Managing Carnatic Music, virtually

And so we are in the middle of the COVID- 19 pandemic. I specify which pandemic for like all egoistic writers (all writers are egoistic, as are all musicians) I imagine my prose to be immortal and I want those reading it in another million years to know which pandemic was meant, for I am sure there are going to be plenty more pandemics in the years to come. Now where was I? Ah, yes! I was saying we are in the middle of the pandemic. At least I hope we are in the middle of the pandemic, or even better, at the end of the pandemic. I fervently pray that we are not in the beginning of the pandemic, because I cannot endure yet another year of masks, waves, hand sanitisers, protocols, seeing people in astronaut gears and having probes sent up my nose and throat. And above all I cannot survive another virtual December Music Season.

The Music Academy, Madras

Years ago, when I became Secretary of the Music Academy, I imagined it would be a cushy job where I would wear silk kurtas and have artistes and rasikas fawning over me while I made weighty pronouncements on the annihilation of the Self in Tyagaraja kritis or the implied symbolism in S Rajam’sinclusion of the nutcracker in Syama Sastry’s portrait. I did not imagine that I would become one of a select (Ayyo – that word which reeks of parochialism, patriarchy, patronage and patatopam (that is a Tamil word and I added it there for alliteration)) band of people who had to go about organising virtual performances. 

I really admire the artistes who have transformed themselves to performing before an empty auditorium faced with a barrage of cameras manned by personnel who don’t think what is going on to be any different from a wedding or a book launch or a press conference. Half the magic in Carnatic music concerts is the live audience reactions – that duo in the corner exchanging confidences about health, that lady who is surreptitiously recording, that man who is blatantly recording by holding up his phone, the person at the far end who has made the fifth trip to the great outside world and returned, the front row man who is loudly pounding away on the wrong beat, the general noise of coughs, sneezes and wheezes and lastly the steady ring of a cell phone, audible to all except its owner. But amidst this you also have the woman with closed eyes and a beatific smile, the man who is quietly wiping a tear, the enthusiastic ahas from a group of avid listeners and then the wholehearted applause at the end of the song or taniavartanam. Suddenly, everything seems to be worth it – all the years of effort, the repeated practice sessions, the round of competitions, the journeys to far off towns to sing to unknown audiences, the harsh reviews and the pittance that is paid. That is really the joy of singing live. Take that away and what do you have? Imagine giving your best and at the end of it just darkness and a deathly silence. It is not the same is it?

To the audience too this is not the best deal. The joy of attending Carnatic music performances live is to leave the home and the world outside, be with friends, savour the music and be elevated. It is not the same to listen from home with the thousand distractions – bells ringing, cookers whistling, the courier delivering and family members watching the latest TV serial. I intentionally leave out phones ringing as they are the one common disturbance at home and the Sabha. 

Of course, virtual performances are better than no performances. And in a world where Carnatic music has had the worst deal this is the least that we could do as organisers. I don’t think there are very many other professions in this world where the practitioners have a small earning window in life, have no retirement or old age security and above all, have a target market that thinks it is its right to get the service/product delivered free. And that is what I am most concerned about in this virtual world. Suddenly, the free offerings have become the norm. If all performances are to be made available for free, then where is the commercial aspect of Carnatic music? I know the great composers led ideal lives by eschewing all wealth (at least that is what we are expected to believe), but surely the modern-day Sabha and the artistes have to lead a life? There is now a group of so-called rasikas that imagines that it is the artiste’s duty to furnish a (free) zoom or YouTube link each time a concert is announced. This is a bad trend, and the sooner people realise that artistes have needs like all of us with a necessity to earn, the better. Virtual listening is bad enough but to think that artistes can live on virtual performances is even worse. Time we got real.

And then there is the canteen – can you imagine a December Music Season sans this? Of course, this year some have got this going but it is not the same when you need to worry if everyone from the cook downwards is suffering from you know what and all its variants. What if the waiter’s cough and sniffle that you earlier took in your stride is now the real thing? 

I will not go into the pains of hosting a virtual performance. That is a subject for another article. But between an elderly target audience that does not know much beyond switching on a gadget, and the costs of recording and streaming, you are between a rock and a hard place. Heaven help those Sabhas that don’t have sponsorships or are imagining that the box office will see them through.

Taken overall, Carnatic Music has had enough of COVID 19. Happy New Year.

Disclaimer – these are days when people take offence at everything and so I add this – the opinions expressed are mine in my capacity as Sriram V and not as Sriram V, Secretary, Music Academy, Madras. This article was written at the behest of my friend Savitha Narasimhan for the newsletter of her Museum of Performing Arts.

One thought on “Managing Carnatic Music, virtually

  1. Sriram,
    I throughly enjoyed your article on our present predicament with the ongoing pandemic. You are absolutely right we are all fed up with the ongoing restrictions not only on attending music concerts but other conferences and meetings. We sincerely hope our lives would be restored to normal this year!