Friday, December 28, 2007

The musical mystery

When trying to read the reviews in “The Hindu” today of the many concerts in Chennai, as part of the ‘Carnatic Music season’, I found that I couldn’t understand a thing. Far from de-mystifying the music for the benefit of those less conversant with the nuances, the reviewers take delight in intellectualising and making it even more incomprehensible.

Attending these concerts, in the first place, can be an unnerving experience, as the musicians follow a strict protocol of not providing any pre-amble by way of introduction or explanation on what the song is about, what is the raga, etc. In fact, the regular patrons would consider that an insult and feel short-changed, as a good part of the thrill is in the light-bulb moment when they manage to identify the raga. This ability, they strongly feel, is what separates the ‘musical men and women’ from the ‘trainee boys and girls” and so insist that the tradition should continue. I remember that there was a Tamil movie called “Sindubhairavi’ directed by K.Balachander that dwelt on precisely this blinkered view.

R.K.Narayan, in one of his short-essays, described the agony of a musically-challenged man, forced to attend a Sunday evening concert of Carnatic music.

…He sits silently in his seat. He feels bored. He tries to count the electric bulbs in the hall. He studies the faces around him. He studies a watch on someone’s wrist four chairs off. He reads an advertisement board stuck on a pillar, forward and backward, spelling it out letter by letter. He sits back in a mood of profound resignation. He looks at the dais...

The programme is attaining its zenith; the singer and his accompanists are negotiating their way through a tortuous Pallavi. Our friend notices that the drummer is beating the skin off his palm, the violinist is jabbing the air with his elbow while attempting to saw off the violin in the middle, and the vocalist is uttering a thousand syllables without pausing for breath. A triangular skirmish seems to be developing among the three on the dais. Evidently someone seems to have emerged a victor presently, for the audience which was watching the fray in rapt attention suddenly breaks into thunderous applause. There is a stir in the crowd and a general air of relaxation as the instruments are being tuned and touched up after the terrific battering they suffered a while ago.

Our friend hopes that this is the end of all trouble, but he notices, to his dismay, that it is only a pause. The audience shows no sign of leaving. The musician clears his throat and starts once more and involves himself in all kinds of complicated, convulsive noise-making. Our friend, who had a brief moment of joy thinking that it was all over, resigns himself to it again, reflecting philosophically, “Everything in this world must end sometime, even music”. A most consoling thought.

40 years after RKN wrote this piece, the truth can now be told. The anonymous friend in the article is actually me.


A Motley Tunic said...

When I was in graduate school, i had attended a few lecture-demos by musicians. When it is a lecture-demo, they talk more and perform less. It helps to understand music better. But they should be good talkers, otherwise it gets boring like the 20 minute aalapanai.

Raj said...

Sowmya, good idea. I'll try it out.

dipali said...

LOL- you and RKN both!