By MV Swaroop
Last evening, I accidentally found myself in a TM Krishna concert at the Music Academy. When I walked in, Krishna was wrapping up a languorous Kalyani alapana. But the fact that it was Kalyani, and that it was an alapana, that he was wrapping it up, and well, even that I was in a Carnatic music concert did not register immediately. The backdrop looked like outer space as imagined by a Tamil devotional serial set director on hallucinogens. The light thrown on the backdrop changed colour ever-so-subtly every now and then, as though there were occasional solar flares. Some of our solar system’s planets were pasted on the backdrop, and some were suspended from the ceiling.
Krishna sat at the centre of it all, beaming. I don’t know if he was meant to be the sun around whom these papier-mache planets revolved. I must, at this stage, reveal that there is a strong rumour that, just as it does on the surface of the sun, thermonuclear fusion occurs on some of Krishna’s flashier tops (they’re sometimes shirts, sometimes kurtas, sometimes short kurtas, and often suffer from an identity crisis) which explains their shimmering brilliance. I’m told that he sometimes drapes a contrasting shawl around himself to create a solar eclipse effect. His solitary earring is a nearby planet that becomes visible only during such an eclipse. However, yesterday, he was dressed in a staid beige shirt and veshti, perhaps in a move to underplay the solar metaphor. He also avoided another cliche -- he did not sing any of the navagraha kritis.
Krishna was flanked not only by his accompanists, two students on tamburas and two other students who were observers of some sort, he was also buried in an avalanche of advertising hoardings. Behind him, “Radiance Realty” radiated, with some other businesses proudly announcing their existence. There were two large screens on either side of the stage which had friendly messages for the audience goading them to buy a new cell phone connection, create an account on a website that gets 200000 hits a day, buy an apartment in some obscure locality that is still magically close to every conceivable amenity that a decent urban lifestyle would require.
Each seat was provided with a bagful of advertising pamphlets and a bottle of Bisleri water. I wonder if Bisleri was also a sponsor. The lobby looked like a trade fair, the outer walls of the Academy were decked up like a Pondy Bazaar shop. The volunteers had all sorts of logos on their shirts. It seemed incongruous that Krishna was still singing a chaste Srinathadi Guruguho seated amidst all this promotional carpet-bombing.
But then I thought, Virat Kohli can bat -- and we can watch him bat -- when every inch of the stadium and one-third of our television set are covered with advertising. So, surely Krishna can sing, and we can focus on what he has to offer. The difference, one would argue, like Ed Smith so eloquently did on ESPNcricinfo recently, is that sport is not art. And that art is harder to enjoy amidst commercialisation.
But then rock concerts usually have a sponsorship overdose, and the backdrops are hogged by all sorts of sponsors. No one complains of advertising coming in the way of enjoyment of art there, do they? Is the difference, then, because of the solemnity associated with a classical art? Would consumers of western classical music or ballet be equally miffed by something like this?
The concert was good, but nowhere near any of the artistes’ best. Krishna himself was uninspired, and Shriramkumar seemed to be going through the motions. The Mayamalavagowla yawned along, a Yadukulakambhoji lacked smoothness and bite. Krishna sang his usual long, winding niraval in Bhairavi that generated generous applause, but it was still a way off the kind of musical insight he has shown in the past. Shriramkumar’s composition in Bhairavi was the high point, really, for the lyrics and the music did convey delightfully wide-eyed wonderment at the natural universe around him. Pity it was rendered in the most artificial setting.
The percussion support from KV Prasad, BS Purushottam and N Guruprasad—all top-class performers—was merely steady. Their tani avartanam was in fact unusually cluttered; they are all known for the cleanest strokes.
Did the setting have a role to play in the concert turning out like this? Or was it just an off-day?
Some of the best Carnatic music concerts I’ve heard have been, funnily enough, at run down venues. Distractions at these venues are not from advertising, but from amplification systems being possessed by sundry spirits, fans groaning from the boredom caused by their monotony, sabha secretaries whose speeches rival the main raga in their vastness, and audiences who remind you time and again that their souls are stuck in concerts they heard decades ago. In fact, one of the best TM Krishna concerts I have ever heard was at Odakathoor Mutt in Bangalore. There, on the best of days, the sound system is only passable, armies of mosquitoes make regular visits for bloody feasts and the audience mill around as if they are at a wedding. Many students of N. Ramani will agree that his best concerts in recent times have been at the Astika Samajam in Thiruvanmiyur, in a hall whose ambience is unsuitable for almost any kind of cultural activity.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not suggesting that we should ensure that venues remain dilapidated. I’m only saying that we are so used to all these things that they don’t come in the way of our musical enjoyment anymore. Who knows, one day we may even learn to ignore ambient solar systems and flashy advertisements!