This is the season of Carnatic music, and every conversation invariably revolves around it. But you cannot take part in it because the problem with Carnatic music is it is too technical, and frankly you are at a stage when even additions involving three-digit numbers is way technical to you.
But luckily for you, we are around, proven experts in the field of being an expert without ever being one. And here we present two simple practical steps to carry on Carnatic music conversations in true connoisseur style, overlooking the fact that we just managed to spell connoisseur by looking it up in the dictionary
Your first move: Choose a sabha, pick a concert, buy a ticket, walk in, choose a seat near any random guy, and soon enough conversationally begin ‘nice song and beautifully rendered, too.’
To which, he will naturally reply, ‘What song?’
In your enthusiasm, you had obviously failed to notice that the singer was yet to get started.
After this, you switch your seat to near another random guy, and wait for the concert to begin, and at the end of a song, you casually say ‘good one. Very well rendered’.
To this, a true Carnatic music fan will reply, ‘aahaa! But then how would you respond to the Begada that Seshagoplan presented at Narada Gana Sabha in 1990? It was deliciously divine’.
You should not spoil the game by saying, ‘I could not have, sir. I was not even born in 1990’.
Your practical counter to him has to be: ‘talking of Begada, I think the one Manakkal Rangarajan came up with at Mumbai’s Shanmukhananda Hall in the 80s can have no competition’.
Internally you may be wondering whether the guy was talking about Begada or you just misheard pakoda, which is also admittedly pretty good at Narada Gana Sabha not just in 1990, when for some strange reason Seshagopalan might have presented it, but even today.
But you should not let that show. You should just stress the name Manakkal Rangarajan with authoritative gusto. It is the trump word. A clincher in any Carnatic music conversation, you better write it down. When you bring his name up, people generally take it that you know that you are talking about. Was he that good? Maybe. The point is everyone agrees that he is good, but nobody has actually heard him that much. A song here, a snatch from a concert on radio there perhaps. That’s all. A bit like what it is with Shivnarine Chanderpaul, who has played over 150 Tests and by all accounts is an outstanding player. But when he is batting, everyone invariably switches the channel to something else. I think even umpires don’t watch him play, and probably that is why he has scored so many runs.
Anyway, once you mention Manakkal Rangarajan’s name, there will be newfound respect for you. And you yourself can feel this because most people will choose to avoid you.
But if you — one without even a working knowledge of music — want to converse for hours without end with experts in the field, your go-to person has to be:
T M Krishna
‘What’s with this guy, T M Krishna?’
In any situation that features a few Carnatic music fans, this question can be your quintessential ‘e4’, an utterly bankable opening gambit.
You need not hold yourself back even on the count that you don’t know who T M Krishna is. For the record, nobody knows. Most newspaper articles describe him as ‘maverick vocalist’, which is a clear example of talking through the hat, because ‘maverick’ is the adjective that newspersons are wont to use when they are basically clueless about the person they are describing. (Non-conformist is another term that you should never take seriously, as that is what journalists employ to describe Subramanian Swamy.)
Anyway, when you pose your query, the most likely response from whoever you are talking to will be, ‘TMK always had this streak of experimentation in him, no?’
And that is the cue for you to pipe up: ‘Yes, But there is something called tradition. And it is the bulwark of Carnatic music’
Your interlocutor will most likely respond with: ‘But what is tradition? What is accepted as tradition today would have been radical when it was possibly set in motion’.
And your response has to be: ‘Sounds acceptable. But with Krishna you can’t say whether he is genuinely trying to break out of the mould or doing things for effect’.
And the counter response could be: ‘Does it matter to us? We must try and judge what he has done and not why he has done. At any rate, only a thin line separates cheesy gimmick and spirited novelty’.
The beauty of this exchange, as you can doubtless see, is there is no mention of what Krishna actually did (or not do). And that is the point: It is immaterial. And anybody can keep this conversation going. When I say anybody, I, obviously, also include Manmohan Singh in this.
The thing is Krishna is forever up to something or the other — he is the Kanye West that is possible within the staid and stuffy world of Carnatic music. Last season, Krishna did many unticketed concerts (free entry), and this naturally led to plenty of agonising hand-wringing from Carnatic cognoscenti, most probably because many of them were worried that Krishna’s decision straightaway nullified the complimentary passes they had acquired at great effort for the entire season.
The year before that Krishna stayed off (for most part) as a singer and showed up as a fan at the Sabhas, which is a nice sentiment actually, But you only wished that it was actually followed by some other senior vidwans who are well past their prime and their voice has become so shaky that even their normal speech is filled with unwitting gamakas.
Anyway, this season Krishna is already at it: he reportedly stopped midway into a concert, saying that he did not feel like continuing it. The details are sketchy at this point, and we don’t know whether after he stopped singing, Krishna left the hall or stayed around as just a fan.
If indeed he had hung around, we just hope that he is not the person that you broached the name of Manakkal Rangarajan to.