Unplugged Music

Hosanna for the house concert

A baithak at the residence of rudraveena player Ustad Mohi Bahauddin Dagar.

A baithak at the residence of rudraveena player Ustad Mohi Bahauddin Dagar.   | Photo Credit: Prashant Nakwe

Informal spaces encircle performer and listener in a warm embrace

It was (and still is) called the chotekhani mehfil. At one time, and to some extent even now, stalwarts as well as newbies gathered, by invitation, in one another’s homes, to rediscover and revive existing musical material, showcase their innovations and creations to each other, and listen to some of the upcoming musician’s offerings. And only when they had sung (“given haajiri”) in enough number of these small gatherings of the cognoscenti, were young musicians deemed fit for larger stages and sammelans.

The fly-on-the-wall listener/ audience at these soirees got to witness an enviable range of music-making. Today, many of us are fortunate to be privy to a contemporary version of this kind of informal and yet rich mehfil: the house concert.

Plush, comfortable, modern, professionally maintained and acoustically faultless auditoriums are a wonderful thing. But there are some ‘lesser’ performing spaces that work on a different level, for both listener and performer. Many of us grew up with, and still attend, at times, classical music programmes in old badminton halls and modest club houses of residential colonies.

It is most heartening to see many listeners as well as the performing musicians — not just newbies, but also stalwarts who perform all over the world — sportingly put up with the kinks and quirks of these spaces, zeroing in on the essence of the performance, and delivering divinity in sometimes the most domestic of spaces.

Ephemeral space

Neither the performer nor the audience comes dressed and coiffured, painted or scented to a house concert. Just about everyone is in everyday gear and the host lays out a round of chai and biskoot, without any fanfare. Furniture is pushed back or moved out for the day, rugs and mats are put down, and things begin without further ado. The word cosy suggests itself. As fellow listener and writer Kunal Ray describes it, “the joys of intimate listening in an ephemeral space”.

There is quite a range of spaces available at a house concert: some homes have specially built large music rooms with state-of-the-art mic arrangements, to which it is wonderful to be invited. These can be homes in beautiful settings, but also in places right in the heart of noisy old Mumbai’s Pedder Road (albeit with a sound-proof family room, in which, legend has it, Kumar Gandharva stayed over and sang for small mehfils; in later years, the family continued to host intimate music gatherings).

I have also been to quick assemble-disassemble sessions on the fourth floor of a chawl along the railway tracks of Masjid Bunder station in Mumbai. Pakhawaj players of various ages strutted their stuff to the not-so-muffled background of loaded local trains speeding past.

Could they have found a more felicitous space to get together? Maybe, but the modern-day patron of these sessions was no Maharaja or prince — just a working-class man whose mind was most palatial in its thinking; and performers and listeners who grabbed this evening tryst like people who stop at the corner adda for a quick double-shot before taking the train home.

Tightly packed

There are more conventional and quieter places that host house concerts: a study or a large sitting room, converted for that morning or evening, into a performance area. At a recent house concert in just such a setting in Pune, it became apparent that the host had freely and generously asked friends to ask their friends, who then asked their friends to come. There we sat, loosely at first, then tightly packed together, as more and more people came in to listen to the much-loved doyen of the Gwalior gharana, Sharad Sathe, singing morning ragas. No mics, headphones or other trappings. Just us and him, with the light in the windows changing the shapes of the shadows in the room, as the morning passed.

Without a curtain or a raised stage, the audience was all scooched up, almost to the singer’s and accompanists’ knees. As he held sway, there was much smiling, cheering, and at times even joining the ‘samm’ with an almost rollicking sing-along chorus.

As the closing Bhairavi notes descended on the room, that unmistakable inwardness visited us all. There were some moist eyes and sniffles. The anonymity of a darkened auditorium is easier perhaps at emotional moments. But the invisible bond with an intimate audience is priceless comfort, as people manage to give each other company and privacy at the same time.

The writer is a novelist, counsellor, music lover who’ll take readers on a ramble through the Alladin’s cave of Indian music.

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Printable version | Apr 5, 2020 6:32:48 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/entertainment/music/hosanna-for-the-house-concert/article25455226.ece

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