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All set for the season

How do artistes gear up for the rigours of the music festival?

PHOTO: V. GANESAN

MUSICAL BONHOMIE (from left)Melakkaveri Balaji, Akkarai Subhalakshmi, Savita Narasimhan, Gayathri Venkatraghavan, Gayathri Girish, Sangeetha Sivakumar, Sikkil Gurucharan

In Chennai today, `the season' is a word charged with the expectations, enthusiasm and excitement of the December music festival. The anticipation is as high-pitched for the music makers as for the listeners. Never in such demand as now with sabhas springing up in every nook and cranny, vidwans both fledgling and famous have 10 to 25 concerts through the month. How do they gear up for the rigours?

A gleeful group — Sangeetha Sivakumar, Gayathri Venkatraghavan, Gayathri Girish, Sikkil Gurucharan, violinist Akkarai Subhalakshmi and mridangist Melakkaveri Balaji — meets at vocalist Savita Narasimhan's home to discuss game plans over coffee and karasev.

Innovativeness

"We start in October," Gurucharan begins. Gayathri Girish cuts in, "Actually it's year round preparation. I don't repeat my songs. I sing a rare raga or a rare kriti, try to do justice to ragam-tanam-pallavi." She stresses innovativeness "within tradition".

Savita is on a different trail, with a padam, javali, a major Dikshitar, Syama Sastri and Oothukadu sahitya in every concert. "Let's see how it turns out," she laughs. "It isn't enough to give what the audience wants. It's our responsibility to build tastes. Otherwise how can we share the vintage wealth of our great music. We can't settle for less, must do our best for everyone, everywhere," says Sangeetha.

The season demands wider repertoire.

Explains Gayathri Venkatraghavan. "I make song lists, recall beautiful out-of-vogue songs. It's always better to sing what's learnt directly from the guru; that has more jivan than what's learnt from notations."

What about singing with notebooks upfront? An uncomfortable silence precedes the admission that it aborts bhava, but what to do?

Time constraints force them into this regrettable practice. With back-to-back concerts there can be memory lapses even in familiar kritis.

December offers morning concerts with possibilities for a different kind of programming.

Ragas such as Chakravakam, Kedaram and Mayamalavagowlai are perfect for a slower unfolding. True, voices are slower in opening up, but listeners' minds are fresh and unhurried.

A collective sigh precedes the admission that finally, the audience is the deciding factor. That is why artistes can give their best at the Music Academy or at the Raga Sudha Hall.

"Not always," chuckles Sangeetha. "I begin a heavy padam at the Academy and hello, it's time for the audience to go to the canteen to replenish themselves for the next concert."

Experience helps Gayathri Girish to feel the pulse of the audience and change their carefully laid plans on the spot. "Sometimes my mood dictates the change. I may feel like Khambhoji instead of Kalyani," says Gayathri Venkatraghavan.

Gurucharan discloses amidst bonhomous laughter that once after singing a vivadi raga he was mentally unable to get into Simhendramadhyamam as planned. "Wisely I sang Todi! he says.

Everyone in the room has faced such dilemmas. "Avoid allied ragas," warns Gayathri Girish.

The quiet Shubhalakshmi enters the discussion. Once when Ravikiran sir played Manji I became very nervous, as I had never heard the raga before! Sometimes the tala can be confusing. We have to manage. Actually I find it fun. Concentration is a must."

The bane of the season is the Great Audience Shift — people are in perpetual motion, going from from one concert to another. "They do get to hear a whole cutcheri — varnam in one sabha, main raga in another, RTP in a third and tailpiece in a fourth," quips Balaji, adding, "We too work so hard, the casual exits during the tani are heartbreaking."

Do strategies include consultations with accompanists? "Yes. All of us must be comfortable to do our best," smiles Gurucharan. "Tani for main piece or pallavi? I leave the choice to percussionists," says Gayathri Girish.

Sabha concerts are hardly lucrative. And why perform at venues where payments are abysmal or non-existent? Where accompanists suffer the most? The questions spark a babel. We make out a single grouse. "Everyone says music is divine and we must not talk about money, but for us it is also a means of livelihood."

Yet, everyone agrees wholeheartedly that no artiste thinks of money during the season.

It is an exhilarating experience to participate in so unique a celebration of Carnatic music. What a talent showcase! Variety of venues! Spectrum of audiences! True, quality and remuneration will improve if three or four sabhas collaborated in festivals. But sabhas, like artistes, like to maintain their individuality. What about stylistic variety among you? The answers are confident. "Yes. We're working for it. We'll get it."

Savita believes that mental singing must go on throughout the day. "Keep the manodharma switched on!"

Great classroom

For Subhalakshmi, the season is a great classroom. "I don't learn much in solo, but as an accompanist what a range to absorb and assimilate!"

The mridangist's plight is a sad one. The maintenance process is complex, competition close, survival tough, costs are high. Yet the adrenalin surges in good concerts where the mridangam's meettu chaapu highlights voice and string, and the recital suddenly takes off to higher grounds.

Balaji's response says it all. Doesn't the Madras Music Season mesmerise all of us into overlooking shaky starts, booming mikes, rickety chairs, neighbours' chats drowning the music, and long speeches scattered through the concerts?

Gowri Ramnarayan

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