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Vol. XXXII No. 21, February 16-28, 2023

Performance Spaces in Chennai — The Ugly, The Bad & the Good

-- by Ramanathan Iyer

Chennai – a city that’s the epicentre of South Indian classical music and dance – and which takes justifiable pride in being included in the Creative Cities network of UNESCO, predictably has a wide variety of performance spaces dedicated to the arts. The hectic December music season sees maximum usage of these spaces, big and small. Listening to a concert or watching a dance recital at these venues over an entire month brings a sobering truth home to discerning rasikas: that the sheer quantity of spaces in this city has no correlation with the quality of the art experience. At the base of this sub-par experience is a lack of understanding of how an art space must be tailored to the specific needs and aesthetics of the art forms that are to be presented there. As is the case with most public construction in post-colonial India, art spaces are also most often an implementation of a Western idea tailored for a Western aesthetic. These are embellished with imported technologies for sound & visual amplification that have not been adapted to suit local needs and aesthetics.

The Ugly

Sketch by Sarathy. Picture courtesy: Sruti Magazine.

The larger halls, for instance, are all constructed on the proscenium model, with a wide gap (uncharitably called a ‘moat’ by many) separating the performer and the listener. This goes against the very ethos of a Carnatic concert or a Bharatanatyam recital where absorption of nuances by the viewer/listener is dependent on close proximity. Amplification is also largely unnecessary with such proximity between artist and listener. However, our beloved technical crew blindly believes in “filling” these vast modern spaces with sound. Modulation is mostly limited to twirling the volume knob back and forth on the console! Traditional dance recitals which are best experienced in a rustic temple-like atmosphere with sparse props such as oil lamps and a simple black backdrop are nowadays subject to techno lighting effects, garish ad-filled backdrops and props that have no relation to the art being presented. About seating, less said the better: cost savings dictate the choice at most venues, the default being the uncomfortable plastic chairs that take a toll on one’s back and the ­bottom. There are also some spaces that employ the ghastly folding metal chairs which make an ungodly screech each time a patron makes an untimely entry or exit mid-performance. As for the quality of restrooms and such other necessities, suffice it to say that most of these spaces are a public inconvenience, with one or two glorious exceptions.

The Bad

Nagaswaram – a celebrated festival instrument – is by its very nature suited for playing in the vast outdoors. However, even that has now been taken indoors and offered a token presence at the beginning of festivals. This would still be tolerable if amplified correctly, or better, not at all. The overall effect is to drive the volume to levels beyond normal human tolerance, thus driving away what little audience they would have attracted. There’s a wedding-cum-performance hall in Mandaveli which became famous recently on social media for a board that announces a ban on live Nagaswaram due to constant complaints from neighbouring residents! Instrumental music overall, is a greater victim than vocal music of poor acoustics which affect the overall tone. This can be attributed to a combination of inappropriate contact microphones and technical incompetence. There are again isolated glorious exceptions to this norm.

The Good

Granted that old-world ideals are difficult to implement in a large metropolis like ours with diverse modern needs and aesthetics, one wishes that at a bare minimum, spaces that have a generous budget make an attempt at intelligent application of technology to meet specific aesthetics. Large venues such as the Music Academy and the Lady Andal School have invested large sums in modernising their equipment, seating, ticketing, catering and other facilities to make the overall experience enjoyable. More intimate spaces exist, such as Srinivasa Sastri hall in Mylapore, where the legendary Palakkad Mani Iyer used to encourage listeners to sit on the floor within touching distance of his fingers. Raga Sudha Hall nearby is also a popular haunt for rasikas to enjoy music relatively hassle-free. The Kalakshetra campus in Thiruvanmiyur and the ‘kalari’ at Spaces in Besant Nagar beach are perhaps some of the few venues remaining where one can have a semblance of an authentic experience, without unnecessary props. There also small spaces such as The ARTery, located at a Royapettah bungalow and the Raghavendra Swami brindavanam in Mylapore where lamplit mic-less performances are the norm. But all these are exceptions in a city replete with art venues that are mostly makeshift multi-purpose venues such as Kalyana Mandapams. One is always optimistic that better awareness, discernment and intelligent application of latest technologies and products will result in a city that truly deserves its place of pride in the world heritage network.

The writer, a Wireless Communications engineer, is a passionate Chennai-based promoter, photographer and curator of the performing arts.

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