TALE OF 'TWO' CITIES
Chennai - the city of twin personalities; For 11 months of the year, you can find people who say it is "kollywood's crib", "land of compulsive hooting", "home of haggling salespersons", "city of scrumptious vegetarian Indian cuisine", "a dust filled atmosphere", "a haven for unruly traffic" and "increasing in property prices". Though people will relate to you the vastly diverse facets of Chennai for 11 months, for 1 month Chennai puts on her best and shows-off her stuff - the Music Season of December. And thank God for the affluent capitalist NRIs in one sense, this musical, intellectual, soulful season is now extended...from November, through to the end of December.
THE GOLDEN AGE
Though the concerts are many and we (music enthisiasts) are all drawn to different artistes and 'sabhas' (halls), one thing's for sure - the audience in these performances show a marked improvement in knowledge compared to when I came for the first time to Chennai in '98. Though reduced to memories of a short trip for music in '98, that trip gave me my first insight of the performers and audiences of the music season. I can bravely say that the comparison between then and now is obvious ...in my view, more people know what to look for in a Carnatic performance now. Questions asked during lecture demos and discussions on which I've eavesdropped (bad girl me!) outside the halls lead me to this conclusion.
Fellow enthusiasts/audiences who cram into the halls with me, still constitute the elderly, but a new wave of young blood is also present, clearly bewitched and bewildered by Carnatic music. These youngsters may well be the first generation of beneficiaries, who have inherited the drive and thrist for protecting their culture, from their forefathers' generation. The way this happened I think is that the older generation saw the need to inclucate the love for this (somewhat) fledgeling artform in their children. Perhaps they were noticing the dwindling number of young fans over the last 30 years, and felt the need to resurrect the diminishing interest to preserve the art. Their resultant outcome of their efforts, if we can indeed attribute the outcome to them, is an 'influx' of Carnatic Music enthusiasts, performers, critics, connoiseurs, intellectuals and educators today. So, is this then the Golden Age of Carnatic Music?
I ask because, these audiences walk into the halls armed with knowledge, skill and a learning mindset to say the least. Many in the audience, let alone those on stage, are undiscovered prodigies in some aspect of the art, and the blessing they've inherited is that many of them, with the available avenues in Chennai today, will be discovered at tender ages for their respective niches in the art such as being adept at tala, rendering alapanas or flawlessly rendering a krithi after a single lesson. Our forefathers will be happy to learn that the means exist today, to assist in assimiltion, analysis, appreciation and augmentation of one's skills in the art.
PRESSURE TO PERFORM: ENTERTAINMENT VS. ART-PRESERVATION
Though students of my generation have only been discovered in our later years for our talent, I take pride in being priviledged to learn music in Chennai during what may be perceived as the Golden Age of Carnatic Music. This is a privilege that offers supreme opportunity to develop one's art.
While personally, I may enjoy this privilege, the current day 'movers and shakers' of the art will tell you that it isn't all fun and games; it is very easy to lose sight of the woods for the trees in such a time. This is because handling the art with the same tenderness and protectiveness that its forefathers did, is very much a part of the role of the musician, just as it is his/her role to perform for the entertainment of today's musically-educated (and yet, demanding and diverse-in-view) audiences.
That fine balance between entertainment and art-preservation I reckon, is the biggest dilemma an artiste of today is facing. For the purist Carnatic artiste, it can almost be a moral issue. But for the less than traditional, the art is seen as constantly evolving almost to the point of needing rather than wanting change.
In my current view therefore, that there are 2 schools of thought on teaching the same art, i.e. Carnatic Music. These schools (for sake of explanation), can be categorised somewhat losely, based on what proportion of their focus is dedicated to entertainment, vs. the proportion dedicated to preservation. The greater the focus on tradition rules and accepted deviations from the aspects which are considered true Carnatic music, the more "purist" the teaching. Thus, entertainment is secondary to art-preservation. On the other end of the spectrum are those that feel Carnatic music is still evolving, thus they accept creative changes in preference to some of the more traditional norms of rendition.
The ultimate Carnatic "entertainer" will almost always be labelled as being less true to the artfrom and thus more irresponsible, by the purist. The ultimate purist inadvertantly, could be regarded as being closed-minded by the entertainer.
PRODUCT OR PACKAGING?
Thus, during the music season, the one thing I feel that can pressurise artistes to worry more about the packaging than the product, is that certain review /analysis written on their performance. Sometimes, veterens are mocked for being 'old fashioned' and newbies prematurely commended for for a single act of ingenuity that can't be repeated or explained by the performer! Though many perfromers are assessed fairly or at least diplomatically, the pressure to perform in a manner acceptable to both the purist and the entertainer seems to be the driving force behind the nature and content of today's performances. Perhaps it is a good thing. Perhaps it isn't. In either case, pressure of this nature deviates the art from the artiste, i.e. the product loses to the packaging.
So, if this is indeed the Golden Age, perhaps the hardcore art-preserver/purist would encourage us to be careful about the product first. Packaging later. Afterall, we don't want to be blamed by future generations for carelessly losing the very treasure that our previous generation saved for us. Their fervour is perhaps parallel to nature-loving activists whose cause is to preserve the ecosystem.
Then again, speak to a hardcore entertainer and you'll be opened to a whole new set of arguments that say the treasure of the past is only the basis for today's entertainment, not the template. Their fervour can be likened to those who believe in the theory of evolution, for without evolution, no thought, no expression, no art and no civilisation would be present today.
Both have valid arguments.
ONLY THE MUSIC MATTERS
Having said that, interestingly, if you watch the audience that glue themselves to performances during the music season, you realise that the issue of entertainment vs. art-preservation is non-existant to an engraossed audience. The artist's magnetism which is possibly a combination of technical prowess and expression of self whisks the listener to a place where only the music matters.
* PIO - Person of Indian Origin