While the ‘December Season' celebrates the arts and artists, it is also that time of the year in the arts calendar when certain crucial questions about the arts circuit come to the fore. In a world where many revered musicians and dancers are women, is there a gender bias among accompanists? Why do some accompanists, both senior and junior, prefer to collaborate only with male musicians?
Artists cite several reasons ranging from “pitch issues” to “personal choice”. Veteran mridangam exponent Guru Karaikudi Mani, earlier in his career accompanied female musicians, including the “MS-DKP-MLV trinity” and lesser known musicians. Later, from 1975, for certain reasons, including those “purely personal”, he decided to stop playing for women. While he emphasises that he has a very high opinion of the quality of women's music and women in general, professionally there were some issues.
“I found the interference of many of the women artists' husbands very stifling. They [the husbands] would intrude into our professional space and try to tell me how long to play and how to play. I found that very problematic,” Mr. Mani says.
Being selective and choosing to accompany certain women and not others would complicate things, he felt. “I like being consistent in any decision. That is why I took a policy decision to avoid accompanying any female artist.”
Violinist S. Varadarajan is also someone who largely plays for men. Asked why, he maintained that it was a matter of personal choice and that he did not wish to make his reasons public.
Visibility is another issue that matters, say some senior artists. Guruvayur Dorai, veteran mridangam exponent, reminisces the time when concerts were known more for the combination of artists (GNB-LGJ-Palani or SSI-TNK-PMI) on stage, and accompanists and main artists enjoyed an equal status. Having accompanied artists such as M.S. Subbulakshmi, D.K. Pattammal and M.L. Vasanthakumari, he recalls the “dignity and respect with which accompanists were treated” on and off stage. Even details related to hospitality and accommodation (for out-station trips) were on a par with that of the main artists. “But soon after, with other female artists, even names of accompanists used to go unmentioned — the ‘and party' tag became an uncomfortably familiar reality,” says Mr. Dorai.
There is another argument from those who chose not to play for women – the lack of space to perform to one's true potential. “We are sometimes forced to play below our real potential. And were a male accompanist to be applauded more, it proved to be a surefire way of not being invited again by that artist,” Mr. Dorai adds. He is most comfortable playing with male artists as he enjoys a lot of individual attention and appreciation for his role in a concert and is also able to play unhindered.
Ghatam Karthick finds the music of female artists challenging and refreshing and in fact, attributes his popularity and fame to his accompanying senior women artists.
Then comes the famous pitch argument. Playing in the “5.5” pitch that many women use may not be particularly comfortable for violinists. It often tends to sound shrill.
That is where violinist Embar Kannan's Western classical lessons came in handy. Embar, who started accompanying as a teenager, says: “Though I used to play for male and female artists, somehow I got more opportunities to accompany women. I learnt Western classical from when I was eight and got comfortable with that shrill tone.”
“With some specialised bowing techniques, I learnt to make that pitch sound pleasing,” says Embar, who is sought after by almost all leading female vocalists today.
Mr. Mani also found the conventional male pitch “1, 1.5, 2” most comfortable to play in. “Now women artists might say they could sing in ‘2', but I do not want to change my decision as I consider being consistent is most important.”
Ranjani, of the popular Ranjani-Gayatri duo, however, dismisses the ‘pitch' angle saying, “Ravikiran plays his chitravina at 5.5 and the same male artists accompany him!” Not buying the ‘pitch' argument, Karthick is of the opinion that it is veiled chauvinism at best.
Playing for established women artists can give a boost to accompanists' career, note some.
Karthick says he accompanies more women than men. He is especially grateful to Charumathi Ramachandran for having featured him in her concert at the Music Academy when he started out, thereby promoting him to the senior slot. Veena Gayatri took him on his maiden overseas trip in 1992. He has accompanied a lot of women senior and contemporary artists. Embar too attributes his success to the opportunities to play for artists such as Sudha Ragunathan, Nithyasree Mahadevan, Bombay Jayashri and S. Sowmya.
The trend actually reflects a traditional gender bias, says Ranjani, adding that women have always been regarded as second-rung musicians.
Senior musicians have corroborated the fact that males who accompanied female artists would not be considered by other main male artists. Gayatri stresses that accompanists should base their decision on accompanying main artists on their vidwat (knowledge) and not gender. In her opinion, it is perfectly acceptable if an accompanist refuses because certain styles do not suit him.
“T. Brinda was a teacher's teacher (having taught even the doyen Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer) and she was accompanied by male artists who respected her vidwat,” says Gayatri.
The gender bias is not one-sided, caution senior artists. Mr. Mani, for instance, has a question for musicians: “While there is so much noise about certain male artists not accompanying female musicians, why don't we find musicians, including women, opting for female mridangam artists? There are quite a few women playing the mridangam now. Are we giving them enough opportunities? Why don't we see very good female violinists getting enough opportunities?”