A generation ago, amenities at the Margazhi festival were spartan at best, but sabhas today hum a different tune. Anand Venkateswaran looks at what some of the venues have to offer the rasika.
Come December, over a hundred venues bloom in Chennai with a boggling array of concerts. Even a sabha veteran is reduced to a bee flitting from one venue to another, with little thought to what awaits him, apart from the music, that is.
After negotiating, wheedling, pushing and honking your way through murderous Chennai traffic to arrive at the sabha of your choice, the foremost thought in your mind is - parking. If it were the Krishna Gana sabha in T-Nagar, you would find myself more or less at ease; there’s a modest parking lot opposite the venue. It’s not quite enough for prime time concerts, but there’s always the rest of the street, thankfully devoid of no-parking signs. The Narada Gana Sabha too is generous, enough for perhaps 50 cars and twice as many motorbikes.
The Music Academy has parking space both at the venue and at St. Ebbas. And there are supervisors throughout the day, to manage traffic and maintain speed limits and to keep an eye on safety. Those traumatised by a 7.00pm drive on monsoon-washed roads will find solace here. Parking sorted. Let’s step inside now.
One aspect that begs the immediate attention of all sabha organisers is making the venues wheelchair-friendly. The Music Academy is among very few sabhas which have ramps at the entrance as well as inside.
Every venue has a personality all its own; some call it ambiance. The Parthasarathy Sabha, at Bheemasena Garden Road in Mylapore gives you a feeling you’ve gatecrashed someone’s wedding. This hall is replete with shamiana at the entrance, rows of closely packed plastic chairs with cushions tied down and very bright lighting. The Krishna Gana Sabha, with its cane armchairs, would transport you to the ‘thinnai’ of your grandparents’ place. The chairs are surprisingly comfortable to sit on, but manoeuvring yourself between rows isn’t a friendly prospect, if you’re wearing a dhoti or sari. Lighting is subtle, even on stage.
The Music Academy and Narada Gana Sabha are typical auditoria, with some improvements. The former venue has bright lights on the ceiling, and illuminated blue steps on the floor to help people navigate, through wide aisles and into comfortable seats with ample leg space. You can see a lot of surface and it’s all clean. Oh, there they are the artists; they’re taking their place on stage.
There was a time, not long ago, when the artist, the monarch of the event, held sway with little but a raised platform and a sonorous voice. There's more to reel in the rasika today.
Stage décor is minimalist at The Music Academy as well at the Krishna Gana Sabha. A simple banner and three door-like props on either side add to the aesthetic value of the stage. With this setup, it would be a bit of a squeeze if a few more artists joined in. The Parthasarathy Sabha is ornate, if not too orderly. Banners convey the antiquity of the sabha in profusion.
Line of sight to the stage – check, mood – check, voice for ‘tsk tsk tsk’, ‘bhale’ and ‘aaha’ – clear. Let’s listen in.
Many a danger lurks in the world of acoustics. Volume too low or too high, static, and that high-pitch howl which can stab the kutcheri at any time, like a little spear into one ear and through the other. This is why sound engineers conduct a concert of their own in the background, to contain the noise and let the music alone flow. In spite of its retro setting, Krishna Gana Sabha has speakers placed conveniently above ground. This way, the volume carries well, without knocking the front row off their chairs. The sound quality passes muster, as Ranjani and Gayatri proved one fine evening. No instances of microphone howling at the Music Academy either.
For all its rich tradition, the Parthasarathy Sabha is subject to the limitations of a portable venue and consequently, settling in takes some time. In one 7.00 p.m. concert, Shashank the flautist kept asking the audience if the sound was too high or sharp and had repeated adjustments made to the master volume. However, during a particularly robust bit in his Shankarabharanam varnam set to ata talam, when artist and accompanists extracted extra rpm from their instruments, the front rows couldn’t help wincing.
The hours pass from right under your tapping feet. And your body gently but firmly calls for your attention, with a little rumble in your tummy, or with a sudden memory of purposeful walking and flowing water. To address the first issue, the sabha canteens have evolved in a way that has delighted sabha-goers. That deserves a spread of its own. The restroom facilities in most venues are not quite equipped for the ever-swelling numbers of the audience. It’s part of the blueprint in established auditoria, but generally, they seem to have been attached as a slightly embarrassing after thought. Perhaps the next edition of the festival will see to this aspect.
These little tweaks in the arrangements and amenities challenges popular belief that tradition is static and proves also that it evolves all the time. If it didn’t evolve, it wouldn’t last long enough to become tradition. The winter music festival has evolved constantly, and the rasika, recognised as the integral part of every sabha, is being gifted with more care and attention. Reward, perhaps, for his love of the arts which spans generations.