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Vol. XXV No. 24, April 1-15, 2016

Short N Snappy

Carnatic in any other place

Those of you who follow the musings in Madras of The Man from Madras Musings (MMM) do know that if at all he has a weakness (and here people like the Chief and MMM’s good lady, who is also known as She Who Must Be Obeyed, can no doubt list several), it is for good Carnatic music. MMM frequents places where ye goode South Indian classical art is performed. Sometimes he goes to spots where not so goode South Indian classical art is also performed but that is neither here nor there.

Most of these performances follow a standard pattern and by that MMM does not refer to the concert format, which is pretty much a given. He alludes to the way such programmes are conducted. In most places, barring a few locations such as the Music Academy, they rarely begin on time. The audience will be made to wait at the entrance of the hall or on occasion be allowed to take its seats and then while away time for ages before the artiste of the day makes his/her appearance and begins the concert. Once the music starts, a sideshow of sorts will also commence – this being a running battle between the artistes on stage and the man who is in charge of the sound. Every artiste, including the person strumming the pitch, will begin gesticulating and demanding through signs and gestures that the mic closest to them be increased in volume while that of all other artistes be brought down as far as possible. In fact if each of the performers had his/her way, everyone else on stage would at best be a mime artiste. This ongoing battle for supremacy usually subsides by around half time.

But hold it just there. In case you thought this is when people like MMM sit back, relax and enjoy the music you are much mistaken. For midway through the concert is when the Sabha secretary will waddle on to stage, grab a mic and begin giving a speech. This will usually have two parts – the first being a wholly unnecessary reading of the artiste’s profile, normally cribbed from some completely erroneous source on the world wide web. The second half will be an appeal on behalf of the sabha and how it would be able to build an auditorium for itself if only audiences could see their way to loosening their purse strings. MMM has often wondered whether it would not be a more befitting ambition for these sabha-s to get a good sound technician on board.

Be that as it may. Nothing is really going to change these sabha-s and the way they operate, at least not in India. MMM being aware of such organisations now existing overseas hoped that these were run on better lines. After all, sitting on their boards would be software czars, technical potentates and moneyed monarchs. Or so MMM thought. All these notions were dashed to the ground when last fortnight MMM travelled to a faraway land where the temperatures were frigid. Carnatic music was the last thing he had in mind, but sure enough it flourished there as well. On a performing tour was a diva who is a close friend of MMM’s and she was kind enough to invite him to her concert. And so MMM went.

The programme was scheduled to begin at 7.00pm. A mini blizzard was blowing outside the venue, but in the auditorium foyer all was warmth and gaiety. The best and brightest in computer land were present. You could not have moved a bit without running into an emperor/empress of embedded software or a mobile technology maharajah/maharani. Conversation varied – the humblest were discussing about how they fixed a bug in a code even as the middle rung talked of stock options. In a refined corner were a few who chatted about multiple levels of funding and IPOs. In short, the atmosphere was far removed from our own December season sabha-s.

The Carnatic code

But how strongly adhering to tradition we are as a people became more than manifest within a few minutes. Seven o’clock came and went and there was no sign of the concert beginning. The crowd milled around the auditorium door and some enthusiasts formed a queue. At around 7.15 a rather hassled volunteer announced that all was well and that the concert would begin in five minutes. The reason for the delay he said was the late handing over of the hall to the organisers and so the artistes needed time for doing their sound checks.

This pleased MMM no end. Such wonderful professionalism he thought to himself. The concert was going to be a pleasure he reflected. No battles with sound technicians during the performance, he thought. MMM also mentally congratulated the musically inclined for forming a queue so that they could enter the venue in an organised fashion. Back in India, reflected MMM, all hell would break lose the moment the doors opened.

The five minutes stretched to another 15 and it was only at around 7.35 that the doors were opened. This was preceded by a couple of the volunteers giving each other high fives – these being for the successful completion of the sound tests. Once the door opened, however, MMM was transported to Mylapore. The queue was abandoned and everyone rushed in. Around ten minutes later peace of a kind was established. The curtains went up and the artistes received thunderous applause. But if MMM thought the concert was about to begin, he was much mistaken. The sabha Secretary who had earlier been in jeans and T-shirt and who had now changed into a brocaded Indian suit came on to stage to read out the curriculum vitae of the artistes. This was of course largely downloaded from the internet and to it was added some extempore material from the Secretary’s fertile imagination. All this lasted ten minutes and the concert then began.

The music was fine for the first ten minutes. But it was too good to last. The violinist was the first off the mark in making eye contact with the sound technician. He wanted his mic volume to be increased. The chief percussionist was next. The singer continued singing – but only till the end of the first piece. At the end of it, the sound man, who had no doubt fiddled with some controls, managed to shut off all the feedback monitors and so the chief performer could not hear a word of what she was singing. The necessary adjustments took another 15 minutes. The music resumed but even after that the interactions with the mic man continued.

If you took heart at the fact that the person strumming the pitch had remained silent after all, it was because there was no person strumming the pitch. This being the software capital, a gadget was assigned the task. The sound man was spared of at least one more level of interaction that way. Halfway through the concert, which by the way was of a high standard, peace was established with the sound man and everyone focused on the music. But not for long.


Just as the concert reached a cruising stage the Secretary was back. He had some announcements to make, he said, and went on to make them. The performance, he said, was organised in aid of a temple fund. It was the dearest wish of the organisers, he said, that a temple be built in this computer-loka and if only the audience would loosen its purse strings…

MMM came away with a feeling that all that was missing was a sabha canteen. But he need not have worried. In the foyer was a man selling pre-packed dinners in plastic trays. MMM’s good lady bought one and later declared that, like the music, it was top class. The Carnatic tradition lives on.


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