A Carnatic-music concert can be enjoyed even if you think Kapi is a darkly aromatic bean. Honest!
Here’s something you will not find in a concert of western classical music that has just begun to play Mozart’s Symphony No. 40: a member of the audience, face flushed with the smugness of discovery, whispering to his neighbour, “G minor.” Some compositions, like Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D minor, bear names that flaunt their scales. Others don’t. And there are many whose names dispense with pomp and circumstance altogether, unconcerned about revealing anything, even what the compositional style is, fugue or étude, sonata or nocturne. But the audience tunes into the music without fretting about the mechanics. You will not find listeners with guides tucked into the pockets of their tuxedos, only to be whipped out upon the commencement of a piece – turning to M, passing Mahler and Mendelssohn and stopping at Mozart, running an index finger down the list of symphonies until No. 40 is reached, and dragging the finger across to land on “G minor.”
But seat yourself at a Carnatic-music concert and you will find that, for the first few minutes of each new piece, this exercise consumes a certain section of the audience. This rasika, during the alapana, transforms into an intelligence officer gleaning meaning out of garbled transmissions. The music, at this point, isn’t a portal to pleasure but an exam question awaiting an answer. Is this Shree or Madhyamavathi or Brindavana Saranga? Twenty points. Vexed foreheads are uncreased only when the pallavi begins, whose opening words lead those with raga-identification books to rifle through relevant pages. Those without guides may corkscrew their necks in the direction of the omniscient mama behind – him of the fierce, sandpaper-voiced whisper – who is enlightening his mildly baffled wife. This acquired knowledge will then be passed on from row to row, a heaving body in a silent mosh pit, till everyone in the auditorium knows the name of the raga emanating from the stage.
These listeners have, in these furtive endeavors, missed crucial minutes of the piece, but they are not to be blamed. They are afflicted, the poor souls, with what might be called the TOUR syndrome: the Tyranny of the Unidentified Raga. It’s a compulsive condition, one that convinces the rasika that the composition they are listening to cannot be enjoyed unless they know the name of its raga. They may not care whether the canteen dosa came off a multi-serve griddle or a solitary skillet, and whether the batter was bought off a shelf or fermented from scratch, but Seshachala nayakam, they maintain, cannot be satisfactorily digested unless they label it a Varali. Only after arriving upon this information, whose importance assumes the proportions of a sphinxian riddle to be cracked open in order to be let through, can they begin to focus on the singer’s (or the instrumentalist’s) expressiveness and phrasing, the warmth and colour of tone and timbre, the aspects of a concert that would normally attract listeners.
The virus causing the TOUR syndrome is surely the lay listener’s desire to latch on to a ball of twine before entering a labyrinth. When a western-music critic reviews a concert, he speaks of it in reasonably approachable terms. Consider this recent review, in the New York Times, of a performance by the tenor saxophonist Tony Malaby and his band. “[Malaby] has a burly but beseeching tone, and in his own bands he often pushes toward an amiable ruckus… Ms. Davis left her piano bench to conduct the ensemble, usually during a slow-dawning, expectant ballad. Her voicings tended to suggest a troubled serenity, with chords full of close intervals…” The aesthetic qualities of this jazz concert –“burly but beseeching,” “slow-dawning,” “troubled serenity”— are instantly apparent even to someone who thinks a blue note is a slightly despondent denomination of currency. The music is described, first and foremost, at an empathetic level, and only then are we given technical details (“chords full of close intervals”).
But our reviews emphasise technical aspects to such an extent that a casual listener – someone who likes music and listens to pleasant-sounding western-classical music, pieces like Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons, and looks at Carnatic-music reviews hoping to find something he can relate to – is left feeling like a first-standard student set adrift at a Mensa convocation. The reviews themselves aren’t misguided. But just as the appreciation of cinema finds space for the views of both the academic-minded theoretician, published in journals, and those of the reviewer seeking to converse with a general public through newspapers and magazines, music reviews too could accommodate critics who strive to highlight the emotional aspects of a performance. Because our Carnatic-music reviews are so riddled with insider jargon, a certain kind of listener assumes that this music cannot be enjoyed without technical knowledge – and the easiest insider information to acquire is the name of the raga. Knowing the raga, they feel they’re at least somewhat in control over this concert experience, that they belong in this hall to at least some extent.
Technical knowledge is important – to the critic evaluating a performance; to the mature listener looking to sink deep into the music – but it is not the primary aspect of a Carnatic-music concert. Like the language the composition is set in – Telugu or Kannada or Sanskrit – these details about raga and tala, korvai and karvai are essentially building blocks, with which the composition is constructed by composer and singer. The purpose of the composition, however, is to transcend these blueprints – these foundational plans with diagrams of pipes and wiring and air-conditioning vents – and transport the listener to a realm of emotion similar to the feeling that arises upon sighting a majestic painting, unaware of its roots in oils or watercolours, or savouring the creation of a chef before whose art the only possible response is to close the eyes. You don’t need to acquaint yourself with the contents of the spice rack, just the capacity to surrender to the moment.
An edited version of this piece can be found here.
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