Academy Musings



The Madras Music Academy I remember is the pinkish building that rounds the corner along with the road in front, as could be glimpsed in the off-beat K. Balachandar movie ninaithAlE iniKum. When that movie was made in the late seventies, Chennai was still Madras and Academy was its landmark. Now, the flyover in front of it is.

The Academy or the Sangitha Vidwath Sabhai is a lodestone for Carnatic music with a hoary past. Every connoisseur in the city wants to be a patron of the Academy. It is a status symbol. Every musician aspires to sing there. It is a success symbol. Every rasika wishes to enter the hall wielding a blue punched card. It is an elite symbol. Every Chennai car wants to park itself inside the Academy. Every auto-rickshaw, outside. No cop wants to man the Academy traffic signal(s).

The Academy facilities are superb. It houses the best music tradition, knowledge, archives, auditorium, acoustics, aesthetics and toilets. Plush chairs with well-placed Bose speakers, soft lighting and pleasant air conditioning with an elegantly decorated stage, housing centrally a jamakAlam clad podium. With the mundane receding in the soft lights, the listening experience is undeniably ethereal. Until a child aurally seeks her father or a recalcitrant mobile enquires “Why this kolaveri di”. Chitraveena Ravikiran asked his listeners to switch off their mobiles or set their caller tunes to varAli. In the Academy you can express your annoyance, politely.

The Academy concert slots can trace a musician’s successful career: in an appropriately young age, it would start with the ‘junior’ slot around lunch time, when, to turn the thirukkural around, the rasika’s ears feast only after the stomach is full. It progresses to the next best slot between 2 and 4 PM. This ‘afternoon’ or ‘senior’ slot coincides the post-lunch siesta time. There is enough crowd inside the hall. Their bobbing heads could equally be the effect of music or food. Ideally, by sheer performance in the ensuing years, the musician is then promoted to the two ticketed ‘super senior’ slots between 4 and 9 PM. And there it should stay for enough years until the sangItha kalAnidhi is conferred. After this, now a stalwart, the musician could ascend to the morning slot between 9 am and noon.

The Academy does promulgate excellence in skill. But it is a necessary not sufficient condition to successfully complete the career cycle. Musicians have experienced rude surprises. From diplomacy to the throat, faltering in any of the performing requirements could hamper the kAlapramAna of their academy career cycle. It could become chaotic, caught in the factional winds. Or hit the doldrums due to lackluster performances and run to a standstill. Or worse, restart, as in Snakes and Ladders.

The Academy clocks, from the mechanical to the digital, keep their time. So do the concerts. Performers hop skip and jump from their pallavi rAgamAlika to mangalam, before the curtain descends. Along the way, a thirty-two avartha kuraippu on the percussion solo would have been reduced to two avarthams. Musicians promptly apologize even for off-stage delays like traffic snarls. Even musician who never fail to be late at other sabhas, keep their time at the academy.

The Academy strives to showcase talents from Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh. R. K. Srikantan, Rudrappattnam Brothers, Dr. Omanakutty, Srivalson Menon, Nedanuri Krishnamurthy, Dr. Pantula Rama, Manda Sudharani; the recent list of invited artists portray the kaleidoscopic cultural diversity of Carnatic music.

The Academy morning (early morning, for some) lecture demonstrations are a treasure trove. In 2006 when Sri T. N. Seshagopalan was conferred the kalAnidhi and hence the presiding person, the mini Kasturi Srinivasan hall was primed and brimmed. More than the lecture itself, many of us, including performers, were present to listen to his introduction and conclusion of the discussions with his trademark wit, knowledge and music. I could remember a similar hallowed experience from 1983, when Dr. Pinakapani presided the music conference.

The Academy canteen resonates with the music, dishing over the years both the sublime and the ridiculous. Cryptic remarks and caustic reviews about the concerts go well with the milagai bajji at the canteen. Gossip, like coffee, is hot and galore. Sometimes it substitutes the music. Often one gets to meet and eat with the musician one just listened to or with one in mufti in his free time. Such meetings provide the required contrast to reveal the human side of the musician.

The Academy, despite its music tradition and dedicated patronage, silk attires and diamond baesaries, NCC cadets and clean toilets, makes me uneasy. It generates in me, a feeling of not belonging in spite of my vivid interest in Carnatic music. That someone of the stature of a Plato or Aristotle in music would catch me perambulating the groves of the music Academus, chastise my inappropriate presence and evict me anytime. In fifteen years of attending Academy concerts, encountering occasional officious fragrance, I have not been evicted yet. But the middle-class me is convinced my uncomfortable feeling is not by accident.

Academy, the house of bards — The Hindu version (Dec 14, 2012)