Between Reviews: Carnatic Movie

Posted on November 8, 2008


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NOV 9, 2008 – THE QUESTION THAT ARISES AFTER EXITING a preview of the concert-film Margazhi Raagam is one of almost ethical-moral dimensions: Is a Carnatic concert a Carnatic concert without the jamakkaalam – the frayed bedspread that cloaks the dais on stage, printed with sturdy stripes of primary colours and worn thin by the squirming bottoms of thousands of musicians and their accompanists through the years? What? You haven’t been to a Carnatic concert ever? Then let me put it this way. Can you conceive, in your wildest fantasies, an open-air rock show without the waving cigarette lighters and the sweet smell of pot? I thought not. That’s what the jamakkaalam is to the Carnatic stage. It’s tradition – almost as much as the microphones that, on whim, pipe up with wincingly discordant frequencies, or the audiences who begin to wend their way out of the auditorium at the onset of the percussionist’s solo. You’d sooner find, during the Season, the afternoon concert of a rank-new artist filled to capacity than a stage without a jamakkaalam.

Jayendra Panchapakesan, however, appears determined to shake things up. From the promise of the preview of Margazhi Raagam – the “concert in cinema” that he conceived and directed – there isn’t, through its 110 minutes, a jamakkaalam in sight. There are, instead, gauzy curtains that drop from the ceiling as if emerging from a surrealist dream, dizzying shards of sculpted fabric that make it appear Bombay Jayashri is performing at a museum of modern art. (The art direction is by Rajeevan, the cinematography by PC Sreeram.) When TM Krishna, the concert’s other performer, takes stage, it’s against the backdrop of a series of panels bathed in blue. And when the two perform together, it’s evident that the detailing didn’t stop with just the sets – they’re in white and white, or turquoise and turquoise, united as much in art as attitude. “For over four years,” says Jayendra, “I have been living with the idea of giving Carnatic music an evocative new appeal in terms of presentation – both visually, and in terms of song quality. Finally, the technology became available to give this dream the right shape.”

He’s referring to the RED 4K digital camera. “This is probably the first shoot in the world that involved seven RED cameras (to capture the concert from different angles in real time),” says Jayendra, whose reasons are simply, “I like music. I like cinema.” A less romantic, more practical purpose emerges as he points out that there is a need for alternate content all over the world – content which is not a movie, but which can still bring in audiences. “It can be about sports or music or anything else. But exhibitors need something in case a movie doesn’t do as well as expected, and cannot be continued as scheduled.” To this end, Jayendra admits it would have been easy to exoticise Margazhi Raagam, to make it play as smoothly in Chicago as Chennai, by staging one song by the beach, or another by a Thanjavur temple. “But that is not a concert. A concert is the feeling of an artist performing on stage and an audience sitting down and listening. I’ve catered exactly to the same need.” The only difference, here, is that the artists will be on screen, the audiences sitting down and listening in their air-conditioned theatre seats.

“Though the concert is staged,” says Jayendra, “it also has to be live – in the sense that Carnatic music cannot be broken into bits, and retakes can’t happen. To that extent, each song is live.” And to obtain the best possible live version, Jayendra’s team micromanaged not just the acoustics of the auditorium but also the position of the artists. “But what about the audience?” I ask. After all, a crucial element of rock-concert films – which have been about the only kind of concert films so far – is the energy from beyond the stage. The best of those films are a spectacular give-and-take between artist and audience. Jayendra defends his decision to exclude the audience by pointing out, “In Carnatic music, it’s between the music and the artist. The audience isn’t exactly jumping around. Here, it’s about the nuances of the artist’s expression.” I’m not sure I’m convinced about that, and I find it easier to buy the notion that had there been an audience during the recording, Margazhi Raagam would have turned out to be little more than a DVD presentation of a concert on stage.

We aren’t exactly adherents of the pin-drop silence school, and it would have been a chore to come out with the kind of quality of audio that would lend itself to “digital, uncompressed, six-track surround sound” in the theatres, which, according to Jayendra, will ensure that we hear not only the notes but the silence between the notes. “Somewhere along the line, I think the sound and the visuals are uniting to create a new experience. In a live concert, it’s like watching a movie made of a single shot. You can turn away and come back and you’d still be looking at the same thing. Here, you can’t take your eyes off the screen. I’m going to keep you very, very busy visually.” And that accounts for the split-screens and the close-ups and the changes in angles, which, in a regular concert, could be obtained only if you kept scurrying between seats during a concert, right to left, left to right, back to front, front to back. This modern style, layered over traditional substance, Jayendra hopes, will usher in new audiences to Carnatic music – especially with the digital print of Margazhi Raagam expected to do the rounds of movie halls all over India, perhaps all over the world.

As the promotional booklet puts it, in crunchy ad-copy, “For the first time, the classical music of South India will go to movie lovers around the world.” (The film is due for release in December, beginning with screenings at Sathyam Cinemas in Chennai.) And for old audiences – for those of us who’ve fought off chatty neighbours and postprandial stupor and awful amplification and power outages and still stuck through the concerts – there’s always the music. At some point during the preview, I heard Krishna outline something unusual in Behag, something beautiful but something I’d never heard before. Later, I learnt that it was a javali, Saramaina matalentho. The unearthing of new songs, sometimes by new composers, the presentation of new ragas, the incorporation of a new style (or new tempo) of singing – that, so far, has been the kind of newness that has endlessly revitalised this traditional art form. And now, as in Margazhi Raagam, new hi-resolution sights are being worked into the mix, along with new digital sounds, all presented in a new medium. It’s a new world out there, and maybe it’s time the Carnatic music experience was accompanied by popcorn and soda.

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