Last evening I attended a performance by Sanjay at the AIR Chennai. It was part of a Friday evening series for a live audience, and will be broadcast and telecast later. The series is titled Isai Saral in English though it ought to be correctly Isaich Chaaral (a gentle rain of music) as could be gleaned from the Tamil title. A neat programme card was given out to all attendees which gave details of all the programmes planned under the series. I could see from it that I had missed Lalitha Raghavan (violin, 3/2/12), Neyveli Santhanagopalan (10/2/12), S Sowmya (17/2/12), N Ramani and N Rajam (flute-violin jugalbandi, 24/2/12). Three more events are to be held – VV Subramaniam (violin, 9/3/12), Nithyashree (16/3/12, with what appears to be a half bench – 5 accompanists) and a Vadya Vrinda by the AIR (23/3/12).

It had been a long while since I went to the AIR and given its hoary history, I always like going there. Was this the verandah where TN Rajarathinam Pillai gave his last performance? Was that where S Rajam worked on his Kotiswara Iyer compositions. Was the Semmangudi and later GNB’s room? Is this where Bhakta Prahlada was recorded with a child DKJ acting as Prahlada to Ariyakkudi‘s Vishnu (though I cant imagine the latter jumping out as a half-lion from a pillar)? Was this where Silappadikkaram was staged as an opera with GNB, Balamurali, S Rajam, MM Dandapani Desigar and others? I wish I knew but I always get these thoughts when I go there.

There is a certain wholesomeness about AIR. The complete absence of VIPs, lack of Society Mamas, the non-existence of the Sabha Secretary and the exemplary behaviour of the audience, made for a great evening. And as for the acoustics – several generations of broadcasting have given the AIR an enviable edge that the best auditoriums may aim for in vain. There is a sense of balance and proportion in the setting that makes for hearing comfort.

That said, there is an artless simplicity about the AIR that the present generation may not buy. A tacky stage with red plastic seats for the audience is not received well by Gen X ( or is it Y now). Add to this an AIR employee who had to mouth some minor inanities before each song apart from giving the necessary details about the piece to be performed. And I suppose a concert timing of 5.30 to 7.00 pm on a Friday evening means you will get a super-geriatric crowd anyway. The Mama next to Sarada kept belching loudly, once for each avarta of tala. In fact the audience was of the generation that grew up with the AIR. For that matter so did I. Our first TV set came home when I was 16. We managed by poondaxing into neighbours’ homes before that. And I first saw a colour TV only in 1984. Which is why to me, AIR will be AIR and DD will be DD, no matter they call themselves Prasar Bharti now.

But where else will there be a free concert of a top-ranking set of artistes? Can we imagine any of the other channels doing this? Why, the top-ranking among the Chennai channels, and the sun among the solar system of channels so to speak, has apparently a firm belief that Carnatic music does not sell. If that is the prevailing attitude is it not commendable that the AIR, albeit in its old bumbling way, still continues to perform its role of fostering the arts?

It was a good evening. One of the last ones of Chennai’s all too brief spring perhaps what with shades of summer already upon us and the power scenario not making things better. Sanjay began with a varnam in chakravAkam. He then sang vENugAnalOluni (kEdAra gaula, Tyagaraja with niraval and swara). Then followed EkAmranAtham (gamakakriya, Muttuswami Dikshitar with AlApana), vA vElava (tAnarUpi, Kotiswara Iyer), kAkka unakkirakkam illaya (kharaharapriya, Papanasam Sivan, AlApana, niraval, svara and tani) and karuNA nidAn (cArukEsi, Swati Tirunal). He was accompanied by S Varadarajan on the violin, Mannargudi A Easwaran on the mridangam and S Venkataraman on the kanjira. The last named I understand, is a grand-nephew of Chittoor Subramania Pillai. He was the find of the evening. A wonderfully rich nadam from his instrument with a completely different style of playing.

VAzhga AIR, vaLarga adan Isai toNDu.