By V Ramnarayan
“Bundle up all our vocalists and fling them into the Bay of Bengal!” ranted a hardcore rasika, after listening to a Hindustani music concert of a senior exponent of the Kirana gharana a few months ago. That was his way of acknowledging what he saw as the vocal superiority of the practitioners of north Indian classical music over their southern counterparts. Though opposed to such extreme measures of punishment, not to mention my aversion for any attempts to endanger the marine ecosystem, I understand where the harsh critic’s frustrations stem from—the apparently increasing neglect of the voice that is fast becoming endemic to Carnatic music. (I say ‘apparently’ because I cannot prove that any musician is deliberately neglecting his voice).
Two inter-related maladies seem to be the root cause of such violent emotions in sections of our listening public: Performance Obsession Syndrome (POS) and Tired Voice Syndrome (TVS). (Again, I say ‘sections’ because the vast majority does not seem to think there is anything wrong with the way our vocalists vocalise).
Let me explain. The December Season is upon us again, and we are all suitably excited by the prospect of yet another winter festival of music and the ancillary delights that make it so special. Unfortunately, the December Season is no longer the December Season. At least three music festivals have come and gone, starting as early as mid-October or thereabouts. Thanks to a virulent form of POS, inflicted upon eager or reluctant artists by the overzealous organizers of these festivals who claim to be guardians of our culture, heritage or some such equally precious asset in dire straits—aided and abetted by the treacherous weather that can go straight for the jugular—TVS has descended on the scene a full month ahead of its scheduled arrival, not very different from the monsoon’s confusing signals that have recently been befuddling the Met department. I have already attended six concerts in which the vocalists have consumed record quantities of hot water from strategically placed thermos flasks, all to no avail. The performers have invariably croaked and coughed so badly through the concerts that even the accompanying violins seem to go off key in sympathy.
Though some of my suspicious friends like to play guessing games as to the contents of the flasks, I don’t subscribe to the view that they can contain performance-enhancing potions of any description. At least I am yet to see evidence of any performance enhancement. I dread to imagine the scenario in the third week of December, by which time many vocalists will have completed at least half a dozen cutcheris.
The situation is alarming, even as record crowds reportedly throng the sabha counters for season tickets, amidst reckless promises of bigger, better, more varied entertainment on offer to a public ostensibly demanding novelty and drama in place of staid old fare. Carnatic music today is not in the first place famous for great voices—here I am in danger of being lynched, I know—and this year in particular we seem to be heading for serious grief from the vocally challenged. The next few weeks will prove me right or wrong.