Between Reviews: The Shorthand of Emotions

Posted on September 13, 2009


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The first installment of “Samvada” featured a venerable old-timer’s ambles down lanes of musical memory.

SEP 13, 2009 – THE FRUSTRATING AS WELL AS THE FIRST-RATE ASPECTS of Chennai were on display during the first installment of Samvada (“Conversation”), where RK Srikantan was interviewed by ‘Chitravina’ N Ravikiran. One the one hand, we appear to be a city that’s stubbornly resistant to change in some regards. We will insist on an endlessly formal set of preliminaries before the main event, with invocations and welcome addresses and chief-guest speeches and the awarding of mementos before the vote of thanks. You could walk in a cool half-hour after the stated time on the invitation and not miss a minute of the event that you actually walked in for. And yet, looking around the mini-hall of the Music Academy that was three-quarters full, it was hard not to feel a quiet surge of pride. Where else would you find such devotion to the classical arts that people would plan a Friday evening around listening to an old-timer’s irresistible ambles down lanes of musical memory?

For all his accomplishments, RK Srikantan, that evening, came across less a formidable vidwan, more a stern grandfatherly presence – obstinate about what constitutes tradition, mocking of modern-day indulgences, and yet impossible to ignore. Even as you shook your head at his unyielding stance on what music is and how it should be presented to a public, you came away awestruck by the profoundness of his convictions and his commitment to his art. You may not believe in certain things, but when someone expresses their beliefs with such single-minded passion, any scepticism is instantly sloughed off – and it was with a fervently nodding head that the audience opened up to Srikantan’s wealth of wisdom. How, for instance, could you not agree when he made light of teachers, today, who record lessons and ask students to adhere to them by way of “musical instruction”?

And how could you not laugh when he insisted that the singer should not look up or down – or to the sides, for that matter – but instead at the audience, a rule so apparently elementary and yet so often violated? Srikantan comes from a generation whose capitulation to the greater cause of music is impossible to imagine today – an age of singing four- or five-hour concerts in large auditoriums without amplifying technology, an age when students would practice the same raga for months (just heeding the basics as laid out by the guru, without venturing forth on the wings of their own imagination), an age where going to a sabha meant listening to a Musiri launching into a Kanakashaila or a Semmangudi elaborating a Thodi, an age where a Patnam Subramanya Iyer would rest for at least a week between concerts (something that, if followed today, would result in loss of revenue, publicity, possibly even the career of one’s dreams).

Between Ravikiran’s patient prodding, the audience was allowed to submit questions – some incredulous (like the one that wondered about the importance of a guru, which prompted Srikantan to launch, unsurprisingly, into Guruleka yetuvanti), and some that gave the vidwan pause to reflect on philosophies close to his heart. There was, for instance, the listener who requested him to elaborate on the difference between a concert that was constructed on the edifice of populism, to reach out to the general masses, and one whose purpose was the demonstration of the musician’s vidwat, which would inevitably find its reach curtailed to a subset of the audience that was either venturesome or versed (or, in all likelihood, both). Srikantan addressed this issue at various points, insisting that the sole purpose of any concert (which he defined, incontrovertibly, as “teamwork with a vision”) was to deliver to the audience trupti, anandam, sowkhyam, peace of mind.

That, he stressed, was what a concert was about – not just meaningless “entertainment,” but with a greater purpose reflective of music’s stature as “the shorthand of emotions.” At one juncture, Ravikiran asked Srikantan about the “intellectual” aspect of music, but Srikantan firmly refused to endorse any sort of mental masturbation. Very simply, he explained that the concert ideal of pleasuring oneself as well as pleasing an audience would not be possible if it weren’t for the performer’s intelligence. He, therefore, dismissed several modern-day trends as the byproduct of the performer’s ego, whether it was the elaborations of rare ragas (poor Bindumalini bore the brunt of the abuse) or the incorporation of Hindustani-style components. “Will a Hindustani musician attempt a Thodi or a javali,” he thundered. “When our tradition is resplendent with the ashtapadi and the shlokam and the viruttam, why should we look towards the Meera bhajan?”

But Srikantan’s objections weren’t parochial – his contention was that we would end up imparting a Carnatic touch to these compositions. Even his insistence that ragas like Bindumalini should not be lengthened beyond a limit wasn’t simply because the “accepted practice” was to veer towards the weightier ragas like Shankarabharanam and Thodi and Khamboji – it was because only ragas with “eka shruti antaram” between the swaras are malleable enough to survive wear and tear over a period. Srikantan pointed to the banner that hung above, bearing the legend Sampradaya, the 30-year-old archival and documentation organisation that made the evening possible. “We should foster tradition,” he said, as he proceeded to gently haul up TM Krishna, the president of Sampradaya, for the latter’s apparent transgressions against tradition when he notoriously presented the varnam as the main piece of a concert. “I’ll argue with you later,” Krishna replied spiritedly from the audience, leaving the rest of us contemplating the prospect of being a fly on the wall of that particular samvada.

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Posted in: Music: Classical