Do instruments such as the veena, flute and the violin get their due during the December Season? V. Balasubramanian finds out.

Till a decade ago, mid-December would mark the beginning of the annual Music and Dance Season. However, with sabhas mushrooming at a rapid pace and paucity of quality concert halls, the Season now officially begins in mid-November and goes on till the end of January and sometimes, beyond.

Artists are given slots according to their popularity/seniority. And, one observes that vocal concerts constitute almost 98 per cent of the pie and instrumentalist are often left high and dry with only a paltry 2 per cent or even less. Except at a few sabhas, the veena and the flute seem to have been given a go by. The same applies to violinists who want to go solo. Is this observation correct? If so, is there a lack of quality artists in these streams? Are sabhas looking for crowds and so prefer vocalists? Or is there some other inexplicable reason?

Veena vidhushi Padmavathy Ananthagopalan, now in her late 70s, stoutly denies this. “When the fault lies with us, why blame the sabhas? There are so many aspects in veena playing such as perfect tuning, authentic patam and dedication, hours of practice, presenting rare kritis, judicious use of contact mike and adaptation of gayaki style. If a veena player covers these aspects, he or she is bound to draw the attention of sabhas. Dr. S. Balachander and Chittibabu were masters of all these aspects.”

B. Kannan, a noted veena vidwan, is deeply hurt when he hears the veena being referred to as a ‘dead instrument.’ “The veena dates back to the Vedic period. Kashmiri pundits used to chant Vedas to the accompaniment of the shata tantri veena, a derivative. The onus lies first on the veena players to make concerts more engrossing without compromising on tradition. Sabhas, sponsors and the media should come together and extend their support too. The ten-day veena festival which I organise annually with support from Narada Gana Sabha, has, I believe, made a dent”

Violin vidwans have a different perspective. V. Sanjeev gave up his high paying software job and took to a musical career. He does not regret his decision. “Often, descendants of stalwarts get opportunities easily to perform solo as they have been groomed for that. Aspirants from lesser known gurus have to struggle to get a foot-hold in concert circuit. To ensure visibility, they let go of their ambition and join the accompanist bandwagon. Some vidwans fear earning the wrath of the vocalist, and keep away from an opportunity to play solo at the festival conducted by my mother’s Sabha, Shanmukhapriya. Organisers dislike artists who demand solo concerts. The result… they lose even the options to accompany. Playing solo is tough and needs rigorous practise. ”

Violinist Padma Shankar offers a fresh viewpoint. “When instrumentalists play, lyrics take a back seat. Unless a rasika is familiar with a kriti, he may not be interested in a song that is played on an instrument. That’s not the case with vocalists. In my solo concerts, I make it a point to give a prelude before every song and explain its nuances.” She then demonstrates different interpretations of the line ‘Samaanamaagumaa’ from the song, ‘Sabapathikku,’ and continues, “Sahitya bhava is very important. As a solo artist, my style will be tangentially different from the way I play when I accompany. In fact, more than violin solos, duets are more welcome as there is certain amount of drama involved in our exchanges. And rasikas seem to like it. Reverse is the trend when it comes to concerts for weddings and corporate houses. Here, instrumental music is preferred. At present, the order of preference is thus: vocal, flute, violin duet, violin solo and veena. After all, instruments have no barriers and act as bridges of culture. Organisers will have to understand this.”

“No. We don’t ignore instrumental solos,” asserts Mudhra Bhaskar, secretary of Mudhra. “When we spot genuine talent and the player is of a high calibre, we take him/her seriously and provide an opportunity. Another factor is the ennui that sets in after about an hour and a half in an instrumental concert as there is no verbal expression by way of lyrics. It is monotonous. No force can keep pegging down a sincere and truthful musician, be it a vocalist or an instrumentalist as one day he will emerge winner.”

B.V. Balasai, well known flautist, says as an instrumentalist, his scope is limited to the extent of playing only those kritis popularised by vocalist. “A rare kriti which we might play, often goes unnoticed as the rasika is unable to identify it, whereas it is not the same when a vocalist presents it. The Gen Next flautists have shifted focus to dance programmes. Sabhas want something dramatic and new to attract crowds. Thus was born my concept, ‘Moods of Bamboo’.

A vainika who preferred to remain anonymous had this to say: “Basically, the veena is a chamber instrument. In a mike-less concert, it can reach out to, at the most, 50 rasikas. A pick-up would change the sound quality to a metallic one. At the same time, sabhas should not avoid instrumentalists on account of poor rasika response. Most vocal concerts, except for a select few, are in fact presented to empty halls. So, what difference does it make to the organiser whether it is a vocal or instrumentals music?”

The debate continues…