My earliest memory of a live performance is a concert by the late Maharajapuram Santhanam. I was about nine years old and all I can remember was the raw silk kurta I had been forced in to itched, my Mother’s hushed excitement, the many overdressed women and waking up to thunderous applause. (in appreciation of the man’s virtuoso performance and not my ability to sleep through it. My somnolence was to become a regular feature in my Kutcheri listening career – and to think I’ve never been fired for sleeping on the job.)
Since then of course I’ve gone on to listen to (and appreciate) performances by both established and amateur artists. As a student of Carnatic music, it was decided that I would attend as many concerts as possible. Perhaps in the hope that some of the talent might rub off on me.
Old timers and connoisseurs may argue that it has turned in to hunting ground for prospective sambandhis and that most rasikas turn up to sample the coffee and tiffin the canteens have to offer and not the artist’s rendition of Karaharapriya. But one can not dispute that the December Season is a high point in the cultural calendar of Madras. From the free mid-morning and afternoon slots to the highly sought after evening performances, it is where fresh talent is spotted and mature artists prove they still have it. Innovations in music, dance, Kanjeevaram silks and pathir peni are all on display here.
I once accompanied my cousin to a free afternoon Unni Krishnan kutcheri at The Music Academy. My cousin was a passionate fan, and the traffic jam and crowd (the likes of which I’d only seen at Thirupathi and Rajni first day first shows) did nothing to deter him. So we squeezed through the gaps on his white, rickety TVS Scooty, bribed the watchman to look after the illegally parked two wheeler and pushed our way through the
Crowds (Mamis on a mission can be a vicious lot mind you – you either have to have thick skin or be wearing a plate of armour. Not possessing the former I used my cousin as the latter). We were directed to the upper circle of the Academy and realised that even though we were a good hour early, most of the seats were occupied. So we climbed higher and higher and finally found two seats at the very back. Those of you who have been to The Music Academy know how high up that is. Once the performance began, I found it impossible to keep looking down at the stage. So to prevent a nose bleed and upchucking the idlis I’d had for breakfast I settled back in my seat, tilted my head back and closed my eyes. I felt a twinge of guilt when the old Mama whispered to his companion
“So young, but see how entranced she is by the performance.”
As a Luz-vaasi, I also used to attend the concerts leading up to Pillayar Chaturthi at the Warren Road Pillayar Kovil. The temple is actually a part (for want of better word) of someone’s home and every year in the courtyard a stage is erected and concerts are given by the likes of Sanjay Subramanian and other acclaimed artists. If I’m not mistaken the concert on the very last day is reserved for KJ Yessudas. It’s been over four years since I’ve been in Madras, so I don’t know how the performances are attended now. But I do remember the packed crowds that used to congregate there. Music lovers would sit, stand and lean against poster clad and beedi stained walls for a chance to listen to these concerts. Like many others who lived in close proximity to the temple, an aunt and uncle of mine would simply draw two chairs out on to their balcony, and enjoy the music and cool evening breeze.
Both my school and college were big on promoting ‘Indian culture’. This meant having to sit through annual Thyagaraja Utsavams and listening to seniors and juniors sing (and sometimes screech) through a repertoire of songs that never changed during my time at these institutions. I of course was never considered good enough to go up on stage (could have something to do with the fact that I slapped our music teacher when I was in class 7. It was an accident. Honest), which is just as well since I knew the kind of catty comments that circulated through the audiences while these poor girls sang their hearts out.
I’d think I now know enough to be able to appreciate a concert more. I know that I should clap only when other’s clap, not to eat a heavy meal right before one, and that if I am going to fall asleep it should only be done when seated in the very last row. The last point was added to the list after attending a performance by Nityashree at the Asthika Samaj a few years ago. We knew the singers family and they had graciously invited us to sit in the front row with them. In my defence it was getting pretty late, so there was very little I could do to stop myself from nodding off. My mother realised something was out of order when an irregular sound not in sync with the music was emanating from her left. If my sleeping wasn’t bad enough, my snoring was the last straw. And no, she wasn’t singing Neelambari.