Chennai is probably at its coolest in December and, thus, it is great for me that the Chennai’s largest cultural festival is scheduled then. The Classical Music and Dance festival starts somewhere near the end of November, peaks during the latter half of December and ends in January.
Connoisseurs of any art look down their noses at the people who claim to appreciate the art on the I-know-what-I-like basis and, probably rightly so, since that normally connotes I-don’t-know-anything-about-the-art. I, unfortunately, belong to that ubiquitous category. Despite four years of listening to Carnatic music, I still cannot make out one raga from the other. It is, however, true that the performances enthrall me.
A Carnatic music concert normally starts with short songs (Do not think I do this to make the terms understandable – it is just that I, myself, have no real knowledge of the appropriate terms to apply). As the concert progresses, the initial alapana (the Tha-Dha-Ri-Na-Na or open-throated humming, if you will) gets longer, the lyrical parts remain about the same and the swarasanchara (sa-ri-ga etc.) gets longer as well.
A typical concert – the prime time variety – normally lasts about two-and-a-half to three hours. The centerpieces of the concert – there are normally two – consist of detailed rendering of the raga in the alapana by the vocalist, followed by the violinist; rendering of the lyrics - with one line picked out for detailed exposition in various phrases of the raga called the Neraval and a swarasanchara. If the vocalist chooses one piece to be a Ragam-Thanam-Pallavi (RTP, for the cognoscenti), the lyrics are replaced largely by the Thanam (Aa-nam-tha-tha-nam etc. Normally the usage is of Aa, Tha and
– the latter two being the reason why it is called the Thanam) with a mere 2-4
line pallavi sung as lyrics with the Neraval done of the same lines.
The RTP actually shows off the musician’s creativity. When the normal Kritis are sung, the composer has detailed the manner it which it is to be sung and, thus, the musician showcases his creativity only the alapana and the swarasanchara. In the RTP, the musician explores the raga through the entire piece. Sometimes the RTP is also done as a ragamalika – sung in multiple ragas – and the dexterity of the musician in shifting from one raga to the other seamlessly is on view. Almost invariably, the RTP is the piece in which the thani-avartanam (thani, for the cognoscenti) – the solo by the percussionists with the vocalist, violinist and the audience just keeping the beat – is played. Where no RTP is rendered, one of the two long pieces is chosen for the thani. After that the concert tails off in a series of smaller compositions – the thukkadas, thillanas, abhangs, bhajans – till the mangalam is sung signaling the end of the concert.
I have always wondered at the fortitude with which the musicians sit through the entire period without taking a break. The audience, however, walks in and out as it pleases. The thani, unfortunately, seems to be the signal for dinner/coffee and the percussionists give of their best to an audience that vanishes into the canteen for food. Given the structure of the concert – where there are no intermissions – it is inevitable that some part of the concert is likely to be selected by the audience for a break and the tradition appears to be the thani as evidenced by the fact that it is played in the first of the long pieces when the concert starts at around 6-6,30 PM and in the second if it starts at 4-4.30 PM thus ensuring that it happens around the normal dinner time for the audience.
A Carnatic concert is a blissful experience for me and I have not found my inability to make out the nuances any hindrance to my joy in listening. In addition, however, it is an impressive sight to see at least one part of Society where achievement in the chosen area of expertise takes on an importance well above the monetary benefits.
Indian music is deeply rooted in Classical music – Carnatic or Hindustani – and almost all the movie songs that have stood the test of time are based on ragas. A tradition the needs keeping alive and it is a heartening sight to see so many young musicians vying to make their place in the sun in this arena.