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Vol. XXXI No. 17, December 16-31, 2021

Me, My Husband, and the Chennai Music Season

by Sujatha Chandramouli

Picture courtesy: Sruti magazine

Picture courtesy: Sruti magazine.

Both me and my husband’s family cannot boast of any Carnatic music lineage, nor did we spend our formative years in the mecca of Carnatic music, aka Chennai. My exposure to Carnatic music was the regular pattu class which every tambrahm parent, especially those not in Tamil Nadu, will try to arrange for their children. My pattu class in Pune saw several interruptions and several teachers and came to a stop when I reached college level in academics. My husband is not much cued in to Carnatic music. No, he is not a ‘man that hath no music’ – we all know what the bard had to say about such a man – no, not the Bard of Tiruvaiyaru but the Bard of Avon. My husband has an ear for other genres of music (so he definitely can be trusted and deserves wonderful things in life).

It was only when we were in our mid-thirties and moved to Chennai, that we really got to know about the ‘season’ as they say in Chennai, and the brouhaha around it. Initially the December season coincided with the kids half yearly exams, followed by Christmas vacation – when we did the usual ‘giri darshanam’ of the hill stations of the south and by the time we were back in Chennai it was the new year – the season coming to a close, sadas at the academy was over, canteen caterers wound up, and school began for the kids.

It so happened a few years later one December, as I was passing by a music sabha in Mylapore, on impulse I decided to stop by and see what goes on inside. The kucheri was well past half-time so the organizers just waved their hands and let me in. I took a seat and as I listened I realized it was a song I had learnt in my Pune pattu class days. I recalled the song vividly line by line and my pattu teacher’s face correcting my singing. I was just enthralled by the melodious rendition. This was followed by another couple of songs which I was familiar with. There is something about hearing a live kutcheri, a digitized version comes only second to it. Added to that if the singing has bhava, it makes the music more divine. That evening hooked me on to going to sabhas and listening to performances.

After this I attended a few concerts and enjoyed the experience. I also started reading reviews of the performances I attended and understood the nuances of Carnatic music and kutcheri paddhati. An unintended benefit of these excursions was I that I also learnt kutcheri etiquette. For example there are sabhas where you can go casually dressed, and then there are others where the la-di-das turn up and anything less than a kanjeevaram will make you feel inadequately dressed. A jeans and a kurta is ok if you are a reporter or an overseas skype student of the performer. Venues where seating is free – you will find median age to be over 55 years. An open air venue gives you the chance to take out your ‘naphthalene balls-preserved’ merino wool or Tibetan shawl, assuming you belong to age bracket that needs thermal comfort from Chennai’s December nip. Open venue also means you go equipped with a mosquito repellent, some concert organizers these days do try to fix this nuisance. Coming to the performance, do not make a beeline for the exit during tani avartanam, this practice though lessened still never stops. Never ask your neighbour, “What is the ragam?”. Its never done to show your ignorance to the elderly connoisseur next to you. Pretend you know or flip through the Raga Ready-reckoner.

Now enters my husband in the Carnatic music scenario…. I wanted my man( who ‘hath music’) to evolve his taste in music to a more aesthetic level so that both us may experience the peace and serenity of the music together. Also his coming to kutcheris reduced my dependency on the erratic cab services at 9pm in the bylanes of sabha venues. What I did not realize was that having an ear for music is a good starting point, but some basic knowledge and effort is required in the appreciation journey.

One of the first concerts I remember we attended together was at a neighbourhood young sabha in Adayar. When the organizer was introducing the artist of the day he said, “This year the artist will be conferred the Sangita Kalanidhi award”. My husband turned towards me and said, “Hey, did you hear that? She is going to be awarded the Sangita Kalanidhi?” Aiyo, what should I tell him? – everybody here knows that. The Music Academy had announced that a couple of months back. To which he replied, “But I heard about it only now!”, much to the amusement of people around us.

Sometimes my husband would take a couple of business magazines to read while hearing the music. I pointed out it is not respectful to the artists on stage irrespective of whether you are in their line of sight or not. He used to point out that many in the audience are also reading something now and then – oh that?! That is the Kutcheri Ready-reckoner I explain. With nothing at hand sometimes he would pore over the kutcheribuzz flyer which has small write ups of programs, events or season’s happenings. The mamas and mamis around would wonder if there is something in it that they missed when hastily putting it away into their plastic bags. Since he is a total greenhorn here I sometimes have some explaining to do. When the pallavi is being sung he asks me when will he/she get to the next line? When the vocalist shows her vidwat by introducing shruti bhedam in the singing, there would be a buzz among the enlightened audience and my husband would say, “See there is something wrong. She suddenly went on a different tune.” I do not even try explaining but am glad that he noticed the shift in the music scale. At one particular event the vocalist was singing a song that my husband knew – thanks to Yesudasji’s Carnatic recordings of the 80s my husband is familiar with Mahaganapathy, Samaja varagamana and a few others. So he started singing along, softly though. I know he cannot proceed beyond the first line and catch up as the sangatis get more brigas. “But I know this song”, he tells me when I ask him to stop. I told him the audience here know almost all the songs – if all of them join the vocalist it will be a choir. Seeing the point in that he stops. To be fair to my husband he loves the tani avartanam and wonders why the listeners get up at that time. He enjoys the percussion beats. Sometimes he tries to keep the thalam when the singing is on. His rhythm though has a varying phase lag with that of the performer, causing others to get disturbed and distracted till I nudge him to stop.

The last season we had purchased tickets from ‘Music of Madras’ and my husband was to join me at the venue. The auditorium was packed as it was a star performer. I took my seat but since there was no trace of my husband I letgo of the next seat to an eager elderly lady. So when my husband reached the venue he could not join me inside. He did the next best thing – went to the sabha canteen and ordered a ghee roast. The Sabha had a TV screen outside and my husband could clearly see and hear. So he enjoyed his dosa and music together without any nudges from me. I too relaxed and enjoyed without having to do any explaining to anybody.

After that day our routine was fixed. I went alone and he came to the sabha after work, sitting outside in the canteen and enjoying the music on the screen outside and satisfying his gastronomic cravings. He is not burdened with the knowledge of ragas, thalam, composer, shruti, etc and enjoys the music as he hears them. We both return together, each satiated in our own way. The only thing is I refuse to allow him to put the fm in the car, somehow after hearing divine music you want to soak in it, anything else jars you. The songs you just heard keeps ringing in your head, maybe till the next kutcheri, and that induces in you a euphoria that you don’t want disturbed.

The Chennai music season is a lot more than this, I have barely scratched the surface. It is the month of marghazhi, bhajans, lecdems, dance, heritage walks and all. Some pessimists will keep complaining ‘so many sabhas, so many artistes, vocalists overstretching themselves’ but I would say it’s getting better organized, even as fresh problems keep adding – older issues are addressed, and in the end everyone stands to gain. A delayed northeast monsoon sometimes disturbs schedules and plans, and in recent years the pandemic, sometimes natural calamities like floods, a vardah( storm) or once in lifetime disaster of tsunami happening around this time of the year. However the collective spirit of music lovers all over the world keeps it going.

I wish to thank all my music teachers for having introduced Carnatic music to me early on, and the sabha organizers, sponsors, the artists and people involved in making the Chennai Season happen:

“Thank you for the music, for giving it to me”.

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