Live, in your living room

Three initiatives bring performances out of predictable venues and into unique, intimate spaces, changing the way Chennai listens to music and giving local artistes a much-needed boost, writes ELIZABETH MATHEW

In a house right by Thiruvanmiyur Beach, a bunch of strangers makes themselves comfortable on straw mats in a courtyard. They are listening to Vedanth Bharadwaj sing and talk about his music, inspired by the Bhakti movement.

The gazebo in the courtyard is lit with fairy lights, and since there is no microphone, the audience sits as close to the makeshift stage as possible, taking in everything from the tuning of his banjo to the story of the little shop in Chintadripet where he bought it. When he pauses, the sound of lapping waves fills the silence.

This scene is from one of the many performances organised by Supportive Cities Stage, an initiative to encourage people to open up private spaces for artistes to perform. And there are many more trying to change the way the city experiences and supports artistes from all genres.

Supportive Cities Stage is the brainchild of Siddharth Hande and his team, who noticed that Chennai has a lot of talent but not enough spaces to showcase it.

They wanted to support young, independent artistes, and came up with a format that lets a limited number of people sign up for shows in an informal setting, usually without a stage or mic. People are encouraged to volunteer their homes or spaces, and more often than not, audience members eventually become hosts.

Nirmal Rajagopalan, who attended Sofia Ashraf’s (of ‘Kodaikanal Won’t’ fame) performance, was inspired to offer his courtyard to the team for a show. “I always wanted to make better use of my space, and enjoyed the performance I attended and hosted,” he says.

Paul Jacob, whose studio hosted Sid Sriram’s performance a few weeks ago, believes the independent music scene needs this kind of support at the grassroots level, and performances, where one gets to hear new music from popular artistes, are essential.

For performers too, events such as these are a great way to connect with audiences. Kaber, who performed at one of Supportive Cities Stage’s first events, held in a gym, says, “A unique format is great, because we get to interact with listeners, and they are always people who value our work. When the only paying gigs are at pubs, where you are asked to play covers because that’s what customers want to hear, the independent music scene is bound to suffer.”

While this idea is relatively new in Chennai, globally, it has been a phenomenon for a while. Most notably since 2010, when Sofar Sounds, a global initiative to “bring the magic back to live music” started in London. Six years later, with regular performances in 274 different cities, and a ‘surprise’ format where people register for shows without knowing who’s performing or exactly where, it has brought a personal element into music performances.

Rohan Sen, city leader for Sofar Sounds in Chennai, says “We have tried cutting all the frills that come with live music today — there is no party, and the objective is to focus on just the music.”

All Sofar events are voluntary — from location and lights to musicians and videographers, everyone pitches in with time and effort. And since the venues are usually small, there is a cap on audience members as well. At the end of the performance, though, a hat is passed around for token contributions.

Sharanya Gopinath, who performed at Sofar’s first edition in Chennai, says the beauty of these performances is in the surprise element. She was only informed about the venue and how much time she had ahead of her performance. She was pleasantly surprised to find that pianist Anil Srinivasan was performing after her.

“I was given the freedom to do anything; so, I did three jazz standards, something I don’t normally get to do. And, for the first time, there were no familiar faces in the audience.”

It’s not just popular music that’s finding its way out of traditional venues. Mahesh Venkateswaran quit his job as Executive Vice-President, Cognizant, two years ago and partnered with Sean Roldan. MadRasana was started as an effort to bring classical music into a natural setting, since he felt that the sound quality in auditoriums was processed, and performance wasn’t “pure”.

“I wanted to bring chamber music in contact with Nature, like in my garden, with the sounds of the birds, the wind and with the singers singing the way they do in their own homes,” says Mahesh.

MadRasana has organised five shows so far, mostly in Mahesh’s garden, which can accommodate just about 70 people.

At these performances, condenser microphones are placed about two feet away from the singer, and they are so sensitive that the recording manages to capture the chirping of birds, the rustling of leaves and even the rushing wind. Because there is no ‘monitor’, the singer hears only his voice and not the sound from the speakers, as is the case in concert halls.

Having attended MadRasana both as a listener as well as a performer, Rithvik Raja believes it was a heightened experience that catered to anyone looking for good music. “As a singer, when the setting is informal, aesthetic and natural, the mindset is different, and this drives the musician. The same song will sound different in a concert hall, because the construct changes,” says Rithvik.

Like charity and other virtues, good music too, seems to begin at home!

(Check the Facebook pages of Supportive Cities Stage, Sofar Sounds Chennai and MadRasana for details about upcoming performances.)

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Printable version | Feb 26, 2020 12:49:13 AM |

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