My decision to withdraw from the Chennai music season (the December sabha) was neither sudden nor was it triggered by any specific occurrence. Over the last four or five years I have been thinking about the season. What does it mean to me? What are we contributing through it to music? And where is it heading?
I grew up listening to concerts in the music season and my own evolution in the world of Carnatic music has been through the processes of this festival and therefore it would be dishonest on my part if I don’t acknowledge that I have benefited from it, artistically and professionally. Yet I feel that the music season today has reached a point where music has almost disappeared from it. Perhaps I should say music has fled from it, because of the noise that pervades it; noise that comes from within the music and beyond.
For over two decades we have heard it said loudly that the music season has become unwieldy with too many competing organisations and that concerts show a lamentable bipolarity: sparsely populated auditoriums for some and unmanageable crowds for the handful superstars. But this is only a symptom of something else that has been happening and now has reached a critical point. I don’t think anyone is surprised if crowds throng only the popular and famous but if somewhere the whole music world is becoming subservient to the idea of the “popular” then this is a serious artistic problem. This is what the season has become. In this din, many wonderful musicians are not just ignored, they, in fact, get to be discarded. I feel that any art world must have a sense of the rich diversity within its ecosystem where the famous are the “face” but the other artists are recognised and respected as important contributors to the aesthetic diversity of the art form. Today the other musicians do not really matter. This bothers me since I too am responsible for this situation.
For the young musicians with dreams, things have only gotten worse and murkier. There is money being spent in the name of donations for concert opportunities, middlemen operating at many levels and the power of the dollar becoming more and more visible. I have the greatest admiration for those young musicians today who have made a mark in spite of all this. But there are many others who are still left behind only because they cannot play this game. I don’t think things were as bad in the early 90’s.
It has to be accepted that the music season has become more or less a non-resident Indian (NRI)-driven festival and hence, young learners from there, egged on by their parents, appear as “fly by night players” every year during the season. A decade ago they were a small part of the season but today, among the junior slots, they are a mainstream reality. Musicians who have a foot here and in the US also play their part in creating opportunities for their NRI students during the season so that the quid pro quo is in play. Today money is paid, reviews are planted in newspapers and all this is “par for the course”. All this happens behind closed doors, so I have no proof! Due to this even the few truly committed Carnatic musicians from North America who are making their name in Carnatic music have had to struggle to make people realise that they are here for the long haul. Again I have nothing but respect for them.
Beyond the little world of art that Carnatic music occupies, what have we, the participants of this mega festival, done for the music? How much effort during the season have we made to bring diverse listeners into the art, take this art to other sections of society? Only individual artists have taken a few initiatives in bits and pieces. We really don’t care about the rest of society and don’t see that this music must be democratised. I stand by my view that the world of Carnatic music is socially stifling and narrow with all of us unable to see that this art must be made accessible to the larger society and welcoming of it.
Some of us who are thought to be the powerful stars are unable to put our differences aside and come together for anything beyond ourselves. We have rarely even raised the issue of the payments given to our friends and colleagues on the violin, mrudanga, kanjira or ghatam.
In the “frenzy of the season” now aided and abetted by technology I find it very hard to give myself to the music. I am unable to find the quiet that I need to try and sing and this is my inability.
Considering all this I feel it is best that I don’t participate in the music season. Over the last five years I did try creating an alternative space within the season framework by offering free concerts but feel that the overall atmosphere is so commodified that listening has more or less vanished.
The Carnatic music in Chennai has become more about the season than about music and this is dangerous for the art. What we see happening in the season is only a symptom of a deeper lack of introspection on the art, its form, access and its integrity. There are of course exceptional individuals who despite the music season continue to make honest efforts as organisers, musicians and connoisseurs.
I am not saying that everything in the past was hunky-dory, but I do feel that the Madras music season has reached anaesthetic tipping point. May be it was always this way and I just did not see it. But now that I do, I cannot remain a participant.