Sunday, December 01, 2013

Snow and music in December: The Chennai music season

This article was first published in DNA Online on 29 November 2013.

I haven't seen or heard of anything quite like this anywhere else in the world. I am talking of snow in Chennai in December. The inhabitants of this southern metropolis are known to be intolerant to cold weather. So, when wintry December approaches and the "mercury dips" inconsiderately to a "bitterly cold" 28 degrees Celsius, mufflers and ear muffs -- known as kullas and monkey caps, respectively -- are whipped out of wardrobes in the average Chennai household. The moment the mercury dives to an "unbearable" 25 degrees Celsius and there's a mild hint of mist in the air, shawls (called pothis) are whisked out of suitcases carefully hidden up in the lofts. People start talking in hushed tones about an impending blizzard. 

Almost every year, on the 1st of December, The Hindu (the newspaper) announces the imminent blizzard with a picture of a few people huddled around a fire with monkey caps,kullas and pothis. The accompanying story makes frequent references to the El Niño effect and warns Chennai residents to brace themselves for yet another biting cold year. This invariably makes me turn to the weather pages to look at the day's temperature: a clement 25 degrees Celsius!

The same day, the newspaper also heralds the commencement of the annual Chennai music season, commonly known as just 'the season'. This too is something I've never seen or heard of anywhere else in the world. It is a month-long celebration of Carnatic music – the classical music of South India - and dance, mostly Bharatnatyam, one of the south's classical dance forms. Several other Indian cities have music festivals too – notably, Pune – where the best musicians are appreciated by a scholarly and erudite audience with a refined sense of appreciation of the fine arts. But there is something different about the Chennai season: not just its scale, but also its grandeur and joie de vivre. It is a commemoration of culture, custom, convention, cuisine, creativity and colour. 

You see, it is as important for a Chennai Carnatic music enthusiast to see and hear as it is to be seen and heard. What you wear to a concert is as important as who you hear. What you watch is as important as how often you are seen. You must wear the most ostentatious clothes and the loudest jewellery, arrive late to concerts and be noticed. And of course, you must sit for as much of the concert as possible, shake your head in appreciation, and wave your hands to keep beat. 

At least 30 music organisations (or sabhas) are involved in organising a season. Each sabha typically holds four or five concerts a day; two ticketed evening concerts by seasoned and renowned performers, and three or four free concerts in the afternoons featuring promising young artists who are still learning. This adds up to a staggering 2000 events (or more) in a month, quite unparalleled in terms of scale. 

Also, just organising a music and dance festival at an appropriate venue is not enough. Each sabha also needs to have a makeshift canteen adjoining the concert hall, offering a variety of snacks for patrons to enjoy in between (or even during) concerts. The best sabhasprovide a giddy combination of the best performers, a great audience and excellent food.

Truth be told, most venues are dreadfully poor in terms of performer and audience comfort. I have had many a shirt or trouser torn as a result of them getting caught in a nail that was poorly hammered into cane or wooden bucket seats. Many venues have as many mosquitoes as they have audience members. 

Despite this, every year, the stimulating combination of community and culture draws aficionados from all over the world to Chennai. I hear a mix of accents – including West Coast USA, East Coast USA, Cockney, ochre Australian, and Kiwi. It is clear that the "biting cold" (read pleasant) weather, the opportunity to listen to good -- mostly free of cost -- music, the food, and the opportunity to combine all of these with family visits makes the December season a must-attend for the Indian Diaspora.

I am off to the season this year too. This will be my 16th attendance in the last 25 years. There was a time when I used to hop -- somewhat indiscriminately, perhaps -- from venue to venue, listening to as much music as I could. There were a few years in the late 1990s and early 2000s when I'd score a century of concerts each season, although unlike batsmen in cricket, I would gleefully rush through the nervous nineties. I remember the thrill of concert hopping, of rushing from venue to venue, ascertaining what the raga (or composition) of the season was.

In the early days, I'd stare vacantly and somewhat anxiously as people around me yelled "sabaash" in a spontaneous exclamation of appreciation. Most of them continuously waved their hands to a complex beat. I'd wonder why I was masochistically subjecting myself to such mental abuse. I didn't need to be recognised as someone who appreciated the fine arts. As a non-foodie, I didn't particularly need the food on offer either. Yet it was an annual ritual too important and too close to me to let go.

I soon realised I didn't really need to understand the music to intersperse a "sabaash" at appropriate points in the proceedings. I learned to copy the hand flaps of others. Soon, I too became recognised as an aficionado. This became an extremely easy gig. 

It used to irk me that most concerts had no entry fee. It is common to see the phrase “All are welcome” at the bottom of the pamphlet that announces a sabha's schedule. The inability to charge the audience for many concerts means that the sabhas have to depend on sponsorships from companies or patrons to make their contribution to the season. 

In the end, though, this enables a democratisation of what is essentially an elite art form. It makes Carnatic music more available to those who may otherwise not stumble into a concert hall. The distractions -- the food, the glitz, the concerts -- become the attraction. And through this, the season offers a feast for everyone, an excellent collation of music for learners, aspirant performers, music aficionados, connoisseurs, random "sabaash" utterers, and the person who just wants to soak in the atmosphere in an air conditioned hall. Oh yes! Many concert halls are air-conditioned despite the impending snow that is supposed to wipe out Chennai in one fell swoop every year. 

People will talk to you too. In canteens, as you bite into your vada, someone will walk up to you and say, "Fantabulous concert it is, no?", and a conversation will commence. Everyone has an opinion on everything: the food, the biting cold, the sarees and the music. Knowledge of either of these elements is not a pre-requisite. Indeed, it is often a hindrance.

Most conversations on music must make reference to the "glorious past" or "past masters", and of how "yengshters orr not paying heed to the glorious traditions", although everyone is looking for Carnatic music to be placed in "safe hands". The search for the next Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer or Ariyakudi Ramanuja Iyengar or Madurai Mani Iyer or Palakkad Mani Iyer is constantly on.

No article on the Chennai season is complete without a mention of the music reviews in The Hindu. There is much mirth to be had in their blandness and similitude. One cliché-ridden review blends cogently into another. Often you wonder if you and the reviewer even attended the same concert. Words and phrases like “sublime”, “divine” and “mellifluous rendition” work their way into almost every review, and after reading one, you are left scratching your head, none the wiser for having read it. Here is an excellent sample: “The raga essay was exemplary in delineation, built step by step beautifying the phrases in the raga’s progress". And, "She evolved the raga with fine moves, with nuances here and there". These sentences say absolutely nothing and yet, are such fun to read because you are left trying to decipher what the critic is actually trying to say –which, in case you are wondering, is again nothing!

Yet, reading reviews of concerts in The Hindu is as much a part of the season as the music. If the editor banned the use of terms like “raga phrase”, “delineation”, “nuance”, “essay”, “eschew”, “blissful”, and “mellifluous”, the reviewers won't know what to write in their 500-word pieces. The supremely talented Krish Ashok has written a hilarious post on these reviews, so it would be pointless to repeat much of what he has already said, and so eloquently too. 

A notable feature of the season is that almost all concerts start and end on time. I was once at the venerated Music Academy where the curtains were drawn midway through an artiste's performance because she had overshot her time by three minutes. At first I thought that was extremely harsh. But on reflection, the artistes are informed in advance of the time constraints and that these need to be respected. The artiste in question hurriedly completed her concert and ran out of the venue, with the secretary of the sabha in tow.

So, Chennai plays host to a most unique event every December. No, not snow, but the music season. If you have not visited and attended the season, please do. Eat idlis, dosas and vadas in the many canteens. Talk to people you may never ever meet again. Or just sit at concerts and let random strangers talk to you; they will. Wear your best clothes and get them torn by a vile chair nail. Agonise over that only to realise that that was easier to tolerate than the mosquitoes. And enjoy the music. Soon, you will amaze yourself with your hand flips and your yells of "sabaash". And after that you will be back the following year, and the next and the next, because the magic of the season is indescribable.

--Mohan (@mohank)