As I mentioned earlier, one of the main reasons for my last trip back to Chennai was to attend “the season”. This is not a meteorological thing (side bar: what do meteors have to do with daily weather, and climate?). “The season” is how people in Chennai refer to the annual Carnatic music season, which takes place in the month of December.

A fan of carnatic music in Chennai in December is like a chocolate lover who finds himself in the mythical chocolate city, where everything – streets, buildings etc. is made of chocolate. You eat and eat and eat, and there are still buildings and buildings of chocolate left (Note: I am not really a chocolate fan. I am picturing a Simpson’s episode where Homer dreams of being in chocolate city). You are full, your tummy is bursting with chocolate, and you look around in dismay thinking “but there is still so much more chocolate to be had!”. That is how many carnatic music fans may feel in Chennai during December. The number of concerts per day, over many days, is so much – it is mind-boggling. You want to soak it all in, but there is only so much that is physically possible.

In this post, I write about 3 things:

  1. A “short summary” on each concert I attended. This is probably a pointless exercise – except that it does remove my own doubt whether I really did attend as many concerts as I think I did (albeit not all of them in their entirety).
  2. A “short summary” on each sabha (concert hall) canteen where I tasted the food. On the other hand, how can this be pointless :)?
  3. A couple of things I think I will experience only in Chennai concert scene.

The Concerts

This time I decided that I would try to catch artists whom I normally don’t get to see in U.S. That meant a lot of youngsters, and a few “super seniors”. I did make a few exceptions and caught a few seniors. Here is a list of the concerts I caught along with a brief reflection of stood out. They are not necessarily in chronological order. I will also stick with the positive aspects. For negative points – I will leave that to the reviewers!

  1. Sankaran Namboodri at Brahma Gana Sabha: Very good begada alapana.
  2. Sanjay Subramaniam at Brahma Gana Sabha: A very bold suddhadhanyasi RTP – had a lot of unexpected, unusual flavors (unusual at least to me).
  3. Neyveli Santanagoplan at Krishna Gana Sabha: Easily one of the best concerts. Superb sahana and a very rare treat in the form of RTP in Kannada.
  4. Amruta Murali at Narada Gana Sabha: Impressive. I love her style of singing – soft yet with depth. Sahana and Ritigowla were the highlights.
  5. Jeyashri and Jeyaraj (Veena) at Raga Sudha Hall: Sublime music from the husband and wife pair whose lineage is quite illustrious (traces to Muttuswami Dikshitar)
  6. Nedunuri Krishnamurthi at Music Academy: This was the inaugural concert at Academy. It was an excellent one by the super-senior. The Anandabhairavi alapana was exquisite.
  7. Sowmya at Music Academy: Caught about 1.5 hours. before I had to head back home. Excellent Janaranjani and Kedaram. BTW, these two renditions at this specific concert have caused quite a storm in the music circles πŸ™‚
  8. Prasanna Venkatraman at Mylapore Fine Arts: Caught only one song – a detailed mukhAri. Was good in spite of an audio system that sucked as bad as it can possibly suck. To me there were lot of traces of Sanjay Subrahmanyam (his current guru) in the mukhAri alapana. A couple of my friends (a bit vehemantly) denied this when I mentioned it. But consider this – I had no idea he was learning from Sanjay – but I could sense it just from the alapana.
  9. Sikkil Gurucharan at Mylapore Fine Arts – had to miss most of the concert as I ran into a long lost friend. But caught a superb kannadgowLa before that.
  10. Nisha Rajagopal at Music Academy: Good dhanyAsi.
  11. Amruta Venkatesh at Music Academy: She is touted as one of the most promising newcomers. Her delivery is solid. Only problem (mine nor hers) was this was the day after Nisha Rajagopal’s concert, and she also did dhanyAsi (same krithi – mInalOcani)
  12. Suryanarayanan Suryaprakash at Music Academy: Very good bahudAri. If I remember right, he did neraval which I have never heard before in that raga.
  13. Saketaraman at Music Academy: Good tODi – this in spite of it having to compete with the super stereophonic effect of the human snore from not one, but two gentlemen – one in the row behind me, and one right next to me!
  14. Mudicondan Ramesh (Veena) at Music Academy: Excellent sUryakAntam and also a nice ragamalika pallavi – those kind seem quite tricky!
  15. Smt. Vedavalli at Music Academy: One of the best. Superb tODi with a complicated pallavi where the super-senior gave the mrdangist all that he can handle and more (although he took it all in the right spirit)!
  16. Vijay Siva at Velacherry: He is one my favorites and so no surprise that I loved the concert. He started a detailed maNirangu and for the 10 mins or so during the alapana, he had the 5 or 6 local ladies seated in the first two seats in a complete state of despair as they violently throw guess after guess at each other. They obviously did not get the answer, as once Vijay Siva started the krithi (rAnidi rAdu), one of them looked it up in the krithi index book and I heard n*(n-1) (i.e n times n-1, n being the # of mamis) utterances of “maNirangu” as each mami announced “maNirangu” to each every other mami. I found this amusing, but somehow charming πŸ™‚ !
  17. Hyderabad Brothers at Parthasarathy Swami Sabha: A brilliant pUrvikalyAni, which took up almost the entire concert – because the concert was way too short. In fact probably less than 1.5 hours. Perhaps shockingly, the elder brother shared as much of the limelight as the younger brother πŸ˜‰ !
  18. Abishek Raghuram at Music Academy: Great young talent albeit a bit over-exuberant. Caught only one song, a madyamavati (rAmakata sudha) – forayed a bit too much away from the classical form of the raga. But looking at the confidence this young man has w.r.t his voice, stage presence etc. – impressive indeed.
  19. Tanjore Sankara Iyer at Raga Sudha Hall: He is a contemporary composer and so a very highly respected man in the music circles.
  20. Master BalamuraliKrishna at Mylapore Fine Arts: Caught the last one hour of his concert. Excellent, detailed Hamir Kalyani – something that is not that common

The Canteens

Here is a list of sabha canteens where I tasted the fare and my reflections:

  • Music Academy: A mixed affair. I did not like the Kicchadi, and the “mini meals”. In fact, they sucked. But the fresh hot Mysore Bonda at around 3PM or so made up for it. Excellent coffee. You get strong coffee for Rs 10 – yes just 10 rupees That is about 25 cents. Now, I paid $1.90 last week at a Starbucks for freaking Expresso – it was given in a cup where the expresso occupied 1/10th the volume. I forgot to tell the milk, and so had to add cold milk from the counter. Okay, my goof-up but in the end I had what was equivalent to “Ari pOna kazhanir coffee” (i.e. Suckiest of the suckier coffees of the world), and I paid about $2 for it! I am not in tune with the young generation, and “in-crowd” nowadays, but I do believe “enna koDuma Sir idhu?” applies here?
  • Mylapore Fine Arts: Excellent full-course kalyANa sAppADu type meal (i.e. like a big meal at a wedding), meaning gets served on a banana leaf with 10 waiters bringing stuff after stuff after stuff. I can still picture the “ad” for the canteen – kAdu kuLiRa kutchEri kELunga, mUkku piDikka sAppidunga (literal translation looses the charm: basically listen to enjoyable music, and eat till cant eat anymore).
  • Parthasarathy Swamy Sabha: Had breakfast there. Impressive menu – mostly typical South Indian fare – meaning I loved it :)!
  • Narada Gana Sabha: Again excellent full course “kalyANa sAppADu” type meal. Very satisfying.
  • Brahma Gana Sabha: Disappointing – Not really at the same level as others.

Only in Chennai

Two things I experienced while attending in a Kutcheri which I do not expect to experience in the US:

Cell Phones: Now I am not talking about a cell phone ringing because someone forgot to switch it off or put it in silent mode. That happens everywhere. But when the phone rings so at a Chennai concert, the phone owner does the following: 1. Slow…ly gets it out of the packet (remember that the thing is blaring now) 2. Looks at the caller id. In many cases, he may need to take a few extra seconds to read this. 3. AND answer it right there: Allo! Enna? Appidiya! Naan ippo Academila irukken.. Illa – innu oru manneram irukku (Translation: Hello! What? Oh i see! I am at the Academy now .. No – there is still one more hour).This happened not once, not twice but atleast 3 or four times for me.

The Human Snore: Think of this. You are in a city which is hot 365 days a year. You are retired and so have all the time in the world during a weekday morning. You like music but are perhaps used to free concerts at the temple in the town you grew up. In general, you think music is free, or don’t want to pay too much. You get easily tired by the Chennai sun – even in December.Now picture this – A dimly hit Air Conditioned hall beckons you in the 10AM-4Pm sun. Nice seats. There is music of course and it is free. You also have a canteen right next door with wonderful snacks. So no wonder these mid-morning concerts are huge magnets that specifically attract retirees (i.e. thaathaas and paattis). They get into a cool hall, for free, away from the burning sun to stretch their legs, cool their bodies. Their tired minds and bodies are soothed by music for about 15-30 minutes, and soon it naturally coaxes them to sleep (yes – carnatic music can indeed do that). After a delicious nap, they wake up, and have this inexplicable mid-afternoon South Indian urge for “sweet, kAram and coffee”. They then realize “Bale! Bale! These sabhas – they have thought of everything!” and walk next door, to the canteen, munch on the snacks and head back home. Life is good.Now during the 30-45 minutes when these Thaaathas doze off, they are not aware of themselves, but you are of course. As you are completely soaked in a heavy weight rendition of tODi, you realize Wait a minute. Not everything I hear seems like tODi! It takes a couple of minutes for you to realize that you are listening to the human snore, and takes you even longer to believe your own ears.