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Updated: December 28, 2010 00:37 IST

The sabha experience — tuning in to the rasika

Anand Venkateswaran
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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.

Acoustics

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.

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Anand VenkateswaranJune 19, 2012

The contribution of the Chennai saabhas to the Indian cultural itenarary is significant. The rasika gets his taste refined every year. His waistline also shows improvement. Nice article but there are many sabhas which are not mentioned here.

from:  Subbu
Posted on: Jan 1, 2011 at 07:01 IST

Mr vilvadri iyer - since the article was in an english paper had to publish the comments in the same language in the same paper.

I have brought out a reality which all of us have to face and then do something to rectify it. There is nothing hypocratical about it.

It is naive at best to use the excuse of globalization to justify sacrificing our own culture and roots - which is what all of the English speaking TAMBRAMS are doing (including myself).

from:  n s parameswaran
Posted on: Dec 29, 2010 at 08:43 IST

I wish I am wrong It appears to me that a visit to Chennai during season is more of a status symbol than real love to hear good music It is an occasion to be seen with top artists and subject of drawing room conversation for a long time later on

from:  V.Narayanaswamy
Posted on: Dec 28, 2010 at 21:09 IST

Mr Vilvadri Iyer has promptly forgotten that everyone does not tamil font in there Pcs. But almost everyone who attend these cutcheries are quiet profficient in tamil language. Moreover only in Tamil Nadu we can see people conversing among themselves in english. We can almost say its a fad. Whereas tamilians away from the state prefer to converse in tamil.

from:  R.Bharathi
Posted on: Dec 28, 2010 at 20:17 IST

I had the fortune to be in Chennai for the last 3 days with family, from Hyderabad where we live. It isn't fair that Chennai has such plenty -- no PLENTY -- while the rest of the country is a practical cultural desert? I would pay to transport a dozen of the sabhas with the kacheris and the canteens all the way to Hyderabad, if I could. The music and dance are top class mostly. Especially the 9:15 kacheris at the Academy and elsewhere. The seniors hold the keys still (in my view) and the juniors will do well to attend those concerts. I guess they are busy planning their kacheri-of-the-day each day! It's mind boggling to think even junior singers have to give 5-6 kacheris a week. How do they develop the repertoire?

from:  P J Narayanan
Posted on: Dec 28, 2010 at 19:53 IST

And so says Mr. Parameswaran in English as he reads an English language newspaper everyday. I think it is time to accept the language as our own in this globalized world, instead of being hypocritical about its usage!

from:  Vilvadri Iyer
Posted on: Dec 28, 2010 at 18:22 IST

I really liked your article, and the pleasant way in which you brought out the tradition of sabhas, and also some of the things that could be improved. Especially being abroad, we get so nostalgic, and miss the days when we also enjoyed the classical music. We have western 'sabhas'. Here too like the Mondavi center at Davis, CA where we live. We do get some Indian performances of dance and music time to time, and it floats us back to the yesteryears and another land. On more practical terms, one thing that people always taken into account here when planning a hall or a building is size. Things are always planned on a big scale, whether it be buildings, or roads or parking places in halls. Perhaps that trend is also happening in India, when we see the new malls there. Enjoyed your article.

from:  Kumar
Posted on: Dec 28, 2010 at 10:32 IST

The coverage of the sabha experience in Chennai has been done pretty well but the people you are aiming at is a niche audience. Nonetheless, a job very well done.

from:  Arjun B
Posted on: Dec 28, 2010 at 10:17 IST

Every thing except the singing is in English. If there was some way to change the language, the Tambrams would have done that also. The sign boards are in English, the phamplets and programme lists are in English, the announcements are in English, the banners and advertisment are in English. Where is the ‘Indianess’ in this whole circus called 'margazhi'? It has become a caricature of what started out to be a musical devotion festival and has become a commercial (who can afford the tickets priced at 1000,500 etc) jambooree. The fascination of Tambrams for English and their renunciation of Tamil has killed our culture. We have become a race of rootless and cultureless people with some external trappings but without any substance.

from:  N S Parameswaran
Posted on: Dec 28, 2010 at 09:42 IST

I went to Naradha Gana saba recently where I could see that a majority of the people attend sabas only for the food. In the concert hall only a countable number of people were sitting. I think they are taking rest post lunch. Where is music interest going. Is it music attracts food selling or food attracts music interest?

from:  Barani
Posted on: Dec 28, 2010 at 07:19 IST

The article is very much to the point and surprisingly comprehensive. One hopes an official or two in the sabhas finds the time to study the issues outlined in the article.

from:  T V Madhavan
Posted on: Dec 28, 2010 at 04:41 IST
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