Chennai Music Season on the Cloud!

This piece was written for the News site – The News Minute and was carried on 6th Dec, 2020 It can be read here:

https://www.thenewsminute.com/article/chennai-s-margazhi-kacheris-be-streamed-online-what-rasikas-will-miss-most-139107

My uncle who lives in Baroda is a much disappointed man these days. As an ardent follower of Carnatic music in general and the Chennai music season in particular, he has been a regular at the kacheri beat in Chennai every December for many years. But sadly, this year he will not be there. Like him, there are so many from all over the world who will maintain physical distancing from Chennai and the music season this year.

COVID-19 has disrupted the harmony of the entire music season in Chennai. Though theatres have opened and performances allowed, albeit with myriad restrictions, carrying on with the music season in business-as-usual mode has been understandably difficult for the organisers. First of all, the weather at this time in Chennai though pleasant is also conducive to spreading viral infections. Second, the chunk of the audience for concerts are senior citizens who fall in the more vulnerable category for COVID-19. Third, the air-conditioned halls, even with physical distancing norms, may not augur well for controlling the spread of the coronavirus.

Yet, in order to keep the music spirit and the tradition alive, the Federation of City Sabhas, a group of the leading sabhas in Chennai, has decided to roll out the music season – online. Branded Yours Truly Margazhi (December 15, 2020 to January 15, 2021), the idea is to take the music online so that people can enjoy it from the comfort of their homes wherever they are, appreciating the Thodi without worrying about COVID-19.

For Carnatic music lovers, this is a small consolation that they can still catch up with the kacheris during the season. But everyone without exception will admit that the whole experience of being in Chennai during the season is different and that will be thoroughly missed. Because it’s not just about the music.

First up, for rasikas young and old alike the music buzz in Chennai during the season is palpable. I’ve seen youngsters discussing the new kriti sung by a particular artist or an innovative tweak to a raga or a new technique adopted by an instrumentalist and so on after the concerts. There are also comparisons with the previous year’s selection of ragas/kritis, the differences, the repetitions, and so on. All that will be sorely missed this year.

Secondly, talk to anyone and they’ll tell you that during the season, the caterer and the menu at the sabha canteen is as important as the artist and the kacheri. It’s difficult to say which is more music to the ears. The excitement of opting for a Sanjay Subramanyam concert with Pattappa’s full meals at the Music Academy or a Priya sisters programme at Parthsarthyswamsabha (of stand-up comedian Alex fame) with Mountbatten Mani’s Carrot kheer after running a complex algorithm of Artist-Sabha-Caterer-Menu will be deeply missed this year. And my sympathies are with those for whom the season is the only chance in the whole year to savour Vazhapoo vadai or Elaneer Payasam and other such exotic stuff. So, while rasikas can log in and enjoy their favourite kacheris online, they’ll have to make do with homemade molaga bajjis or rava kesari this time.

Even for officegoers, the season usually is a godsend. I know of many who take a break from bringing lunch from home during the season. Instead, they just hop to one of the nearest sabha canteens during lunch break, have their fill and then get back to work. This year, since most are still working from home, there will be no canteen hopping.

For folks in Chennai though, I understand that some of the caterers are making arrangements for continuing with food and catering arrangements as usual with limited dine-in facility and of course home delivery. But people who would secretly gorge on tasty fried kuzhi paniyarams and ghee dripping kasi halwa at the sabha canteens during kacheri breaks, concealing it from their concerned family members, have to settle for safer options like steamed idlis, sevai, etc. even if they decide to order home delivery. On the positive side though, at home one can continue to munch on snacks and drink endless cups of filter coffee while the kacheri is in progress unlike live concerts where you can only do so during breaks.

Another aspect of the Chennai music season experience that will be missed this year is the opportunity to show off one’s musical knowledge. During kacheris, it is habitual for knowledgeable rasikas to guess the raga the moment the singer commences a raga alapana or during the Ragam-Thanam-Pallavi rendition and get brownie points from fellow rasikas. In the confines of your home, you can guess the raga and impress only your spouse/family, which of course has limited appeal.

‘Chennai has two seasons – summer season and music season’ is a beaten to death cliché now. But it is also a fact. So the music season is the only time Chennaivaasis get to take out their winter wear (read as mufflers, shawls and monkey caps!). However, one will have to wait another year to pop out the winter wear as it’ll be funny to wear mufflers and monkey caps while sitting in front of your screens watching the concerts online inside the house. Same is the situation for the collection of silk sarees that women normally flaunt during the season.

One solution for both of the above is to arrange small get-togethers at home for those interested in Carnatic music and watch kacheris together. Like how people in the US get together during Super Bowl matches. Live streaming on big screens at home, the company of likeminded friends, tasty homemade food or food ordered from outside, and discussions about music and related topics while watching concerts together may not be a bad alternative this year.

Lastly, one other thing ardent sabha hoppers will miss this year is posting selfies and pictures on social media from different sabhas and canteens. Insta posts of selfies from the same couch every day may be a tad boring even if you use different hashtags.

The Indian Premier League (IPL) season this year was also different. With no spectators at matches, the only audience was those watching from their homes. Yet, the tournament was a huge hit. Likewise, one hopes that the Chennai music season in spite of being not live this year will go on to be a huge success with the online streaming experience.

Similar to IPL where they played pre-recorded crowd cheers for every boundary or wicket, can they also pre-record and play “Besh, besh, Bale, Bale and applause of the rasikas during the streaming to maintain the kacheri effect?

This season, music is going to pour literally from the “cloud”. Hopefully the experience will leave the fans in Cloud Nine.

T.M.Krishna – A Musician then, an Activist now!

So, T.M.Krishna (TMK) did manage to sing in Delhi yesterday, at the original appointed date though under a different aegis. Originally TMK’s concert was to be under the aegis of SPIC-MACAY and supported by Airports Authority of India (AAI). Quoting some bizarre reasons, AAI pulled out of the event and SPIC-MACAY had to cancel/re-schedule the show. It was clear that the reasons for the cancellation were not straight forward as they were professed. It was more to do with people from the Right wing trolling TMK for his views against the Central Government, his open rebellion against the Carnatic establishment, his open declaration to sing songs of other religions on Carnatic concerts and in general for going against the tide on many issues related to music and everything else.

As an ardent follower of Carnatic music, I have been following TMK for many years now. He is a talented singer and among the younger generation of singers, he is right at the top. I live in Mumbai and I usually don’t miss his concerts as long as they are in the weekends! While on stage, you can see through his passion and involvement in his music. Usually he is so consumed by his music, I wonder if he really sings for the audience or himself! His style of singing is very different. In Tamil, we say ‘Konjam izhu izhunnu izhuthu paadarathu’ (Stretch and stretch while singing) He doesn’t usually sing the very popular Kritis which people generally are familiar. He picks up not so familiar and tough Kritis and delves into them. And in the past few years, one can notice that he doesn’t stick to the established format of a Carnatic Kacheri. One can cite many examples but his rendition of the Kriti ‘Hiranmayim,…’ in Raga Lalitha or the more popular Krishna Nee Begane,… in Yaman Kalyani are samples of his talent and brilliance. In the current crop of singers, in my books he is right up there.  Watching him, his expressions and his way of communicating with his co-artists on stage itself is an enjoyable experience.

 Being a genius that he is, naturally he has got a big following among Carnatic music lovers. But, I see that something has changed. And this is not all of a sudden. As per me, it is since 2013 when his book on Carnatic music titled “A Southern Music – The Karnatik Story” got published. Till then, TMK was a gifted Carnatic musician but with the release of the book he also became an author and a controversial one at that. (Confession – I haven’t read the book yet and it is on my bucket list).  In the book, TMK kicked up quite a bit of storm questioning established thoughts and ideas on Carnatic music not leaving even the spelling and saying it is not Carnatic but “Karnatik”!!! In the run up to the release of the book and after, TMK started ruffling quite a few feathers!  And since then, I have been noticing that among the Carnatic followers, he has become a bit of enigma! An individual who is extremely talented in singing but who is a rebel and an eccentric!

True to his now established image of a rebel, TMK stopped singing in main line Sabhas during the very popular December “Season” in Chennai. He started a parallel forum called “Urur-Olcott Kuppam Festival” to take the Kacheri to slums of Chennai. TMK even kicked off “Kacheri on the move” in a moving bus in Chennai during the season – all in an attempt to take Carnatic music out of the Sabhas to the streets! Such initiatives soon earned him the Ramon Magsaysay Award early in his life in 2017 and as the citation claimed in recognition of “his forceful commitment as artist and advocate to art’s power to heal India’s deep social divisions”!  And also a bunch of critics! Still, he went about his mission of breaking the class divide that exists in Carnatic music by collaborating with transgender community on stage in his Kacheris, setting Tamil writer Perumal Murugan’s lines to Carnatic music and singing them in his concerts and so on!

In the meantime, I observed that TMK also started articulating his thoughts on matters outside the music domain as well. He started taking up issues related to environment strongly. His ‘Porambokku paadal’ music video was an initiative to use music to highlight the environmental damage done by the Ennore Power plant. Soon, we started seeing him being part of many other issues like taking on Hindustan Unilever against dumping toxic Mercury in Kodaikanal,… He is now a regular columnist and the topics are not restricted just to music. He is a strident critic of the present Modi Government and anything to do with Right wing!

Now in my known Carnatic fans circle, I see a sea change in their outlook and attitude towards TMK and his music. He is no longer the genius he was a few years ago in their eyes when he just limited himself to Carnatic music. He is today labelled a leftist, Naxal supporter and a publicity seeker! He is today accused of raking up issues which is not his domain just to stay in limelight!

I am not hence surprised that TMK is subject to constant trolling on Social media.  Even his erstwhile fans are calling to boycott his concerts as he is a “gone case” as per them! This is where I have a big problem. As I mentioned before, I am an unapologetic admirer of his craft. I am in agreement with some of his thoughts and ideas. I don’t agree with him on many counts. His take on M.S.Subbulakshmi for example, I thought was a lot of conjecturing. Yet, I have no problem in listening to his music. When I listen to his music, I don’t think of his views on Indian politics or Narendra Modi!

There could be a happy ending here! By constantly trolling him, the right wingers and others are in the verge of achieving something that the Carnatic aficionados haven’t been able to, all these years – That of taking Carnatic music beyond the ears of just South Indians! I heard that TMK had a full house in Delhi yesterday at the concert with people even standing for full two hours to listen to his music! And If I go by the tweets with #TMKrishna, I can make out that many probably went to a Carnatic concert for the 1st time in Delhi yesterday and came out intrigued by the form of music!

Today, Thodur Madabusi Krishna might have turned an activist. But he is a musician first. And an extraordinary one at that. So, my appeal to fellow Carnatic followers is, if you don’t like his views, ignore them! But, leave him alone. But, it doesn’t make any sense to call for a ban on his singing! Lest, Music’s loss could become some political party’s gain!

Image courtesy: India Today