When there’s so much in terms of high culture that is accessible (a lot of the time for free), it begs the question, what is music really for? There is a kind of passive tyranny attached to appreciating Carnatic music around here, in Chennai. Knowing the raga of each composition that is being performed is the regular test of your validity as a true rasika (one who appreciates). In the audience you’ll see more people making noises with a certain high condescension – they are constantly putting the artist through a stern test of their own. There are others who keep rhythm (tala) with so much vigour, slapping their palms on their thighs or against their other hand, counting every beat, as if to tell the artist “we’re making sure that you’re not missing a beat”. There is a minority that listens to be absorbed in the actual music but even then only in spurts. There might as well be a permanent banner hanging in full view of the artist that says, “Not that impressed.”
As one of the seriously laid-back rasikas with just enough understanding of the tradition, my simple quest was to seek a sublime moment in the many concerts I attended (before succumbing to the nasty flu germs). I listened to Ravi Kiran playing the Chitra Veena and recognised some brilliance and a little innovation too. However there were too many generic pieces that were highly accomplished but didn’t quite transcend for me. The mellow-voiced Malladi brothers are always a joy to listen to – singing the original Telegu compositions with the fluency that only a mother-tongue can bring – their sincere dedication is always satisfying to witness. Sanjay Subramaniam, the current anointed maestro was the most impressive with his expertise and came very close to rising beyond mere excellence.
Perhaps it is the pressure of performing at the Music Academy – where it is not so much a showcase of talent than a trial by fire by the severest critics which left me with the distinct sense that there was something restraining these incredibly talented artists. I was thinking of the late Bhimsen Joshi’s deep meditative singing who would be oblivious to his listeners and take off to far away places leaving the audience in a permanent state of awed bliss, the late Mandolin Shrinivas who was like a shower of heavenly rain, his music one of profuse abandon. Whatever I was yearning for, it remained elusive despite the music overload.
In a quiet, unassuming corner of the city, next to the grounds of a local school is a purpose-built stadium which for the past 20 years has been playing host to the ATP Tour – Chennai Open. It takes place in early January, when the temperature is a balmy 23-26 degrees in the evening when the matches begin at 5 pm. These are winter temperatures. “The soul of Indian tennis resides in Chennai”, we were told by the announcer – and this time, I had to agree wholeheartedly. Madras appreciates tennis – the crowd is amazingly non-partisan and there’s equal support for both players even when there’s an Indian player on the court. The great thing to see was the hordes of young kids who came to watch – again, tickets were subsidised and this elite sport made accessible. There’s a natural aesthetic appreciation for a particularly well-executed shot and they regularly call out loudly in encouragement. My favourite was “Wake up, Stan.”
There’s beauty in setting up a serve – the human body with racquet in one hand and ball in another with both arms outstretched. A balletic movement evoking Shiva’s cosmic dance. There’s rhythm, grace and impeccable timing in a long rally that finishes with a breathtaking shot passed down the line. The grace of the perfectly executed crosscourt volley or a delectable single-handed backhand. Stan Wawrinka, the more unassuming compatriot of Roger Federer, is the star of the Chennai Open and won the title for the fourth time. On that day, I was on my own and as I watched him play, it was done. I realised I’d found my sublime moment at last.