Wednesday, 16 January 2013

Sangita Kala Rasika

By Bala Shankar

They come in all forms, shapes and characters. They are the backbone to this unique cultural extravaganza. They are the main sponsors, morally speaking. The thousands of rasikas of the December festival in Chennai have never been titled for their unstinting support. To me they offer a fascinating kaleidoscope for a lighthearted chat.

Let us begin with the haves and the have-nots. The festival draws people from all economic layers. You have the have-nots who are the main sponsors of auto-terrorism. The auto rickshaw industry finds its best preys in this part of the year. Traffic after 8 PM flows in all directions. As the wallets wane in thickness, these have-not rasikas are not deterred from their appointment with music.

The haves, on the other hand, are more conspicuous – not just in the latest BMWs that they arrive in, but in every other way. They probably even plan their arrivals (to be noticed in their new Nalli or Kumaran saree or some striking jewellery), they carry a sense of ‘ownership right’ at the Sabhas, and do not flinch at any opportunity to be seen or heard (talking, that is!). For many, this is the equivalent of the Cannes film festival.  Many of them hold ancestral rights to their seats and have to thank their forefathers for the good old partnership between musicians and rich patrons. Knowledge of music has never been an important criterion for their presence in concerts. The annual social calling is something they are not going to miss.

As with most things in life, there is an 80:20 rule here. Curiously, the 20 % are the more knowledgeable! The rest are either beginners or to put it a little cruelly, ‘lay persons’. The fortunate former group consists of part-time musicians, students, ‘mamis’ with good ‘gnanam’ (some of whom, but for unfair in-laws, would have made it big), chroniclers who attend a blizzard of concerts, very often of their favourite musicians, and can rattle off a lot of trivia – the RTP of a particular concert, or the names of the accompanists for a Mylapore Fine Arts concert nine or ten years ago, for example. There are also the high ‘intensity’ ones, who would rather prefer to hear an XYZpriya or a PQRgowlai to a Kambhoji or Todi in the RTP – their mission is to gauge the technical skills of musicians! Some of them are also ‘invisible’ judges  – the rasika world often consults them. Talam strikers form another group, me included sometimes, even if we are daunted by complex ‘nadais’ in the Pallavi.

Then there are people whom I call the co-singers, who can’t resist the temptation to start their vocal support from the audience chambers as the performers pick-up a Nagumomu or Chakkani raja. Narada Gana Sabha’s fine print at the back of tickets warning them to desist from this does not catch their attention.

The 80 % crowd, the know-nots, obviously come in wider varieties. Many of them seem to have a strong leash originating at the canteen and carry profound knowledge of the relative canteen merits and specials. What’s amazing is the number of different activities these people can do while they are still part of the audience – reading The Hindu, clearing sleep backlog, conversations on subjects outside music, engaging in raga quizzes (they may know only the questions), sms-ing! Some clearly do not want to hide their duress.  

All musicians I am sure still love this 80 % lot, as without them, there is no ‘grandeur’ to the concerts – the more the merrier. For their part, the musicians also pack some friendly ‘diet’ in their song list – Banturiti, Krishna nee begane baro etc., and the ever growing tukkada course, not to alienate this crowd.

It is rare to find kids – there are only two kinds – tiny tots below five, who have none to keep them company, and the young teenage students – who are prodded every few minutes to identify ragams, and to ‘put’ talam, amidst their more germane interest in finishing the Harry Potter 3 or 4 or 5 book or the angry bird game.

There are also couples and singles – some of the singles are ageless ladies and the couples seem determined to stay together through joy and grief (you never know which way the concert will go!). I am at a loss as to how to classify the ‘movers and shakers’ – some seem to do the more natural ‘appreciative’ nod, but some others have a ‘rap-like’ urge to gyrate. 

‘Part-time audience’ is a funny term by itself – not if you consider the strayers into Srinivasa Sastry Hall from other errands around the busy Luz area! Or those drawn in to halls for the air-conditioning comfort.

There are also players outside the ring – these are pick-up relatives – including macho young men, possibly on a winter break from US colleges, slyly seeking valuable introductions and the NRI listener whose canteen chatter is sprinkled with California, New Jersey and lately, Singapore topics. 

Wimbledon champions laud the crowd in their acceptance speech. The rasika community of Chennai is, however, largely unsung (!). Their passivity is not sufficient reason to neglect them. Even if they are considered not worthy of a title, they do deserve being written about.

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