It’s the singer not the song - The Rolling Stones
I have always been taken up with how people respond to music - an integral part of the ether to most of us. Almost since birth, always in the air. We may not have been conscious of it, but as we grew older, the awareness of what we were listening to tended to take shape and form. This does not apply to all individuals. An exceptional few are tone deaf and not even remotely interested in music. One feels sorry for them.
As the years passed, one was subject to all manner of musical influences and depending on whether you were in Chennai during the music season, or at an orchestral concert at the Royal Albert Hall, or even at a Bruce Springsteen barnstorming rock show, you learnt to appreciate each completely different form of entertainment in its own space and for its own sake. In my case, constant exposure to multifarious streams of music happened due to my home environment and later, school and college campus influences.
While the ability to enjoy The Beatles, Bach and GNB at different times, depending on how the mood takes you is a true blessing, it can also be a curse. Too much to take in and too little time. I have known many musically incestuous people suffer from this quandary. I am therefore envious of those who concentrate, single-mindedly on one form of music and give their all to that particular stream. I am not here referring to musicians. The good ones are usually very focused on their area of speciality - the tunnel vision approach. There is a very good reason why the so called fusion music has never quite caught on beyond a handful of restricted groups. My contemplation is more on the music lovers.
As we go to press, the famed Chennai music season, one of the largest and most amorphous of its kind, has just rung the curtains down. Reams have been written about it over the years, yours truly included, from every conceivable angle. Many ardent Carnatic music lovers firmly hold the view that the music season isn’t quite off the starting blocks till December 15, when the venerable Music Academy Madras opens its hallowed portals to its members and the public at large. From an artist’s perspective, ‘If you haven’t performed at the Music Academy, you haven’t quite arrived’, is a cry we often hear. This can be dismissed as a needless bit of puffery by those who attach the Academy with a je ne sais quoi snob value.
Notwithstanding, and with due regard to all the other wonderful and dedicated sabhas who have contributed immensely to the growth and excitement of the music season, one must concede that the Music Academy holds a uniquely hallowed and central place in the annals of Carnatic music. All the Grand Slams are important, but Wimbledon is Wimbledon. Over the decades, for one reason or the other, some musicians have crossed swords with the Academy and declined to perform or accept their much sought after honorifics, Some of those reasons may have been valid, others not. Nevertheless, warts and all, I would still stick my neck out and say the loss is theirs and not the Academy’s.
The purpose of this piece, however, is not intended to be hagiographic of the Academy. It was merely contextually appropriate to mention it. I have been visiting Chennai during the music season, year on year, for the past 20 years. I have thus had the opportunity to study, at close quarters this annual pilgrimage of Carnatic music lovers from Chennai and pretty much all over the world. While music is the magnetic drawing force that brings people at this time into Chennai, it is combined with a community feeling of getting together with family and friends, a conviviality that the season engenders. The relatively cooler climate helps. Try it in May or June and you could be burnt to a crisp.
It is also instructive to observe how groups of people actually take in the music season. There are those who will only patronise one or two sabhas, mostly because they are life members, or because the venue is conveniently close by to their place of abode. The latter is only partially true because many of the leading venues are within hailing distance of each other. The other group of rasikas is the one that follows a particular musician till the ends of the earth. I have seen the same group of followers or bhakts as they are known, in every single concert of Sanjay Subrahmanyan’s. Several previous articles by various columnists have remarked on this herd-inspired, Pied Piper phenomenon. Somebody in social media used the phrase ‘aural endorphins’ to describe Sanjay’s music. In saying that, I admit I too belong to this club, but am quite happy with it, as it brings with it a spirit of peer recognition and shared joy.
The reason I raise this point, apart from its sociological relevance, is to emphasise the fact that ultimately, it is the singer’s ability to draw people in through his or her innate ability and ‘connect’ with the audience that determines the success of a concert. The great composers, both past and more contemporary, have provided music lovers with immense riches.
Notwithstanding, without the musician’s unique ability to interpret these great works in his or her own trademark fashion, there will be a sameness that no one wants. In western classical music, an orchestra cannot deviate greatly from the great symphonies of Bach or Beethoven, but Tyagaraja’s nidhicAla sukhamA in Kalyani, will evoke very different emotions depending on which paddhathi the singer is following, quite apart from his innate ability and style, which makes all the difference. So follow a sabha or follow a musician, that’s your choice. You have another year to mull over it.