Many discontents of the Season
Ispot an old woman standing hesitantly, protected by a shawl from the night chill, fingering the ancient diamonds on her ears. Does she need help to cross the road? No, she needs an auto; she came to a concert without making arrangements to return.
On an impulse, I offer to drop her home; it’s a part of town I’ve never been to before. I spend an hour trying to find my way back home. I’ll never see her again. But the encounter feels special, like a lovely conversation with a stranger on a short tube ride.
That’s what the Madras Music Season is about—there will be fighting, long queues, parking problems, and traffic and transport issues— but in the end, the art wins out. People come in. And the rasa binds the rasikas.
very December, as the air-conditioners finally go off, there’s a shift in mood. Drivers and maids threaten to go on leave if they don’t get a raise. Septuagenarians and octogenarians suddenly grow fond of the most gullible of their licensed-to-drive grandchildren. There are no weddings. Anyone who dares to die will be remembered chiefly for ruining “the season”.
The Margazhi Dance and Music Festival—known variously as the Margazhi Festival, Music Season, or simply season—is here. What started as a week-long celebration of the opening of the Madras Music Academy in 1927 has now spread to 135 sabhas and six weeks. The season is spoken of as the world’s biggest cultural festival. No one keeps a record of footfalls, but 135 sabhas seating 50 to 1,800 people are occupied for at least a month and a half.
It is believed the week of December 24 to January 1 was chosen for the music season since courts were closed for the Christmas break and the city’s prominent residents, most of whom were lawyers, could congregate in concert halls. Now, the season is named after Margazhi, the Tamil month that corresponds approximately to the December 15–January 15 period, and there’s a spillover on either side.
For Carnatic and Bharatanatyam artistes, it’s a busy time, when they’re performing almost every day. For new entrants, it’s delirium and nerves.
The stretch from south Chennai’s Mylapore to T. Nagar at the city’s heart hosts the majority of sabhas and is choked with cars. Ancient patrons scowl from the windows, while two-wheelers twist their way through almost-conjoined bumpers. The last gasps of chivalry expire in a race for parking space.
Swathed in silk saris and translucent dhotis, armed with walking sticks and music notation books, the connoisseurs walk to neighbourhood sabhas. Musicians have been known to abandon their cars halfway and walk to their own kutcheris, bearing tanpuras (instruments which they use as accompaniment for pitch), so they can keep to the strict timings of the sabha slots.
The audience has its agendas. Some diligently mark dates, and keep tattered copies of cross-referenced schedules printed in various newspapers handy. With rasikas drawn mostly from the Tamil Brahmin and Malayali communities, the season is fertile hunting-ground for children-in-law and grandchildren-in-law. Some sigh over the food stalls. Others escape the alleged tyranny of their younger relatives for the tedium of conversation with their age-mates. Friendships are forged, kutcheris (concerts) and artistes analysed, dinner deals struck, and infections exchanged in liberal sprays of saliva and phlegm.
For Carnatic and Bharatanatyam artistes, it’s a busy, busy, busy time, when they’re performing almost every day. For the new entrants, it’s delirium and nerves: sabha secretaries have an ear to the ground, music critics sprout out of nowhere to fill the special newspaper supplements, artistes have to choose between resting a broken limb and downing painkillers.
The season is reeling under its own economics, between shows not ticketed and those that are oversold, between artistes who pay sabhas for slots and those who hike their fees. Some disparagingly call it “The NRI Festival”, accusing non-resident Indians of pumping money into buying slots, and distorting the balance of the season.
The season has taken classical performers across the world. It has also brought them home; for many senior performers this is the only break from insane tour schedules.
Things change. Things stay the same.
here’s still 90 minutes to the concert when I arrive. The passes won’t be distributed for half an hour, but there’s no place to park. The queue snakes down the entire street. T. M. Krishna is on the menu.
The 36-year-old singer draws a mob at practically every kutcheri. A vocalist who’s been famous for longer than he hasn’t been, his flair and creativity on stage have earned him a devoted following—and a reputation as an eccentric. He often questions the competence of music critics, the sanctity of the structure of a kutcheri, the politics of the season.
Over the last few years, he’s taken initiatives to set things right. Once he refused evening slots to make way for new talent. Another time, he said he was taking December off to attend other musicians’ kutcheris; and in 2012-13, he said he would only give free concerts. So rasikas dashed to his four-hour concert at an auditorium with 700 seats.
The Margazhi season can be a great leveller; I spot former West Bengal governor and current Kalakshetra Foundation chairman Gopalakrishna Gandhi standing ahead of me. Another rasika asks me to hold his place in the queue as he’s going to count heads.
“112 is there before you, sir,” he tells Gandhi, who hadn’t asked. “There are 700 seats. Assuming 300 seats are reserved, we will still get passes.”
“Yes, let’s hope for the best,” Gandhi smiles.
ne of the great mysteries of the season is the way slots are assigned. None of the performers I spoke to has an explanation. Apparently, one keeps applying to the sabhas and one fine day, one is called in. The sabhas grade the hours of the day according to the importance of the artiste. In most sabhas, only the evening concert, reserved for senior artistes, is ticketed.
There are rules that must not be breached. While artistes are promoted over time, no one must be demoted. Ideally, no dancer or vocalist should perform more than once in the same sabha; no accompanist should perform more than twice.
Nalli Kuppuswami Chetti—one of the main sponsors of Margazhi, a patron of several sabhas, and head of the famous Nalli Silks—says these unwritten rules have been in place for as long as he can remember.
“In Krishna Gana Sabha, though the main hall was empty in the afternoon, beginners had to sing in a pandal put up outside. I remember (violinist) Lalgudi Jayaraman Mama told the secretary, Yagnaraman Mama, that there was a boy from Madurai who sings very well. When Lalgudi Mama vouched for him, they gave the boy a 3 p.m. slot in the pandal. That boy became Sangeeta Kalanidhi Padma Shri T. N. Seshagopalan!”
Indicating a space about four feet long and two across, he added, “Yagnaraman Mama had a chart this big, with a list of vocalists, mridangists, violinists—and the same way for dance performances—and drew up lists, to make sure there were no repeats, an eight-month job even in the Sixties.”
While dancers are expected to bring and pay their own orchestra, music performances are organised differently. Vocalists and accompanists at the “junior” and “sub-senior” levels must all apply to the sabhas, and will be assigned to each other by the sabha. Senior musicians usually have preferred accompanists, and this has to be taken into consideration when they are invited to perform.
When I met Ravichandran, secretary of Brahma Gana Sabha, in January 2013, he had already started planning for the 2013-14 season.
“All the sabhas are running after senior artistes,” he said, “So we need to start looking at the main slot (evening) one year ahead.” The senior slots are assigned by “commercial value”; the secretary’s personal preferences shouldn’t affect the sales of tickets. How does the selection of applicants for junior and sub-senior slots work?
There’s a lot of lobbying,” a dancer said, “You keep applying till people give you a chance. There’s no scope, at least in dance, to be modest or idealistic.
“It’s mostly through word of mouth,” Ravichandran said, “We know a lot of rasikas who are well-versed with the music and dance scene, and who will tell you who is good and who is not. We also refer to the gurus. We restrict performances to two, at the most three, students per guru for one season, and ask the gurus for their preferences. In music, we successfully avoid repetitions, about 90 to 95 per cent.”
The rotation policy irks many artistes, especially in the “sub-senior” slot.
“It’s a stupid policy, frankly,” a musician told me, “It makes no sense. How will you find your core of people to take over as the next generation of top performers? It’s as stupid a policy as Australia dropping its cricket captain as part of the rotation.”
The competition is intense and can get ugly, especially where dance is concerned.
“There’s a lot of lobbying,” a dancer said, “You need to keep applying till people get fed up and give you a chance. There’s no scope, at least in dance, to be modest or idealistic.”
There is a more insidious trend in the sabhas, to which artistes will only speak about anonymously. This is the demand for “donation” or “sponsorship”.
“One sabha secretary called me last year and asked for sponsorship, some days before my programme,” a dancer performing in her second season said. “He wanted ₹6,000. I told him I’m just starting out. Where could I cough up that sort of money in addition to everything else: costumes, orchestra, videos, photos? He asked me to ask my father! So, I said, ‘Look, this is my profession, and I can’t depend on my parents. I only bank on what I earn.’”
It isn’t easy to say no. “If you refuse to pay, there are five people willing to pay and grab the slot.”
Often, demands come in minutes before a performance. A dancer tells me how she was confronted by the lighting man as she was putting on her anklets. “He said you pay me ₹5,000 now or I won’t switch on the lights. And what can you do? My guru’s sitting in the front row; there are 300 people in the audience. I’ve spent money on the logistics and orchestra and accoutrements, and now I could lose all of that if I refused to be blackmailed. And the sabha had invited me. You can’t complain.”
A vocalist says, “I find that in the North, artistes are a lot more united. They won’t take this kind of crap. If someone makes an unreasonable demand, and a performer takes the high road, all his or her colleagues will, so the organisers have to step back and be nice. Here, things are far more cut-throat. If you stick to your principles, there are a whole lot of people who will swoop in. And that’s given the sabhas all the power. I see it in the way Hindustani musicians are treated, during special concerts for Margazhi. They’re given lakhs as performer fees; they’re put up in five-star hotels. But how are Carnatic musicians from out of town treated? What does that tell you?”
alini Srinivasan wouldn’t strike one as a Bharatanatyam artiste if one were to see her in jeans and an embroidered kurta. She reaches for the menu at the restaurant we’re at, saying in a broad American accent, “I’m starving!” She has a ready laugh and lively eyes, and her quick movements don’t have the deliberation of the seasoned dancer.
A dance teacher based in Long Island, Malini had been initiated into the art from by her dancer-mother. She spent five years in Chennai after graduating, learning under senior Bharatnatyam dancer C. V. Chandrashekhar. Malini moved back to the US in 2004 but has returned for the season every year since.
NRIs are credited with having brought an international audience to Carnatic music and Bharatanatyam. But one often hears rasikas mumbling that NRIs have bought everything, from sabha slots to the art itself.
Malini has a show in a few days at the exalted Music Academy, the prime venue for anyone at the season. The show is her biggest in Chennai so far, and the nerves show. “I’m only here for three-and-a-half weeks this time so it’s all … ” she throws her hands up in the air and laughs, “all over the place.”
“Jet lag?” I ask.
“Jet lag is one of the worst parts, because sometimes it takes days,” she says. “But there are other factors like the climate: you sweat a lot more, and you get much, much more tired dancing, especially in that first week. There, I practise on a wooden floor, here I’m dancing on cement, so much harder on the body. There’s this physical leap in time and space and weather, and you really have to be tough. But you can’t ignore the season.”
What keeps them coming back? Is it the stamp of approval from the audience? Or is there a sense of personal fulfilment?
“If I came to perform once in ten years,” Malini says, “it would be difficult to develop momentum, any sort of community of people who return to watch my shows or follow my work in any way. Everyone I know in the dance world, whether in Canada, the west coast of the US, in Germany, in Japan, they’ll be here during this time. You’re dancing for a much wider audience, an international audience. I don’t think the season has any pretence of being local anymore. All the networking happens here. Your gigs across the world are fixed here.”
NRIs are credited with having brought an international audience to Carnatic music and Bharatanatyam. But is there also a sense of resentment? One often hears rasikas mumbling that the NRIs have bought everything, from sabha slots to the art itself.
Malini cocks her head. “It’s a complex issue. On the one hand, you’re resented by the community because it’s assumed you’re rich and you’re buying shows or buying visibility. I know of Indian students doing the same thing, because you do have to pay to get early opportunities, but the perception is that since Americans have dollars, they can do it with greater ease.”
Malini is troubled by the perception that all performances by NRIs are bought. However, there’s another side to things too. “You know, it’s the Indian performers who are sought after in the US, and people like me are not preferred, because we’re second-generation, we’ve grown up abroad, and we’re not ‘authentic’ Indian. A lot of people want to see the ‘real’ Indians on stage. I’ve known people whose careers have really been stunted by this prejudice.”
One dancer tells me about her friend from the US, who was performing at a sabha which required a payment of ₹10,000 for a lifetime membership. Suddenly, the secretary said her musicians would have to become members too.
“And so she has to cough up ₹60,000. You have no choice and you’re afraid to speak about them, because you’re dependent on the sabhas. It’s fucked up, and it should be written about, because sometimes you’re like, ‘Do I need all this bullshit? And what am I getting from it?’”
Carnatic vocalist Sandeep Narayan, who moved to India from the US seven years ago to study under Sanjay Subrahmanyan, faced this problem too. “I’ve always said no. It’s gone to the point where they’ve confirmed a concert, date, time, and then they say, ‘Also, if you can give us a donation ... ’—it’s always called a donation—and I say to them, ‘No, look, financially, I’m a full-time musician, and I can’t afford donations; even if I could, on principle I don’t want to pay for a concert. This is what my guru says, and whatever my guru says, I follow.’ Then, they say okay, we’ll see about it, and they’ve cancelled concerts that they’d fixed.”
ven though Margazhi has been around for so long, it has no funding plan. Nalli Kuppuswami Chetti reminisces about the days when gate collections and member subscriptions covered the cost of concerts. He has been involved in the season since the early 1960s, when Krishna Gana Sabha made him vice-president for his help in funding the sabha’s relocation to larger premises. But he became a regular sponsor only in the 1991-92 season.
“Back in the day, there were so few performances, they were all packed. To get hold of a seat, even as a member, you needed recommendations from the sabha secretary and the president. Maybe it’s because Doordarshan came in and people could catch concerts on TV. Or maybe the number of sabhas expanded too fast. Then, you had seven important people singing from 7 p.m. to 10 p.m. over a week. Now, you have 20 top artistes singing in the same slot in 20 sabhas.”
While he has promised himself he will never turn down an artiste, and doesn’t have a budget for sponsorship, the demand has only been increasing. “It’s come to a pass where we need sponsorship to survive. And the season is crucial, like an Agmark stamp. You need to give youngsters a chance, and you can’t charge for morning concerts.”
All the sabha secretaries I spoke to said gate collections covered 10 to 15 per cent for the cost. The only solution is more sponsors—or getting artistes to pay for slots.
ven senior Bharatanatyam dancers think of the season as an investment with no returns. Recently, Bharatanatyam exponent and guru Dhananjayan said at the inauguration of a festival: “Chennai is considered the home of the arts, and the festival is given so much importance. But senior artistes in Mumbai and Kolkata make up to `13 lakh per performance. We make nothing in comparison.”
Better-known dancers make most of their money through foreign tours. But the most lucrative source is the guru dakshina they get when students do arangetram. Traditionally, the arangetram, which literally translates into “mounting of the stage” refers to the debut of a Bharatanatyam dancer.
It has become something of a racket, and I’ve encountered it myself. Having grown up in Chennai, I’ve learnt Bharatanatyam in phases nearly all my life. One of my teachers was keen for me to do an arangetram, though I wasn’t interested. Her charges were `1.5 lakh at the time, and I asked for a few years to improve my craft.
My teacher was also a performer, and when foreign tours started opening up, she found many NRI parents wanted their children to do an arangetram because the classical arts are the only cultural link second- and third-generation Indians have to their “home”.
The economics of an arangetram are different too—everyone from the accompanists to the photographer and videographer gets paid a much higher fee.
My teacher suddenly had several part-time students who wanted to learn a few items in the space of two months and then do an arangetram. They were willing to pay: for lessons, arangetram and publicity for their teacher’s performances abroad. When she went abroad in the summer, she supervised three to four arangetrams. The guru dakshina went up to ₹5 lakh for Indian students. I quit soon after she told me that people said she should be charging ₹8-10 lakh for an arangetram.
The audiences are discerning. And these sabha secretaries know the pulse of their sabha. They can tell after the concert whether it was good or not. You never see them, but they’re sitting in a corner and listening, observing.
But it would be wrong to assume all arangetrams are moneymaking projects. It’s a crucial stage in the career of a professional dancer. For a few it may be the end of learning, but for many, it’s the beginning of a life in the performing arts.
Some teachers offset costs for those who can’t afford to pay for costumes. One of them is Bhagyashree Satheesh. As her students outgrow clothes, she asks those from richer families to lend them to the others. Poorer students can pay a few hundred rupees to use the costumes, and when Bhagyashree collects enough money, she repays the student who had got the costume stitched. Jewellery is also shared among her students.
mong those who believes that Margazhi can’t be corrupted by the inflow of cash is Leela Samson, who had recently resigned as director of Kalakshetra when I sat down to interview her last season.
Though she studied Bharatanatyam at Kalakshetra, under the tutelage of its founder, Rukmini Devi Arundale, she wasn’t a regular season performer. She would come back every year, and offer her services to Rukmini Devi and help out with Kalakshetra’s programmes. Her duties with “Athai”, as Rukmini Devi was addressed, ranged from driving her back and forth from kutcheris to handling makeup for the Kalakshetra Repertory to doing the lights.
Sitting in her airy flat, where two sleepy dogs—Pushkin and Thambi—were trying to attack our tea and cake, Leela Samson grew nostalgic as she spoke of her first impressions of the season. “As a child in Kalakshetra, I remember it was much less high-profile. Auditoriums were all these thatched halls; you had some six sabhas in all. But it always had a certain glamour. And so many things have stayed the same. You had the same large clumps of people, the same way of stringing the chairs together, that samprudaya of having the religious harikatha in the mornings, the same whining about ticketed slots—though at that time, they cost ₹5 or ₹10—and the same sense of calm and excitement and high expectation, when the big daddies like M. D. Ramanathan were performing! You have the same mamis in their madisaars (traditional nine-yard saris). Only now, there are also all these Westerners—Italian and Spanish and Russian—sprinkled into every show, trying to get a grip on this world, trying to figure out this massive festival.”
Today, she thinks it’s still a good festival, and it cuts out the wheat from the chaff. “I don’t think it’s all about marketing alone, because how much can you push? The audiences are discerning. And these sabha secretaries—who look like they’re never sitting in on your performance—I assure you they know exactly the pulse of their sabha. They can tell you after the concert whether it was good or not. You never see them, but they’re talking to patrons, sitting in a corner and listening, observing all the time.”
But she worries that the balance may have tilted because those who can afford to book slots and make “donations” are fuelling a market. Even so, she believes there is an honest route. “Many people will judge me wrong on this, but I don’t think it’s as bad as some of the young people make it out to be.” Those who can’t find slots, or afford to buy slots, simply need to focus on the rest of the year, and make sure they get seen, she says. Here, she has spotted a healthy trend: schools and styles of dance are less intrinsic in their outlook now.
Among those who have taken the honest route is Uma Sathya Narayanan, a senior disciple of dancer Chitra Visweswaran. She has a dancer’s tapering fingers, delicate nose, and expressive eyes. As she muses over questions, she makes dainty, precise gestures: a finger to the chin, a tilt of the head, a contemplative frown.
Does having family, being the son or daughter of a stalwart, make it easier to break into Margazhi? Most don’t seem to think it makes much difference.
Uma’s preparations for Margazhi are hectic. Her musicians are booked by summer. Having performed for more than ten seasons, she says innovation is important. In January 2013, she and her friend Lakshmi Athreya presented one of Aesop’s fables in shadow play.
Among the busiest homes during the season is that which Bharatanatyam dancer Aarabi Veeraraghavan, a student of guru Narasimhachari, shares with her Carnatic vocalist husband Swarna Rethas. “From November to February, our kitchen is closed,” she says. “We only make tea.”
It isn’t only accompanists who are busy. Last year, Aarabi had to get her makeup done by 1 p.m. for a 6.30 p.m. concert. It took 81-year-old Sethumadhavan an hour and a half, and he said nonchalantly that he has, on average, six assignments a day.
“It’s only after 1971 that it’s become crowded,” said the veteran, who began his career as a makeup artist in a theatre troupe run by yesteryear Tamil actor N. S. Krishnan, “In the Sixties, it lasted seven days. Then I’d go off to Delhi and tour with Yamini Krishnamurthy’s group for three months.” He frowned. “It used to be two makeup sessions a day. Now, it’s six, and in between, all these girls get into a panic and start calling me. How am I supposed to pick up the phone when I’m doing makeup?”
oes having family, being the son or daughter of a stalwart, make it easier to break into Margazhi? Most performers don’t seem to think it makes much difference. Bharathi Ramasubban, a first-generation musician, says: “You apply to sabhas, that’s all. You send in your CV and newspaper reviews. There are a lot of us first-generation musicians, and I don’t think there’s any bias towards famous sons and daughters.”
Prominent musicians with family in the field say there are negatives too. Vocalist Sikkil Gurucharan, grandson of the flautist Sikkil Kunjumani, feels that “if you’re good, word travels fast. But there’s also some pressure, because expectations are higher and you need to make sure you don’t embarrass your family. Lineage is useful for entry, maybe, but eventually, it’s a level playing field.”
Vocalist Abhishek Raghuram, the grandson of legendary mridangist Palghat Raghu, says, “Obviously my family background helped me. I didn’t apply anywhere: I did some concerts as a child with my grandfather, and the sabhas started calling me. Also, musically, there’s a lot to learn from every musician in your family. But in the end it’s up to you to carve your own style.”
Srikrishna and Ramkumar, who perform as Trichur Brothers, are the sons of mridangist Trichur R. Mohan. “Appa would never go around telling people his sons are looking for a break, but people got to know we were singing, and they were curious to hear us. S .V. K Mama was his good friend,” Srikrishna said.
To most young musicians, the late S. V. Krishnan (known popularly as “S. V. K Mama”), who founded the sabha Nada Inbam in 1982, has been a mentor, scouting for and showcasing their talent. He allowed anyone who asked to audition for him. Festivals like the Music Academy’s Spirit of Youth are also handy forums for emerging artists.
It wasn’t always as easy for youngsters to break into the field, particularly hard in the Eighties, when the number of sabhas was expanding, and it was harder to get noticed. Younger musicians didn’t have a forum.
That changed in 1985, when a group of young musicians, including vocalists Vijay Siva and Sanjay Subrahmanyan, founded the Youth Association of Classical Music (YACM). They held concerts for musicians who hadn’t yet started performing in the season, and soon, the secretaries of prominent sabhas got in touch to ask which performers they would recommend.
I met YACM president Rithvik Raja at a cricket match musicians traditionally play at the end of the season. In much the same way that they were whispering to each other about ragams on stage a few days earlier, they were now discussing bowling and fielding strategy.
Rithvik said as there were enough opportunities for younger musicians in the season, the organisation’s focus had shifted to taking classical music to schools and colleges. “We’re going to corporation schools and schools on the outskirts of Chennai, like Vyasarpadi and Tambaram, to create awareness, and organise fun programmes, so we show them that Carnatic music isn’t boring. There are enough young musicians, but we need to cultivate a young audience. At lec-dems (lecture-demonstrations), some 90 per cent of the crowd is around 60 (years old).”
here is nobody like YACM for dance. For young Bharatanatyam artistes, their best shot at breaking in is the junior slots the sabhas organise. I went to a performance by one of Bhagyashree Satheesh’s students, Sampoorna Venkatesh.
She was 13 then, had dislocated her shoulder a few days earlier, and been on painkillers since. When I went to interview the family, Sampoorna’s mother Jayashree said, “Every time she came backstage, we emptied half a bottle of Volini on her shoulders.”
The day before the concert, Sampoorna could barely move her arm. Halfway through rehearsal, she had burst into tears.
“None of us had ever seen her that way,” Jayashree said, “You know, she’s just 13 and it’s her first big performance in the season.”
Did they consider cancelling?
“No. It was not an option. It’s just too big a step to perform at Brahma Gana Sabha.”
“Also, getting another chance will be difficult if you cancel,” Sampoorna added, shyly. “And it won’t look nice for Bhagyashree Aunty’s school.”
“It’s not fair, either,” Jayashree said, “for them to give the same child a chance again and again. It’s such a competitive world. Some sacrifices are essential. It was one year’s worth of rehearsal, for that varnam alone.”
Around the same time, an even younger musician was making his debut. Browsing through the Events section of The Hindu on January 3, 2013, I found an announcement for a mrindangam arangetram, presented by a percussion school from the Bay area of San Francisco. The list of attendees and participants in the function read like the who’s who of the city. The chief guest was former Chief Election Commissioner N. Gopalaswami, and the distinguished guest of honour was vocalist Balamuralikrishna. The debutante—Akshay Venkatesan—would accompany “Chitravina” N. Ravikiran, along with acclaimed ghatam exponent Karthick and violinist Akkarai Subhalakshmi, all three stalwarts in their respective fields.
When I arrived an hour before the scheduled start, Akshay’s harried, but obviously thrilled, parents pointed him out to me: a dimpled child eating his tiffin. In the reception area was a series of photographs showing the boy with famous Carnatic musicians. Someone told me Akshay was only 11.
When I entered the hall, the first person I saw was senior dancer Vyjayanthimala Bali. Other prominent dancers and musicians walked in over the next half hour, and every time someone entered, Akshay would jump up from the dais, check his little dhoti to make sure it wasn’t off, and skip down the stairs to fall at their feet.
It is a challenging ask of any mridangam player to accompany instrumentalists, as he has to keep track of the beats himself. No one on stage has a hand free to keep the beat. Akshay proved up to the task. He had been playing the mridangam since he was five.
When I asked what made his parents put him in class, Akshay piped up, “Well, I used to thattify (drum) on the couch, and on the table, and I think my parents thought I would be interested in mridangam.” They found Ramesh Srinivasan, an entrepreneur who lives in Evergreen, 10 minutes from the Venkatesan family’s home.
“Over the years, you build confidence,” Akshay said seriously, “The first time you’re really nervous; ‘Am I going to do this right, am I going to do this wrong, what’s going to happen?’ and that sort of thing. But now, I’m really cool. And it was fun jamming with them.”
“We’re the new generation that have to carry it down to our kids, and pass on the culture.” And then, he slipped off for a game of table tennis with his uncle.
ince the age of four, Meera Srinivasan was a regular presence on her school stage, singing bhajans and songs even as an unappreciative crowd of bored students waited for chief guests to turn up, so that the programme could begin and end. I was one of those who sat twiddling their thumbs, and my earliest memories of several songs are inseparable from Meera’s voice.
Now a journalist, Meera—who studied under Lalgudi Jayaraman from the age of 10—said she stopped performing in the 2010-11 season. It was a combination of rapid progress at her day job and disillusionment with way kutcheris were being commercialised.
“You have a limited number of slots. It gets competitive. I find some people going to meet sabha secretaries personally, getting friendly, and building a rapport to put themselves in the reckoning,” she said, “Being good at your PR has become almost a requirement. But my point of disillusionment was that sometimes mediocre people who’re extremely good at PR tend to do very well as a result of the aggression with which they’re promoting themselves.”
A bigger issue, especially for young musicians, is the quality of accompanists. A kutcheri is a team effort, and it is important that mridangam and violin ably support the singer. As a result of the sabhas’ mix-and-match procedure, Meera had a miserable experience with a violinist who wouldn’t play at her key.
Another problem is that, while many senior accompanists are happy to oblige younger vocalists, they’re often unwilling to accompany female newcomers, preferring male voices. Meera worked on a story once she stopped performing, where a senior mridangist told her that spouses and fathers of female singers tend to interfere too much, speaking on behalf of the vocalist and telling accompanists what pieces to play and
how to play them.
“It’s patriarchy in the arts,” Meera says, “an age-old problem, and it’s still there. I get his point—no artiste would like to be told by someone else what to play. Artistes should have their own chemistry and equation on stage.”
Akkarai Subhalakshmi, one of the season’s most sought-after violinists, has recently cut down drastically on her assignments as an accompanist, focusing instead on vocal and violin duets with her sister Swarnalatha. She agrees that there are gender issues.
“To be very frank, I love to play pakkavadhyam (accompaniment). But the current scenario is very bad. When you play too well, some artistes don’t want to have you. Like a male artiste won’t have a female accompanist. And a female artiste won’t have a female accompanist: insecurities come in. I thank God that I have an alternative: duets with my sister.”
mong the most famous instrumentalists in Carnatic music is Chitravina Ravikiran, who plays the chitravina, a stringed instrument which is very popular in Carnatic music. He has been “performing” since he was two. In the late Sixties, when he attended concerts with his father Chitravina Narasimhan, he amused musicians by guessing ragams correctly. Soon, the Music Academy and Krishna Gana Sabha began to organise shows where luminaries including Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer, Pandit Ravi Shankar, M. S. Subbulakshmi, and Ustad Alla Rakha would quiz him.
Now, he is recognised as a maestro, and his abilities with the chitravina are acknowledged across the world. The 46-year-old musician has no memory of his exploits from 1969, but recordings from those performances can be found on his website, including an annoyed, “Ille! (No!)” when one of his examiners tries to mislead him into giving the wrong answer.
“See, there were not many young artistes at the time, so whatever I did got a lot of attention,” he says. “I started giving three-hour vocal concerts when I was five. When my voice broke, I wasn’t able to sustain them and I got into the chitravina. There were not many major sabhas, so media attention was very focused. After that, everyone got into the Margazhi game.”
He is appreciative of the opportunities younger musicians have today, but says the downside is that it has become harder to get noticed. The culture of instant gratification—instant feedback on social media, the world becoming smaller, and international opportunities easier to corner—has affected the rigour with which musicians practise, he feels.
“You can’t just want success, like you want cold coffee,” he said, “People would rather update their Facebook that practise those extra two hours. The focus is on peripherals, not the core.”
When he began performing, he practised 12 to 14 hours a day. He was home-schooled for several years. His mother went to work so that his father could be a full-time musician and guru to young Ravikiran.
“At the time, people wanted variety in festivals. Instrumentalists were popular. Now, it’s very difficult for instrumentalists to make a mark with a south Indian audience. They like to hear the words.”
One instrument that had all but disappeared from Margazhi was the nadaswaram, a wind instrument similar to the shehnai and usually accompanied by the thavil, a drum. In a field dominated by Brahmins, the nadaswaram-thavil concert is an exception. Most players are from the districts of Thanjavur, Nagapattinam and Thiruvaroor, and belong to the Pillai community.
Once popular in the season, its prominence declined until the nadaswaram could only be heard at the inauguration of sabha festivals. But Nalli Kuppuswami Chetti started a three-day nadaswaram-thavil festival at Krishna Gana Sabha, and also took over the funding for a ten-day festival at Brahma Gana Sabha.
“After T. N. Rajarathinam Pillai and Namagiripettai Krishnan, there has been no famous nadaswaram player. We only have black-and-white photographs of these artistes. What happened to the generation in between?” he said. “They don’t have forums, so we don’t know.”
The Brahma Gana Sabha festival is organised by thavil vidwan T. A. Kaliyamurthy. When I ask about the reasons for the nadaswaram being phased out, he reels off the costs for the festival.
“Renting the hall for an evening costs ₹20,000, so, that’s ₹2,00,000 for 10 days. Then, transport by train costs ₹2,50,000. You have to give them lodging. Even a non-AC room is₹1,200 per day. Ideally, a nadaswaram party should be paid at least ₹10,000, a thavil player at least ₹7,000. For a thavil vidwan, the rate can be up to ₹50,000. Where is the money? The sabhas offer you ₹4,000 to ₹ 5,000 for a concert, everything included. Does it make sense?”
Nadaswaram player T. K. R. Ayyappan tells me that moving to Chennai doesn’t make sense, because no one will rent them houses since neighbours complain about the noise. He has to practise on the beach.
here are a lot of changes the performers would like about the season, but the biggest grouse is the weather. “I would love to attend the lec-dems,” Gurucharan says, “But if you’re going out before 8 a.m., you have this nagging fear you’ll get a sore throat.”
And then, there are the sing-along mamas: rasikas who sit in the first few rows and decide to compete with the performer. At a concert by Abhishek Raghuram, a woman in the audience stood up and asked, “Excuse me, what ragam is this?” He was still singing, and several people around her hissed. But she persisted until she forced him out of his reverie and got her answer.
Leela Samson begins to laugh when I tell her about three sabha mamis who were deliberating over whether to go to a T. M. Krishna concert or a Sanjay Subrahmanyan one, as if they were faced with Sophie’s choice. “But I really love those mamis who sit in front, with their little notebooks, asking which ragam, and they have records over many, many years of every singer: what ragam he sang and what shruti, and they’re comparing notes even while we’re shushing them from the back.”
She does think there is serious need for introspection on certain issues, such as why dance is not as popular as music. Audiences aren’t willing to watch dance performances for three hours, and so the long margams of the great soloists of the pasts have been whittled down to an hour and a half.
But there seems to be no time for introspection, with everyone constantly on the move. Perhaps, instead of cramming in as many concerts as possible, sabhas need to look at conferences. And within these conferences, crucial themes should be discussed, without worrying about audience numbers.
Chitravina Ravikiran sums it all up. “The season is the season. You can’t do anything about it. You can keep saying that all these sabhas should combine into five sabhas like before, but it’s evolving in its own way. As long as there are organisers, as long as there’s funding, it will keep happening. But it’s very good training ground for young artistes. It’s also healthy that so much funding is available for the classical arts. I think the positives outweigh the negatives.”