Saturday, December 12, 2009

December Season!

At long last, 'tis the Season! When I originally set the schedule for my time in India, I thought I would try to come for most of MCC’s first semester, arriving in July and heading back home in November. Several things encouraged me to move things later. First, Nirmal Selvamony pointed out that his course on music and literature was taught only in the second semester. Then I stopped to think how bloody hot July and August can be in Chennai. And I really didn’t want to give up the mid-August week Virginia and I often spend on the north shore of Lake Superior—one of the most beautiful places I know. But the thing that clinched it was the possibility of staying just long enough to catch a good number of December Season concerts in Chennai. And now that Dr. Nirmal has accepted a position with the newly formed Central University in Tiruvarur (did I get that right?), it means even more time free to “do the Season”! This is one of the biggest music festivals in the world, with something like 50 concerts going on every day during the last weeks of December. In this second week of December there have “only” been 20-some concerts a days, but still plenty to choose from, and more than I could possibly catch if I wanted to. For rasikas (fans and connoisseurs of Carnatic classical music), this festival is heaven on earth, and I didn’t want to come so far for so long and miss out completely!

So, the Season is finally here! From Sunday to Tuesday, Mathivanan and I took in four-and-a-half concerts in three days, and we’ll attend one more on Saturday night. If I didn’t have packing to worry about, I might just move into the city for a few days and do nothing but concerts. Still, I’m getting in just enough to say I’ve had the experience, and I’m seeing a nice variety of things, too. Mike, Anne, Mathivanan, and I went in Sunday night to hear Sudha Ragunathan on the concert series at Meenakshi College for Women. We arrived over an hour early and I was thinking we might have time to go out for tea before the performance. But when we saw the huge crowd already gathered (turns out it was a free concert!), we were very lucky to find four seats together in the second row. By the time the show started, the area between the seats and the stage was packed with fans seated right on the floor, and it was standing room only in the back with crowds clustered around every entrance hoping to hear something. Mathivanan pointed to the floor-sitters and called them the real rasikas, and noting Sudha’s interactions with the audience (and their response!), Mike and Anne commented that she was like a rock star! Mike and Anne had wanted to see at least one December Season concert, and I figured we couldn’t do better than Sudha, so I invited them to this one, and Mathivanan had absolutely no objection to my bringing friends along (“That’s beautiful, Mark!”). Sudha more than lived up to expectations. She is a beautiful person with a beautiful voice who sings with all the depth of expression she learned from her guru, M.L. Vasanthakumari (MLV for short), one of the most famous Carnatic singers of the past 50 years. As the concert began I could not help but remember my reaction at my very first Carnatic concert in Chennai in 2005 (Gayathri Girish)—this is where this music lives! Sudha confirmed over and over again what I love so deeply about this music, and at one point I found a couple of tears rolling down my cheek. Such expressive music! Afterwards, Mathivanan took us for the obligatory tiffin at Murugan’s Idli Shop (they loved the masala dosa—yum!) and then to the train, and Mike, Anne, and I spent the whole train ride home buzzing about the concert. They even brought it up a couple of times over the next few days, so Sudha was definitely a good choice for a first experience. I myself am still basking in the afterglow of such wonderful music-making!

The next evening we went to hear Dr. Premeela from the University of Madras. This was the first Carnatic concert I have ever attended where they handed out a program—a really nice touch! As someone learning my way into the style, it would be REALLY helpful to have one at every concert. I said to Mathivanan, “She must be an educator!” As we laughed heartily, the woman in the row in front of us turned around and scowled. She didn’t know we were both educators ourselves, and I expect she thought I was being snide. Anyway, it was a lovely concert with especially sensitive exploration of the raga in the ragam-tanam-pallavi, and the musicians who accompanied her were outstanding (these were some of the fellows who regularly work with Premeela’s doctoral student, Sowmya, already a distinguished artist in her own right). Tuesday morning it was back to Meenakshi College to hear Geetha Bennett on veena. Sadly, you don’t hear many veena players these days, even at December Season-time, but she is a virtuoso and gave an outstanding concert. Her father was an revered musician and teacher, and even though she married an American and lives in L.A., she has clearly kept up her skills and does her father proud. With the plucked string sound’s quick decay time, the performer has to work harder to convey the same expressiveness that comes easily for a singer. This made her performance all the more remarkable. As Mathivanan pointed out after T.M. Krishna’s concert that evening (they had both performed one song in common on their programs), Geetha had offered the more expressive, soulful rendition … and Krishna is no slouch! After lunch we headed over to Narada Gana Sabha for Krishna’s concert only to find that main floor tickets were completely sold out! Fortunately, we could still get general admission tickets in the balcony. So we grabbed a couple of seats in the middle of Abhishek Raghuram’s concert, but we didn’t dare leave them (at the same time) for fear of losing them before Krishna’s program began. If the main floor was sold out so far ahead, we couldn’t take the chance. We heard half of Abhishek’s concert, which was nice enough. He possesses a very pleasant tenor voice and plenty of virtuoso skill, but he is a junior artist who still lacks the depth and variety of expression one hears from mature artists like Sudha or Sanjay or Aruna or Krishna. I’ve heard T.M. Krishna’s name for some time, but this was my first chance to hear him in concert. He’s a very gifted, very expressive singer, if a bit uneven on occasion. One of the first numbers on the program was incredibly virtuosic, the kind of thing you might save for near the end! With his very physical hand and arm gestures, I turned to Mathivanan after this song and said, “He’s a wild man!” The ragam-tanam-pallavi was extraordinary, and the tension he built in his final extended solo was staggering—it kept growing and growing until it was almost unbearable. A masterful performance! I could not help but compare Krishna with Sanjay Subrahmanian. Sanjay is also very effective at building tension in his performances, but there is always a sly playfulness about it. With Krishna, music-making and artistic expression is a very serious matter! Interesting to see how their personalities emerge in the music. Sadly, one of the shorter numbers nearly the end (the same one Geetha played in the morning), lacked expressive depth. Still, it was easy to see Krishna’s great artistry, and it was no fluke that he sang to a full house!

Just one more concert on Saturday night, this time by the distinguished artist, T.N. Seshagopalan. It was my first time hearing him. He’s giving something like 18 concerts during the season, at different sabhas throughout the city. That’s a lot, even for seasoned veterans like Seshagopalan. Rumor has it he was taxing his voice so much with lessons and performances in one recent Season that his voice gave out part way through the concert. No evidence of that last night, even though he had a bit of a cold, and as if to prove it was not a problem, he sang for over three hours (more than the 2 and a half hour limit strictly enforced at the Music Academy!). This is a younger sabha, however, and one of the upcoming concerts they are advertising will be a real marathon performance, so they may be encouraging older practices as a way of garnering an audience. For a prime-time concert by an established artist, the hall was no where near full, however—maybe people were staying home because of the cyclonic storm predicted to roar in from the ocean (and about an hour in, the rains did start coming down heavily!). That’s a shame, because this was a very fine concert. TNS has an incredibly wide range, and he uses a much greater variety of vocal timbres than some of the other artists I’ve heard, ranging from humming to ooh-ing to full throated song. The virtuosity I’ve heard in other artists was there in full force, but he always used it in the service of expression. If Sudha was a fitting way to begin my December Season forays, TNS was a good way to end.

Though we considered snacking at the Sabha’s own canteen, we decided against it when there was no masala dosa to be had. And since Mudhra is right on North Usman Rd. in T. Nagar, it was only a few blocks down the street to enjoy Murugan’s idlis for one last time before going home. I told Mathivan it would be very difficult to find such good idlis and dosas in Chicago, and he said that was good, that I should have something to look forward to when I come back. I told him I would miss a great many things! And then the short trip back up the street to Kodambakkam station and the suburban train back to Tambaram and MCC. (Note to self—Mudhra is a good place for future concerts when staying at MCC; easy access on foot to sabha and Murugan’s from train!) As we drove and then waited for the train, I thanked Mathivan profusely for being such a wonderful, guide, companion, and friend—and for taking time to show me so many concerts. He said he had always noticed foreigners attending December Season concerts and thought he would enjoy taking one of them around and showing them the ropes. I told him I was glad he found me and not someone else! One last bit of conversation on the platform, a quick hug and back-slap, and then a train ride through the rain. I’ll see him again in January and probably not before, but this is the way I’d like to remember him.