

“I didn’t find it difficult,” says Gurucharan, “It was simply breathtaking. You know, people keep asking me and Anil to do Aasai Mugam, and we thought it was beaten to death—but we did the song with Thomas, and he added a completely different spectrum of colour. Anil had given him the notation, but Thomas gave it a sort of melody that brought a whole new layer to the song. It was such a lovely exposition of the minor scale!”

However, there was a constraint. While Carnatic musicians, and their accompanists, are used to improvisation, Western musicians tend to read notations, and straying off the script could throw them off.

“In the first few rehearsals, I found it tight,” says Gurucharan, “If I repeated a line more than twice or thrice, I would find that the cellist had already moved to the next line, whereas I was improvising on the previous one, because I’m so used to it. But you know what? We did two performances, and before the second one, Thomas came up to me and said, ‘You just do what you want, you don’t have to stick to a particular number of lines. I’ll follow you. It showed me just what music truly is…you need no language, no script, no notation…if you understand the melody, and you feel the melody in your heart, you can collaborate with anyone.”

Srinivasan says over the years he has seen it all. “Initially, there was curiosity. After that, there was disillusionment. Then, it started becoming unhealthy criticism. Then, it moved to healthy criticism. Now, I wouldn’t say there’s acceptance, but it’s been sort of acknowledged. That said, I’ve never had rejection, in the sense of its being dismissed outright. There’ve been people who’ve said they don’t see it as suitable, or find it appealing, but no one has said ‘This is wrong’. And every day, I wake up to find, with some surprise, that there are people from a lot of different countries who seem to have taken a liking to what this is.”

But he is cautious in his optimism, and feels that it is not easy being an independent artist in the classical idiom in India. “It’s okay to be an independent artist if you’re doing rock music or pop music, because you have the platforms and the big-budget sponsors. But sadly, a lot of independent-thinking classical musicians from India are finding it much more worthwhile to be working abroad. We’ve created a paradigm where 99 per cent of our soundscape is about the movies, and one percent is taken up by independent acts which have more of a youth following – rock and pop. Classical stuff itself is becoming so limited, and anything independent in it, anything innovative in it, has to be marketed and plied abroad, in order for it to be able to sustain itself. We do need the sustenance and support of the rest of the world. Ravi Shankar needed The Beatles to do what Hindustani music by itself couldn’t. With Carnatic, it’s a fusion ensemble like John McLaughlin’s Shakti that has taken Carnatic sounds to a larger, non-Asian audience.”
It doesn’t help that the demographic that the Margazhi Festival caters to remains tiny.

He signs off with an anecdote. “One mami came and told me, oh, all of Madras breaks into music and dance in Margazhi, and I had to remind her all of Madras doesn’t break into music and dance, it’s the Tam Brahms who do. They say, ‘Ooh, it’s the most vibrant metropolis on earth’ and all that, but it’s not…we know how difficult it is for us to be recognised here. Or anywhere.”

(Nandini Krishnan is a freelance writer based in Chennai.)

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One Comment

Anonymous, 4 years ago

well someone should talk about the dark underbelly of the season and sabhas too e.g. how exploitative they are of new artists. There are various instances of “donation” to perform and also casting couch

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