How many people read reviews? Or is it a “mere editorial illusion” to think that people do?
While a music critic will argue and rightly so, that he has as much responsibility in safeguarding our musical heritage as practising musicians, one still can’t help wondering what rasikas and musicians think of music reviews. A reviewer is first and foremost a rasika himself, but an unbiased reviewer divorces his personal preferences from his reviews. The element of subjectivity cannot be totally eliminated, however, for music is an experience, and translating an emotional experience into a cerebral exercise is not easy. Maybe a few days should elapse after a concert, and before a music review is written, so that the critic can reflect on the performance purely at a cerebral level. But is that possible given the deadlines?
Will a pithy but tart review be accepted by musicians? After all what is the point of a wishy-washy review? G.B. Shaw, a redoubtable music critic, would often dismiss a concert in just one line. He never cared for niceties and was blunt in reviewing a performance. Can a reviewer of Carnatic music concerts get away with such reviews? One critic did - Subbudu. Assuming a writer pulls no punches while reviewing a concert, and his reviews are therefore respected, will he not then begin to see himself as the maker and destroyer of reputations? The unvarnished truth then might yield place to an exaggeration of the truth, or perhaps even a dilution of the truth. Once the critic is seen as omnipotent king maker, he could be off on an ego trip, wielding his mighty pen with abandon.
Sometimes the criticism levelled against many reviewers of Carnatic music concerts is that since they themselves cannot perform before an audience, they cannot sit in judgment over musicians. So does this mean practising musicians would make better music critics? There is a danger inherent in this too. A musician may not feel comfortable pointing out openly the mistakes other musicians make, for fear of being seen as churlish. If the reviewing musician does not have many opportunities to perform, he might face the accusation that he views other people’s concerts through the prism of envy. Some office-bearers in sabhas may be knowledgeable enough to write reviews, but then objections will be raised on the ground of conflict of interest.
When there are so many difficulties involved in writing music reviews, why write reviews at all? How many people read reviews? Or as Shaw said, is it a “mere editorial illusion” to think that people do? It may be argued that music reviews are necessary to give vidwans publicity. While this may be true, do older vidwans also need publicity through reviews?
“Yes, they do,” says vocalist K.R. Saranathan. “If we don’t get reviews, how will people know we still continue to sing?” There are advertisements in newspapers. “No. advertisements are not enough. Reviews are as important for seniors as for junior vidwans.”
Suguna Varadachari strikes a different note. “Rasikas of senior vidwans will come to their concerts anyway, regardless of what a reviewer says about them. But reviews are absolutely essential for upcoming artists. How many people attend a concert? Two hundred, maybe. But since newspapers are available online, reviews are read by thousands. Youngsters need that kind of publicity. Also, if a reviewer points out what mistakes they make, they can correct themselves.
“But reviewers must choose their words judiciously, so as not to demoralise the youngsters. They must make valid points about how good or how bad a kutcheri was, instead of merely listing the songs sung. We used to value a favourable review from critics such as N.M. Narayanan (NMN) of The Hindu. He would analyse a concert threadbare and point to both its positive and negative aspects. So to us getting a word of praise from him was like winning an award.” Saranathan says that if a critic is knowledgeable, musicians do pay attention to his/her opinion. He says some critics gush over all concerts and that the whole process of reviewing then becomes meaningless.
Amrita Murali feels youngsters must be given more coverage than established vidwans. Will she still say that 40 years from now? She laughs and says, “Yes, I will.” How do reviews help her apart from the publicity that she gets? “They help us to plan our concerts better, where to position a certain raga in a kutcheri, etc. While there may be knowledgeable rasikas in the audience, they invariably tell us that our concerts are good, because they probably don’t want to hurt us. But reviewers are frank. So they are the ones we rely on for an idea of how well we’ve sung.” She says more coverage of lecture-demonstrations will be useful to the artists, since they are unable to attend many during the music season.
“Indians abroad follow music reviews, and reviews by reputed critics do influence rasikas here and abroad,” observe both Nisha Rajagopal and Kunnakkudi M. Balamuralikrishna. By the same token, wouldn’t a bad review also negatively influence rasikas? So would artists not be better off without any reviews at all - good or bad?
Critical reviews are better than no reviews at all, seems to be the consensus among the artists, reminding one of Oscar Wilde’s words: “There is only one thing worse than being talked about and that is not being talked about.”
But are rasikas really guided by reviews? J.S. S. Krishna Rao who has been attending the Tiruvaiyaru aradhana for the past 25 years and is secretary of a 52-year old sabha in Machilipatnam, answers in the affirmative. He says he also decides which artists to invite based upon the reviews that appear in The Hindu. Kunjithapatham of Tiruchi, who used to be the Secretary of the Neyveli Sangeetha Sabha, says he decides which upcoming artists to listen to on the basis of reviews. But he has a grievance. “Why is it that only the Chennai edition of The Hindu carries so many reviews and articles on music? Why the step motherly treatment to other editions?” One can read all the reviews and articles online, I point out. “If the print edition carries these articles, we can read them when we read the paper in the morning,” he counters.
P. Sarangapani from Kumbakonam, who has been attending concerts at the Music Academy for the past 59 years, says that when he is Chennai for the music season, he reads all the music reviews, but adds that he is not guided by reviews when choosing which concert to attend. He makes the point that in the past stalwarts were offered chances on the basis of their performance, not on the basis of reviews.
Brahma Gana Sabha Secretary Ravi says sabhas find critical reviews useful, and that critics should be like Subbudu. “Many critics have come and gone, but Subbudu is still remembered, because he did not mince words. When there is a clamour for chances from junior artists, reviews help us make up our mind as to who should be given a slot.” Prabhu, Secretary Sri Krishna Gana Sabha, says reviews, while pointing out mistakes, should not be so harsh as to kill the enthusiasm of young artistes. “But some reviews read like grocery lists - just giving a list of songs sung, and offering no inputs on the quality of the performance,” he says.
Deccan N.K. Moorthy, president of Tyaga Brahma Gana Sabha, says, “I have noticed not just in our sabha, but in others too, that some reviewers stay for say 20 minutes of a concert. They then call up the artists, and find out what they sang during the rest of the concert, and a review appears in the paper!”
Some rasikas, on condition of anonymity, said that the quality of reviews has come down. Some of the critics write insipidly, was a complaint heard. Some found the reviews of certain critics cloying. These reviewers are afraid to stick their necks out and therefore praise everyone sky high, they said.
A wag suggested that maybe they were not sure of their ground and felt that the safest path lay in not exposing their ignorance and therefore they gave all vidwans favourable reviews.
And yet, none wanted reviews to be dispensed with. They, however, hoped that the quality of reviews would improve.