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Updated: May 21, 2014 15:56 IST

Music, unbridled

Shonali Muthalaly
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In an unusual setting: Anil Srinivasan
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In an unusual setting: Anil Srinivasan

A recent piano recital at the stables of the Madras Riding School was an attempt to strike a chord with a diverse audience in an unusual space

The fat turkeys should have tipped us off. They stood at the entrance officiously, like a particularly pompous reception committee, clucking disapprovingly at latecomers. As far as concerts go, this was already an unusual affair. A piano recital at the horse stables. At 7.30 on a Sunday morning. Which could explain the intriguing crowd: ranging from gently greying classical music aficionados to beleaguered party girls still hung over from Saturday night’s shenanigans.

How do you find a common ground for an audience at two complete ends of the musical spectrum? For a man faced with a seemingly insurmountable challenge, Anil Srinivasan was encouragingly cheerful as he sat down at his grand piano, watched intently by a row of muscular horses from the paddocks running along the side of the performance space. There was a moment of calm. Even the two turkeys that finally strutted in once the audience was invited to take their seats, looked interested.

Then Srinivasan began to play a Cindy Lauper song. The audience rippled with surprised delight. The stage had been set.

While there’s nothing as convenient as a concert hall, when it comes to performance spaces, we live in an age when it’s next to impossible to draw anything beyond a niche audience for classical concerts. However, as contemporary musicians intent on taking art to the masses would argue, music shouldn’t always be cerebral and intimidating. After all, its primary goal is to reach people.

An effective way to surmount this trademark staidness is to take art into public spaces, which is why young poets, painters and musicians are increasingly performing in parks, on beaches and at street corners. Sunday’s ‘Piano By The Paddocks’ event, organised by Hisham Osman’s Silkworm Boutique, was successful not just because it set the music in an unexpected space, but also because the music was designed cunningly, to strike a chord with the unsuspecting, and impossibly diverse audience. (Which, by the way, included those two aforementioned turkeys who reportedly rambled over to the riding school from the Blue Cross campus next door to find out what the fuss was all about.)

Little boys and girls, students of the 45-year-old school, stood around in their trademark bright red tee shirts, riding breeches and boots, listening to the music while they patted the horses. The canopy of trees above rustled busily in the breeze, showering guests with sunshine and leaves. The horses harrumphed, providing an unusual background score to the music.

An inspired start

Cindy Lauper was clearly an inspired start. ‘Time after Time,’ released in the early 80s was on the U.S. Billboard Hot 100 chart for two weeks. Then the ballad was performed by Ronan Keating in 2009, so Srinivasan’s delicate interpretation of the song connected with both his generation as well as younger people born a decade later.

There were more surprises. “When I was young I had a music box,” he said, pausing for a minute. “You know the kind — with a horse on it that goes round and round. It had this refrain.” As he played a familiar little tune, everyone began to smile. “That got translated into this.” He then launched into a playfully intricate melody.

Next came his version of ‘Fields of Gold,’ a song first released by Sting in 1993. Re-released in 2006, it also inspired a host of cover versions, making it arguably one of the most familiar tunes of the Sting generation. Subramania Bharati’s ‘Chinnanjiru Kiliye’ fused with an old film song followed. A bewildering bag of tricks? Somehow, in that ambience it worked.

“After all, horses roam free and wild,” said Srinivasan. “Imagination should too. Whether it's Western classical, Indian classical or Sting: The piano has no boundaries.” He added thoughtfully, “I will quote Duke Ellington here, ‘There are only two kinds of music in the world. The good kind and the other kind.’” Then he concluded with a grin, “All you can do is do your best and hope it's the good kind.”

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