The city of Madras is magical in the months of December and January. The blazing heat of the summer is but a dim memory, and the monsoon-lashed skies have calmed into a brilliant blue. The days are perfect, mild and sunny, and the city goes about its business with a cheery spirit that is infectious.
But best of all, this is the Season. That’s what the locals call it, and it is a two-month long extravaganza of music and dance performances, encompassing even the most far-flung parts of the city. Every neighborhood, from the most humble to the abodes of the rich and famous, hosts a series of performances, lasting for anything from a few days to the entire period and beyond of the Tamil month of “Margazhi”. The city basks in the happy confluence of Margazhi, a holy and blessed month considered to be the dawn of auspicious times, and the glorious weather, and puts forth a lavish banquet of music, dance and theater, where performers from the very top in their field, the superstars of their professions, to those struggling to make a name for themselves, vie for the approval and appreciation of their audiences.
In music, most of the performances are of Carnatic music, the classical music of South India. This is an ancient music form, which has developed over the last 2,000 years. Largely untouched and unaffected by the many foreign influences which have shaped and impacted Hindustani music of North India, Carnatic music is considered more “pure” and “untainted” and “closer to its roots”, whatever those roots might be. Of course, no great system of music will survive and thrive without innovations and fresh ideas to keep its popularity undimmed, and the same goes for Carnatic music. Most of the present-day repertoire of Carnatic music is no more than 250 years old, and a good deal of it dates from far more recent times. The framework around which a performance is structured was developed a mere 50 years ago, and would be completely unrecognizable by the audiences of a century ago.
The audiences at Carnatic music recitals are remarkably well-informed about this genre and its musicians. They can instantly identify a false note in a song or a raga, they can (for the most part) keep time to the music (beating time to the talam, or rhythmic structure of the song), they can identify several dozen ragas within a few seconds of their being sung, they know the strengths and weaknesses of a large number of musicians, both popular and not-so-well-known.
They are a strongly opinionated lot, and expect uncompromisingly high standards from performers. By and large, their views dictate a strong reverence for “tradition” and the ways of the “good old days”. They are firmly convinced that a “good and satisfying” concert should consist in large part of the compositions of the holy trinity of Carnatic music composers – Tyagaraja, Syama Sastry and Muthuswami Dikshithar (equivalent in status and impact in this genre to Bach, Mozart and Beethoven in the Western classical music canon). Secure and content with what they know well, they hold that the ragas in which the songs are sung should be easily recognized and not descend to the overly challenging, strange, or impossible-to-identify. They will display a frosty disapproval of too much of innovation, which includes trying out too many unknown songs or ragas. Nowhere is this written down or stated out aloud in so many words, but the reaction of the audience and also critical reactions make it quite clear that many people are disquieted by too much deviation from their comfort level. Audiences show their disapproval by walking out mid-performance, and critics let fly their sharpest barbs. With the heartwarming and encouraging surge in talented young musicians, some of whom have attained rock-star status among their younger fans, this is slowly changing, although the musicians are canny enough to keep older audience members happy as well, with "traditional" renderings of old favorites.
Carnatic music has 72 Melakarta (or mother) ragas, which are permutations and combinations of all the notes within an octave. Springing from these 72 mother ragas are over 30,000 derivative ragas. Yet, most of the songs which are sung in the typical Carnatic music recital are confined to about 35 or 40 ragas which, through frequent repetition are easily recognized and identified. Similarly, there are thousands of songs which have been composed, but a mere fraction of these are well-known and well-beloved by the audiences. Indeed, there are several top musicians whose fame has been built upon their rendition of a particular song, and audiences expect that song to be performed at each and every recital of that performer.
In spite of this, there is tremendous scope for a Carnatic musician to display his or her skills of improvisation, innovation and imagination. There is no tradition of written notation for the music, and songs are handed down orally from teacher to student. So, there are different “schools” of music, depending on the teachers and their style and what area of music they emphasized; the emotion, the technical elements, the diction, and speed are only a few of the factors that distinguish one school of music from another. So, while audiences love to hear a familiar song, they also love to hear the different styles in which this song is rendered. Performers are given free reign to experiment with different ways of interpreting the song. Additionally, many songs are preceded by a raga alapanam, where the musician gives free reign to his or her musical imagination by singing the notes of a particular raga in a dazzling array of combinations, showing off technical skills, vocal range and the ability to bring out the emotion, or bhava of the raga. Here is where a great musician gets set apart from the merely competent. A truly great musician can spend over an hour on a raga alapanam in which no musical phrase is ever repeated, in a mind-boggling display of musical imagination and ability.
Carnatic music is never performed in a social vacuum. Communication flows in every direction – between the performers, from the performers to the audience, between the audience members, and from the audience to the performers. The experience spans many dimensions, and a great deal of variety is provided in the course of the concert from the different ragas, composers, talas, speeds, length, complexity, forms and languages of the songs. In Carnatic music, the performer is supreme, not the composer. The accompanying artists provide a key supportive role, and a lot of creative input is expected from them.
As has been mentioned earlier, there are Carnatic music performances in all parts of the city during the Season. The type of performance venue varies widely, from small, humble, open-air halls with primitive sound systems to plushly upholstered air-conditioned auditoriums with state-of-the art audio equipment. Some places charge no fee, and the performers at these venues are usually young, up and coming musicians who hope to start on the long road to fame by attracting neighborhood music-lovers. Performances by well-established musicians are almost always fee-based, but even there, the rates are rarely exorbitant. The best seat – front row, center – in the best hall, for a recital by one of the hottest musicians- rarely exceeds Rs. 500 (about $12).
It is a glorious embarrassment of riches, and, basking in the warmth of Madras, I intend to take full advantage of it. When my Muse and I are talking to each other (right now, my Muse, moody, unpredictable, lazy, scatterbrained and disorganized, is snoozing cozily in a corner, refusing to be prodded awake; she has never let me down so far, but I don't know when and where she will awaken, yawn and stretch, and make me miserable with her demands that I write something that meets her standards) I will fill you in on some of the things I have seen and heard.