Monday, 10 November 2014

Come December

By V Ramnarayan

"Let's imagine a group of ultra-intelligent extraterrestrials who visit earth and find themselves at a cricket match. I'd submit that, given sufficient time, .hey would be able to deduce the rules of the game in their entirety (even the lbw law) from direct observation, without the aid of a native interpreter. The mechanism of the competition would become intelligible to them: runs and Wickets, overs and innings, the 11 ways of getting out, the no-ball, the draw.

"What would remain a mystery to them is: why? Why did earthlings expend SO much time and passion on this apparently pointless exercise? What purpose did it serve?"

These are the opening remarks of an article "Why Cricket" by Mike Marquesee in The Guardian, an article in which the American-born author, journalist, political activist and cricket writer explains the beauty and mystique of the gentleman's game.

This led to a related train of thought. What would a Martian make of our December season were s(he) to land somewhere near the Music Academy one December morning, and were to be taken on a conducted tour of the multitude of sabhas in the city, I have often wondered. About the only similarity to Martian life would be the psychedelic stage backdrops some of our sabhas have been specialising in during the last decade or so. Would the traveller ask the questions we saw in paragraph two above? Would the creature not ask what purpose indeed would be served by all the arm waving, thigh-slapping and constant mike adjustments on the stage? Why would one group of four or five aliens (viewed from a Martian perspective, just as Americans are seen as foreigners by Indians visiting there) go into feverish, frenetic activity a minute into the start of proceedings, watched by another, much bigger group of swaying, arm waving, thigh-slapping, plastic bag rustling, sms texting, raga-guessing , chattering aliens? A little later, why has the drummer suddenly gone silent, and why is the fiddler (by now the ultra-intelligent Martian has figured out these identities) making strange sounds in imitation of the singer? And still later, the most intriguing mystery of all, why are so many aliens staging a walkout while the singer and violinist do some focussed thigh-slapping and the drummer goes into an apopleptic fit?

But wait. The December season is all conquering. How long can our Martian visitor hold out against the combined assault of voice, instruments string, wind and percussion, Kutcheribuzz and canteen coffee and asoka halva? Soon like our dhoti- and sari/salwar-clad American and European visitors, (s)he too will succumb to the irresistible charms of the Chennai season, and join the excited band of itinerant rasikas to rush from sabha to sabha, canteen to canteen.

All conquering, did we say? Almost, but not quite. We may be able to convert Mesopotamians and Martians, but there is one immovable species of Indian whom Carnatic music can never hope to sway. And that is the hardened Hindustani music aficionado. Those born north of the Vindhyas have been immune from time immemorial to the appeal of Carnatic music. For them, a south Indian cutcheri is still a percussion ensemble accompanied by fast paced singing or loud instrumental music.

Are the two Indian streams of music total strangers to each other then? No, the twain do meet, but the traffic is strictly one-way.

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