Carnatic keys

Ragas in the rain: Playing the blues in flood-wrecked Chennai

The spirit of Chennai is not in its music and dance. It is in its people.

It is evening in a rain ravaged Chennai. Between my dad and I, there is the sound of a fan, and some late evening cicadas making some ambient noise somewhere far away. We’ve lived a lifetime in the last fortnight, and my dad, already ill, is somnolent. In dreams, where clarity breaks through like golden sunlight after the deluge, he talks of a different time, a different set of ideals, other people. I am torn between the past and the present, and the uncertain future, and with a feeling of molten lead settling down into the crevices of my heart, I listen in. Tempus Fugit.

In all of the madness during and after the Chennai floods, the question to me is not the self indulgent moral dilemma facing Carnatic musicians.  Although I face it too.  Deeply and profoundly. On a fateful evening just a week ago, I had to stand guard for about 19 corpses that surfaced after two feet of water drained away.  Ragas? I asked. You’ve got to be kidding me.

My dear friend and jazz pianist extraordinaire Madhav Chari passed away just a month ago. It seems like years, as so much has happened to eclipse that particular sadness. Not only because he was one of India’s rarest jazz talents, but also a personality of a different cut. Madhav Chari wouldn’t have been surprised with myopic views from anyone – indeed, he kept cautioning me not to look for too much goodness in people. Madhav would have helped, I know – and would have been calling me incessantly to find out how he could contribute. He was one of those sorts of people. Against people, but curiously enough, on humanity’s side in the final reckoning. As most of us artists are.

Parisian Thoroughfare

So the music and dance season is on. The usual suspects, the usual sabhas, the concerts, the discussions and whatnot. There is of course a tinge of sadness throughout it all. Sometimes, I feel I am part of a giant burlesque act, and sometimes I feel I am with some of the most wonderful people. This, I’m sure, is how everyone feels. Confused, hurt, angry and yet eager to keep contributing.

To me, as it is for many other citizens of this music-soaked landscape, many important questions remain unanswered. Why the state machinery was lax. Why it failed in galvanising those of us willing to help in more systematic and meaningful ways. Why we didn’t see our chief minister in person or giving out a strong message of solidarity during the deluge, but had to endure two weeks of poor information, lack of timely messaging before her voice could be heard.

What we shouldn’t have been asking was whether there should be a music season. What was the moral dilemma? Performers could choose to do so if they wanted to, contribute if they wanted to through art or heart, or choose not to and instead work on the field or show consideration in other ways. Why were these questions even pertinent? The question of the music season is a private one. Among a select group of music and dance supporters. Live and let live.

Instead, we should have been asking why many other things failed, or were overlooked. We should have been highlighting the good to garner more traction. Like for instance, we should have expedited action on private public partnerships through concerted information gathering. Or just talked.  About how even now private entities are partnering with the Corporation of Chennai and other civic bodies, heroes in this struggle, and contributing to a smarter and more empowered Chennai.

Chennai deluge

The spirit of Chennai is not in its music and dance. It is in its people. And it is in the hearts of everyone from other cities who stood by its people.

As for the kutcheris, go listen to one if you feel up to it. Or don’t. But let’s conserve our energies for the more critical debates we need to have.

To me, the 24 hours we struggled to find a generator for my dad who needs this for his medical support would probably replace thoughts of concerts and whether or not I feel like doing them. Nor would any amount of virtuosic playing on my part help me face the horror of trying to find folks to claim bodies left behind.

Chennai has already triumphed. But time will tell us whether the learnings will prove useful in the long run.

Bharat Sangeet Utsav 2015 | Indian Music Medley | Sashank 

Anil Srinivasan is a well-known pianist and music educator based in Chennai. He was personally involved in rescue and relief operations during the Chennai floods. 

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