Why carnatic music needs a ‘T-20’ to survive

M. Ramesh | | Updated on: Dec 22, 2019
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It has all the signs of a bearish market.


Supply has overshot demand and is growing; the demand is fraying. Consumers balk at paying for the service. Survival is by passing the hat around; contributions to the hat wearing thin because there are too many hats floating around.


Welcome to the market of carnatic music.


Few disagree that carnatic music is under an existential threat or that it urgently needs repackaging in form and finding new modes of delivery. Some tweaking of both has begun to happen but system is still trying to figure out what works and what doesn’t.


Both format and channels of delivery of carnatic music have remained more or less the same ever since the legendary singer, Ariyakudi Ramanuja Iyengar (1890-1967), brought in, in the 1920s, a spiced-up, multi-course concert template that is still in vogue today. Earlier, a typical carnatic music concert would stretch to several hours with one, or very few numbers on offer. The leisurely pace was fine during the days when the art was supported by rich zamindars and there was very little alternative entertainment.


Now, ennui has set in both among financiers and listeners, and in Chennai, the bastion of carnatic music, you only need a pair if eyes to realize it.


Come December, the city is host to a carnival of music, dance and drama. Over two dozen chambers (sabhas) hold around 2,500 concerts, dance, drama and lecture demonstration programmes. Most of them are poorly attended, some extremely so.


R Sridhar, former Managing Director of Shriram Transport Finance Co, who has been involved with the Krishna Gana Sabha for decades, observes that other than the Music Academy in Chennai and Shanmukhananda Fine Arts in Mumbai, all the sabhas live “hand to mouth”. (Music Academy and Shankukhananda are outliers—they own the halls, renting which gives them a steady income.)


These sabhas collectively spend about Rs 2-3 crore a year on music concerts, not counting dance. (The dance segment is even more emaciated; artistes, barring the top few, dancers have to pay to perform.) Over 90 per cent of this comes as donations cadged off the corporate sector. While sabhas are proliferating with cities expanding, the tap-able pool of funds is not. As such, they are forever under incubation.


The artistes, however, are managing because they take a careful step into full time music only when they are assured of a steady income. Most of them have regular day jobs; they do music out of passion.


But that is hardly a setting conducive for the art to expand and flourish. The question is, how to change the setting.

Published on December 25, 2019

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