Into its seventh year, The Hindu Friday Review November Fest is back to entertain the musically inclined. Anil Srinivasan writes on what the Fest means to him.
As I write this, it has been four years since I began my relationship with the Friday Review November Fest. I performed for the Fest in November 2007, and have been a regular attendee ever since.
I remember attending a classical piano recital in Chennai by a visiting British pianist when I was 12. It was the first Western classical concert I had attended, and I was excited about it for weeks. Puny and nervous, I sat very obediently with my teacher. The concert was a tribute to British composers Ralph Vaughan-Williams and Benjamin Britten. The hall was packed to capacity. At the end, we gave a standing ovation, the first one I had ever experienced. Like summer rain, the wash of applause at the end of a stimulating concert set the tone for a glorious love affair with listening to music from around the world.
Over the years, I have attended innumerable concerts across the globe, listening to music of every genre. As a performer, I have even had the great fortune of having attended some of these concerts from the wings, waiting for my turn as a following act. But that evening in Chennai from over 20 years ago remains vivid and special. I believe that Chennai's insatiable appetite for music is one of its most endearing graces.
Flashing forward, 2007 was a very significant year for me. I had recently arrived back in my hometown after spending a substantial number of years in the United States. A Western classical pianist by training, I had recently begun working with Carnatic vocalist Sikkil Gurucharan, my junior by several years from Vidya Mandir. Our collaborative work involved using Western classical grammar (on the piano) to frame and underscore Gurucharan's Carnatic melody.
The roots of this experiment were personal as this was the result of some very deep soul searching for me, having gone through a difficult time on many fronts. I was passionate about the music we were creating, and we were beginning to get noticed by audiences in Chennai.
When we were asked to perform for the Friday Review November Fest that year, I was both overjoyed and anxious. Not only was this an invitation to perform for what had become the city's most sought-after music festival of its kind, but this meant that we were being asked to rise to a challenge. The November Fest had always managed to attract musicians who were at the top of their game. That year's line-up included Pt. Rajan and Sajan Mishra, Mandolin Srinivas and Hariharan, Trilok Gurtu, Prasanna, Vikku ji and many more.
The excitement of that evening at the Music Academy and soaking in the ambience for music that Chennai always manages to cultivate at this time of the year left a deep impression on me. This was my home, and while that was comforting at a personal level, it was and continues to be daunting at a musical level. In Chennai, we are flooded by musicians and composers of a very high order. And my first concert for the November Fest was akin to a trial by fire.
While the concert itself was reasonably well received, I chastise myself now for the things I did not pay attention to at that time. Like using a grand piano instead of a digital alternative, or not planning the pieces played that day in a way that better reflected the gradual building up of instrumental layers (we had Murad Ali join us on the Sarangi, who has since become a great friend and collaborator, and the first time North Indian instrumentation joined us in our work together). My introductions to the pieces must have appeared amateurish, as I have to admit that I was supremely nervous, having spotted some legends in the audience.
This is not meant to be a note of self-deprecation. However, it brings into focus the three things this fantastic festival did for me as an artist. One, it made me look at collaborative work for the process-orientation it requires. As a musical director, I will have to look at the roles of each of the instruments from the perspective of bringing out the best in each of them, knitting all of them into one cohesive musical story. Every role is quintessential and every voice is equally important. As a performer, I have to be acutely self-aware and not be carried away by excessive improvisation and “off-the-script” moments. Most importantly, I will have to retain a creative edge throughout the concert. In crafting a new vocabulary from a combination of existing ones, I must ensure that the result is the happy amalgam of traditions as opposed to a diluted version of all of them.
There are some who will argue that these learnings can be picked up by any collaborative experience. I disagree. The November Fest provides two special factors — one, by mandating that all the performers showcase their collaborative work “for the first time”, it puts us all on a level playing field. No one starts with an advantage or a handicap. Two — by mixing genres across the week, the Fest ensures that the audience comes in with greater receptivity. Thus, who you are as a soloist or composer is only given minimal weightage when viewed from the perspective of the composite whole.
Certainly, the Fest should grow to include more interactive sessions, workshops and the like. I was unhappy to note that the “concerts-on-the-fringe” held last year may not be continued this year. It was indeed a great platform for upcoming artists.
More significantly, The November Fest has become the opening act to a lifelong collaborative innings. Gurucharan and I have since used our learnings from the Fest to hone our craft better, and performed as far afield as Korea and Australia. The November Fest has brought us into contact with some of the world's best musicians, and the tag of having performed here has opened many doors. As the time for music draws near, I sincerely feel that being a part of the November Fest “alumni” will always hold a special meaning to all of us who have been bestowed that privilege.
The Hindu Friday Review November Fest was launched in 2005 in Chennai, where it has been held annually ever since. Over the years, it has travelled to other places. This November, the Fest takes place in five South Indian cities — Bengaluru, Chennai, Hyderabad, Coimbatore and, for the first time, Kochi. The Fest features musicians from three continents and will stage 21 concerts. The aim of the Fest is to expose audiences to unusual and diverse genres of music.