Ruminations from a culture vulture  
- Lalitha Venkat, Chennai 
December 14, 2007 

Chennai has become a buzzing beehive of cultural activity almost around the clock and certainly around the year. So many programs on dance, music, theatre, lectures, cultural programs and film festivals have been taking place daily months before the annual December Margazhi festival.  

On Oct 13 at the Alliance Francaise, classical pianist/composer Anil Srinivasan and Carnatic vocalist Sikkil Gurucharan spoke about their collaboration and work process in creating contemporary sound. Their maiden collaborative venture, titled ‘Madirakshi’, was such a success that they were motivated to work on their next album titled ‘Colors of Rain,’ from which they presented excerpts. For one of the numbers, Anil visualized a little girl playing hopscotch and the notes follow such a pattern. Though the ragas and presentation followed the classical Carnatic pattern, the pace of singing was slow which   Gurucharan confessed, was difficult at first. He did not need to keep talam like in Carnatic music but followed the piano notes. Incidentally, the piano is classified as a percussion instrument and Anil uses its inherent pulse and melodic richness to do away with all extrinsic ornamentation that Carnatic music is surrounded with.  Not everyone is in favor of this type of presentation of traditional songs and the duo have received mixed reactions. There are many others who prefer their slower version of “payyada,” the wonderful javali made famous by Balasaraswati, or Bharatiyar’s “aasai mugam marandhu pochey. In fact, there was a request for Aasai Mugam, which Gurucharan obliged. One thing stands out in their music – Anil’s piano is there yet unobtrusive and supportive and Gurucharan’s diction is so clear and decipherable, one can ‘see’ the rasa in his strong voice! In fact, an audience member is supposed to have told Gurucharan after the program that they did not realize Tamil could sound so sexy! Ganjira artiste BS Purushotham was also a participant but did not have much role to play. It is this combination of Anil and Charan that has given the memorable soundscape for Anita Ratnam’s new dance presentation ‘NEELAM’ which has won over purist audiences last December season in Chennai. 

From November 1 to 11, Bharat Sangeet Utsav hosted by and Sri Parthasarathy Sawamy Sabha heralded the start of the Chennai season. Over 3 concerts a day at Narada Gana Sabha, one gets to hear the best names in music and all for free!  I managed to catch Aruna Sairam and Hariharan’s ghazal show which were both filled with capacity crowds. Other concerts too had good attendance. Sanjay Subramaniam’s concert was traditional, OS Arun’s bhajans were all on Krishna including some numbers from his new album, a Hindustani and Carnatic music jugalbandhi with Pt Vishwa Mohan Bhatt on Mohana Veena and Ravi Kiran on Chitravina centred on raag Vachaspati. The thematic presentation ‘Poonkuyil Pattammal’ on DK Pattammal’s songs, presented by Gowri Ramnarayan and sung by Vijay Siva was very interesting because of the background information and anecdotes that were brief and to the point. Like DK Pattammal was averse to singing duets with male singers, so she sang the male as well as female parts of a song, how she valiantly sang a song upholding communist principles during the freedom movement which was promptly banned by the British govt, and her refusal to be a singing star but no objection to singing playback, all lent color to the concert.  

From Nov 10 to 18, the third edition of The Hindu Friday Review November Festival titled ‘Let the music begin’ took place at the Music Academy. On Nov 12, Pt Rajan and Sajan Misra of the Benaras Gharana, enthralled the audience in a 3 hour long classical Hindustani recital. Performing in Chennai after several years, they were accompanied by Arvind Kumar Azad on tabla and Subash Kashakkar on the harmonium. With a brief 10 minute break, it was a continuous performance. A request for raag Darbari Kanada had the brothers performing a ‘glimpse’ that went on for more than a half hour!  The concert ended with a bhajan in Bhairavi. When the over enthusiastic Chennai audience applauded after every intricate raga exposition, Pt Rajan Misra requested that they wait till the song finished! Another memorable concert in the series was the evening by Anil Srinivasan and Gurucharan, this time accompanied by Delhi based sarangi player Murad Ali blending in so well and adding a wonderful dimension to this new and beautiful sound. The more popular musicians like Trilok Gurtu, Hariharan and Mandolin Srinivas disappointed, not with the audience turnout but with the content of their presentations. 
A 2 ½ hour long documentary film ‘Eleven Miles’ on Bauls, the wandering minstrels of Bengal, directed by Ruchir Joshi was screened on Nov 13. The sequences were rather disjointed and it is rather difficult to keep track of the characters, but ultimately the music scored. We also got a glimpse of the life of the Bauls, that these minstrels existed in both Hindu and Muslim religions and across both genders. We watched their approach to life and their views on what makes an authentic Baul. In spite of so much awareness on the ills of smoking, there were too many smoking scenes in the film!  

In a bid to encourage upcoming musicians, Nov 14 featured 4 performances on varied themes. In Star Trail, Subhiksha Rangarajan and Pradeep Kumar presented film songs by Ilayaraja, AR Rehman, Papanasam Sivan and so on, based on Carnatic ragas. Amrutha Venkatesh and Aiswarya Vidya Raghunath presented songs from the Mysore Durbar, by composers including the late Maharaja. Amritha Murali and Nisha Rajagopal rendered patriotic songs from Subramania Bharati to Bankim Chandra Chatterjee in Born Free. There were many in the audience who sang along in ‘Vande Mataram.’ The final concert of the evening by Savita Narasimhan accompanied by Sikkil Mala Chandrasekhar on the flute was aptly titled Peacock Blue as the songs were all on Krishna. This time, Amritha Murali showed her expertise on the violin! Each concert was supposed to run to an hour each but invariably overshot the time limit, so the final concert unfortunately saw a dwindling audience. The stage décor and lighting were very pleasant to the eye.  

With The Hindu emerging as an organizer of theatre and music festivals, there is so much more happening and much before the actual sabha schedules, that there does not seem to be a dull moment in Chennai! The renovated interior of Music Academy is also very pleasant and people friendly.  

The National Theatre of Korea presented Korea Sparkling on Nov 26 at the Music Academy to a full house. The items presented were the famous colorful fan dance, sword dance, Jang-go dance, a solo dance titled Chun-sul (Spring Snow), chamber music, and other music compositions that included 2 Hindi songs! Despite the pleasing music and beautiful costumes, last year’s performance by the Chongdong Theatre from Seoul had much more verve and charm. Only during such   programs do we get to see the number of Koreans settled in Chennai! The last official count was 1300 families, three Korean restaurants, two hotels and two private clubs – all for their people alone! An aside to the changing face of Chennai is that these Koreans, specially the teenage kids, are so filled with money in their pockets that they are known to tip the autorickshaw drivers as much as Rs.100 after each trip. This has made our local auto drivers too arrogant and spoilt that they demand it from us as well!  

The Indo-Polish Chamber of Commerce and Industries, and Jaya group of institutions presented an evening of ‘Dancing through Europe’ on Nov 27 by Zofia Rudnicka and her troupe, to mark the National Day of Poland. Ambassador of Poland to India, Krzysztof Majka, Tamilnadu Governor Surjit Singh Barnala, and Polish Consul-General in Mumbai, Janusz Bylinski participated in the function. Naturally, speeches took up the better part of an hour. Vivacious dances from Spain, Portugal, Italy, Ireland, Germany and Poland were interspersed with ballet numbers and opera music accompanied by a piano. The audience was comprised of mostly college students who are not familiar with opera, and they dissolved into giggles every time because the vocalist refused a mike and all we could see was her head going back now and then, her mouth opening and closing, but not a word! The backdrop banner (of course a must for cementing international relations!) was an eye sore and the vast Kamaraj Arangham is badly in need of renovation. Then, all our auditoriums are in need of a face lift and an engineer who really understands sound and audience sight lines! 

Ranvir Shah’s Prakriti Foundation presented its first edition of The Park’s NEW FESTIVAL at the Museum Theatre from Dec 2 – 6. This came after 9 years of THE OTHER FESTIVAL, India’s first annual contemporary arts event, founded by Shah and dancer Anita Ratnam. The New Festival continues the theme of the ‘new’ with Park Hotels as brand sponsor and Shah as sole artistic director. Of the five days of this event, I only caught two evenings.  ‘Jazz,’ scripted by Ramu Ramanthan and directed by Etienne Coutinho, is based on the research by Naresh Fernandes on the role of jazz in Bollywood music at a time when Goans and Anglo-Indians were the jazz musicians around Mumbai’s Bandra. The main characters are Bugs Bhargava, who plays an ageing jazz musician, a typical Goan with love for music and booze, lot of talent but not getting his dues, the raw deal he gets from making a living in Bollywood, and young Rhys Dsouza who comes to him to learn.  

Bugs actually comes back from the dead to tell his story – the lighting in the shape of a coffin with Bugs lying inside it, is very effective! Past loves, friends, acquaintances and music cronies, reminisce on the video projection screen and the narrative swings from monologues and great singing by Bugs to screen dialogues in a smooth switch. Through a mix of nostalgia and wry humor, music and dialogues, experiences of jazz musicians in the Bollywood music circuit of the 60s and 70s comes through as experienced by the main characters. Music is composed by Merlin Dsouza. The tracks are recorded but Rhys plays the sax on stage and the play ends with a grand solo by him. The student has finally come into his own. ‘Jazz’ is a feast of jazz music and great theatre. It was a well attended evening and the technical side went off without a hitch. Strangely, despite the resounding applause, there were no introductions at the end of the show.  

Closing night December 6 was a wonderful blend of dance, music and painting, ‘Dhara’ by Dance Routes, Bhubaneswar, featured Rekha Tandon and 4 gotipua dancers - Punachandra Maharana, Purnachandra Jena, Bishwanath Jena and Chandramani Pradhan. Dhara is a result of the Raghurajpur Lila Project to provide a career in dance to gotipua dancers after their gurukul comes to an end. The dance is a mix of traditional Odissi and Gotipua styles involving their acrobatic moves. The original music score directed by Michael Weston draws from folk and classical Oriyan music, Hindu tantric chants and prayers. The whole presentation was very interesting because of the simultaneous projection of traditional Orissa patachitra style paintings on the back screen. The visuals have English subtitles to illustrate the theme being danced, so it is easy to follow the narrative. Beautiful illustrations of Krishna, Durga and Jagannath formed the backdrop for ‘Free my path,’ ‘Simhavahini’ and ‘Jagannathswami.’ In the pure dance item ‘Battu,’ the visuals of a dancer matched the dancer on stage in stunning coordination. ‘Yantra’ was performed to chants and mystic images. The drawings as well as the dance were so eye catching that it was quite distracting at times! Judging by the standing ovation, one could say it was indeed a grand finale for the New Festival.  

The sabha season is now in full swing, with predominantly music performances and some dance. There are also music and dance seminars this year, with the Natya Darshan seminar hosted by Kartik Fine Arts having its own website, something that Krishna Gana Sabha has not bothered to do after 28 years of having its Natya Kala Conference. In fact, the site has not even been updated with this year’s season schedule. It’s time many of our sabhas keep up with technology, start their websites and put their schedules online, instead of being secretive till Dec 1 to reveal their schedules!

Photos courtesy: 
The Hindu Friday Review Nov Festival brochure, Korea Sparkling brochure and Prakriti Foundation