As the unmistakable nip of Margazhi, the month of classical arts and quaint culture, sets in over Chennai, the mellow air instantly becomes redolent of one thing that has given this city a unique flavour. And that one thing is the murky and miasmic smell wafting from the Cooum.
Of course, Margazhi in Chennai is also the month of ‘The Season’, justly famous all over the world for being an unalloyed celebration of a brilliant musical tradition that only around one per cent of the city’s population is actually aware of.
(But this is the bane of all classical stuff. At one point, opera singing had a sum total of 346 followers, with apparently 300 of them mistaking Luciano Pavarotti for the bearded Marlon ‘Godfather’ Brando).
After living in Chennai for nearly 15 years now, and after attending several concerts over this period, I can tell you that the best way to experience Carnatic music is to have very little knowledge of it. To put it conversely, if you understand Carnatic music you cannot possibly enjoy it.
I got to understand this important lesson thanks to my friend Rajagopal, who was a veteran fan in the city sabhas, in that he had discerning knowledge of the stuff that lies firmly at the core of Carnatic musical appreciation during ‘the Season’: What is the day’s menu at the sabha canteen? (Let us face it, on a cool evening a Keeravadai would seem more agreeable than a Keeravani).
But seriously, I adhere to the uncomplicated but traditional school of two-step musical appreciation 1) A song is sung 2) I check out the beautiful girl in the third row. Rajagopal’s school of musical understanding, on the other hand, has several complex steps involving stuff like krithi, sruthi, ragam, talam, bhavam and, of course, the same beautiful girl in the third row. (Rajagopal may be a connoisseur of classical music but he is a guy first).
‘The alapanai is supposed to be that of Darbar, but he has slipped into Nayaki. He is hurting the sensibilities of Carnatic music fans like me. They should never allow him to perform again,’ Rajagopal will angrily blurt into my ears, with me being switched on in the sincere-fan mode: Swivelling the head and neck in haphazard axes with the eyes tightly closed (Being a Carnatic music fan is the scientifically-proven fastest way to contract cervical spondylitis).
Such moments that brought the resident Kapil Sibal inside Rajagopal out, also drew to the fore the inner Manmohan Singh in me, in that Rajagopal will not get even a whiff of reaction from me.
For deep inside, I will be grappling with a bigger conundrum than the one posed by Darbar/Nayaki riddle. And that puzzle usually is: Why the alapanai at all? Why doesn’t the vidwan come right out and begin attempting the lyrics of the number?
But that is never the case, because, I suspect, the whole idea of the alapanai section (where the performer plots the barebones of the ragam through scat singing) is to smother even the elementary chance of a listener like me figuring out what that ragam is by at least the song. Guessing the song and its ragam, and mostly getting it wrong, is technically one of the highpoints of any Carnatic music concert.
To sum it up, when somebody attempts the Darbar ragam, I hope to listen to Darbar. But when an evolved fan like Rajagopal listens to Darbar, he hopes to not listen to Nayaki.
‘But why has he chosen this phrase for niraval?’ is another of Rajagopal’s favourite posers, for which my favourite response is to have a facial expression that is even more impenetrable than a P Sainath article.
For the sake of the uninitiated I need to explain here what a niraval is: If in the alapanai part, the performer loses the skill of articulation, then during the niraval session, he seems to suffer Ghajini-like a short-term memory loss, absolutely incapable of recollecting the rest of the words that make up the krithi. To hide the desperation and embarrassment, he or she then attempts the same line in different riffs, lulling the listeners into believing that it’s all an organic part of the concert.
There seems to be some technical wizardry involved in this, but, all the same, niraval, to me, is simply exalting art to a new level of incomprehension and indecipherability.
Anyway, a few years ago Rajagopal moved out of the city, and without him my concert attendance also came down drastically. But this year I hope to revive my acquaintance with Carnatic music at the sabhas. And without him around I hope to have good fun provided: 1) No one attempts to sing Darbar (Because I still can’t identify Nayaki) 2) That beautiful girl in the third row is also back there.