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Quotes of the Chennai season
- Compiled by Lalitha Venkat

January 24, 2012


Though the month long event continues to draw thousands across the world to my hometown, it has lost its premium position of curating and watching THE BEST OF THE BEST. Too many sabhas and too many performers have made THE SEASON a minefield of uneven talent and chaotic programming. The average 'rasika' now plans a day of music and dance revolving around which sabha canteen serves what delicacy!
If anyone lands in Singapore, Adelaide or Edinburgh during the international arts festival months, flags, posters and placards illuminate the cultural event from the moment of landing. Hotels, roads and media proudly speak of the event. Not in Chennai. One would never know of the surfeit of riches to be enjoyed by arriving or even if you check into a luxury hotel. The newspapers are confusing to read and the daily planners offer less clues that a Sherlock Holmes mystery. There is still no central ticketing agency and online bookings for shows have not been implemented. All because these SABHAS are reluctant to change. All around India, theatre, cinema, retail and special events have online tie-ups for tickets and promotions. Not in Chennai. There is less and less excitement to watch the divas on stage and more concern if the cane chairs would rip our saris or dupattas.
- Anita Ratnam

By today's scales, a professional can put up a Bharatanatyam performance for not less than Rs.25,000. This too depends on the accompanying musicians they engage. Here again, merit tends to take a back seat. There are few criteria for getting an opportunity to perform and the person who holds the organisation's reins often decides. This person may not have an iota of knowledge about the art or artiste.
Some of the established sabhas also give a step-motherly treatment to Bharatanatyam or other Natya traditions in comparison with Carnatic music and musicians. This is the feeling the artistes get when they approach sabhas for opportunities. Sometimes, artistes, humiliated by the attitude of the sabha secretary or person in charge of programs, forego their chance to perform.
- VP Dhananjayan ('Supply side Bharatanatyam?' The Hindu, Dec 11, 2011)

Here are some short cuts to fame:

1. Buy performances. 2. Buy awards. 3. Make friends with politicians. 4. Write a book of Natya Shastra (just copy from innumerable books). 5. Get into committees. 6. Attend cocktail parties. 7. Gift photographers for your presence in page 3. 8. Get Padma awards thro politicians and 9. Get positions with salary and other facilities. The Nine Rasas prescribed in modern Natya Shastra.
Look at the two major decisions in recent years. 1. Removing Sonal Mansingh as Chairperson of SNA. The complaint made by many senior artists was that she is arrogant. Is arrogance a matter for removing? At least she was NOT corrupt. Now the same senior artists are all mum when Leela Samson is given multiple charges, Director, Kalakshetra; Head of film Censor Board; Chairperson of SNA. I respect Leela Samson but I am surprised that the Government could not find a single Indian to man these positions? Congress may even make Leela the next cultural minister. I am sure no artist will voice against...
GS Rajan (from FB)

We can crib, lament, fight and bitch about it or scream silently like Anna Hazare and make waves...or we can just silently be the different ones who make a change and set things right in our own little sphere and let it slowly ripple...I don't think we can cleanse anything, we cannot stop maamas wanting to lust nor the hungry money buyers, or the many who just want a slot in the Chennai season. But we can say no these, and pursue art for its sake, take our own moral standards, stick by it with conviction, and pass on the values to the next generation. We can BE the change we want to SEE.
- Ramaa Venugopalan (from FB)

Indian classical dance forms are now well recognised all over the world for their aesthetics, talent, dedication and skill of the dancers. Unfortunately, how-so-ever talented or skilled a dancer might be, her performance might get marred due to reasons beyond her control, like inadequate lights, a flawed sound system or a bad stage, leading to a shabby presentation. This holds true for all performing arts, including music and theatre.
What we need to concentrate now is the art of presentation. For this, the responsibility lies not only with the artistes, but equally with the organisers. They need to facilitate, provide and create an ambience of performance in which the performer can give his/ her best. According to Indian aesthetics, the goal of art is to create "Rasa". How could the performer create Rasa for her audience when she is also not immersed in that same Rasa? Bad stage, dirty green rooms, stinking toilets, faulty sound systems are not exactly conducive to create a pre-performance mood.
- Sharmistha Mukherjee
('All we demand is a decent stage,' Expressbuzz, Nov 9, 2011)

Many critics have come and gone, but Subbudu is still remembered, because he did not mince words. When there is a clamour for chances from junior artists, reviews help us make up our mind as to who should be given a slot.
- Ravi, secretary, Brahma Gana Sabha ('For whom does the CRITIC write?' by Suganthy Krishnamachari, The Hindu, Dec 9, 2011)

Some reviews read like grocery lists - just giving a list of songs sung, and offering no inputs on the quality of the performance.
- Y Prabhu, Krishna Gana Sabha secretary ('For whom does the CRITIC write?' by Suganthy Krishnamachari, The Hindu, Dec 9, 2011)

We must feel happy that this season has become rich with new talent cropping up every year. I like the idea that some of it is moving to the suburbs and to college campuses and temples. It is basically a 'community' festival, with a few formal events. It is socially vibrant, but remains exclusive in the sense that it is not drawing an eclectic variety of people to come and enjoy. I have friends who gym with me and they know nothing about 'our' season!
- Lakshmi Viswanathan ('Awards surprise me' by Akhila Krishnamurthy, New Indian Express, Dec 18, 2011)

I have disciples in various parts of the country and abroad, whose loyalty to Nrithyodaya cannot be questioned. I also come across dancers, who work with me for months to specialise in certain aspects, say the karanas, but do not acknowledge my support.
- Padma Subrahmanyam ('World is her stage' by S Shivprasadh, The Hindu, Dec 23, 2011)

I find that the sabhas are still filled with talai attum kootam (nodding audience) and the participation of knowledgeable young rasikas has not increased. Wonder whether the sabhas are a refuge for the home alones (senior citizens with their wards in the U.S.) referring to the ready reckoner to know the ragas. Some may feel that one need not have theoretical knowledge of the music that we are listening to - be it Carnatic, Hindustani or even rap. But the nuances are better appreciated if we have some knowledge of swaras.
I recall a write-up "Epidemic Musicitis" in The Hindu (Open Page, January, 1, 2011) wherein the writer said that the audience were afflicted with a "seasonal serious infection" and classified them sarcastically with funny medical names, exposing their lack of knowledge and interest in music as such. As he rightly put it, "the disease is self-limiting. It settles by mid-January only to recur next year." Good music appreciation knowledge is the preventive treatment.
- L Rangarajan
('Could we do a December in May,' The Hindu, Nov 20, 2011)

In our country, the indecent rush to the canteen to down a quick cup of coffee or pump some nicotine into the bloodstream when the concert is in full flow appears to have become a malaise at every concert.
Yet another raucous practice that has come to stay is the audience bursting into applause at the end of every song and whenever the artist ties himself in knots with an eyeful of contortions, a flurry of endless swaras and kanakku and flails his arms in wild gesticulation to explain away the higher reaches of his imagination. In the heat of the rising crescendo, the quintessential nature fades into the background and cacophony takes over from sukhabhavam.
Talking of sukhabhavam, many an artist and his accompanist look askance at the sound recording technicians and keep goading them to increase the amplification; the hapless recipient of unwanted attention juggles the knobs in gay abandon; the treble frequencies begin to screech in agony, while the bass notes threaten to tear open the diaphragm of the speakers and send vibrations even through the floor! Ultimately, a sage member of the audience pins the blame on "poor acoustics in the hall!"
- V Kalidas
('Music in the air, will decorum follow?,' The Hindu, Nov 20, 2011)

Culture cannot remain stagnant. The old order will necessarily change and must needs yield place to new, a truth the outgoing generations of rasikas need to remember, "lest one good custom should corrupt the world." This pattern is pervasive in music, dance, drama, literature, films, academics, professions or in the corporate world. Speed, range, competition, rivalry... all these are the order of the day. Facilities to appreciate the arts as also the opportunities to practise them have grown so far and wide; so much so that hardly anyone can claim that he cannot access sources and resources. Knowledge and learning have lost their esoteric status.
- PS Krishnamurti ('Old order changeth, and how?' The Hindu, Dec 9, 2011)

Sometimes the criticism levelled against many reviewers is that since they themselves cannot perform before an audience, they cannot sit in judgment over musicians. So does this mean practising musicians would make better music critics? There is a danger inherent in this too. A musician may not feel comfortable pointing out openly the mistakes other musicians make, for fear of being seen as churlish. If the reviewing musician does not have many opportunities to perform, he might face the accusation that he views other people's concerts through the prism of envy. Some office-bearers in sabhas may be knowledgeable enough to write reviews, but then objections will be raised on the ground of conflict of interest.
- Suganthy Krishnamachari ('For whom does the CRITIC write?' The Hindu, Dec 9, 2011)

Reviews help us plan our concerts better, where to position a certain raga in a kutcheri, etc. While there may be knowledgeable rasikas in the audience, they invariably tell us that our concerts are good, because they probably don't want to hurt us. But reviewers are frank. So they are the ones we rely on for an idea of how well we've sung.
- Amritha Murali ('For whom does the CRITIC write?' by Suganthy Krishnamachari, The Hindu, Dec 9, 2011)

Mediocre talent is often promoted, unfairly at times, in the name of musical lineage, or because of 'connections.' It isn't uncommon to witness poorly-equipped musicians lacking a basic understanding of pitch and rhythm, patronised beyond what they deserve, while truly talented performers from other geographical locations have been ignored.
The numbers attending a performance is not quite indicative of the quality of the artiste. An ideal situation would be to have institutions or bodies that could evaluate performances with absolute sincerity and promote artistes in proportion to their talents.
One may wonder why the number of specialised musicians is on the decline. The reason is not the paucity of talent in a given society. The reasons are more to do with the limited venues, unscientific teaching methods, lack of financial support and consequent manipulation of the field by those at the helm of affairs. Moreover, the ready availability of enormous sponsorship funds has resulted in the mushrooming of organisations where many a time, the prime intention is anything but the propagation of good music.
- Shashank Subramanyam (In 'Quality standards for the arts?' The Hindu, Dec 19, 2011)

The music festival and Chennai are as together as sruti and laya should be in music. The discerning observers feel that the sabhas in Chennai are numerous and are growing illogically and unreasonably. But, the connoisseur would never complain that there is an overdose of music. Nor would he about the growing crowd in the canteens at every venue that try to match the variety of the music being dished out in the auditorium.
Those rasikas, who sit still throughout a concert, not like stones but as gentle flowers, would not be noticed at all, as they do not join the banter or indulge in slapping their thighs to display their knowledge of tala. Equally unnoticed would be the talent of a really good artiste. He may not get a chance to sing at all. Or, she may not get an audience while pouring her heart out during a slot, so guilefully designed. Sometimes, good things do happen, in spite of us and our system. The silent rasika hopes for it and the new talents yearn for it.
- Ramanan (In 'Sleeping on a poet's lips,' The Hindu, Dec 13, 2011)

The Chennai Carnatic concert experience is most often marked by high volume and it is not uncommon to see a little jostling amongst the performers on stage for individual volume and requests from the audience for even more volume. Consequently, there's an overall distortion and a general loss of fidelity and subtlety. Is all this part of a carefully orchestrated aesthetic or is it the chaotic end result of a thoughtless stampede of circumstances and individual priorities?....
No doubt some of the jostling for individual volume sometimes seen in Carnatic concerts comes from inadequate or absent monitors and thereby an artiste's inability to hear one's own singing or playing, something so vital and indispensable to the artiste, but often totally not understood by organisers. It is not an easy matter and requires highly trained audio professionals to balance vastly disparate voices and/or instruments. Further, confusing the matter, artistes often bring along their own audio equipment which may be incompatible with the overall audio ensemble. Recent economic growth has led to overall improvements in sabha infrastructure and some have invested in good audio equipment but there still remains the challenge of finding and recruiting qualified technicians who have the requisite background in music and sound; there must be an overall acknowledgement that good sound is not a chore or the mere flick of a knob but rather a labour of love of specially trained individuals.
- Uday Shankar (in 'The aesthetics of Carnatic concert music,' The Hindu, Dec 16, 2011)

It is said "art begins where science ends." It is unfortunate that we have ceased to regard music as a science and have moved on quickly to the art or creative elements. Hence there is no urgency and need to learn this craft technically. It is being disrespectful towards one's art if attempts are made before learning the intricacies.
Hence stage and performance can wait... learning and rigorous training come first. Needless to say that the process or the journey of learning and gaining knowledge itself is so beautiful and satisfying that the destination (success) matters no more to the true and genuine traveller.
- Shruti Jauhari ('Training takes a back seat,' The Hindu, Dec 23, 2011)

Through my intense training I have experienced the freedom this art form allows to rediscover the artiste in you and reinterpret the nuances. So you can be contemporary without crossing the classical boundaries. What is important though is to learn presentation skills to suit the changing times and have knowledge of other genres too.
- Amritha Murali (in 'The promise of tomorrow,' The Hindu Metro Plus, Jan 2, 2012)

You cannot get into art to make money. That is a huge risk because you would be disappointed with the almost nil returns. Maybe you could have a comfortable life once you are counted among the top artistes but, till then, you need to keep investing in your art through perseverance, patience and loads of hard work. From my guru's successful career, I have realised it's tough to reach there and tougher to stay there.
- Sandeep Narayan (in 'The promise of tomorrow,' The Hindu Metro Plus, Jan 2, 2012)

The very fact that dozens of youngsters from NRI families are presented year after year at various sabhas during the Margazhi season in Chennai is a witness to the steady growth of Carnatic music in the West. "It is a wonderful sign and shows a great expansion of the art form. Yes, it has its pros and cons, but in the larger interest of the art form, we should all be proud and happy with the way Carnatic music has spread across the world with our musicians. I won't be wrong in saying that may be, the music happening in America is much more than what happens here in India!"
- Trichy Sankaran (in 'A brief history of star-spangled swaras and raga music' by Veejay Sai, The Hindu, Jan 1, 2012)

Carnatic music is among the greatest musical systems of the world and its tala framework is easily the best, most comprehensive and complete. So, a nation that has produced some of the greatest forms of music is now forced to come to terms with mediocrity being passed off as 'good' music. I shudder to think what would have happened if someone had not called the bluff. NRI children on the contrary, seem relatively more proud of their culture and music and it is a pleasant surprise to see them so well grounded and trained in Indian classical music in spite of their upbringing in a foreign land.
Private sponsors tend to put money into events which are touted as 'fun' and 'youthful'. I have never understood why only western music or dance shows qualify. Perhaps this tends to reinforce an association of the Indian classical arts with the 'dowdy' and 'old', and western music with 'young' and 'fashionable', and crowds out funding of programs featuring classical arts. Our media - especially the visual media - needs to give more space to culture and the arts.
Today, we rely on western scholarship to tell us more about our own history, scripts and archaeology. It will be a sad moment indeed, if we have to go abroad to find experts in Indian music and dance. And that moment may be here sooner than later. We need to collectively act fast before that happens.
- TK Ramachandran (in 'Sensitising the Facebook generation,' The Hindu, Dec 30, 2011)

It is a gigantic pageant of contradictions. The pious and the credulous, the amateur and the professional, the soul-pure and the techno-contaminated, the enchanting and the prosaic, the captivating and the abhorrent, the connoisseur and the dilettante, the resident and the non-resident are all assembled into a mega sin-phony of contraries, to briefly hold hands, lock together in a tight embrace and syncopate under the compulsive and charismatic baton of a good conductor called "Our Culture."
- Sadanand Menon (in 'Chennai's annual 'mad cow' syndrome,' Business Standard, Jan 7, 2012)


1. Anita Ratnam's comment should be taken seriously by each and everyone associated with organisation and presentation of events. I request all sabha secretaries and other big wigs to keep away their ego and difference and to join hands in providing information well in advance to thousands of visiting artists / rasikas and proper facilities. (as mentioned by Anita Ratnam).

2. Dhananjayettan's remark also carries utmost attention. It is high time that upcoming dancers openly come out with list of people demanding money for giving performance opportunity.

3. Well..Let me add a line to my own comment: Now that Leela is also heading National Film Censor Board, she could perhaps do a comparative study of how Rukmini Devi and others tried to design decent costumes for Bharata Natyam AND how to do Bharata Natyam without costumes taking inspiration from Bollywood.

- GS Rajan
(Jan 31, 2012)

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