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The pleasures of talking music ‘shop'

R.K. Narayan

R.K. Narayan on the attributes of successful ‘shop talk', and why it's more fun than listening to the music itself

The Hindu archives

R.K. Narayan —

The average music enthusiast likes not only to listen to music but also to talk about it. Talking musical ‘shop' is an enchanting occupation. The delights that it affords are unlimited. I would go to the extent of saying that it is less limited than music itself. After all a music performance is limited by such factors as the physical endurance of the singer as well as of the hearer. With the best will in the world even the most dogged performance cannot last beyond five hours, and the most preferred admirer cannot be lost in it to the extent of forgetting the timing of his last bus home.

Even the simplest musical effort requires a place, accompaniments and a minimum of audience while musical ‘shop' can be practised without limitation of time and space. All that it needs is a gathering of more than one person. The meeting may be in each other's houses, provided the occasion is not spoilt by the presence of non-musically inclined persons; the bored glances they dart across at well-timed intervals when musical talk is in progress, is known to damp the spirits of the participants. The best place for this engagement is not the confines of a house but the unbounded spaces of a roadside spot, where all that one need take care of is not to stand in the way of traffic since dodging the traffic constantly has been found to be a very irritating experience for music lovers discussing their favourite theme.

Musical ‘shop' requires a very harmonious and sympathetic atmosphere all around if it is to flourish. That is why it is best confined to a small circle of two or three, and in no case more than five, at a time. It is necessary that there must be an approximate identity of outlook and of standards among the participants. If one is an expert knowing minutely how Venkatamakhi arrived at his seventy-two mela classification and the other just a layman who knows no difference between Mayamalava Gowla and Nadhanamakriya and who is likely to mistake Dhenuka for Thodi, then the balance is lost. If one has a notion how a music hall should be kept and is likely to feel distracted by the sight of advertisement boards displaying the merits of spices or snuff and the other a realist who has a profound understanding of the budgets of the music world, if one is a believer in the theory that in the presence of the Goddess of Music all must be equal, and the other contends that the hierarchical system of sealing, starting with the red-plush seats and going down to timber galleries, is desirable and necessary in order to make both ends meet, if one talks the language of a dreamer and the other with the tongue of an association secretary, then there can be no success in the meeting. If one swears by the tune of a song and the other by its meaning, the balance is again lost. If one is a sampradhaya exponent and the other a champion of innovation and experiment, if one is a confirmed musical misanthrope who believes that Carnatic music died a hundred years ago and was buried promptly, and the other an uninformed philistine who can enjoy any pleasing tune, again the balance will be lost. Such attempted combinations will only lead to contrasts and emphasize the differences, and the conference will collapse within ten minutes of its inauguration.

A successful musical talk needs a finely balanced set of circumstances, people, and outlook. A certain amount of give and take is absolutely essential, and a willing surrender of part of one's ego. Of course you may have your deep-seated convictions and beliefs, but a certain resilience in outward expression will be expected of you if the programme is to be gone through successfully.

What is musical ‘shop'? My friend ‘X' is coming towards me on the road. The moment I sight him I know that the day's other engagements can now have only a secondary importance. “Did you attend the performance the other day?” A most superfluous question since each noticed the other, unfailingly as ever, at the accustomed places, but it is a formal start. “Oh, yes, what did you think of the performance?” And now the next few hours will be spent in examining in detail the four-hour performance, then it passes on to a comparative study of a previous performance, and then a recapitulation of the thrills of a duel that ensued many years ago between this singer and a hot-headed violinist, which went on all night and came to an end only, when all the strings of the violin had snapped one after another; and then the talk may pass on to an account of the worth of the master who taught him or of the miracles that were performed by his master's master. Or the talk may all centre round the sabha politics, provided there are no strong feelings in the matter, and provided all share the same dream of being about to start a rival sabha or doing something drastic to improve the existing one.

“Music when soft voices die vibraters in the memory,” said Shelley. Talking musical ‘shop' is only an effort to capture this memory and recapture it.

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