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Alapanai

Start the Meesic!

This week’s topic is classical Carnatic music.

I can already imagine two-thirds of my total readership (in actual number terms, three people) dropping the piece and moving on to serious pursuits, like watching Rakhi ka Insaaf, where the intellectual participation begins and ends with remembering the channel the show is on.

Let us face it, at any given point, there are more people interested in, say, Bigg Boss, than listening to classical music. Why? Because Pamella Anderson doesn’t do Carnatic music concerts.

No, many of the singers actually sound like Dolly Bindra.

Oops sorry. But seriously, the point is all classical arts call for highbrow involvement of the aficionados, when in reality a vast of majority of us, apart from not knowing what ‘aficionado’ means, are not even sure how it’s spelt (Note to the Editorial Desk: Somehow get the spelling right for the word I am trying to describe here. And for God’s sake, don’t let that chap from Kerala handle this. He may search the dictionary for ‘aficionado’ under ‘o’).

This is the problem with most classical pursuits — it involves a surfeit of technical terms. Just to give a random example from the world of opera, there are stuff like libretto, alto coloratura, soubrette, spinto, soprano, mezzo-soprano, tenor, baritone, bass, countertenor, castrato. These are far too many to identify and remember, especially considering the fact that all of opera singing seems about just replicating the scream of a torture victim. Aiyooooooooooooo! Voila, you just sounded like Placido Domingo.

I thought the opera world would have got the message when the ear-blasting automobile industry began naming blaring engines after operatic performers (alto, for instance).

Anyway, Carnatic music too has a caboodle of clarity-wanting words. If you happen to make it to a concert, one of the first things that you may come up against is: alapanai. (Note: Not a la panai. A la ‘panai’ may mean ghatam)

Alapanai is basically the freelance prelude to the actual song wherein the singer attempts to croon it in a manner as if he/she were dumb or at least laid low by a sudden paralysis to the face —- that is basically incapable of articulating even a single word normally.

Many lay fans may wonder why the vidwan doesn’t come out straight and begin attempting the lyrics of the number. But this is just not on, because the whole idea of the alapanai section is to plot the barebones of the ragam through scat singing, thereby smothering even the elementary chance of the listener 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 concert.

Another moment of undoubted greatness in a Carnatic music concert is to understand the language of the song. When we say ‘understand the language’, we don’t mean it in the manner of comprehending the meaning of the lyrics, we mean it in the manner of figuring out which language it is at all.

Carnatic music is generally replete with songs whose language is not understandable to both the performer and the listener. But top musicians have provided a fitting answer to such misplaced criticism by vocalizing in a manner that all the remnants of any identifiable language in the lyrics are butchered beyond recognition. In a typical Carnatic concert, ‘Oye, V channel’ may be the rough version of ‘Odi Vilayadu Pappa’.

In contrast, you will have no language problem in a Hindustani music concert, because there are no songs with actual words here —- the singers have to make do with just a couple of vowels, studiously s t r e t c h i n g them for the entirety of the concert.

But when music is the message why bother with the language? For a performing Carnatic musician, there are two more important aspects to focus her or his attention on. Sruthi and Laya? No, make-up and jewellery.

When they tote up India’s annual bullion sale, they will realise that a half of it is gobbled up by stunt masters working in Tamil cinema. The remaining half is left to be shared between Carnatic musicians and, yes, you guessed it right, Bappi Lahiri.

(Okay rap musicians in the west are also prone to cover their persons with gold. But rapsters are unique, they have very many special talents including the one to wear sun glasses even in the dead of night, especially when inside a room, and think it to be all chic and cool).

And the make-up for most musicians, especially the women ones, should cost slightly more than it did for the producers of Enthiran to make the 60-year-old Rajnikanth look like a, er, 60-year-old man who has been asked to play a 30-year-old scientist.

Okay, I have made sweeping generalisations and unfair fun of Carnatic musicians and their methods. In my experience, they are a touchy lot and are prone to protest (with long, trenchant letters) at the slightest hint of slight. I am in for some rap from the ‘ragaists’. I better get ready to face the music.

In other words, my Marghazhi season is all set to begin.