Tuesday, 7 May 2013

From tenga moodi to dollars

By V Ramnarayan

The sabha is a uniquely south Indian institution. Though its equivalent operated successfully in the past in music centres like Mumbai, these have not survived the onslaught of sponsored events without a committed audience or member base. In Tamil Nadu, and other southern centres, sabhas are still the main organizers of classical music concerts, and quite often, serious promoters of new talent.

We all know what a great role sabhas have played in the growth and development of music and musicians through the decades. We also constantly hear murmurs about the misdeeds of many not-so-good sabhas.

Trying to understand the economics of a career in Carnatic music, I spoke to a few musicians and people connected with music, and the data is not altogether cheering, even though a talented musician stands a better chance of making a living today than some ten years ago. The bad news—and we suspected this—is that there is not much money to be had in the concert circuit in Chennai. Sabha secretaries continue to slip a few hundreds of rupees into the envelope at the end of the concert, with hardly any hint before the concert of the amount the artist can expect. In exceptional cases when a specific fee is mentioned beforehand, it is not uncommon for a smaller amount to be eventually paid. An extreme example of such duplicity was the enviable sangfroid of a major sabha in the city, which actually substituted a nice thank you note for the amount promised to a theatre group. Even worse are the unscrupulous ways of sabhas that make the artist pay for the concert! Though more prevalent in dance, the practice has infiltrated music as well.

Yes, a career in music is still a lottery. Few aspirants plunge into it full time, and most hold on to a day job while pursuing music on the side. Of course, there is a parallel reality show economy of babes in the wood growing up overnight into canny professionals, managed or mismanaged by their parents, television channels and so-called mentors. In this unreal world, the accent is on how to become a bhagavatar in 30 days, with a hectic round of concerts and overseas opportunities sweeping the winners off their feet, until one fine morning they realise that they have been replaced by the next round of winners.

Is it all bad, then? Can a Carnatic musician really make a viable career of his music? Here we are not speaking of the leading artists of the day, but the reasonably talented, hard working musician who has been around for say, ten years. And the answer is yes. (Accompanists getting the rough end of the stick from the main artists keeping the lion’s share of the remuneration themselves is another story altogether). If you are well networked and you are smart enough to juggle schedules across cities and states well, you can earn up to 50,000 rupees a month, even more. For it is only the Chennai sabhas that can get away with paying you a few hundred rupees, with or without some nice tamboolam attached. And we don’t mean the Music Academy, Narada Gana Sabha or other established sabhas with a reputation for integrity—and even these used to pay peanuts hardly a decade ago, offering their stamp of approval instead, as a passport to success. Once you have been recognised or have successfully marketed yourself outside the state, you can hope to earn anywhere between Rs. 3,000 and 5,000 per concert, and receive repeat invitations. Kerala, Karnataka, and other states not only welcome young talent, they are transparent about the fee on offer, maybe because they see themselves as buyers in a sellers’ market. And of course, the real moneyspinners are wedding concerts. Without those and dollar earnings abroad, where would the Carnatic musician be?

(This piece was a result of conversations with musicians. We hope to follow up with the other side of the story, provided we find sabha secretaries willing to talk to us).

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