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Chennai stays pitch-perfect

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While they bravely adapted to the digital world, singers and audiences returned to live concerts with open relief

After two years of Covid-induced interruption when the Chennai music season briefly returned to live concerts at the end of 2021, what was on display was striking resilience and the city’s age-old commitment to its favourite art — from musicians, the sabhas, and the music lovers. It saw them all seamlessly moving between the virtual and real worlds in what could be called Chennai’s first hybrid season.

The most remarkable feature was certainly the resilience, and its demonstration came primarily from the musicians, the life-force behind the decades-long tradition. Since March-April 2020, they had been denied their career, livelihood, and the critical connect that they enjoy with their followers. Musicians, more so classical musicians, are unanimous in their opinion that performing on stage is what keeps them going. Under normal circumstances, denying that opportunity for such a long period should make them uncertain and downcast, but Chennai’s Carnatic singers kept singing and exploring, not caring if they had a stage to perform or not.

When they finally came back to the big stage, all of them were raring to go. Some had improved on their voice range, some on their techniques, some on the aesthetics and expressions, some on their repertoire and most of them on all these factors. Their risk appetite too seemed to have gone up. Clearly, the diligence and integrity that Carnatic music demands from its practitioners had influenced them in other ways too.

The break “gave me time to introspect, learn, revise, listen and practice,” says Amrita Murali, who was quite busy both with live and digital concerts while Ramakrishnan Murthy found the extra practice and listening time “amazing”. “Practising and listening just for the sake of musical enrichment, rather than goal-oriented learning; I really cherished all that time.”

Naturally, the commitment with which the musicians persevered with their art was unmissable on stage. Although many major sabhas organised live concerts, both ticketed and free, the attendance was much thinner probably because of Covid fears among senior citizens, the absence of outstation music lovers, and the flash floods in some parts of the city.

However, the sight of sparsely occupied halls as the curtains went up didn’t seem to faze the musicians or make them perform below par or for shorter durations. If anything, some looked more spirited. “In as much as it is always fantastic and gratifying to sing to a full house, I have always respected the audience I have had. The number doesn’t pull down my spirits or the quality that I would like to maintain,” says Amrita. According to the Akkarai Sisters, the advice of their father-guru Akkarai S. Swamynathan — ”Do your work with devotion and dedication without worrying about results” — kept them focussed.

An auditorium with limited rasikas enjoying a concert.

Although a lot of sabha-hopping older regulars were missing, it was compensated to a small extent by other, younger age groups. Bharath Sundar said he noticed several young people in the audience, a very encouraging sign. Amrita did “miss seeing certain die-hard elder rasikas,” but also found it gladdening to see more young people. S. Saketharaman also noticed this change. “I saw quite a few first-timers including youngsters who attended the last few live concerts.”

All musicians were, expectedly, unsettled by the prolonged clamp-down on performances and, more importantly, on earnings, but appear to have quickly gathered the strength to move on. “Professionally, it was indeed a setback. It’s our bread and butter. But when you think about it, it was like a sabbatical. Now when I sing at a concert, the way I look at it itself is very different,” says Bharath Sundar. “For any performing artiste, it has not been very easy to come to terms with the very unlikely situation of these last two years,” say the Akkarai Sisters. As S. Saketharaman says, “The live experience is in our DNA.”

Improved on aesthetics

If necessity compelled the city’s music ecosystem to go digital last season, this year they considerably improved on production values and aesthetics. One drawback, however, was that regular concert goers, who were originally gung-ho about digital concerts, appeared a little fatigued by the excessive supply — there was too much content, both free and paid, over the last two years. For the musician, however, it didn’t matter if they were doing a digital or live concert. “Once the music starts, it’s only about the music. Not to say that I didn’t miss live concerts; I undoubtedly did, but the focus changes after those few initial moments,” says Ramakrishnan Murthy.

Despite concerns about digital fatigue, Mahesh Venkateswaran of MadRasana, a pioneer in innovative presentation of Carnatic music, believes digital is here to stay. “If you present the digital format as a replacement to the stage, then you are not really leveraging it to the fullest. But if you present it in a way that cannot be replicated in live stage shows, then you have something special to show to the audience that is different.”

Saketharaman agrees. “Digital content has to be curated carefully, presented using state-of-the-art technology and marketed appropriately,” he says.

If digital was the innovation last time, this year it was the wider use of online ticketing, which pushed the sabha ecosystem forward. Although city entrepreneurs have wanted to collaborate with the sabhas to sell tickets over the years, there has been resistance in the past. This time, the foyer of most halls welcomed people with bar-codes.

Despite everything, digital remains an afterthought. As the next wave of the pandemic tightens its grip, Chennai’s musicians hope live concerts will continue. Sandeep Narayan summarises it succinctly: “It was exhilarating to return to the concert stage and see live faces. In the end, it’s the live concert experience that gives me what I’m looking for.”

The writer is a journalist-turned-UN official-turned-columnist based in Travancore.

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