At 9pm on most days I am likely to be eyeing the finish line of a long day - long, alas, usually in hours, not on things achieved. Make it 9pm on a frigid February weeknight in New York, and that likelihood turns into a certainty. And yet, there I was just yesterday, out in the West Village of Manhattan, my bedtime a distant prospect, bundled up against the arctic wind, trying to make sense of a crudely hand-drawn map.
Luckily, Cornelia Street appeared, just like that, in front of me, its location bearing no relation to what the map indicated. I walked down the quiet street that was filled with a couple of days worth of garbage bags that lay in dispirited heaps outside every building. And a few minutes later, I reached my destination, the Cornelia Street Cafe.
What was I doing there on a cold night, for what was I sacrificing a warm bed and a good book? I had received an email informing me of a Carnatic music concert- the first of a series- at the well known Cornelia Street Cafe, a “culinary as well as a cultural landmark” that has been in existence for over 30 years, an achievement in a place as ruthless as New York where restaurants come and go and only the best and most beloved survive. It has hosted Nobel Laureates, poets, activists, the inimitably crazy Monty Python group, the Royal Shakespeare Company, Latin jazz musicians, cabaret, theater, and so much more. And now, Carnatic music!
I have very mixed feelings about the intermingling of food and music. Both, especially the latter, need undivided attention for maximum and proper appreciation. Serving them together, I believe, diminishes them both. Invariably, it is the music that recedes into the background, as a sideshow, a peripheral, subordinate activity that demeans it, particularly when it is of the kind that demands the full attention of the audience. Like classical music. Carnatic music.
Decades ago, when I was a teenager, a few five star hotels in Madras (there were only a handful then) had started the trend to showcase exotic Indian culture in their restaurants by featuring a Bharata Natyam dancer, who performed on and off over the course of several waves of diners who came, ate, and left.
My dance guru was given the opportunity to present his students at the Taj Coromandel Hotel, and he in turn selected several of his students, including me, to dance there. He assured us that it was a good opportunity for us to perform on a stage, without any of the attendant hassles and convolutions needed to secure a slot in a sabha. My memory might not be entirely accurate, but I think that we had to perform three times over the course of the evening, for around 20 minutes each time.
I hated it. The stage was tiny, an insult to what was needed to do proper justice to Bharata Natyam. All of us- the orchestra and the dancer - had to cram ourselves onto it, the poor orchestra squashed into a corner decorated with a garish carpet, and the dancer, her every movement hobbled and constrained by the midget-like proportions of the stage. An exuberant dhalankuthom would easily catapult the dancer onto a plate of glistening chicken makhani at a nearby table. The expansive, joyous gestures of Bharata Natyam had to be shrunk into jerky, dwarfed versions of themselves.
I hated that my beloved Bharata Natyam was being so demeaned, that carnal, materialistic pleasures like the succulence of a lamb kebab, or the luscious sweetness of a gulab jamun, should compete with - and usually outshine - the otherworldly beauty and grace of dance. It was not the fault of the audience - they were there to eat, after all, and the dance was merely something to occupy their eyes in between bites and courses.
Not for the dancer and the orchestra were the glamor of the lobby, the gleaming guest bathrooms, the plushly carpeted walkways. We had to scuttle in through the back entrance, a dank, poorly ventilated area dimly and depressingly lit with florescent lights. Our waiting area in between performances was in a busy part of the kitchen, right in the midst of the clatter and clang of the dishwashers, the hot, harried kitchen staff, the rushing waiters. But it was these people who were the warmest to us, who were awed by the fact that we were artists, and our music and dance, our bright costumes, jewelry and tinkling bells, brought a splash of color and cheer to that edgy, stress-filled kitchen. Back in the restaurant, we received polite applause at best. In that brightly lit environment, it was hard to make eye contact with the audience. One had to look inwards and dance, transcend one’s surroundings; that was not easy to do for a disgruntled adolescent.
What irked me most of all was the dinner that we were offered at the end of the night: not the decadently delicious fare served in the restaurant, but a plateful of plain rice and boiled dal, with some pickle and papadum to relieve the blandness. The kitchen staff would sneak us the occasional paneer tikka or butter naan, but it had to be done when the watchful gaze of the Manager was turned elsewhere. The first time I danced at the Taj, I looked forward all evening to the promised dinner. My mouth watered at what I imagined I would eat. I fancied I would be given free reign over the menu: I was providing invaluable entertainment, after all. I would pick every paneer dish that the menu offered and wash the whole thing down with some gulab jamuns and ice cream. Imagine my indignation when that plate of rice and dal appeared! I put my foot down after that and said that I refused to humiliate myself and dance there any more. I was ignored, of course, but fortunately my stint at the hotel lasted only a few weeks.
I was reminded of all this yesterday as I made my way to the Cornelia Street Cafe. It is a far cry from the glitzy glamor of an Indian five-star hotel. This was the West Village, after all, and the place buzzed with energy and vitality. Once inside, I had to descend a steep flight of steps that led into a dimly lit room where the performance had already begun.
There were to be two performances. The first, which was just underway, was with Arun Ramamurthy on the violin, Akshay Anantapadmanabhan, a young lad of great talent and promise on the mridangam, and Sriram Ramesh on the kanjira and morsing. All home-grown talent, all top-notch.
Gone are the days when America-raised and trained Carnatic musicians made one cringe in embarrassment at the substandard quality of the music. When their dollar bills, and nothing more, bought them performances in sabhas in Madras. When Carnatic music was just one among a string of enriching activities, taken on to provide the obligatory dose of desi culture. No. Many of today’s Carnatic (and Hindustani) musicians who grew up in America have dedicated themselves with admirable discipline and determination, seeking to learn and understand their chosen art beyond the narrow confines of what was traditionally taught, and are commanding respect and admiration because of the quality of their music, the intensity and sincerity of their dedication.
The performance space in the Cornelia Street Cafe is small, crowded and narrow. The stage, draped in red, is on the far side of the room, at the opposite end from the bar, which is at the entrance. The walls are painted an unappealing shade of blue; a network of pipes marches up and down and around the ceiling. Dim bulbs of red, green, yellow and blue are strung haphazardly off wires that snake through the pipes. Along the perimeter of the room are about a dozen small, round tables, each with a candle, each cheek-by-jowl with the next one. The room can hold, oh, about 40 people at most.
The flickering candlelight reflected off beer bottles, goblets of wine and water, and bathed the room and faces in a warm, mellow glow. A glass of water looked ethereally beautiful in that light. The little room was jam-packed. Mostly Indians. Mostly young. They cradled their bottles of beer, their goblets of wine - and they listened intently, joyously, to the music. Arun was playing a song in Hamsadhwani, and with the lively accompaniment from the mridangam and kanjira, many were soon keeping talam with the music, nodding their heads, smiling, eyes closed, happy. Later came the popular Brovabarama in Bahudari, choppy and lilting in turns, and soon, the bar guy-who was most decidedly not Indian - abandoned his post and stood listening, his mouth agape, moving in time to the music.
Everybody was listening, rapt. In between, waiters tiptoed discreetly, respectfully, to clear tables, to deliver food, but throughout, the music ruled. The food and drink were the side show - as they should be in an event like this.
Arun finished with a song in Madhyamavathi - what is it about this ragam that sings so eloquently of closure, of bringing a song, a tale, an evening, to an end?! The song was followed by an exhilarating tani avartanam by Akshay and Sriram. The impish interplay between the mridangam and kanjira had Arun and the audience laughing out aloud at times. Everybody in that room was in joyful communion with the rhythm. The only sounds were that of the mridangam, the kanjira, and dozens of hands hitting thighs, keeping the beat. It was magical. In that tiny, crowded room, lambent with the golden glow of candles, everyone was enveloped in the cocoon of the music and rhythm. At the back were the bar guys, the waiters, all standing, listening, bobbing heads, tapping toes, softly clapping hands, patting arms.
And then, all too soon, the spell was broken. The first performance was over, the second, with Ashvin Bhogendra singing, (accompanied by Arun, Akshay and Sriram) would begin in ten minutes.
I stayed for only one song by Ashwin, a lovely Tyagaraja kriti in Reetigowla, Chera Ravademira. He was excellent, but the night was no longer young (and neither am I), and I left, heading back out into the cold night.