The Rest is Noise


3,000 classical music concerts, filter coffee and audiences who hum along. Sadhana Rao leads the unwary into the frenetic world of ‘the Chennai season’

Rasika’s darling Sanjay Subrahmanyan at the Narada Gana Sabha during his exquisite rendition of Begada Raag
Rasika’s darling Sanjay Subrahmanyan at the Narada Gana Sabha during his exquisite rendition of Begada Raag
Photos: Sriram Guruswamy

WHEN STEVEN Pinker, the eminent evolutionary psychologist, wrote his provocative assertion on music, “It is auditory cheesecake… Music is a useless by-product of mankind’s need to communicate,” he had probably not heard of Chennai’s Annual Festival of Classical Music & Dance (known colloquially as “the season”). Starting on December 1 and stretching to end-January, Chennai hosts over 3,000 concerts, countless lecture demonstrations, several hundred lead artists and several thousand accompanying artists, forming a myriad mosaic of performing arts. Pinker’s deprecation of music is countered by the world’s largest annual cultural festival.

The season begins pianissimo; by mid-December, it is fortissimo. The musical landscape spills over from the stage and mingles and merges with the pulse of Chennai city. One can hear the solfeggio… Sa Re Ga Ma…and the cadenza of the soloists on the streets. For these weeks it almost appears that the classical arts have become part of the mainstream.

Now past its 80th year, many influences have touched and textured the festival — accents on technology, innovation in music styles, the passing away of maestros and the arrival of young Turks on the musical horizon. The one leitmotif of the season that has remained constant is the attention and enthusiasm of the highly knowledgeable enthusiasts, the rasikas. There is an almost inexplicable zeal amongst viewers to soak in the music and dance and to imbibe as many performances as one can in as short a time as possible. Come December and from all corners of the globe, viewers (and the formidable local community) head to the podiums and venues like homing pigeons. When major artists perform back to back, there are phases of frenzied “concert hopping”, an activity requiring deep study of a densely packed schedule and the weighing of conflicting factors such as date, time, artist, accompanist, tradition, genre, venue and, of course, the canteen.

The love of listening and viewing spurs crowds to negotiate and navigate Chennai’s quiddities and quirks. The venues range from professional acoustic auditoria to rudimentary halls where loose nails lie in wait on cane chairs to rip through silk sarees. But this is a risk eagerly taken on, for the reward is a feast of highly accessible classical arts.

Each year the ‘season’ swivels on pivotal points: the sabhas. From the early 1920s, these organisations of middle class listeners and viewers, took it upon themselves to create arenas away from temples and courts where artists and audiences could engage, something that rung in a paradigm shift in the way performing arts could and would be rendered. Each sabha, with its commander-in-chief and an army of workers curates the shows, charts the programmes, negotiates with artists and administers its venue: A logistical nightmare navigated year after year. Sabhas are of varied vintages: the oldest is the Sri Parthasarathy Swami Sabha, Mylapore, which was started in 1896. The Music Academy is over 80 years old while the Narada Gana Sabha and the Krishna Gana Sabha have celebrated their 50th year. As Chennai expands to over 400 sq km in its urban footprint, younger sabhas are establishing themselves in the suburbs. An energetic secretary of a 20-year-old sabha was overheard saying, “In the court of Sarbhoji of Tanjore, 360 musicians resided, each specialising in a different genre or instrument of music. Each musician got to perform for one day every year. That’s the kind of repertoire our sabha needs to build,” he concluded, high on adrenalin.

Concert hopping requires the deep study of the venue, artist, genre, tradition and the canteen

OVER THE years, the Chennai stage has established its prominence as a haloed precinct for the Carnatic tradition. Performers vie to perform and get a slot (or several slots) in the ‘season’. To gain recognition, freshly minted artists struggle hard against the sabhas’ ways. Veterans have been known to say that Chennai concert audiences have such watchful ears that they detect even a single false tala. Nothing but “centum” (one hundred per cent) will do.

Strung out TM Krishna at the Mylapore Fine Arts, one of the oldest sabhas that is absolutely packed in December
Strung out TM Krishna at the Mylapore Fine Arts, one of the oldest sabhas that is absolutely packed in December

The polemics of sampradaya (tradition) versus innovation have run and still run their ceaseless tracks every season. Certain innovations have been accepted but by and large, the universal benchmarks of purity in classicism have not been diluted. The Kacheri paddhati (concert format) developed by legendary vocalist Ariyakudi Ramanujam Iyengar in the early 1900s still holds strong. Of course, each artist is allowed their individual variations while performing, as long as the framework is in place. The season has begun to include within its framework styles of Hindustani music forms but it still is a very thin slice.

The season may lack globalised chic, yet the tribes of music lovers return every year in growing numbers. The season, with all its eccentricities, has come to represent a universe of music in microcosm. The casual season etiquette puts no social pressure on the visitor but makes them feel a sense of belonging. One can saunter in and out while the concert is in progress. Viewers who spend a day or days in an auditorium take time off for power naps in case a show doesn’t make the grade. For those artists, the drone of snores is unexpected accompaniment to the drone of their ubiquitous shruti boxes. As the tani avartanam(the solo performance of the percussionist most often heard at the end of the main piece of the concert) begins, hordes get up to head for the canteen or restrooms. Senior artists, mindful of the sentiments of their accompanists, have now taken to reprimanding the audience for the exodus. An insidious rival for attention is yet another three-segment concerto: The aroma of pongal, vada-sambar and fresh filter coffee that wafts from the canteens.

In the hands of a maestro, however, the audience can be transported to a world where the musician induces an intoxicating trance through the gamakas (the various glides and graces in embellishing musical notes). Suddenly, you have a shadow concert with the audience humming the notes in incorrect renditions and pitches. Artist and audience are joined in clamorous camaraderie.

Viewers who spend days in an auditorium power nap in case a show doesn’t make the grade

It is this camaraderie that spurs Dr Iyengar to leave his field of neurosciences in New York and take a month long sabbatical every season. “Where in the world would a person like me with roots in Tanjore still get to hear the compositions of the Tanjore Holy Trinity (Tyagaraja, Muthuswami Dikshitar and Syama Sastri, who bequeathed a priceless legacy of compositions to Carnatic music)?” A veena player, Prof David Reck of Amherst College has been visiting Chennai for 40 years to deepen his insights. Prof Hans Neuhoff from Cologne University looks at the season as a laboratory where practical experiments on music are conducted.

The season has grown like a large banyan tree, and with every year come engaging tales of mass participation. A Chennai-based writer emerged after several hours in the Music Academy to find her driver missing. After a while, he arrived, apologising profusely. It turned out that he too had gone to a nearby kacheri. The two plunged into a discussion of the recitals they had heard. At the beach, a tender coconut seller was singing merrily while hacking at coconuts. Which film song was he singing, a customer asked. It’s a charanam, (a section of a Carnatic composition) he replied haughtily.


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