Appreciating music and dance

A middle class paranoia contributes to decline of Carnatic music?

Music and dance, a country’s cultural symbols, always were thriving in India, even under difficult situations. There is always an appreciating elite and the crowd in any society, devoted to the maintaining of standards. Now, suddenly, it seems the music and dance scenario in the South, in Madras, the home of Carnatic music, there is a perceptible decline.

Bangalore: the new music hub?

The South has always boasted a better musical appreciation culture. Now, it looks as if Bangalore is emerging as a rival to Chennai. Certainly, there is a more liberal air and a liberal mind to welcome and appreciate both the Western and Indian, all Indian musical styles in this Silicon Valley of India. All the more welcome for there is so much money, so much better for better priced musical offerings. Great musicians command a more enthusiastic audience; the pricing of the tickets at Rs.1,000 and above, all sells out so quickly. What a wonderful feeling! A sense of élan and appreciation for the artists too!
The recent music season saw no stars as such. Rather we saw the passing away of one of the old stars, namely, the redoubtable Chandralekha, the last of the stars. In music, there is the lonely Balamurali Krishna but he was missing during the season. For a query the answer was: he was away in the USA. It was a pity to miss him out during the music season. Afterwards we see him, twice in quick succession, in Bangalore where an appreciative audience gave him a standing ovation. He was conferred the title” the musician of the century”, rightly!

Chennai seems suddenly a city of small timers. The Music Academy once commanded all India respect. Not now, it seems. There is certainly a credibility gap. Mediocrity marks its current offerings. The big music, the big themes were missing. Even the sponsors were all small timers, busybodies not big enough to make the events memorable. A double pity with so much enthusiasm but very little on offer.

It is not as if the media is not interested in music and arts. Rather it is the atmosphere, the political divides, the rather monopoly situation in the English language media, that cause this heartburn. In other cities, in Bangalore again, we see there is a huge fan following for every great musician. For Pandit Bhimsen Joshi the tickets sell out days in advance. For Balamurali too the same enthusiasm. Every week we read about diverse music in Bangalore media, Western musicians, rock stars descend in regular intervals. Baul music of Bengal, Sitar of the Vilayat Khan Gharana etc. There is so much of innovative music. Alliance Francaise hosts so many memorable Western music. L. Subramanian makes a great impact.

Is there a prejudice, against these innovators in Chennai’s orthodox music establishment? One has reasons to suspect so.
The latest issue of Sruti, the magazine for the performing arts (February 2007) is before me. It evoked so many memories. I was an old time reader of this magazine for long. In the interval I missed reading it. I didn’t lose touch with the Madras music season, however, and I used to visit Chennai whenever I found time and it was often many times. I used to pick up all the old copies of Sruti and they made a neat pile on my table lately and gave me endless hours of pleasure.

To be frank, the magazine is all about the Carnatic music and Bharata Natyam, though in its present format, it is a bit disconcerting. One, the style. For an arts and culture magazine, there is no style, no élan, too much labor with too little to commend! The English is heavy-going, a bit out of current styles of journalism. It also smacks of an inward looking Madras mindset. A mindset dominated by a narrow middle class brahmin inhibition. In fact, Bharata Natyam has also declined. Lately, the talents in the dance seemed dried up, as seen by what was put on show in the season. The one bright performer seemed Malavikka Sarukkai! The other notable names were either absent or faded away gracefully, though one old face tried to make a presence and she made a pathetic sight.


Anyway, the latest issue does justice to one great dancer who passed away as the season was coming to a close. On December 30,2006,Chandralekha,the great dancer in the line of other greats like Bala Saraswati and Rukmani Arundale,passed away at   the age of 78(1928-200).  There is an 8 page write-up on her, one full length feature by my old friend   and a notable critic and author on many an authoritative volumes on Indian dances, Sunil Kothari.(Sunil, where are you now?). Those who know of Chandra, as she was fondly remembered by many, and those who may not, can have an idea of the life and work of this great artist by reading through this feature.

Born in a Gujarati family, her father was a medical doctor, the job took him to many cities in India, she joined the Kala Bhavan in Baroda to study art, dropped out, studied law, came to Chennai, befriended Harindranath Chattopadyaya, later she met a painter, Dashrath Patel, they all became great friends. With Chattopadyaya she traveled to many countries, performed at international conferences. Later she worked with musicians, she finally settled down in Adyar with Rukmanidevi’s blessings. Sadananad Menon was another friend who stood by her.

I didn’t know her personally Chandra but I know the persons who knew her so well and who admired her art and rebellious nature, Mulk Raj Anand and Sunil Kothari himself. Mulk called the group of friends who made up the group in Mumbai, as the” Bloomsbury of Bombay”. It was typical of Mulk to patronize and spot talent wherever it flowers. In fact, when Mulk Raj Anand was my guest in Chennai in 1985, he wanted to visit Chandra and asked me whether I can find out her convenience. We tried to contact her but we couldn’t unfortunately. That is how I missed meeting her in the august presence of the man who made many a dancers into international celebrities!

Anyway, Chandra lived a full life, as they say. She became an established dancer, her guru was the famous traditional nattuvanar Conjeevaram Ellappa Pillai and as such she had a headstart. She evolved into powerful innovator. While Balasaraswati and Rukmani Arundale took the dance into a highly enjoyable art form, Chandra brought to the dance form tremendous innovative inputs. The later-day innovations of course didn’t endear her to the orthodox sections of the art lovers and we can understand that. Art has its dominant aspects and it is given only to a few to dare and deviate from the established traditions. We learn from the article Chandra associated herself with poet Hridranath Chattopadyaya, the brother of Sarojini Naidu and a Communist and a radical. In his company, Chandra came to realize that art can’t be all too pleasing for the senses, sensual and aesthetics for its own sake, she realized her art must make meaning to the world outside and this part of the article is worth debating. She choreographed so many works, Devadasi, Angika, The Primal Energy and the list reads like an endless experiment, some 12 productions and more.

What distinguished Chandra from the rest of the Madras crowd, if we can say so, is the fact that she had outspoken views on the art and the art appreciation, more so the Bharata Natyam dance. She said: “The sublimated content of the existing classical repertoire of the ‘margam’, as well as commercial market entertainment values” she didn’t like. Nor the plastic smiles, fake religiosity and mindless repeating of the mythological themes”. She resuscitated the traditional forms with contemporary forms and energy. This she did with the adoption of the Kerala Kalaripayattu and Chhau dances and also yoga. Those who want to see her productions must do so through the available archive material through many documented sources given in the issue (page19) to appreciate how she takes forward the dance forms experiments, almost reminiscent of the late Udaya Shankar.

In a city like Chennai that was too much and considering the narrow and almost paranoid atmosphere that prevails in the city of  Rukamni Arundale with so much pretensions for middle class morals and scruples, you have to pretend to enjoy the spirituality when a good looking dancer does an abinaya to the traditional padams. With the result, we almost now seem to have lost the unbeatable padams of Tanjore quartette and the other Keerthanacharyas, Kshetrangar’s and Ganam Krisha Iyer’s padams of unmatchable padams. Neither Tamil music nor language benefited nor the Telugu compositions of such beauty are heard these days.

In fact, it was painful for the average visitors to the sabhas to sit through the same monotonous names and the same rather mechanical and even downright boring musical and dance performances. One welcome sign of the times is the rather frank admissions in the write-ups of the magazine the current deterioration of standards, in all spheres. The selection of the ragas and compositions, the artists themselves and also the stage decor and the new crowd of sponsors, most of them are just there for the hoped for publicity. It is a doubtful outcome all through!

Some of the titles of the features themselves bring out the changing trends.” The mad, mad Madras season: 2006-2007″,”No new stars on the horizon”.” Wanted: a serving of good taste”. “Lecdems at the Music Academy”, “Rasika behavior”. “Musical growth in the age of distraction”.” Season Overkill”,” Thoughts of a Non-techie”, “Difficulties of NRI Artists” and so on. May be the Chennai’s caste-politics, filmy crowds, and the tabloid culture all contribute to the decline in classical music and dance forms.

In fact, as the multiple music sabhas were busy with managing the crowds,there was a poorly attended programme on the traditional devadasi sadir and Bharata Natyam  forms hosted by an organization called, Tapasya Kala Sampradaya, led by one Indu Verma,a disciple of Tanjore Kittappa where I met the traditional dance’s living exponent, P.R.Thilagam (who was conferred the Padma Sri this year).Also surprisingly  I met all  the living  descendants of the entire traditional names, from  Pandanallur Meenakhshisundaram Pillai,K.P.Sivanandam  to other disciples  of Balasaraswati and Kittappa and others! Some consolation indeed! But the Music academy and other sabha organizers have quietly bypassed this wonderful source of legitimate pride for the Tamil arts.

So, there is so much to deplore, rather than admire the present musical and dance standards and their politics!

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