Margazhi Festival

‘It is a quest for talent’

Nalli Kuppuswamy

Nalli Kuppuswamy  

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Nalli Kuppuswami Chetty talks about the sabha culture

Over one hundred sabhas and hundreds of artists – the great music Season of Chennai is gathering momentum. From the four or five sabhas that gave platform to talented musicians, this is a huge leap.

The day’s events begin as early as 9 a.m. and the last slot is past 7 p.m. Not all of them are ticketed. What is Season without awards? Artists up-and-coming and veterans are honoured with titles and purses.

All this would not be possible without financial support from patrons. A few generous art lovers are doing it just in order to keep the Season going. How and why did they choose to do it?

“You have the answer yourself,” laughs the man, whose name is synonymous with silk, and who is associated with several sabhas. “The festival has become a phenomenon. There were a few sabhas and fewer artists in those days. Now there are 145 sabhas and 2,000 artists. They all need exposure.”

Becoming nostalgic Nalli Kuppuswami Chetty says, “As a teenager, I would stand outside my father’s shop to catch the strains of music wafting from Sri Krishna Gana Sabha. So, my association goes back a long way. Attending concerts brought me close to Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer, who in a way was the inspiration.”

Nalli talks of the days of privy purse. “Remember, samasthanams and zamins nurtured talent and looked after artists well. The abolition of the system left a huge void, which only the affluent could fill. And that’s what eventually happened. The trend started in the 1990s,” he informs.

Is there need for so many sabhas? The number of performers is mind boggling. Nalli recalls Semmangudi’s words. “Inaugurating a sabha at Madipakkam, I raised the question whether a sabha in the outskirts was necessary. In reply Semmangudi said, ‘This is a boon to the neighbourhood rasikas, who don’t have to commute into the city to enjoy a kutcheri.’”

But most of the halls remain empty, hardly inspiring for a performer. “Look at it like this. With the increase in the number of sabhas, rasikas are catching up with the artists at places convenient to them. Naturally, you can’t have a full hall. We have to reckon with the problem of logistics, and the pressure education exerts on the youth.”

Is there not too much of it, from dawn till night? Different slots help aspiring artists, argues Nalli. But what about quality? “It is a marathon race. Only real talent will survive and make progress. There are candidates waitlisted for five years. Everyone deserves a chance. You may find a Baby Gayathri or some other talent in this line-up.”

What about those who cannot make it?

Nalli again cites Semmangudi. “He was appointed Principal of the Music College, Trivandrum. In a meeting with the Travancore raja, he made this appeal: ‘Hundreds of students are learning music. Not all of them are concert material but will possess knowledge. What will they do for livelihood after they graduate? You must make sure that music is made part of the curriculum in schools where these graduates can teach.’ The prince obliged and the system continues even today. But here, a system was in place but withdrawn.”

Nalli Kuppuswamy is especially happy about the fact that nagaswaram comes under limelight during the Season. “The instrument that was made famous by giants such as TNR, Karukurichi and Namagiripettai is treated as mere mangala vadyam. Why have we not had even one in the league of the names mentioned above? There is no dearth of talent but it has to be spotted. That is the aim of nagaswara festivals.”

Does he think Carnatic music is dominated (read monopolised) by a particular community?

“No. Certainly not. I don’t know how this theory has gained ground. Learning the basics of Carnatic music may be part of that culture. But how can you prevent one from learning what he wants? I haven’t known gurus to distinguish among students. Their teaching is impartial. It is up to the individual to take it to the next level.”

Guru finds a sishya

“True guru recognises a disciple’s yearning and reaches out to him. In music too there have been instances,” says Nalli and expands.“The place was Tirunelveli and T.N. Rajarathinam Pillai was there to play at the marriage of a celebrity. Of course, he couldn’t be playing on all the minor occasions, which would be handled by local talent. Relaxing one evening in the front yard of a typical village house, he sat up as the notes from nagaswaram came floating. He went in search of the artist and found a young lad with the instrument. ‘Will you come with me, I’ll teach you?’ The boy agreed and another legend was born – Karukurichi Arunachalam.”Also true musicians never hesitate to recognise talent, emphasises Nalli. “Returning from Madurai, Lalgudi Jayaraman spoke highly of a young vocalist, who had impressed him there. ‘Give him a chance,’ he told the organisers. ‘You can take my word. This boy will go places.” The candidate performed in the junior category and never looked back. He is none other than Madurai T.N. Seshagopalan.”

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Printable version | Jan 18, 2020 3:16:13 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/chennai-margazhi-season/it-is-a-quest-for-talent/article6672774.ece

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