Truly, the inspiration a musician gets seeing another listening intently makes for an inspired rendition. (Representational image/ Twitter)
Most ardent classical music lovers would have caught a December season in Chennai at some time or another; by chance I never made it to Chennai in December until several years of listening to all the great music festivals in North India.
As such, my first Marghazi experience was, to put it succinctly, simply mind-blowing! The sheer volume of concerts, the diverse content, the length of each concert, educative lec dems, and the duration of the music season was totally stunning. Knowing there were perhaps 50 concerts happening, dotted across the city, during a single day was overwhelming; knowing this continued for over a month, daunting! Realising that literally life stops for several hundred musicians of all types during these 30 days was awe inspiring.
Of course, the logistics involved in listening hit later – how to know what to hear when, and knowing, how to arrange tickets! The realisation that most concerts during the day are free, and usually only evening concerts ticketed struck one later.
The informative and erudite lec-dems are totally an eye opener — being conducted sometimes in English, by highly eloquent bi-lingual scholars is an experience that cannot be replicated in North Indian festivals. Sadly, in North India belittling scholarship amongst practising musicians is quite common; the unspoken assumption being, if you can’t sing or perform, you then talk about it.
Like in the North, a large part of the audience is grey haired; unlike in the North, laudably, several musicians also hear concerts. Truly, the inspiration a musician gets seeing another listening intently makes for an inspired rendition.
The sumptuous food items at each "sabha" are a delight; this aspect of the listening experience is not the norm at the music festivals in the North, exceptions being all festivals in Kolkata, Harivallabh, Jallandhar and Shankarlal Delhi. Other festivals like Sawai Pune, Tansen Gwalior, and Saptak Ahmedabad have very perfunctory "snack" arrangements, loftily assuming the musical fare is enough sustenance!
It was a pleasant surprise to hear artists from North India at Sabhas other than the Music Academy which of course has an old tradition of the December 31 concert being presented by an eminent North Indian musician. Ustad Ali Akbar Khan’s rare recording of Raga Lom Nat is only one of the treasures of the Academy archives.
One wondered what the North Indian artists perspective was. Ashwini Bhide Deshpande, who has been singing at Marghazi for more than 20 years shared "I always structure each concert carefully, seeing the type of audience I expect to sing for; Chennai audience is discerning, they are no novices. But I would never sing Ragas of Carnatic origin there; I know the audience looks forward to hearing our different Ragas."
Ustad Rashid Khan felt the Chennai audience prefers to hear Carnatic vocal music, unlike other cities in the South. Flautist Rakesh Chaurasia who is invited for collaborative North-South concerts as often as for solos pointed out "since we are invited for what we are, we should stick to what we are known for. Of course, in a North South jugalbandi, the Ragas we perform will be those known to both of us, but while the ingredients are the same, the audience can savour the specialities of both traditions."
Admirably, in the last 10 years, the compulsory inclusion of a Carnatic artist at each of the major festivals in North India is now the norm, with Sawai Gandharva, Harivallabh, Saptak, Dover Lane, Tansen, and even the newer Shimla festival always hosting one or more Carnatic artist.
What was slightly shocking was the almost cavalier attitude of the seniors in the first rows to the younger artists performances; arriving late, getting up within 10 minutes of the concert — why not consider sitting discreetly at the back and unobtrusively leaving, if desired. This pervasive somewhat "entitled", know all attitude of some members of the audience was marked.
Another unsavoury custom was hearing that several Sabhas print a catalogue of the festival content — listing each performers repertoire. Wanting to pin down an artist on his repertoire, and the artiste submitting, and letting go of the spontaneity of the decision seemed very strange from the North Indian perspective. The lack of a rehearsal before a performance is considered admirable for us; most artistes even in the younger generation revel in claiming they decide in the green room which Raga to render, after hearing the earlier artist’s choice, and then think of which composition!
The tradition of jugalbandi concerts was another very pleasant Marghazi experience — clearly an old tradition as one recalls hearing perhaps the last time Pt Ravi Shankar performed on stage with his reclusive wife Annapurna Devi was at a Music Academy concert in the mid 1950s. In recent years, North South jugalbandis seem to be more popular. One hopes the tradition in the North of tabla solos, and tabla jugalbandis will come to the South too, with mridangam solo concerts, instead of waiting for the "tani avartanam", (the percussion interlude) as is the norm now.