Saturday, 3 December 2011

From the peanut gallery

By Raja Ramanathan

It is about 7.30 in the morning here, in Oakville, a little west of Toronto.  The weather channel is saying that the first December flurries of snow are coming down in Barrie, about seventy five kilometres to the North.  It won’t be long before they start covering the ground with a thin layer of white, in my own driveway.  As one opens the online edition of the Hindu, and sees the Friday Review pages, the mind gets transported to a different climate and a different world of activity.

In a few days, the Music Season will start in Chennai, aka Madras.  In the days I grew up in what was then Madras, the Theosophical Society’s convention and the Music Season were the grand events of December, before the year faded away.  Of course, the music season in those days did not seem to be for likes of us Kolaveri types.  It was more serious, and, since the nuances between ragas totally escaped me then and now, I restricted my music listening to Binaca Geetmala and Vividh Bharati.  Also, I suspect that in those days, the canteens attached to the Sabhas were not providing such delicious fare as now and since the Besant School-run canteen at the Convention provided vadas and dosais, I stayed within range of that place.

My introduction to the music season (hereinafter referred to as ‘the season’) happened in more recent years.   I suspect it has become consumer oriented now, a trend that I am sure the vidwans of days gone by would not appreciate.  The vidwans perhaps sang by divine inspiration.  Now that we are well into Kaliyugam, the musician of today has to go by more by consumer inspiration.  Nevertheless for the low brows, like moi, it works.

Going to a concert during the season is a bit like going to the opera in the West.  For those who can understand the difference between a soprano and a tenor it has one set of interests; for those who like to flaunt their tux and ties, it has another set of interests.  I fall somewhere in between, nearer the tux and tie than the other.

While in Chennai, I generally stay with my niece in Besant Nagar.  It is an occasion when I can get to wear a silk veshti and jibba and go out without someone asking me if I am headed to a fancy dress party.  I rummage through my late brother’s collection of silk veshtis and generally end up buying a kurta for the occasion.  Having suitably attired myself (with belt in place to ensure that veshti and wearer do not part company) and getting my niece’s approval that I look like her late father, I set off, generally with my niece, driving.  I haven’t yet summoned up the courage to drive in Chennai, after not having driven in that city for more than twenty five years.  Most of the season concerts I have listened to have been at the Music Academy, though I do recall a beautiful concert by Sowmya who sang at Vani Mahal.

Waiting for my niece to find parking before entering the hallowed chamber of the Music Academy one evening I was standing near the entrance.  Looking up I was surprised to see the Wall of Heroes, the recipients of Sangeeta Kalanidhi awards maintained in such a low key manner, just near the ticket booth.  I have seen how these Walls of Heroes are maintained in the West, and, all that I could tell myself in justification was that it was characteristic Indian modesty…  Standing there, waiting for my niece, I was reading off the names, and, in some cases poorly maintained photos of the all time greats of Carnatic music. The name Harikesanallur Muthiah Bhagavathar comes to me as I write this for some reason…was he the first Sangeeta Kalanidhi ?

Listening to a concert in the Music Academy hall is an experience very different from listening  anywhere else.  While there are bigger halls in the world, with perhaps better acoustics, I am sure that for Carnatic music, no other place beats the Music Academy.  It is solemn and at the same time not inhibiting…

I must confess that being a member in good standing of the peanut gallery I somewhat guiltily make my way to the canteen when the musician goes into technical wizardry.   “That’s why folks like you should stay out..’ I can hear the die hard vidwans say…what is that Thamizh expression about donkeys and camphor ?

The canteen is generally a buzz of activity and given my NRI belly syndrome I restrict myself to idli-sambar (no chutney, don’t know whether the water it has been mixed in has been NRI-proofed, sambar is boiled and so safe), and, the lovely Madras kaapi (kaapi safe for the same reason).  Generally one runs into some fellow Canadian and we talk about concerts back in the land of snow and moose.

For two years I happened to be in Chennai on New Year’s Eve and absolutely loved the midnight concert.  One year, I first listened to Kashalkar’s fabulous Hindustani music and then as the midnight neared a lovely group rendering of ‘Kurai ondrum illai…”  What a wonderful way to end the year. The Music Academy’s New Year’s Eve concert is something I will not miss if I am anywhere within range of Chennai.

Sitting here my mind is wistfully thinking of the days when I will retire from a 9 to 5 job and can take off to Chennai for the season like a lot of my friends do…for now, I shall stand up and cheer from 15,000 kilometres away when Toronto’s own Tiruchi Sankaran steps up to receive this year’s Sangeetha Kalanidhi award, as the snow flakes wisp down from the sky in his chosen city, in appreciation of his wonderful work for Indian music.


  1. Raja,
    You are talented and the words flow with ease. Reading it took me back to the nostalgic memories of Chennai

  2. So well put, from the NRI's perspective!! The expression of thoughts is greatly enhanced by your writing style and choice of apt words. Me thinks, you should be writing for amchi 'The Hindu' too. Will have a greater reach.