Mourning Raga

TM Krishna is a Carnatic vocalist, the author of A Southern Music, and a writer on contemporary issues
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Come war or tsunami, the Chennai Music Season has never been cancelled since its inception. But by not making an exception for the city’s devastating floods, it has proved itself to be an anaesthetic bubble impervious to the world around
The waters had hardly receded, many rain refugees were yet to go back to their homes to try and salvage what little remained of their possessions, citizens of larger Chennai were still to come to terms with what had just happened, relief operations were in full swing. And yet, arching over the throbbing trauma, a debate arose in the world of artists and music organisers in Chennai and beyond. The million-dollar question was this: should the famed ‘December Music Season’ go on as scheduled, or should it be cancelled or postponed?

Ironically, even during the ‘active’ days of the deluge, when most Sabhas had called off the concerts scheduled between 2 December and 6 December, there was one Sabha secretary who was calling artists to tell them that their concerts would go on. He only wanted to confirm that the performers would make it. In the car park of Narada Gana Sabha, even as the RSS was handing out sanitary napkins and other relief material, inside the air-conditioned hall, Kambojis and Kalyanis were being rendered by musicians under the aegis of Kartik Fine Arts.

By 7 December, quite a number of dancers and musicians had decided to cancel their concerts, saying that this was just not the time for such an event. It is believed that a few of the organisers too had more or less decided to postpone their festival. The rumour mills, however, have it that N Murali, boss of the prima donna among Chennai’s Sabhas, The Music Academy, called many of the leading Sabhas and musicians, convincing them that things must go on ‘as per schedule’. This is not entirely unbelievable, considering the views he has since expressed in the media about why the Chennai Music Season cannot be ‘touched’. As with any discourse, almost all discussion stops once clichés are offered as reasoning. Some of these may appear valid on the surface, but once we go into the finer details, we realise the insensitivity with which things are moving ahead.

Are not infotech professionals heading back to their offices? Are not cinema theatres open? The Tamil Nadu State Marketing Corp’s liquor shops are also open for business, we are told. So why shouldn’t artists do what they do? This is a convincing argument, except for the fact that no one has said musicians should not sing or dancers should not dance. One is only questioning the Music Season playing out in all its usual pomp and glory. The issue is the season, not the arts. The plain fact is that holding such an event in the context of this ‘once in a century’ flood is a vulgarity. The same would have been said if a film festival was scheduled at this time or a mega manufacturing show. So let us not confuse people by making this about artists making art. Since this larger-than-life arts extravaganza happens to be scheduled at a time when the city has been devastated, we really need to revisit its relevance. We can try renaming the season’s performances ‘prayer concerts’ or ‘healing concerts’ but we all know these are just feel-good stunts.

One other argument that I have heard is that many accompanists, junior musicians and technicians depend on the Season for a bulk of their annual income. The truth is that barring the star musicians and some senior accompanying artists, most others are paid a pittance for their contribution. It is because of this that many accept an enormous number of concerts, some performing even three times a day. So whatever they make comes at the cost of much strain, stress and effort, not to mention expenditure. These are musicians, not machines. During the Music Season, a junior artist only receives between Rs 500 and Rs 1,500 per concert. Even accompanists playing for the stars and other evening-slots can command only between Rs 2,000 and Rs 3,500 per concert. With no other choice, they end up playing anywhere between 35 and 60 concerts in December. A request for an increase of even Rs 500 leads to heated discussions with many Sabha secretaries. It is important to note that it is the accompanying musicians who need to toil much more to make a decent living in December. The worst hit are the kanjira and ghatam artists, since they are unfairly ranked low in the music hierarchy, pushing them to crowd their calendar beyond what they can bear.

Here I must place on record that The Music Academy does remunerate all musicians very well compared to other organisations. Accompanists who are regular on the Carnatic circuit make anything between Rs 50,000 and Rs 65,000 a month from approximately 15 concerts. On international tours, their earnings can jump to about Rs 2 lakh per month. Therefore, to claim that the Music Season is their largest breadbasket is much too simplistic a way of understanding the economics of music making. Musicians who are on the fringes of the Carnatic universe will be at the losing end, irrespective of the month of the year.

But the greatest flaw in this argument is that it reduces this tragedy to numbers. This is a time to mourn; if you don’t, then you are not human. But mourning does not mean inaction. Only when you mourn and empathise with the affected do you realise their plight. For musicians who have lost homes, this is not just a financial loss, it is a loss of memories, music notations, sruti boxes, their favourite mridangams, tavils, nagasvaras. I know of musicians who have not had time to clean their homes because they have to be at concerts. They are not in a position to cancel their appearance even if they are in no mood to play. The main artists and organisers care very little about their emotional well-being. One musician told me, “It is easy for main artists to cancel. They have the power. I cannot, I play for so many people.” Since they work within this subservient environment, some accompanists have trained themselves to be emotionless. They really have very little choice. They have to toe the line of main artists and the major Sabhas. We cannot ignore the power and hierarchy at play. Few ‘main musicians’ have called a flood affected accompanist and asked him to take care of his family and home while promising him compensation for the concerts he will have to forgo.

ANOTHER FORM OF hypocrisy is that main performers who have until now paid their accompanists extremely poorly, have suddenly spotted an opportunity to donate their concert remuneration to them in complete public glare now that their loss has become so well known. This is the old opportunism that the world of Carnatic music has long been accustomed to.

As far as technicians go, especially sound technicians, most of them are attached to theatres and earn a monthly salary. It is the light technicians for dance performances who will lose out in case of a postponed or cancelled season. They could have been compensated collectively.

Y Prabhu, secretary of Sri Krishna Gana Sabha, made the point that the Season is a time when young musicians are noticed and they get many opportunities to gain larger audiences. There is no denying this, but his organisation could have held a truncated series, cutting out all the frills and focusing only on new talent. This would have given his festival a special purpose. Senior and popular musicians could have been asked to step back from performing and support this idea.

Then there are the claims about relief fund contributions. Those stars who have taken the decision to be part of this mega event have generously announced that they will donate the funds to the Chennai flood relief, and the Sabhas too have said they will contribute. First, we need to ask if a paucity of funds is the main problem in the relief and rehabilitation efforts. We all know the answer. Beyond that, the musicians who have made this announcement are financially capable of contributing to the funds without performing in the season.

If the Sabhas are planning to contribute cash from their ticket collections, then it is not their money; it is in a sense the artists’ money that they are giving away. I am not sure what they are going to do, but I do suspect that it will be a combination of ticket sales and artists’ contributions, with this sum padded up by some benevolent individuals and sponsors. But an organisation like The Music Academy has enough funds to contribute without the Season playing out as planned. We should also remember that some Sabhas, including the Academy, make money throughout the year by renting out their auditorium space. Irrespective of the figure on the cheque, which I presume will be handed over to Chief Minister J Jayalalithaa in a photo-op, the sheer disregard for people, including our own, cannot be erased.

If fundraisers are held with focus and clarity, everybody will back such a proposal. But this has nothing to do with the music season. By trying to convert it into a quasi-fundraiser, the powers at the helm—organisations as well as musicians—have only played the old political trick of buying support with money.

Now comes the difficult part: sponsors. It is possible that some may have threatened to redirect their funds to the relief efforts if the Season was called off. For most Sabhas other than The Music Academy, this might have been the biggest hurdle. But here, too, there was a solution that none of them seems to have considered. All the Sabhas could have come together and held a joint music season in early January for a week. We could have all paused, taken stock of all that happened and curated a meaningful art festival that was sensitive to its context and environment. In this time of need, we would have saved plenty of our resources—electricity, food, transport, lighting and sound, plus actual money too. The nuances of the deal with sponsors and award events could have been worked out. But, no, ‘We will go on as we always do.’

Another argument for ‘an unchanged Music Season’ is that it has never been cancelled since its inception. Whether it was the World War or for that matter the devastating tsunami, we went on. This statement only underlines the point that the Season is an anaesthetic bubble impervious to the world around. I deeply regret the fact that in December 2004, I just went on with the Season as if nothing happened. I wish I could go back and change that. This December, we had an opportunity to depart from routine and make the world of Carnatic music integral to the life around it—the life which sustains it. But we have sacrificed it at the altar of arrogance.

But the fact that many artists and rasikas have, in conversation if not in public writings or statements, raised these questions about the Season is in itself hope-giving. It needs to be understood with greater depth and taken forward. Why did they want a postponement or cancellation? Unknowingly, they have acknowledged an inner discomfort with the nature of the Season. It has become a gross display of power, money and elitism. The contrast between ground reality and the Season’s self-delusion was too sharp to ignore, and hence this call came from many.

Even when the decision was made to go ahead with the Season, there were so many ways we could have made it empathetic. Simple things such as making all the concerts free, allowing everyone to come and experience the music sans any membership or sponsorship privileges, would have been beautiful. We could have even considered having concerts in open public spaces, enabled dancers and musicians to take their art to the streets. Outreach concerts closer to the homes of musicians and art service providers affected by the flood could have been organised. Chennai’s tragedy needed an extraordinary and caring response, but we failed. As many say, the show will go on. Of course it will. It has, after all, become just that—a show.