An ensemble cast unites in concert

PARSHATHY J NATH | Updated on December 04, 2020

Note for note: Friends in Concert is an online event produced and presented by 13 musicians   -  SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

Thirteen Carnatic musicians get together for a virtual concert set to stream from December 4

Somewhere in Mylapore, Chennai, a bunch of Carnatic musicians are having an animated argument. It soon becomes apparent that it is a sandai — a heated discussion —about sangatis (variation of a phrase in a song) at a practice session. To the outsider, it comes across as a fierce debate. But soon after the rehearsal, the same group can be seen enjoying chai and snacks, and then concert hopping together in the evening. The argument has long been forgotten.

As mridangam player Poongulam Subramaniam shares this snippet from the early 1990s, 12 other Carnatic musicians, each confined to their small square Zoom window frame, become nostalgic. The 13 musicians, who will take part in an event called Friends in Concert, which is set to stream online on December 4, are in the middle of a virtual chat ahead of the session. The virtual concert has been creating a buzz ever since the promo video was out on social media some days ago. How are the musicians going to deliver a performance? Is it going to be unconventional?

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The concert, produced and presented by the 13 artistes, is a ticketed event. It features several big names in the Carnatic circuit — violinists Akkarai Subhalakshmi, RK Shriramkumar, HN Bhaskar and Dr R Hemalatha, mridangam exponents K Arun Prakash, B Sivaraman, Subramaniam and Praveen Sparsh, vocalists Sangeetha Sivakumar and TM Krishna, ghatam artistes Chandrasekara Sharma and N Guruprasad, and kanjira artiste Anirudh Athreya. It is curated in such a way as to showcase each artiste’s creativity and strength. “This is a rare and unique musical, with never seen before artists’ combinations in the performances,” says Krishna, clearly wanting to keep up the suspense.

The sandai spirit, though, manifests during the virtual chat too. Arun Prakash points out that he and Krishna had been bickering over a phrase in Raag Bhairavi, and Krishna interjects to add that the “fight” hasn’t been settled yet. The camaraderie and friendship among the artistes dates back to the time they were still amateur musicians. They did not just interact on stage, but visited each other at home, improvised on train journeys, attended each other’s concerts in groups and pulled one another’s leg over onstage slips that offended none.

They have come together now to recapture that spirit of camaraderie and love for Carnatic music, just like the days of the Youth Association for Classical Music (YACM) — a platform that emerged in Chennai in the 1980s to encourage the participation of youngsters in Carnatic music, Sangeetha recalls. Carnatic musicians would just get together and discuss music. “It sounds idealistic, but at that time, we were young,” Sangeetha says. Down the line, she notes, they lost that thread — of discussing music for music sake, and not for devotional or religious purposes. This group, she adds, aims to bring it back.

There is another fundamental difference between then and now, points out Krishna, who was also an active member of the YACM. “We all got into music as amateurs. Performing and the success in performance was never on our minds when we made friendships. Carnatic music had then not become a profession that you could decide on so early in your life. That changes the way you make relationships,” he says. But the situation has changed over the past couple of decades. “Most younger people have got into it [Carnatic music] with a mindset of being successful professionally. That automatically means that the relationships have lines that are different. You cannot deny this textural difference,” Krishna adds.

The lockdown, though, stopped them in their tracks; it sent musicians into a slumber. The desire to break out of that fuelled dreams for a musical get-together. “Many people think during the lockdown you have so much time. That’s a huge overplay of time. People do not realise that leisure is in the mind and not in the number of hours. If there is nothing to stimulate me, no interaction or conversation with another artiste, there is no bouncing off anything —. then there is no leisure in the mind. That’s actually what happened to artistes during the lockdown. There was a huge emotional breakdown though many were not articulating it that way,” Krishna says.

Musicians who were used to living out of a suitcase initially considered the lockdown a good break. But that changed as the lockdown dragged on. “We started to wonder when this was going to end; when were we going to meet people and see a live audience. It was also disheartening to see many artistes suffering as no concerts meant no income,” Subhalakshmi says.

For Sparsh, the first casualty of the lockdown was not being able to play with other musicians. “This production is a blessing, especially the opportunity to meet these musicians and jam with them, and get into the space of creating something from scratch. My graph has not been entirely traditional; whether playing with the guitar or voice, I try to pick up from all those experiences. For me, collaboration is quintessential,” says Sparsh, who works in both Carnatic and fusion music circles.

The concert has facilitated interesting exchanges between instrumentalists who otherwise meet rarely. Meeting three other violinists was truly new for her, says Subhalakshmi. “As you see in one of the promo videos, I got to interact with Bhaskar more. Even though he has played for my vocal duets before, this interaction was different. The two of us were trying to create things, keeping the concept of the concert in mind.”

Friends in Concert challenges the hierarchies of the conventional kutcheri format, both visually and musically, Krishna believes. “There are so many different ways to collaborate in Carnatic music itself. And represent, reorient and re-envision it, and this is just a first step towards that. The elements of Carnatic music are all there. But they may not be in a way that we are used to hearing it,” Krishna says.

Friends in Concert will première on December 4 from 7 pm and will be available online till 7 pm, December 7.

Parshathy J Nath is a theatre artiste and writer based in Thrissur

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Published on December 04, 2020
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