Carnatic keys

Demoralised and demonetised, but the season does not stop for any reason in Chennai

The spirit of the city persists despite Cyclone Vardah.

This week, I focus not so much on Carnatic music as I do on its spiritual home - Chennai.

Last year Chennai reeled under the floods. As millions of us worked with our fellow citizens to bring things back to normal, the strange question of whether or not the annual festival for Carnatic music and classical dance should be held, was being bandied about on social media. Many voices, including mine, were raised in protest. We argued that priorities must be changed to reflect the situation, and more resources and attention should be paid to immediate relief and rehabilitation. Notwithstanding all of this, the season went on, and performances were held.

“The ‘season’ does not stop for any reason”, I was told.

A little later, I too joined in and performed. Most organisations did not budge from the established concert calendar. I was at conflict with myself, and I was angry.

This year, we have suffered multiple shocks in this culturally rich city. With the demise of Chief Minister Jayalalithaa and the onslaught of the ferocious Cyclone Vardah, Chennai finds itself trying to make sense of the sordid mess, both literally and politically. Demonetised and debilitated, concert regulars are finding it hard to pay for tickets, preferring instead to hold on to change for essentials. The season, unfazed, has laboured on. Concerts have started in full swing. In any other part of the world, this would seem extraordinary, out of place even.

Are venues unaffected? Are artistes exempt from the circumstances? How do we justify any or all of this?

I believe, well and truly now, in Chennai’s spirit. It was in great evidence last year, but this year reflected something truly outstanding – the greatness of its ordinary people. The day after the cyclone, millions of Chennai citizens took time off standing in ATM queues and started cleaning up the debris, painstakingly and methodically.

Many could be seen smiling, consideration was shown in getting traffic to move unhindered. While electricity and connectivity dipped to an all-time low, people worked with each other to put Chennai back on its feet. As someone helping in the cleanup outside my neighbourhood told me – we have to do everything we can.

Take, for instance, the case of Spaces, a unique venue adjacent to Chennai’s famous Elliot’s Beach created by the multi-faceted dancer Chandralekha.

This quaint amphitheatre has become a haven for expressions and free thought. It has hosted multiple events by legends and amateurs alike. This venue is among the most revered for creative collaborators in the city. Its management, under the able stewardship of visionary art critic and writer Sadanand Menon (a long-time associate of the late dancer) has ensured that Chennai has witnessed some truly extraordinary works of art.

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Cyclone Vardah has damaged a substantive portion of the Spaces property. The very next day, artistes and performers, along with neighbours and friends, picked up machetes and pick-axes and started working on clearing the debris. As is always the case in the south, technology was put to great use and the story of Spaces is doing its rounds on many online forums. With the outpouring of support, it looks like the annual cultural festival will be held on schedule in less than ten days.

One of the most important objectives we are taught when learning to play or sing music, is the ability to understand what the heart wants to hear and try and execute it. The best musical renditions are when the performer manages to pierce our thoughts, feelings and imagination through their incredible artistry.

Chennai is certainly an idea framed by music. In its ability to constantly show its indomitability and innate empathy, I believe that it is rightfully the capital city for culture. What is culture, after all, if it does not teach us to approach life with an enlightened equanimity?

The Chennai cultural season has begun. In the larger picture, while I do not brush many of these important issues aside, I believe that this isn’t the time for argument. For once, I am willing to put aside niggling questions of right and wrong, inclusiveness and its opposite, caste and parochialism, gender biases and so forth, and allow people to do what they need to do to get on with things.

The writer is a classical pianist and music educator based in Chennai. He is credited with introducing the piano to contemporary Carnatic performance.

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