Music to the eyes

What separates the average ‘bathroom singer’ and the ones who get to perform at places which are not bathrooms, though a couple of sabhas I visited this season could do with a few? Or put it another way (so that I can get to add a few more lines saying the same thing all over again), what does a performing Carnatic musician has that the rest of us don’t? The answer to this unequivocally is: More dresses and gold ornaments to flaunt.

After being to several kutcheris this season, I have come to the inevitable conclusion —— you can quote me on this —— the most important talent to be construed a top-notch musician, more important perhaps than shruthi and laya alignment, has to be the dress and make-up alignment. And there ought to be a straight connection between silk and sangeetham.

Otherwise there is no other logical explanation to the way most musicians physically present themselves at the concerts. Some women vocalists in fact have so much silk on their sari that an entire generation of silkworms must have been wiped out to weave them.

Latter day environmentalists or anthropologists or whoever does research on such things, when they sit down to research on who made the silkworms totally endangered, will doubtless put Carnatic musicians on the top of their list.

As far as the musicians’ jewellery goes, let us put it this way, some of them are in danger of becoming walking bullion markets. Half of India’s annual sale of gold is gobbled up by Carnatic musicians, and the remaining half is presumably shared between film stunt personnel and Bappi Lahiri.

And the make-up of most women musicians should cost slightly more than what it did Kamal Haasan for his Dasavatharam, in which he hideously hid himself behind ten different roles.

If you think I am making exaggerated and sweeping generalisations, then can you recall at least one woman singer who has ever come to a concert in anything other than shimmering silk, shinier gold and a face that has more layers of talc and cream than there are layers around the earth . I bet you can’t.

But don’t for a moment think that glitter and glisten are suffice to make you a highly paid musician. Expressions and miming are also key to being accepted as a big performer.

Let me elaborate: Have you ever been to a Carnatic vocal concert? If yes, then read on. If you have not, then stop reading this and go to a concert forthwith. Okay, now that you are back, let me pose this to you: Did you not grimace at the facial expressions of the singer?

If you didn’t, then either your eye-sight is bad enough for you to be eligible for vison-challenged people quota or you did not venture anywhere beyond the canteen, which is, by the way, not a bad idea considering the fact that most sabhas these days take care to serve better adais than attanas, so to speak.

As I was saying, most vocalists contort their faces with a writhing tightness that is otherwise possible only if you are being wheeled into the delivery room with labour pains. While touching higher octaves, vocalists bend their neck and face at such an agonisingly acute and high angle that they either look like one trying to unhinge the cranial set-up from the rest of the body or someone struggling to cope up in an area where someone else had broken wind pretty badly.

And while negotiating a swara or neraval pattern, singer generally close their eyes tightly not dissimilarly to the reaction of an irritated patient when the doctor pushes a sharp needle into the veins. The vehement slapping of the thigh, though admittedly for the tala pattern, would doubtless fetch a double nelson at a wrestling bout.

A Carnatic music performance, if you  understand, is a class pantomime act. And to be a Carnatic vocalist you need to have not just supple vocal chords but suppler muscles too. It is not to be attempted if you are not a double-jointed contortionist, especially from above the waist.

The only beings who can come anywhere near matching this are the rasikas who take the music and themselves very seriously. When the singer touches the higher octaves which is frequently, these fans can be seen to throw their arms up with alacrity  as if someone had put a gun at their waist.

And when the singer tackles soft and mellifluous passages, these rasikas let go some friendly ‘tchoo, tchoo’ seemingly calling a recalcitrant doggie for a biscuit. When the singer rains copious swaras, these rasikas generally shake their heads, which attempted anywhere else would entail urgent treatment for epilepsy.

All in all, it is good fun. Good enough at least for me to manage one week of Crank’s Corner. And next week? Well, I’ll face the music then!

(This is an old column I wrote for the publication several years ago).