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Throat trouble

For the public, Margazhi means music. But for vocalists, it is a period of voice fatigue and frequent visits to the ENT, says RAMYA KANNAN


WELL, IT'S nearly over now, so we can talk about it. Or rather, THEY are now willing to talk about it. As we turn the page on yet another Chennai music season, the Carnatic vocalists are finally resting their vocal cords and are willing to speak about how difficult or easy it was to keep the vocal cords vibrating this Margazhi season.

Ever woken up in the morning and felt like someone was rubbing broken glass against the insides of your throat? When the slightest attempt to clear the throat has produced the hoarsest of sounds? When you gave up on the voice and decided to use your hands instead to communicate? Well, it happens to all of us, even the best of voices. But, it makes a difference when your voice is your calling card, literally.

Strange enough, Margazhi is the only month of the year when Chennai is on its best behaviour weather-wise — pleasant, with chilly mornings and nights, with just a hint of mist, and mildly warm days. Perhaps, that's why it makes great `tourist sense' to have a music festival at this time of the year. Perhaps, that's why we continue to play host to the music season, despite the fact that it is certainly not the best time of the year as far as voices are concerned.

"Every season, a number of senior and junior musicians come to the clinic with hoarse voices, sore throats and a concert in the evening," says Dr. Mohan Kameswaran, Madras ENT Research Foundation. "The fundamental problem in Carnatic music is that traditionally there is no concept of voice culture. Speaking is actually a muscular activity, so voice culture helps a singer prevent abuse and strengthen the muscles."

This year, a top singer visited Dr. Kameswaran's clinic with a bad throat. "He said to me, `I am the king of Carnatic music and I have to sing tonight'. I told him that as an ENT surgeon, the best advice I could give him would be to rest his voice," the ENT surgeon says.

The Madras ENT Research Foundation, which looks down the throats of at least 30 top professional singers during the `music' month apart from the countless number of junior singers who come for consultation, has started a voice laboratory that can aid in the early detection of vocal cord disorders and facilitate mobility. Basically, it takes care of the voice, preserves and strengthens it.

Dr. K. K. Ramalingam, ENT specialist, says he examines an average of 10 singers every season, who come with all kinds of ENT complaints. "Notably, it is voice fatigue because of the excessive use of the vocal cords. Perhaps it is unavoidable for vocalists. But they must not neglect small complaints. Early treatment for these disorders will prove effective."

Carnatic musicians too admit that a cold fear grips them with the onset of symptoms of a cold or bad throat. Sanjay Subramaniam, who had 18 concerts this season, says, "I did not manage as well as I would have liked to. I think it is more the stress of having to perform consistently at concerts. All of us practise for at least a couple of hours everyday, but singing at concerts is different."

And it's not just the weather that's the culprit. The sound systems in most of the sabhas leave much to be desired.

Says vocalist N. Sashikiran: "The acoustics vary from hall to hall, and often when we have back-to-back concerts, we have no time to test the sound systems. Also, there is no consistency in the acoustics of the sabhas. This adds to the strain on the voice."

This season, Sashikiran says he suffered from a persistent throat pain in the mornings, which, he discovered, was caused by the water. "Mercifully, the pain did not lead to a sore throat and my voice was fine. But this is a problem that many musicians complained of this year."

Still, by the month-end, most artistes have sung their rounds and have had a rather successful season. Despite the weather, pollution and bad acoustics, Margazhi is the toast of Chennai and its musicians.

As Nityashree Mahadevan puts it, "More than anything else, I believe it is divine grace. The same grace that gave me the voice helps me keep it!"

Some tips

HOW DO some of our musicians take care of their voices? Read on to find out...

N. Sashikiran: I avoid drinking cold beverages, do breathing exercises and eat carefully, avoiding hot, spicy food. Mercifully, for me, the more I sing, the better my voice gets. I also work along with a professional voice trainer.

Sanjay Subramaniam: The toughest part is meeting people and talking to them. Though it is difficult to completely avoid this, I try and avoid phone calls whenever I have concerts. Otherwise, there are the usual grandmother's remedies such as kashayam, salt water gargling and milk with pepper powder.

Nityashree Mahadevan: Drinking something warm helps a lot. Warm tea decoction with a dash of honey works wonders for me. I avoid talking too much and sleeping directly under the fan. Though I love ice cream, it's a strict no-no.

Ranjani and Gayathri: There is no magic potion. We just believe in committing ourselves to fewer kutcheris and giving the voice a chance to recover between concerts. We also avoid talking too much. Sipping warm water regularly, gargling and having herbal throat fresheners seem to work for us.

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