Music, in unmusical surroundings

Given that Carnatic music has flourished over so many centuries, you would expect that a certain discipline would exist in what defines performance space.

But that has never been so — classrooms, wedding halls, temple courtyards, auditoriums — most of them with dreadful acoustics, have served as venues. Is it despite this, or because of this, that the art form has had a successful run for so long?

Take temples or religious precincts as venues — there may have been a time when these were quiet, hallowed locations, the vast corridors perfect for great music, but today, they are cacophonous both within and without. The Ayodhya Mandapam in West Mambalam is an example. Who would believe that Madurai Somu once held huge audiences enthralled here, all of them indifferent to the noise of buses thundering down the road? The noise has only become worse since then.

Carnatic musicians today are, in general, resigned to performing at any odd place. This appears to have been so in the past also. One of the finest recordings of Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer is known to collectors as the airport concert. This is because the take off and landing of aircrafts punctuate the recital every ten minutes or so. The maestro comments on it himself mid-song, saying that the programme ought to have been held a week earlier when there was a pilots’ strike. There is a legend that the pitamaha actually sang it in an airport. But that is impossible. What is likely is that the concert took place at Nanganallur or Meenambakkam.

At least three concert recordings, one each of Alathur Brothers, Ariyakkudi Ramanuja Iyengar and Flute Mali, feature the sharp whistle and chugging of a train, mercifully just once. Some claim these were at Perambur, while others say the venue was somewhere in Dadar/Matunga, close to the railway line. In the Mali concert, he stops mid-alapana and reproduces the whistle perfectly on his flute, much to the delight of the audience. In his famed 1954 Khar concert, also in Bombay, Semmangudi in the midst of his Sankarabharanam alapana, reacts with appropriate musical phrases when a child lets out a sudden howl. Though no recordings of the performances exist, Chembai is known to have sung twice, once at a police station when young, and later as a star, in a bank branch, both times because officials expressed regret that they had missed the maestro’s concert of the previous evening.

The strangest experience of all was perhaps Salem Chellam Iyengar’s. Invited to perform at a certain house, he was happy that everyone applauded repeatedly during the concert. All except the much brocaded and garlanded patron who sat still in a chair. When he asked why the man was not reacting to his music, he was told that he could not, as he was dead and it was for his funeral wake that Chellam Iyengar was singing. This apparently was a custom peculiar to that community. It took quite a while for Iyengar to recover.

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Printable version | Oct 24, 2021 3:44:45 PM |

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