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January 14, 1998


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One more season

Shobha Warrier

While the rest of India manages with three seasons, Madras, the city of Kanjeevaram saris and jasmine garlands, opts for four -- summer, monsoon, winter and Margazhi matham, the season melodious, soulful ragas. A hint of excitement peps the Performance at a music sabha cool sea breeze that blows through the city. The mood is such that even those who dislike classical music are caught humming Endaro Mahanubhavulu…

While the music lover enters into the spirit of the season, the inflexible and unyielding critic frowns over the constantly changing note of what was once pure Carnatic music. They ponder grimly over how one can have a kacheri in less than two hours. Or play Carnatic music on a western instrument like the guitar. How can you have sponsors for music concerts? Or non-resident Indians singing in our sabhas? How can sabhas make money when their sole duty is to encourage good music? How can…? How…? The litany of complaints is endless.

If you look at it from another angle… what is tradition without puritans criticising innovations vehemently?

Those who worry about the way tradition is mutilated by materialism give vent to their apprehension at emotionally-charged discussions and through newspaper columns. Not that the critics bother those who wait impatiently for the season to begin. Once it does, popular artists perform almost everyday, youngsters sing intricate ragas with a vengeance, sabhas chase sponsors for money and a few enthusiasts do listen to the performers.

The cynics have not reduced the enthusiasm of the mamis who, even now, have their 'meals' in the morning, pack some 'tiffin' and walk to the nearest sabha to enjoy the season and savour the ragas in full. "Who says Carnatic music is dying? There are so many youngsters performing every year. I am not against change at all. Music will grow only if there are changes." Not everyone, though, is as magnanimous as Lakshmi mami.

There was a frown on Radha mami's face as she came out of a near-empty sabha. She fumed, her words aimed at the so-called rasikas who were standing there. "You call this music? No one can deceive me, I know what good music is. This is not the first time I'm attending a concert. I have been a regular for the last 50 years. Every year, I take Empty seats at a music sabha a vow that I will not go to a concert again. Like everything else, today's music is contaminated. It makes me both sad and angry. But here I am every December… I can't sit at home when the season is on."

And she made way towards another sabha, to see what they had to offer. "Earlier, I had to be satisfied with what the two or three sabhas offered. But those times were good. Now I move around."

The sabha culture began in Madras more than five decades ago with only three sabhas -- The Music Academy, The Indian Fine Arts Society and Tamil Isai Sangam. Today, nearly 45 sabhas vie with each other, trying to attract the shrinking numbers of Carnatic music rasikas.

"We did not have day-long concerts in those days," recalls Srinivasan of Nadopasana sabha. "And people were more aware of music. Going to sabhas and listening to great artists perform was something everyone looked forward to. Cinema, which had just arrived on the scene, was not powerful enough to distract the rasikas from music. Today, people prefer television to going to a hall for a live concert unless, of course, the artist is very popular. Also, the sabhas no longer appeal to youngsters."

Ramachandran of Hamsadhwani adds, "Funnily enough, there are more youngsters singing and more old people listening. It is a noise mela these days, with a sabha on every road. After sometime, the singers will outnumber rasikas!"

Yagyaraman of Krishna Gana Sabha concurs, "More supply and less demand, that's the situation now. Every year, we see the number of rasikas reducing. In the good old days, rasikas used to travel to the other end of the city to listen to music. Now, music has reached their doorstep. There are sabhas in every street to cater to the local clientele. So, if you are staying in Mylapore, you prefer to go to the local sabha only. And most young musicians are singing to nearly empty sabhas. Only, the popular artists get better attendance."

Krishnan of Nada Inbam adds, "The increase in the number of sabhas only supports the deteriorating quality of music. Familiarity is confused with popularity. The artists whose faces become familiar through television, whose faces appear on the cassette covers and whose sing for cinema become 'popular'. A music performance As a result, the real, talented artists don't get a chance to perform. Do you know how most of the singers get a chance to sing? Through influence. It may be either through the sponsors or through other influential persons."

Everyone is welcome at almost all the sabhas for the morning and afternoon sessions. These slots, which are shunned by the seniors, are when the youngsters prove their mettle. It's also the time when music lovers who cannot afford to attend the expensive evening sessions make a beeline for the sabhas.

The prime evening slot is only allotted to popular and recognised artists. Then, the elite of Madras descend onto the earth from their Cielos, Fords and Esteems -- sparkling in their new Kanjeevarams and jewellery. Being seen at the sabhas is a matter of prestige, to the extent that you are otherwise dubbed a philistine.

Sitting at the back of a hall and watching the audience is an experience by itself. You see only bald heads and grey hair! If you accidentally glance sideways, intimidating stares will threaten you. Obviously, the young collegians, who are murmuring sweet nothings into each other's ears and distracting the poor artist, don't wish to be disturbed. One was surprised to see them at a classical music concert hall; but, then, sabhas are cheaper than movie theatres.

It was shocking to see some heavily made-up women in bright Kanjeevarams talking loudly to each other, oblivious of the dirty glances of the rasikas and irritated looks from the singer. They continued talking about how difficult it was to get into IIT these days, the falling price of gold, etc. Surprisingly, no one threw them out!

Yet people, including NRI rasikas, look forward to the music season. They come from as far away as the United States, Canada, Singapore and Malaysia to listen to as many concerts as possible. "Every year, nearly 3,000 NRI rasikas come to Madras, and they are the people who help the sabhas afloat. They use their money to buy themselves an opportunity to perform. Those do not have money and have only talent are just ignored. It is a sad state of affairs," says Krishnan of Nada Ibnam.

Does Madras need so many sabhas, when none of them are ever full? How do they survive? Is this trend of a new sabha cropping up every season going to music any good? These are some of the questions frequently asked by both critics and rasikas. Allegations are also aplenty against the sabhas, especially after corporate sponsorship entered the scene.

One of the allegations is that the sabhas make a lot of money in the season through sponsorship, but only a small part of it is passed onto the artists. And the young artists hardly ever get any remuneration, since getting a chance to sing in December is considered an honour in itself. But these accusations were denied by the R Krinaswamy, president, Federation of Sabhas.

Sponsors target music festivals Most critics and rasikas blame most of the problems at the sponsors' door. Apparently, they shower money on sabhas under the guise of talent promotion. But are they the real villains? The sabhas don't think so.

"As there are more sabhas, the sponsors are being divided. Compared to last year, we -- one of the oldest sabhas -- got only half the number of sponsors. It has become difficult to run the show without them. I agree that you can't find a single excellent programme these days. Popular musicians are running from hall to hall, singing like machines. Naturally you can't expect them to perform well in all the sabhas," says Yagyaraman.

But Padmanabhan, of the Mylapore Fine Arts Club, does not agree. "Why complain about the increase in the number of sabhas? It's healthy competition. Enthusiastic youngsters are getting a chance to perform. Also, we have give free tickets to all our members. So, they do not go to any other sabhas." But when I visited the sabha in the morning, there were less than a handful of people in the audience!

"Yes, there was a dramatic reduction in the number of rasikas this year. But that was because of the unseasonal rains. If not for sponsors, we would have found it difficult to continue even though we are 35-year-old sabha," says Ramasubramanian of Sri Thyaga Brahma Gana Sabha.

Hamadhwani has nearly 50 sponors funding them during the season. "Fifty percent of our earnings goes to the artist and the rest to the corpus fund, which is a precautionary measure for the future. Suppose two sponsors decide to back out next year, the others also may join them. We have to think about that eventuality too."

Srinivasan wonders about another eventuality. "Where are the people to listen to all these artists? With the increase in the number of sabhas, mediocrity is being perpetuated. I hope that, after a decade or so, these sabhas will vanish due to lack of sponsors. I am sure music will survive all these scares."

Photographs: Sreeram Selvaraj

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