Vatsala Vedantam tries to understand why we take art for granted and artists for a ride.

The venue was a temple in Maryland, USA. The artist — Sanjay Subrahmanyan from India. The audience — non-resident Indians. The same kind of audience we see in Chennai or Bangalore. But, with a difference.

While they sat enthralled for four hours by the vigour and talent of this astonishing musician in a far off country, he failed to capture the undivided attention in an Indian milieu. He is not the first — or last — musician to have audiences assert their right to disturb an inspired concert. After all, this is not Broadway or the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. This is our own homely sabha tucked away in Mylapore or Malleswaram.

Every little pocket in our cities boasts of a “hall” or a temple where the best artists come and perform for free. We can go late, wrestle our way into the venue and walk out when we feel like it. This is also the land where artists exhibit breathtaking paintings on walls, sidewalks and in parks — again for free. They cannot afford art galleries. Nor do we have to pay to see them. But, we do them the favour of glancing at their work. We haggle the cost of exquisite sculptures displayed on the roadside. We pick up pirated copies of authors’ best sellers off pavements, and we burn CDs and DVDs of great music without a pang of guilt that we are depriving a struggling writer or singer of his dues. Sadly, we take art for granted, and artists for a ride.

Take the universally acclaimed music season in Chennai. It is an unending stream of free recreation for people of all ages and tastes. Time stands still in that city during December/January. People hear music, talk music, and revel in it. Yet, their indifference to those who entertain them makes one wonder. Is it too much of a good thing offered on a platter? Is that why “rasikas” — those diehard connoisseurs of Carnatic music humming an “alapana” under their breath — no longer care to applaud or appreciate artists who entertain them tirelessly for days on end, hour after hour, until they are ready to drop? They come, listen and leave. An annual ritual performed uncaringly. Until next year.

Returning to my own city after the last festival, I was still hearing T.M. Krishna’s poignant rendering of Gopalakrishna Bharathi’s “Varughalaamo.” It was the last kutcheri of the season. It was also the mangalam of his performance that evening in the awesome ambience of the Madras Music Academy. When he concluded this stunning piece, there was total silence. But it was not the awed silence of appreciation.

The hall was empty even before he left the stage. No applause. No standing ovation for a three-and-a-half hour experience of undiluted, impassioned music. It was the final testimony of the insensible rudeness with which we treat our artists and their art.

That is the first thing that strikes a visitor to this country with its breathtaking art forms. In its hoary temples with their incredible sculptures; in its dance genres that leave you spellbound; in its mesmerising music. Every town and village has its kathakalakshepam venues and artists’ corners where age-old harikathas are conducted and exotic paintings displayed.

A city like Chennai offers you all these and more. Either you are drawn into the ambience of a theosophical institute which was home to great minds, or a magnificent temple of arts built on the dreams of a dancer; you are absorbed into a “village” dedicated to works of art or even a centuries old ruin of a temple on the seashore. Art lovers across the world may come here to see these treasures. But, not citizens of this country to whom the great banyan tree is as commonplace as the newly sprung mall next door. Even our centuries old heritage monuments — places that should be cherished — are vandalised and treated with careless disregard for their priceless beauty. Rare frescoes are painted over with gaudy colours; hoary temples are converted into shopping arcades; natural habitats are used as picnic spots.

A glut of art and natural beauty has apparently numbed our senses. The most exquisite piece of art is treated with contempt. The most awesome natural creation — by the greatest artist of them all — leaves us unmoved.

Our gorgeous forests with their incredible wildlife, our hills, rivers and lakes are mere holiday resorts to be littered and trampled upon with impunity. Our heritage sites are weekend getaways. Our wildlife is there to be poached. Our timeless temples to be plundered. We have commercialised our most precious possessions not to enhance their value by generating money for their upkeep, but to rob and pillage for paltry gains. Visual arts leave us unmoved. Performing arts leave us cold.

How else can one explain elite members of the audience sauntering in the gardens of Kalakshetra to catch up with friends and acquaintances, while a T.V. Sankaranarayanan is exploring the nuances of an evocative Kapi raagam? Or, reconcile to the hordes of “music lovers” thronging the food courts while the Malladi brothers are pouring their hearts out in their favourite Annammacharya krithis? Somewhere else, Neyveli Santhanagopalan’s quiet rendering of “Janani Ninuvinaa…” is accompanied by the crunch of neighbours munching snacks. The utter disrespect towards our artistes is visible in every city sabha where musicians and dancers perform. In some, the acoustics are sadly lacking with not a care for the audience or the performers. In others, the hall is prepared after the artist arrives with his accompanists. Sometimes, the curtain is rudely drawn even as the concert is winding down. In most sabhas and open air theatres, the audience does not care to stay seated until the performance is over. The scramble to reach the exit doors even before the performers leave the stage is the ugliest sight ever.

When will we learn to respect our artists or appreciate their effort? One does not need to go to a school to learn art appreciation. All it takes is a little sensitivity to those who have given their lifetime to practise and perfect their art. All too often, there are no monetary gains for them. Many continue in the profession for sheer love of an art that has been handed down generations. Others feel rewarded by their fans’ adoration.

For performing artists, the greatest moment is in audience appreciation.

For writers, a word of genuine praise from a reader is manna from heaven. It is a tragedy if we fail them even here. When we are given the fruit of their labour — all too often for free — the least we can do is to show them the courtesy of appreciation. Our indifference and callousness towards our gifted artistes is the surest way to drive them out of the country.