(Published on Sify.com on 30 December, 2011, retrieved from http://www.sify.com/news/margazhi-in-madras-its-pouring-freaks-news-columns-lm4tn9cgbai.html)
The December music season is a bane when you’re growing up in Madras. People groan out complicated aa-aas you don’t understand, and the naadaswaram winds its way through your brain.
But then, you go away, return with a foreign degree, some dollars or pounds in your bank account, go back away to cushy jobs in Delhi or Mumbai, and then wind up back in your hometown, a returning Madrasi, trying to forge links with your past. And then, the Margazhiseason, with its aalaaps and veenas and violins and bells becomes the most important cultural event in your annual calendar.
And so it was that my first December back home, having missed a good half of the season thanks to the Chennai International Film Festival, I braved a looming viral fever, a vandalised car, and a forecast cyclone to take myself on a rickety scooter to the sabhas.
I was in a forgiving mood, and promised myself not to hush any rasikas who saw fit to send out voluble indications of their pleasure. I could have taken one, maybe two, kinds of concert-disrupters. However, I was to reacquaint myself with six sub-genres on the same day.
The Sabha Hoppers
They’re professionals who have ticked, circled and marked all the concerts they want to attend part or the whole of, cross-referencing newspaper announcements against sabha booklets and sponsors’ handouts. Even so, they find themselves in a conundrum.
“I’m so glad you came here!” one wearer-of-ear-muffs-in-the-
print-of-army-fatigues will tell another excitedly, “I thought you might go to Academy instead!”
“No, no, I’ve heard Sowmya four times already this season. So, I came here. Today’s okay. But tomorrow is the real problem. T M Krishna, O S Arun, Sanjay, Vijay Siva, everyone is singing! Enge pordhune theriyale! (I’ve no clue where to go!)”
The spouse of one of the ladies will intervene, with a knowing smile at his counterpart, who will join him in revelling in a rare moment of intellectual superiority over the wives. “Maami, best thing, you stay at the Krishna concert up to the varnam. His execution is beautiful. Then, you go straight to O S Arun. That starts half an hour later, so he would not have reached the varnam yet. Then you go to Sanjay –avan definite-aa extend-pannuvaan, so no problem. (He’ll definitely exceed the concert time.) Vijay Siva is singing day after tomorrow also, so you forget that.”
As the women marvel at the pragmatism of his solution, with scant regard for the dedicated listeners they will intrude on as they bumble their way into the middle of a concert and search out the best seats to observe the contortions of the singer’s face from, Spouse 2 will seek a share of the limelight. “But, the problem is, they don’t know how to organise...Neyveli Santhanagopalan and T N Seshagopalan are singing on the same day. Same way, Kadri Gopalnath and Flute Ramani are giving concerts at the same time. Different sabhas!”
Yeah, as opposed to an all-Madras, all-musician jugalbandhi, the reluctant eavesdropper thinks.
“In the middle of this, youngsters are also coming up. Every year, they find a new sensation. First, it was Sikkil Gurucharan, then Abhishek Raghuram, now Trichur Brothers...,” his wife will nod furiously.
“Listen to me, maami, youngsters-ellam vittudungo (forget about the youngsters),” Spouse 1 is back, “We must focus on the people who are in their seventies and eighties only, because we don’t know how long they will be with us. Where is MS now? DKP? MLV? Bhimsen Joshi?”
“I heard Bhimsen Joshi in Music Academy! What a concert that was!” his wife chimes in.
“Maama, your point is correct,” acknowledges Maami 1, and then adds firmly, “But I have an argument. What about GNB? He died so young! Balamurali is still singing, and better than he did when he was 60 also. If we had left all the youngsters, we would never have heard GNB. Death is one thing you cannot predict.”
Silence as the two couples contemplate morbid deaths for young sensations and aged doyens alike. Silence as you envision gory deaths for the two couples.
As you’re keeping the beat with your fingers, you feel a steady gaze on your hands. You turn to see a lady frowning and nodding appreciatively, as she scrutinises the correctness of your taalam.
She smiles up at you. “Do you know music?”
“For how long?”
“On and off, since I turned 20. So quite a while now.”
“How old are you? You look only 22-23.”
“I tell everyone I’m 22-23.”
“But how old are you, actually?”
“I’m asking for a reason,” she says, leaning in conspiratorially, “See, I have a son who’s...why am I telling you, let me talk to your mother! Or, you give your father my husband’s number. My son is very handsome. He’s interested in music also.”
“What’s your nakshatram? Swathi, Rohini and Magham won’t suit him.”
“How sad. I was just thinking you’ll be perfect for him. He doesn’t mind someone over 25 also. Are you over 25? Anyway, it doesn’t matter now. But maybe I can tell someone else. Are you over 25?”
“I’m 37, maami.”
“WHAT!!!! 37-aa? Why didn’t you get married? Problem-aa? In your horoscope? Do you have sevvai dosham or something?”
The Raagam Detectives
Some men bring the newspaper, while their wives carry their sabha schedules.
Others bring the Sudoku and Crossword pages, while their wives hold their notation books.
A lot of people tell me their most annoying experience is hearing the wives tear madly through the notation books, trying to identify araagam.
I’ve never had that experience.
I do know, though, that I would find the susurrus of pages infinitely preferable to the off-key aalaaps of maamis trying to identifyraagams.
This is how it usually happens.
One of the men will apologetically lean forward to ask, “Maami, do you know which raagam this is?”
“I think it’s Revathy,” she will say, with a frown, “No, no, no, could it be Nalinakaanthi? One minute.” She screws up her face, and leads her hand towards the heavens as she takes off into a creaky aalaap that will somehow aid the identification of the raagam the musician is singing tunefully on stage. She shakes her head and distorts her features as if someone’s waterboarding her in tamarind juice. “Mmm-hmm, neither. Wait, wait, please wait. One second.” Another creaky aalaap. “I can’t tell,” she concedes, finally. But intrigued, she waves away the man’s reluctant apology, and asks the woman next to her. “Maami, do you know which raagam this is? It’s not Revathy or Nalinakaanthi.”
“Are you sure? It sounds like Nalinakaanthi.”
Two creaky aalaaps in different tunes.
The Spoilt NRI-Parents
“Thank God I came on time for this. Yesterday, we got 50 minutes late!”
“Why, were you coming from somewhere else?”
“No, no, traffic!”
“Traffic is very bad. And the roads also.”
“Payyan vera car vangi koduthuttaanaa...(Now that my son’s gone and bought me a car)” – this, I haven’t managed to slot into boast, whine, or angst – “Parking is a problem too.”
“Why don’t you just take an auto and come?”
“Aiyayyo! We pay the driver 8000 per month! As it is, aa-oon-na he takes leave” – I’m not sure how ‘aa-oon-naa’ can be translated, it seems to be onomatopoeia for the slightest affliction; but I’ve never heard anyone say ‘aa-oon’ when slightly afflicted – “On top of that, you’re suggesting we start taking autos in front of his eyes! That fellow has so much gall, he’ll ask me to take an auto everyday while he puts on the AC and sleeps in the car!”
The Saliva Lords: Nawaabs-in-Disguise
There’s appreciation, and then there’s playing to the gallery.
Every few bars of a song, you’ll hear, “Wah, wah!” “Besh, besh!” and most frequently, “Plchchchch!”
The last sound is usually what I hiss out when I’m ticked off, but it seems to be sabhaspeak for the highest honour a flawless execution of music can aspire to – a complete loss for words that can be lauded only by saliva bubbling against one’s teeth. Unfortunately, my hisses of ticked-offness sound the same, and hence draw looks of kinship from the saliva-lauders.
You could turn and smile tightly. But having elicited a response from one member of the gallery, the saliva-lauder will keep it up.
You could ignore them. But the true-blue saliva-lauder will make louder and louder spittle-sounds, till you finally turn and smile tightly, whereupon s/he will continue to make his or her wet appreciation felt at that certified volume.
Those ancestors of mine who are still alive tell me some sneaky rasikas used to bring in tape recorders and pirate music back in the day.
Now, when CDs and streaming and downloads abound, their descendants carry on the tradition of recording live music.
Every now and then, the light of a mobile phone screen distracts you, and you notice angry red waves darting across the cheap white screen. You look coldly at their phones, and then at their faces, but both beam at you till you give up.
And then there are others who document their experience in a whole different way. They stand up and noisily click pictures of the musician, and then spend a few minutes trying to make the image their mobile phone wallpaper. If you show the slightest interest in the process, even to rebuke, your arm will be at the receiving end of a rude jab by a gnarled finger.
“Excuse me, I want to make this image my screen photo. You are a youngster. Do it for me!”
You’ll find the more agile – or more artistic – keepers of this hobby crawling roundabout your feet, trying to find the perfect angle for the grainy photograph. Usually, they dig a knee into your foot, and then spend a minute trying to apologise, before poking you and touching their hands to their eyes, as if to beg your forgiveness. They wait for you to reciprocate.
And so it was that when I finally returned to the car park, and explained that I had body pain to several maamas who (rather ungallantly, I thought) expected anyone sans gray hair to help push their scooters out, I decided I’d content myself with television concerts – the glares of those are easier to endure.