The classical music scene is a fascinating fusion of age-old values and changing times

Girls in pretty cotton paavaadais with neatly-braided hair and studious-looking boys with vibhuti on their foreheads lustily belt out “Varaveena” in Mohanam or “Brova bharama” in Bahudari to the strains of a tuneful tambura — a likely scene from a typical music (paatu) class of the Madras of the 70-s. Are things all that different today in the bustling metropolis that is Chennai? Brushing the ‘Tam-Brahm’ (Tamil Brahmin) label aside, parents continue to aspire for their kids to learn Carnatic music or Bharatanatyam.

Come to think of it, the stereotype is hardly considered an embarrassment in such families. Learning music or dance is as natural as slogging to be a topper in school and as normal as moving to the U.S. for a degree in engineering. This is quite simply what you do.

Music, a must

Enough has been said about Madras being the locus for Carnatic music. Many music teachers, renowned, less-known and not-known, made Madras their home since the 19th century. Connoisseurs would kill to learn from the venerated G.N. Balasubramaniam, Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer and T. Brinda who had concert performers among others for students. Not everyone had access to a famous teacher.

Since that time, the city has generously accommodated everyone from the scholarly guru to the next-door mami who taught the neighbourhood children with a skeletal knowledge of ragas and kritis. If you were a Tam-Brahm kid you just had to learn music — kicking and screaming, at times. Supply kept a comfortable pace with demand.

Having said that, it hardly meant that being associated with Carnatic music was considered hip or fashionable, even among traditionalists. Few parents would consider marrying their daughters off to a singer or instrumentalist. The percussionist, well, he rarely made it into the picture.

The average Joe looked at Carnatic music as an unreliable but necessary indulgence. It was certainly not a serious or viable career option. Despite this, several committed professionals made it to the top and have stayed there. Umayalpuram Sivaraman and T.V. Sankaranarayanan, who studied law, believed enough in their music to pursue their dreams.

Steady change

Over time, the attitude towards Carnatic music has changed from subtle acceptance to name-dropping giddiness. Kids do have a say in the matter although, in many instances, parents prod them towards ‘artistic pursuits’ in the hope of distracting them from ‘unhealthy’ influences. Many talented and genuinely interested students are willing to go through the rigours of practice that the system demands. Unlike 20 years ago, there are many more options when it comes to extra-curricular activities, yet Carnatic music continues to be favoured.

Teachers in Chennai are a dime-a-dozen today and the mix is the same — knowledgeable to average. They are tech-savvy and hold live lessons apart from those over Skype and Google Hangouts. Coaching for major music competitions takes place over the net. From what was considered a princely sum of Rs. 30 a lesson around 30 years ago, teachers command anything between Rs. 400 and Rs. 5,000 an hour.

The reality show Carnatic Music Idol launched by Maximum Media in 2010 has since unearthed a healthy number of talented singers in the city and overseas. Interestingly, the December NRI music festivals in Chennai by Hamsadhwani and the Cleveland Thyagaraja Aradhana are a reminder that the influence of Carnatic music is indeed far and wide and that practitioners and students of the system today are no longer strictly Tam-Brahms.

Juggling act, other interests

The number of professional musicians in the city has quadrupled. While the ‘senior’ teachers and performers maintain a degree of formality, they are more accessible now than in the past.

It’s not uncommon to find musicians networking actively on social media. A good number of Carnatic musicians are articulate and fashionable role models in areas within and outside their field. Some are adored for their tasteful wardrobe, some for their genius in arithmetical calculations in the improvisational aspect of music, and others for their well-advertised social service. A fair sprinkling of them has demanding day-jobs as Chartered Accountants and software engineers.

Carnatic artistes from the city also tour the globe for performances at prominent international events and this has added rather generously to the glamour quotient. For the most part, they have made comfortable careers out of music.

The city that hosts the biggest cultural festival in the world every December also hosts a musicians’ cricket match in January — a time for artistes to unwind after a busy season. Artistes’ interests range from mountain-climbing to cooking, reading and photography.

Thanks to social media, the bhagavatar just became a cool dude. Whoever said being a Carnatic artiste was boring?

Chennai Central at The Hindu celebrates Madras Week

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