The Music Academy Madras I remember is the ‘pink’ building that rounds the corner along with the road in front, as could be glimpsed in the off-beat K. Balachandar movie ninaittaley inikkum . When that movie was made in the late seventies, Chennai was still Madras and Academy was its landmark. Now, the flyover in front of it is.
The Academy or the sangita vidwat sabhai is a lodestone for Carnatic music with a hoary past. Every connoisseur in the city wants to be a patron of the Academy. It is a status symbol. Every musician aspires to sing there. It is a success symbol. Every rasika wishes to enter the hall wielding a blue punched card. It is a defining symbol. Every Chennai car wants to park itself inside the Academy; every auto-rickshaw, outside. No cop wants to man the Academy traffic signal(s).
The Academy facilities are superb. It houses the best music tradition, knowledge, archives, auditorium, acoustics, aesthetics and restrooms. Plush chairs with well-placed ‘Bose’ speakers, soft lighting and pleasant air conditioning with an elegantly decorated stage, housing centrally a jamakalam- clad podium. With the mundane receding in the soft lights, the listening experience is undeniably ethereal. Until a child aurally seeks her father or a recalcitrant mobile enquires “Why this kolaveri di ”. Chitravina Ravikiran asks his listeners to switch off their mobiles or set their caller tunes to Varali. In the Academy you can express your annoyance, politely.
The Academy concert slots can trace a musician’s successful career: in an appropriately young age, it would start with the ‘star-let’ slot around lunch time, when, to turn the tirukkural around, the rasika’s ears feast only after the stomach is full. It progresses to the next best slot between 2 and 4 p.m.. This ‘afternoon’ or ‘rising-star’ slot coincides with the post-lunch siesta time.
There is enough crowd inside the hall. Their bobbing heads could equally be the effect of music or food. Ideally, by sheer performance in the ensuing years, the musician is then promoted to the two ticketed ‘star’ slots between 4 and 9 p.m.. And there it should stay for enough years until the Sangita Kalanidhi is conferred.
After this, now a stalwart, the musician could ascend to the un-ticketed morning slot between 9 a.m. and noon. To delight rasikas rich in listening experience and short of cash.
The Academy clocks, from the mechanical to the digital, keep their time. So do the concerts. Performers hop skip and jump from their pallavi ragamalika to mangalam , before the curtain descends. Along the way, a thirty-two avartana kuraippu on the percussion solo would have been reduced to two avartanams . Musicians promptly apologise even for off-stage delays like traffic snarls. Even musicians who never fail to be late at other sabhas , keep their time at the Academy.
The Academy strives to showcase talents from Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh, true to the ‘Carnatic’ land and Dravidian languages lineage of this music tradition. R.K. Srikanthan, Rudrappatnam Brothers, Dr. Omanakutty, Srivalson Menon, Nedunuri Krishnamurthy, Dr. Pantula Rama, Manda Sudharani; the recent list of invited artistes portray the kaleidoscopic cultural diversity of Carnatic music.
The Academy morning (early morning, for some) lecture demonstrations are a treasure trove. In 2006, when T.N. Seshagopalan was conferred the Kalanidhi and hence became the presiding person, the mini Kasturi Srinivasan Hall was primed and brimmed.
More than the lecture itself, many of us, including performers, were present to listen to his introduction and conclusion of the discussions with his trademark wit, knowledge and music. I could remember a similar hallowed experience from 1983, when the music conference was held in the aegis of Dr. Pinakapani — who is celebrating his hundredth year of musical journey this year.
The Academy canteen resonates with the music, dishing out, over the years, both the sublime and the quirky. Cryptic remarks and caustic reviews about the concerts go well with the milagai bajji at the canteen. Gossip, like coffee, is hot and galore. Sometimes it substitutes the music. Often one gets to meet and eat with the musician one just listened to or with one in mufti in his free time. Such meetings provide the required contrast to reveal the human side of the musician.
The Academy, its music tradition and dedicated patronage, silk attires and diamond studs, NCC cadets and clean restrooms, makes me wonder if a Plato or Aristotle would catch me perambulating the groves of the music Academus and chastise my precocious presence.
On the contrary, in fifteen years of attending the Academy concerts, barring occasional officious apaswaram s, I have only been subjugated by the art form, delivered in capricious splendour, both aural and otherwise.
(Arunn Narasimhan is a faculty member at the IIT Madras and writes regularly about science and music on the internet.)