Etiquette takes backseat in concert halls

Indiscipline among audience prevails, hallowed halls no exception

Updated - February 06, 2020 08:23 pm IST

Published - February 06, 2020 04:14 pm IST

“The podi idlis are flying off the plate — like Alarmel Valli!” I effuse over the nimble numbers at Chennai’s famous restaurant. Such is Valli’s impact that her style has rather become synonymous with the lithe. Few things I recall as vividly as the first time I saw Valli dance, at the Hyatt Regency Chennai’s Bee Festival in 2012. Those were days when one could actually see the artiste, hear the music, without a zigzag of outstretched clicking/filming mobiles thrust into your line of vision, or suddenly bleating during the recital.

Last year, at The Music Academy, where I have attended the celebrated Music & Dance Festival since 2012, in a moment of excessive zeal I compared an illustrious young dancer to the incomparable Valli. A veteran lawyer chided me, “Valli at that age was pouncing around the stage.” I immediately regretted the comparison. More so the next day when during her guru Malavika Sarukkai’s show the said dancer sat right before me WhatsApping away furiously through the performance. I habitually tick off my neighbours, “Your phone is disturbing”, but could I reprove a well-known dancer? Besides, I was astonished that an artiste could disrespect not only viewers but also the venerated guru. Yet when a small-time Kuchipudi dancer went on remorseless WhatsApping, I smote, “You are disturbing me!”

Food, phone, fan

After five seasons of sustained mediocrity, this year the Dance Festival displayed an exhilarating, avant-garde modernity. But commensurate with the new-found excellences was the libertinage with phones, food, fans and photography equipment within the auditorium. Remarkably, it was the first time one wasn’t requested before each performance to switch off mobiles, refrain from bringing food and drink into the auditorium and videoing/photographing recitals. The consequences were baneful. Through most of Apsaras Arts Dance Company’s ‘Alapadma,’ I saw only half the lotus unfold, the other half being obstructed by a large exotic fan suddenly thrown open and swayed about wildly by the lady in front of me.

Bijayani Satpathy’s consummate Odissi solo, crafted, witty, ingenuous, was slashed and gashed by raised mobiles clicking or filming away, whilst a camera the size of a cannon stationed in front of me obliterated Praveen Kumar’s tremendous acrobatic feats. Only Valli’s comeback concert elicited a little more reverence. Even Sanjay Subrahmanyan’s great appeal didn’t deter my neighbour from scouring the net for recipes. Concerts have been reduced to a frenzy of mobiles ringing or oinking messages, plastic crackling, tiffin boxes clanking, mouths yapping, chomping, glug-glugging and the fat man next to you snoring.

My complaints have been as tenacious as the disruptions, the excuses for indiscipline as intriguing, including “This is India.” How encouraging. Moreover, a committee member revealed that The Music Academy had dispensed with the request to switch off mobiles, not film/photograph because nobody heeded. Signs still prohibit food and drink in the auditorium, which has notwithstanding turned into a picnic spot — a prominent doctor from Apollo Hospitals was swinging a coffee thermos up and down in front of me whilst an old lady opened a tiffin with idlis, sambhar and chutney, their odour permeated the auditorium…

This year saw a stupendous rise in foreigners attending, some of whom commented on the unusual etiquette within the auditorium. The rigorously disciplined Japanese, Germans and Singaporeans were especially stupefied. Indians come across as savages. Why aren’t regulations firmly enforced within the auditorium and disruptive elements politely removed? Last year there was the fear that were stricter norms slapped the already dwindling crowds would altogether disappear (which the prosaic performances deserved). This year the concerts were throbbing so the excuse was that it would be “too rude” to enforce discipline.

I fail to fathom the Indian tenets concerning courtesy and propriety. Surely, it is rude to disturb others. It is not rude to be asked not to disturb others.

To quote this year’s ‘Nrtya Kalanidhi’ recipient Priyadarsini Govind, we need to “preserve and protect” for posterity what is of value. Notably as The Music Academy, once the prerogative of the more rarefied strata of society, is now ushering in a wider audience (as it should if classical art must survive what Govind called the perpetual “state of emergency” of modern times) and newcomers shouldn’t think this is an institution where permissibility is permissible.

Already The Music Academy, where concerts were once punctual as a Shinkansen, has slipped into a temporal bagginess, whilst standards are becoming as flabby as some of the unwieldy dancers amidst murmurs that they should confine themselves to teaching.

Thrilling space

On a commendable note, this season saw the dance discourse pirouette into a thrilling, intellectually challenging space. Apoorva Jayaraman’s audaciously, unconventionally secular concert made for change. Thank God the inexorable Krishna padam at every Bharatnatyam show ceded to novelties. The inaugural Renjith & Vijna Bharatnatyam, apotheosising in a thunderous Maha Kali piece, exemplified further evolution with the provocative interaction of Kali and the asura: from the suggestive as in the yearning expressions of a Valli exploring the ambiguity between the sacred and the sexual, classical dance was fox-trotting with overt choreography into the blatantly sensual. And then, Valli interestingly danced to a Telugu poem on flowers as sentient creatures that suffer at our plucking of them. She called the poem “powerful” and yet her head was flower-laden. Knowing Valli, was this deliberate, asking has art really the power to transcend tradition?

Mark Van de Vreken, the Belgian Consul General to Chennai, said, referring to fusion art, that mixing dosa and chocolate mousse doesn’t make for the finest amalgam. Precisely why it was exciting to see innovations and evolution within the scope of the classical form. Of course, it might do well to give the masala in the dosa mousse-like finesse and make the dosa itself so ethereal that it flies off your plate — like a Valli. But for that you need technique and few dancers today are endowed with it. Because to hone technique you need discipline!

Outside India, Indian classical art forms seemingly survive with more rigour. Dare I say that the Singapore-based Apsaras Arts Dance Company’s ‘Alapadma’ was a far more accomplished performance than anything I have seen on the Kalakshetra stage recently and few Indian dancers exhibit the perfection of the lovely young Nikita Menon who stole the show.

If the next season promises to be as enthralling, let’s hope the audience will conduct itself with discipline and dignity. After all, if you spend your entire time filming or photographing a performance, maniacally dispatching instagrams “in a state of emergency,” how do you enjoy the subtleties, nuances, intellectual stimulation and poetic flights of a concert?

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