Artists Sandeep Narayan, Radhe and Praveen Kumar about the city’s cultural scene and the changes it’s accepting and resisting. MIHIR BALANTRAPU
Today, the Classical arts are like a giant David in a world of puny but proliferated Goliaths. It is a world where a short, stocky Asian man straddling an invisible horse and shrieking soundlessly at posteriors goes viral as a global phenomenon while a famous Carnatic musician feels like he must offer his concerts free of charge to attract an audience in greater numbers. The youth reportedly find the arts “boring”, and say it is “not for them”.
Yet, ask Carnatic vocalist Sandeep Narayan, Bharatanatyam dancer Radhe and Carnatic/Fusion percussionist Praveen Kumar — a different-yet-not-so-different brand of “youths” — and they’ll give you the other side of the story. These guys are today’s youngsters who have taken up the arts as a profession, driven largely by their passion for their chosen form. Any outdated notions of Classical artistes being a staid, forbidding bunch are dispelled by the sheer transparency of the interaction with them.
“Artistes in general are much more accessible nowadays,” says Sandeep, a rising Classical vocalist who was born and raised in the United States and chose to move to Chennai a few years ago to immerse himself better in the hotbed of South Indian culture. “There are fewer barriers. Like, just this morning I got a Facebook message from Trichur Narendran (a senior mridangam artiste)!”
“It’s not all serious,” says Praveen, an engineering student who has his own fusion band, plays twelve different global percussion instruments, but prefers to allot a special slot to Classical music. “We have a lot of fun. After a concert, I might get some coffee with friends and discuss the concert.” Of course, he has other pals who are not in the music field. Radhe started dancing in earnest when she was 16. A student of Kalakshetra, she says a large number of her friends are not culturally inclined, but it doesn’t make a difference as they can still connect on various levels.
It is a smaller world today thanks to social networking and information is absorbed in tinier morsels. Will the shortening attention span force any dilutions within the art forms? Sandeep disagrees vehemently: “Classical music is always going to have a niche audience, and I don’t think there’s ever a need to water down the substance just to reach out to a wider audience. Social networking already does that for you!”
“Presentation may vary according to the venue or audience, but the fundamentals of the art should never change,” insists Radhe, who speaks with a calming cadence, much like her father Sadguru Jaggi Vasudev of Isha Yoga fame. Praveen agrees, analogising the arts scene to an apparel store: “If you go to Fabindia, you get Indian clothing like kurtas or sherwanis. You don’t expect them to sell jeans and t-shirts just to make business!”
The shortening attention span is not endemic to the audience alone, it seems. “The world is changing; it’s moving faster. Even artistes are doing more things at once and have less time to sit down and practise. There are stories of yesteryear seniors practising for up to 12 to 16 hours in a day! Nobody does that anymore. Nowadays, artistes are concerned only with how to get on stage!”
So if an artiste can slip into the limelight with so fewer hours of exertion, was much of the work put in by the veterans redundant? “Oh, there’s no such thing as superfluous practice!” asserts Sandeep. Well, then did he consider himself lucky to be able to match such stalwarts with such a shortfall of experience and practice? He vehemently denies that he is anywhere near the level attained by the greats. “You certainly won’t catch me saying any such thing on record,” he adds with characteristic levity.
Amid the blur of the ultra-kinetic modern world, it is understandable that most young people do not have the time or inclination to invest in the rigour of learning an art form till its completion.
But in the case of aspiring artistes, this constriction can be something of a blessing as it forces them to whittle their focus down to the craft they would like to specialise in. “There are those who say they are multitalented and like to dabble in a lot of different things, but if you look at their ability overall, it may be negligible,” says Radhe.
But they haven’t had their abilities handed to them on a platter. Praveen seems to cherish his training and says there’s nothing like a good foundation. “The most tedious part is that you’re saddled with these boring, basic exercises that you have to keep repeating over and over! But it’s this foundation that allows an artiste to later be able to articulate any idea with his instrument, vocal or otherwise.”
Sandeep narrates his travails of the time he tried his hand at mridangam and kanjira. “I’d be messing around with the mridangam. So my brother, a mridangam artiste, told me to play the basic exercises, and I played all the ‘taakita dheekita jham kita..’ and stuff. But when I got to the next set, it was the same thing with slight variations, and soon I was like, ‘How long is this gonna go on for! This is boring!’” he says in a mock exasperated tone, “And I never kept it up.”
It’s not a bed of roses with dance either, if you ask Radhe. “Though discipline is paramount, sometimes you’re just not in the mood and at such times, you just have to learn to step back and leave the idea be, let it develop, and come back to it later.”
Radhe, however, laments that dance is marginalised. Dance recitals comprise only a small percentage of the December Music and Dance season. Still, she is upbeat about the popularity of the Indian traditional arts.
“There’s a greater propagation of Indian culture around the globe today,” says Sandeep. People the world over are looking at Indian arts “as something significant — something to be reckoned with”, adds Radhe, “but there is definitely a commercial aspect. You see people on stage who don’t necessarily have the quality to be on there.”
But Chennai provides the litmus test for any artist’s true prowess. You could be the biggest fish in your pond, but in this city where talent abounds, you find yourself blending in.
Praveen says an artist needs to be patient and creative to make it in the arts field. Several budding musicians have been known to disappear after years of being pigeonholed in the same performance slot.
People today are much more aware of South Indian art forms and are interested in spreading it through festivals and events abroad. And it’s not just Indians, but also locals of foreign countries. Has the Margazhi season been pivotal in this expansion of awareness? “Youtube!” retorts Sandeep pithily, with a sonorous chuckle.