The sabha system

Arunabha Deb | Updated on August 22, 2014

Popular notes: Music fans at a sabha in Thiruvaiyaru, Thanjavur district   -  B Velankanni Raj

Arunabha Deb

Young Carnatic musicians are much better off than their Hindustani compatriots as they have more avenues to thrive in

Carnatic vocalist TM Krishna was in Delhi earlier this month, in conversation with VK Karthika, the chief editor of HarperCollins India. The talk had been organised to promote Krishna’s book, A Southern Music, a staggering work on the evolution, aesthetics and scope of Carnatic music. Krishna was his usual articulate and provocative self. The audience was particularly engaged when he held forth on the continuing dominance of Brahmins as patrons and practitioners of Carnatic music. However, it was a stray remark made by Krishna that struck, and unsettled, me the most. While answering a question, he said — as an aside, really — that young Carnatic musicians are much better off than young Hindustani musicians.

When I asked him to elucidate, later over the phone, he spoke of the ‘sabha culture’ in Carnatic music. The small-to-medium organisations, usually run by members, provide young musicians regular performing spaces and discerning listeners. The gatherings, ubiquitous in Tamil Nadu, are mostly small and the pay is low. But a far richer reward awaits able young musicians who perform in sabha concerts: the corridors of Carnatic music, forever fecund with debate and differences, ensure that news of an upcoming talent travels fast and wide.

The sabhas are not unlike the ‘music circles’ or ‘music societies’ of Hindustani music. These too run on membership, hold regular recitals (also small to mid-sized) and feature young artistes. What, then, inspired Krishna’s remark? Is he mistaken in believing that young Hindustani artistes don’t benefit from the smaller circle programmes as much as young Carnatic artistes benefit from sabhas?

Unfortunately, Krishna is right. Circle programmes do abound. They are also alive and healthy. Top organisations like the Dadar Matunga Cultural Centre in Mumbai have a waiting list of young artistes (who have to mark time for years before the organisers listen to their demo CDs and give them the nod). Yet, a slot at one of these recitals, however prestigious, does little to further a young musician’s career. A stellar performance in a circle recital is not a ticket to the larger festival platform. There was a time when festival organisers scouted for talent in these smaller programmes, when the music communities of Calcutta, Bombay and Poona were abuzz with talk of promising displays by young musicians.

But that is a thing of the past. Festival line-ups are now decided on other grounds. The organisers of the premier Hindustani music festival of Kolkata habitually ask young musicians to raise funds through advertisements in exchange for a slot. The top Hindustani music festival of western India now runs on a quid pro quo system. Its chief organiser, who labours under the belief that he is a good musician, has sent out a message to several other musician-organisers across the country: if he is invited to perform at their festival, he will reciprocate by providing them an opportunity in his. Further, most of the major festivals survive on corporate sponsorship; their itineraries amply reflect the fact that corporations scout for talent between the second and the fourth page of newspaper supplements rather than in concerts. The larger implications of this practice call for a more detailed contemplation, but it has certainly rendered the smaller programmes infructuous. The distance between the music circle and the festival stage cannot be covered with musical ability alone.

This is where the southern sabhas score. The organic nature of the Carnatic community creates a seamless link between the small gatherings and the prestigious December festival. An impressive performance in a sabha leads to an early-afternoon slot in a December concert, which then leads to a late-afternoon slot the next year and finally, if the youngster continues to sparkle, a 6pm ticketed slot (as opposed to the free-entry afternoon slots), vindicates the years of dedication to his art. According to Krishna, corporate sponsors too are less philistine in the South. They would back someone who has shone at the December festival rather than be influenced by the badgering of a PR firm. Krishna did add that the Carnatic music ecosystem is not beyond questionable practices, but the very fact that he used the word ‘ecosystem’ and not ‘industry’ is telling.

Hindustani music could do with a similar merit-based system. It is heartbreaking to witness the Sisyphean efforts of young musicians when they send demo CDs and resumés to tens of music circles every month, knowing that it leads nowhere. Yet they must persevere at these smaller concerts because it may well be their only chance to perform anywhere at all. They inhabit the difficult space that British historian Eric Hobsbawm had so eloquently described as one between “poets who need only some paper and do not expect to earn a living by the sale or rental of their products and the zillionaire pop musicians”.

( Arunabha Deb is a Kolkata-based lawyer and music writer; >

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Published on July 25, 2014
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