The December/January Season in Chennai is all about culture – music, dance, ATP tennis, funnily enough, and also literature. Pretty soon I would feel the strain of overdosing on culture but more of that later.
One of the many popular ‘fringe’ events of the season was a Heritage walk around Triplicane, an old part of Chennai. V Sriram is a passionate music historian and engaging speaker who’s been conducting these city walks for a few years now, puts it all into historical and contemporary musical context with eloquence and flair. His contribution to recording the city’s past and presenting it so accessibly is a tremendous effort. Triplicane is a very familiar part of town for me – we still have family there and it is where my father grew up and lived till the late 60s. We started at the 8th century Parthasarathy temple, built by the Pallava dynasty. Three of the twelve Alwars (5th to 10th century AD) have mentioned this temple in their poetry in praise of Krishna. As I heard some fascinating information and listened to the two accomplished women singing, my mind kept wandering to a childhood memory of the resident elephant, Chidambaram, a gentle giant that used to dominate the mandapam (temple porch) where we stood. Triplicane is also where a significant portion of my novel Stirring the Pot is based and it was reassuring to realise that I hadn’t got it wrong, writing about this little corner of Madras from 5000 miles away.
On the day, of particular interest was the story of Kothainayaki, who lived in the area during the freedom struggle and was an ardent admirer of Gandhi. Kothainayaki’s house was dedicated to the memory of Gandhi (Gandhi Illam/house). She was a prolific writer, who described the lives of the impoverished people of the time, serialised in a magazine (like Dickens, Sriram said and a bit maudlin, like him, dismissing the great British writer, perhaps). She was an accomplished singer and encouraged young artists of the time, also instrumental in bringing DK Pattammal into prominence. When Kothainayaki met Gandhi for the first time, she was decked in gold jewellery and he is said to have laughed at her being in ‘chains’. Since that moment, she shed her ornaments and wore simple handspun cotton and went happily to prison for flouting the British and was part of the freedom movement. She continued to wear her prison number proudly till her end.
The excitement of the Music Season is a bit like the BBC Proms catering to a niche audience of middle to upper middle class (predominantly Tamil Brahmin) people who live here and those who used to live here. This was the 89th year of the Music Academy Conference. The idea of its inception was to foster a cultural awakening in colonial India and took place along with the Indian National Congress meetings. Ever since, it has served as a platform to revive old classical traditions, to showcase the talent of musicians of this art form and also educate the public with lectures about current and obscure matters relating to music.
At the heart of a concert is the cutcheri – where the main artist, mostly a vocalist, sits with a violinist to his left and a mridangam (percussionist) to the right. There is a tambura strummer who sits behind to keep tune and serve hot drinks from a flask and these days there is also an electronic drone to maintain a steady pitch. There can be more percussion artists – the kanjira (the tambourine) and a ghatam (the clay pot – for maximum resonance, the open end is pressed to the flesh of the stomach). The more I watched, the more I felt this was for the initiated – the proficiency and high quality is almost guaranteed. By this time, my sore throat of a whole week had slowly moved to a leaking nose and I had the cough of the entire plethora of singers exhausted by the concert circus. My jaded ears were failing to be inspired and my spirit was flagging and it was only the halfway point.
This year’s award of Sangeetha Kalanidhi awarded by the Music Academy to an expert musician was to the very popular vocalist Sanjay Subramaniam. At the Music Academy, tickets, if not purchased for the entire season, can only be bought on the day. Tokens start getting issued from 6 a.m. we were told and thinking ourselves to be smart, we walked down at quarter to the hour, only to find people snaking all around the building. They had turned up at 3 a.m. It all felt a bit like trying to get into Wimbledon for the tennis. As a result of our late entry, we could only get tickets to watch on the big screen inside the adjacent mini-hall. Sanjay, as he’s affectionately known, is an ardent cricket fan and approaches his music as if approaching a long innings in a test match (or so he’d like us to think). There’s rigour, there’s masterful technique and a whole lot of passion in his repertoire. He could be sending the ball for a six or letting it sail past the off-stump (his words, used later at the literature festival), but here’s a sincere singer who wants to excel in his chosen art form.
As for me, I retired hurt, with a reedy voice like Marlon Brando from the Godfather, back under the netted canopy with mosquitoes hovering outside, with aching ears and coughing and blowing industrial quantities of phlegm. I was in the grips of the flu from hell. Will I survive to attend another concert?