By V Ramnarayan
The ubiquitous sabha is an indispensable part of the Carnatic music scenario. These voluntary bodies have for over a hundred years supported music, dance and theatre in a sustained manner, often against all odds. Forty to fifty years ago, it was common for these institutions to conduct year-round performances mostly from the subscriptions collected from members.
Performing artists were generally not remunerated very well, though the star system always made it possible for the biggest crowd-pullers to demand fees much higher than the common run. Audience expectations by way of comfortable seating or acoustics were rather low as well for long years, and the system was able to sustain itself on modest lines.
The 1960s and 1970s were a period when theatre— mostly social drama, light-hearted comedies and political satire of the Cho Ramaswamy kind—was a more popular draw than music or dance.
The pre-independence system of theatrical companies with permanent staff on salaries producing mostly musicals on historical themes surrendered its monopoly to cinema. While die-hard music and dance rasikas still patronized sabha concerts, they could not equal the popular appeal of theatre—until the advent of television changed all that.
The 1980s saw the gradual revival of cutcheris and though television still kept audiences indoors, the December season was asserting itself all over again. This was the time when instrumental music drew full houses, culminating in the huge success of the likes of Mandolin Shrinivas, while traditional instruments like the violin as well as combinations such venu-veena-violin continued to hold their sway. The great vocal masters still demanded attention, but their successors were not yet stars in their own right, with exceptions like TN Seshagopalan and Maharajapuram Santhanam proving the rule.
The 1990s were the decade when the Indian diaspora started making its presence felt as the great destination every Carnatic musician aspires to reach. The process has continued well into the new millennium despite some temporary slowing down post economic recession.
The boom period of the recording industry has been followed by hard times, with piracy and the Internet playing spoilsport with its fortunes. Simultaneous with the economic upswing of the music fraternity has been the growing dominance of vocal over instrumental music, though the leading instrumentalists have carved their own career paths in quite distinct paths.
The last decade has seen a veritable information explosion, with research efforts expanding constantly, thanks not only to the many eminent experts the field has thrown up via the academic route, but also many young musicians showing greater curiosity than in earlier times.
Lecture-demonstrations, thematic concerts, experimental concerts, increased usage of technology on the concert platform, particularly in the area of sound amplification and management, reality shows and contests, websites dedicated to music, online radio and so on have made Carnatic music a vibrant art, with more and more youngsters blossoming in a nurturing atmosphere.
Sabhas still play a major role with zealous enthusiasm, but with supply seeming to exceed demand, making an entry into the sabha circuit is a challenging proposition, especially for young talent outside Chennai.
With all the increased levels of awareness and efforts by many to ensure future audiences for Carnatic music—including some by leading current vidwans and vidushis—one disturbing question must be asked: Is quantity swamping quality?